Monday, November 1st, 2004

Fermin Rocker 1907-2004

A version of this obituary was published in the London Independent on October 20, 2004

Fermin Rocker Exodus II 1987 oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches all images courtesy The Chambers Gallery, London
Fermin Rocker, Exodus II 1987 oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches all images courtesy The Chambers Gallery, London

Fermin Rocker himself had recognized that his current show at the Chambers Gallery in London would be his last.

For some time he had been tired. His eyes were not as good as they were, and walking the few yards to the studio with its north light – at the back of his top-floor flat in Tufnell Park – was becoming difficult. It was even possible that the private view would be his last or penultimate excursion from the flat, for even with the help of his devoted son and amanuensis, Philip, going down all those mansion-block stairs presented formidable problems. But, after a 48-hour flu, the 96-year-old Rocker died in his bed on Monday. There had always been a good chance he would die brush in hand, but it was not to be.

The possibility that the private view – to which Mick Jagger has lent his classic Rocker painting of a refugee scene – might have been the artist’s penultimate sortie refers to an event that will be taking place in December at Toynbee Hall: the publication of a new edition by Five Leaves Press of his father Rudolf Rocker’s 1956 autobiography, The London Years. This event will surely want to celebrate the son as well as the father he adored.

Fermin Rocker was born in 1907 in the old East End, the son of Milly Witkop, immigrant Yiddish-speaking radical daughter of, for that generation, untypically tolerant orthodox Jews, and of Rudolf Rocker, the legendary anarchist theoretician and practitioner and a German Catholic. Rudolf taught himself Yiddish and English and became the recognised leader of the Jewish sweated workers in the East End, as well as editor of the Yiddish anarchist weekly, the Arbeiter Fraint. Fermin’s father was a disciple of Prince Peter Kropotkin and it is possible that the boy, who sat on Kropotkin’s lap, was the last living person who had met the great man.

Fermin himself wrote an enchanting account of his early childhood in Stepney at 33 Dunstan Houses, an anarchist commune. Appropriately published by the anarchist house Freedom Press, The East End Years (1998), which contains the author’s characteristic illustrations and some rare photographs, picks up on the title of his dad’s memoir and is far better written.

Rocker père wrote many books, some of which are still read by anarchists and the larger number of students of the movement, but he was a man of action, whose memorial is his life as a radical political activist – described in a famous and influential book, William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals (1975), a book that means much to East End anoraks of all persuasions such as the late Nicolas Walter, Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein, Arnold Wesker, Clive Bettington (top walking tour guide of the East End since Fishman’s retirement) and myself.

Fermin Rocker Approaching Storm 2002 oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches
Fermin Rocker, Approaching Storm 2002 oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches

Fermin, the only child of Rudolf’s second marriage, would not become a man of action, in the father’s sense at least. The shy and self-effacing boy was a precociously gifted draughtsman, and was taught drawing and watercolour by his half-brother. Rudolf took his young son to parks, museums and historical places, but it was the busy Port of London – the Heathrow of its day – that most enthralled the boy and it was there that he did his first drawings on visits with his father:

“In an age which held that children should be seen and not heard, he treated me with exemplary kindness and tolerance . . . In later years my father would look back at it with nostalgia and regret. It was a time, he insisted, that still had aspirations and ideals, that still had visions of a better future, of a world more just and humane.”

After the First World War – during which Rudolf was incarcerated in a detention camp at Alexandra Palace – the family went to Berlin, where the young Fermin went to art and print schools and associated with leading artists and politicians of the Weimar Republic. But he always said that the only artist who made a real impression on him was Kathe Kollwitz.

Fermin settled in New York in 1929. He worked as a freelance commercial artist, illustrator and printmaker, and worked on pre-Disney cartoons such as Betty Boop. From 1937 he began to concentrate on etchings and lithographs. As a painter he was drawn to the American realist school and the “ashcan” painters such as John Sloan, whose paintings (one or two are in the Metropolitan Museum) surely influenced the younger artist. He had solo exhibitions in New York in 1944 and 1961.

In 1972, retired from the commercial fray, Fermin Rocker with his editor wife, Ruth, and young son moved to London. He continued working as a book illustrator, but was eventually able to devote himself to painting. In the last 20 years of his life he had 13 solo exhibitions (mainly at the Stephen Bartley Gallery in London), which is surely some kind of record for a man of his age, but only of real significance if the work stands up.

Well, serious critics such as William Packer, John Russell Taylor and Mel Gooding wrote in praise of him. “The compositional deliberation gives these pictures something of the rapt intensity of a Balthus, the dramatic presentiment of a Hopper,” wrote Gooding in Arts Review.

Rocker was duly flattered, as he should have been, by these comparisons, but he always resisted my own references to Edward Hopper, in conversation and in print. Some fellow painters, including Paula Rego – whom I recall listening enthralled to his stories and who shares his particular admiration for Goya, Daumier and Degas and who also resists when people link her own work to that of Balthus – found aspects of his work, graphic and oil and later acrylic, to their taste.

Fermin Rocker The Barrow 2004 oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches
Fermin Rocker, The Barrow 2004 oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

Why do I love his work? It is because it is self-evidently rooted deep in his psyche, like a dream or an obsession, and reiterated in a late flowering because his very life depended on it. He continually reworked his themes because the visual problems raised by thinking his feelings remained ongoing but had to appear to be solved before he could progress, progress towards a deeper interrogation of the past, a deeper interrogation of Matthew Arnold’s “land of dreams” which lies “north of the future”, in Paul Celan’s phrase.

His sites of memory, occasionally recognisable through their idealised visionary topography transfiguring a prosy flatness, are in fact sites of remembrance, which can be defined as memory laden with psychic significance, like a ghostly treasure ship. Their space is a metaphor of time, of heroic days recalled without nostalgia, when information technology was young, and politics, for us or against us, was personal. His figures, his figurations, are objective correlatives for images seen with the inner eye, their tonalities subtly muted, without strong contrasts – the later re-workings of his hand mirroring the workings of his mind.

One of the great pleasures of life, for me at any rate, is to visit old-timers, usually at teatime, men and women of my parents’ generation with stories to tell and lessons to teach. In the nature of things – and as my generation itself approaches old-timer status – their number is diminishing. Only the other day, I visited Fermin Rocker with Bill Fishman, the writer Peter Gilbert and the medical anthropologist and doctor Cecil Helman, who observed that Fermin was looking very well, often the sign of a last-minute rally and push for life.

He had painted my portrait and Helman’s and he was intending to paint Gilbert’s. His method was, as Paula Rego pointed out, time-honoured but now very unusual: he would make sketches from the model, and then watercolours from the sketches and the model, finishing with oils.

Fermin Rocker saw and experienced many things. He kept faith with a spiritual truth, which matured over a lifetime. Now this mensch has joined his ancestors and I mourn his passing. But I rejoice that, with the support of his son and some friends, he survived so long, fit enough in mind and body to continue making art almost to his dying day. May he rest in peace, and may some of his paintings last as long as our troubled planet survives