Karl Drerup

Early Life and Education

Born in 1904 in Germany Karl Drerup had his initial education in the city of Munster, initially in a Cistercian monastery, and subsequently at an art school. After graduation, he traveled for a year with friends on horseback through Spain and North Africa. During his travels, he contracted tuberculosis and spent three years recovering in a Swiss sanatorium. Supported by a paternal uncle, he studied art at the graduate level in Berlin, where he earned a master's degree in graphic arts, studying under noted masters, including Hans Meid, and Kathe Kollwitz Around the time he graduated, he engraved 42 illustrations for a 1931 edition of the novella “Carmen”.

Following his studies in Berlin, he traveled to Florence, for graduate studies in painting, where he excelled at portraiture, and learned the art of painting on pottery from his landlady who owned a small pottery works. He soon began to exhibit his tiles, bowls and animal sculptures in art exhibitions in Germany and Italy.

In Italy in 1932, Karl was introduced by a mutual friend to Gertrude Lifmann, a young German studying the Italian language and literature in Rome, and the two fell in love. With the rise of fascism in Europe they faced serious problems - Gertrude was of Jewish heritage and Karl's anti-Nazi views were well known.

After Drerup received his degree in painting from studying with Felice Carana in Florence, he and Gerturde traveled to Madrid - he had completed many images of Spanish life for “Carmen” and while in Spain, developed a long term interest in bullfighting images, which became a theme which was reflected in drawings, paintings and enamels for decades to come. In Madrid, Karl fell ill again with tuberculosis. Gerturde cared for him and worked as a translator.

The Canary Islands - Safe Haven
In 1934, Karl and Gertrude moved to a small town on Tenerife, one of Spain's Canary Islands, where the remote tropical islands provided a sense of safety for artists, writers and academics, including Bertrand Russell, English poet Basil Bunting, and Spanish publisher and art promoter Eduardo Westerdahl. Gertrude taught English to earn a living, and Karl drew and painted - the tropical climate finally curing his tuberculosis. In Tenerife, Karl participated in art expositions with other painters, including Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

By 1937, European fascism and and the Fanco movement in Spain, had rendered life dangerous even in the far flung Canary Islands, and Gertrude and Karl, traveling separately through England, bound for the United States. Two of Gertrude's five family members living in Amsterdam would perish in concentration camps.

New York
In the United States, Drerup's ceramic painting brought his first success. In 1939, his design for a porcelain vase depicting a shepherd won a major award and the piece is now in the Everson \Museum. The vase was illustrated in a number of art periodicals following its exhibition.

Karl had collaborated on the vase with ceramist Franz Joseph von Tury, and after receiving their award, their work was in demand, and they produced “carloads” of decorated porcelain vases, lam bases and ceramic tiles for New York shops and galleries. They exhibited their ceramics in the 1939 - 1940 New York World's Fair. Drerup became interested in enamels - the creation of small, intimate objects made of glass on metal appealed to him. In addition, the materials to make enamels - powered glass, copper or steel, and a small kiln were readily available, inexpensive, and allowed him to work on his won.

Drerup learned the art of fusing glass to metal at the same time he was producing porcelain wares with von Tury and Sam Haile. He largely favored the painterly techniques of the Limoges-type pictorial enamels first produced in 15th century France. A meticulous craftsman, Karl started his enamels with sketches on paper. Next, he under painted the metal ground in light and dark tones and then began the application of opaque and transparent enamels. Multiple firings in the kiln were required to build up the work layer upon layer.

In 1939, Karl entered his enamels in the Eighth Ceramic National in Syracuse, and in the New Americans section of the World's Fair. In 1940, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the first two Drerup enamels for its permanent collection.

New Hampshire
David Campbell, a New Hampshire resident and Harvard-trained architect, worked tirelessly to bring highly-skilled artist-craftsmen to his state. Drerup did not hesitate to choose the peace and grandeur of the White Mountains over the hectic “business” of art in New York City. In 1945, Karl and Gertrude moved to New Hampshire.

Much of Karl's work reflected the natural world, the world of working people, and the animals around him. He produced a number of enameled versions of pond life, ranging from small bowls with a single green toad to large enamels portraying a veritable aquarium full of pond creatures. Many other themes confined from his earlier life in Europe - religious stories and legends including St George slaying the dragon (which he had utilized in Florence), and a revelation of St Hubert of the crucifixion between the antlers of a stag. Both symbols stand as metaphors for Drerup's work - St Geroge for the struggle against evil, and St. Hubert for the sanctity of the natural world and its redemptive power for mankind.

Some of his images were whimsical like the fish themes which he used repeatedly, arose from Karl's memories of life on the Mediterranean Other themes included masks of comedy and drama, mermaids and mermen, and characters from mythology. Pan playing his flute while on the back of a goat, a wide spectrum of circus, stage and carnival performers appear repeatedly in his paintings and enamels.

An American Master
Karl's enamels helped to establish the highest standards for early national exhibitions of American craft. In 1944, 40 of his enamels appeared in a multi-media craft show at the Baltimore Museum of Art. In the late 1940's and 50's his work traveled to the American Craftsmen's Exhibition and he was a highly-prized juror at Syracuse's Ceramic Nationals and at the Wichita Art Association exhibitions. In 1954, New York's Cooper Union exhibition traced the enamel medium's history from the Middle Ages and exhibited the best contemporary enamellists, including Edward Winter, Kenneth Bates, and Karl Drerup, beside historical enamels. Among the enamels by Dreup was a large wall cross depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

In 1959, the Museum of Contemporary Craft commissioned prominent American artists to create enamels using many different techniques. Drerup's assignment was to create a series of enamels that illustrated the technique of grisaille enameling, a type of painted enamel in shades of gray achieved by varying layers of white over black enamel. Two years later, Drerup was described as “the venerable enamellist of liquid transparent colors shaped into private fantasies

After settling near Plymouth, New Hampshire, Karl had given two day-long drawing workshops ot the local teachers' college and became immediately engaged by his students' enthusiasm. He remained at Plymouth State College (now University) for 20 years, founding the fine arts department and gaining legendary status as a teacher and mentor.

Through the late 1940's, 50's and 60's, from his quiet perch on an New Hampshire country road, Drerup continued to create enamels that earned international renown. His work influenced and inspired many contemporaries. He was credited with single-handedly reinventing the art of Limoges enameling. Other artists sought his advice in overcoming problems in their own enameling work. Drerup's own collection of work by other artists testifies to the esteem held for him by those artists, all of whom traded their own work for his pieces.

Karl Drerup's artistic legacy is rich in many ways - in the lively memories of his myriad students, in the esteem of his colleagues, and in his masterful paintings, ceramics and enamels which continue to delight viewers with the artist's view of life as an enchanted garden.

The above Biography was prepared by Lorne Finley as a synopsis of the Catalogue written by Jane L. Port and Jeannine Falino, Karl Drerup (1904–2000) Enchanted Garden: Enamels by an American Master (Plymouth, New Hampshire: Karl Drerup Art Gallery, Plymouth State University, 2007.