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(en) Britain, Media, A sympathetic Obituary for Fermin Rocker "Painter from a family of London anarchists"

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 26 Oct 2004 15:25:56 +0200 (CEST)

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The artist Fermin Rocker, who has died aged 96, was one of the last links
with the heroic era of European and American anarchism, which faded beyond
hope of revival with the Spanish civil war. The younger son of the
anarchist thinker and writer Rudolf Rocker, one of the last anarchists of
international renown, Fermin was certainly the last person alive who
remembered the brief but remarkable flowering of anarchism as a mass
movement among the Yiddish-speaking migrants of London's East End, a
movement all but snuffed out by the turbulence of the first world war and
the countervailing attractions of the Russian revolution.

Fermin was greatly in awe of his father, whose tousled hair, goatee beard
and corpulent frame featured in many of his early drawings and paintings.
"I looked upon him as a god," he wrote years later. So did many others.
Rudolf Rocker was a German gentile who came to live among migrant Jews,
learned Yiddish, and became an inspirational teacher and leader to a
marginalised community deeply suspicious of authority, and yearning for a
voice, a means of securing self-respect, and a path to education and

The craft trade unions which Rudolf Rocker nurtured and encouraged, and the
lively anarchist journals he and his colleagues published, notably the
Arbaiter Fraind (The Workers' Friend), won a large following among the
victims of pogroms and oppression who crowded into Stepney and Whitechapel
in the years before 1914. Fermin's Russian-born mother, Milly Witcop, was
also a revolutionary, one of four Jewish sisters, three of whom were
prominent either as anarchists or militant feminists.

Fermin was born in London and named after a prominent Spanish anarchist.
He grew up in a tenement block in Stepney in an intensely political
environment, captured with delightful irreverence in his memoir, The East
End Years: A Stepney Childhood, published by the long-established anarchist
imprint, Freedom Press, in 1998. As a small boy, he got to know and admire
such leftwing luminaries as Peter Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta ("a
loveable little fellow"), sat up through long meetings in the hope that his
father would tell him a bedtime story and was taken to the Jubilee Street
Club, the epicentre of East End Jewish radicalism, where he used to filch
paper on which to draw.

"There was hope in the air, an anticipation of better things to come,"
Fermin recalled. "In later years my father would look back at it with
profound 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. No one dreamt what horrors the century had in
store for us, what despair and disillusionment it would bring."

With the first world war came repression. Rudolf Rocker was interned in
Alexandra Palace, north London. Fermin remembered visiting him there. His
mother was also arrested. The family was reunited in Amsterdam in 1918,
moving on to Germany, where Fermin first mixed with artists and began to
draw and paint.

Then, in 1929 - with the decline of the Weimar Republic - he moved to New
York. A few years later his parents followed, settling in a rural commune
in New York state.

Fermin's art was influenced by the realist school, though he was always too
much of an individualist to be saddled with an easy label. He worked in
New York as a draughtsman, a cartoon animator, a commercial artist, and
then for many years as a book illustrator. Times were often tough. From
the 1950s, he turned increasingly to oil painting, developing a hallmark
style - precise, in a minor key and with a limited palette, portraying
human activity (a meeting, or musical performance, or busy city street) but
with each individual cocooned, isolated, even while in a common endeavour.

His first one-man exhibition was in New York in 1944, but it was only after
returning to London in 1972, with his American wife, Ruth Robins, that he
began to make a living from painting. From the mid-1980s, he had a
succession of successful shows, notably at the Stephen Bartley Gallery in
Chelsea. He became, to some degree, and late in his life, fashionable
(Mick Jagger once called round to select a canvas) - though that never
influenced his art, which, in style and tone, felt as if it belonged to an
earlier era.

Few of his themes were directly political. The painting bought by Jagger,
depicting a mass of Basque refugees heading away from the devastation
wrought by Franco's allies towards the French border, is something of an

While standing broadly within the anarchist tradition, Fermin was impatient
of its feuds, and critical of the left's reluctance to engage with the
modern world and to accept that capitalism has improved lives and living
standards. But some anarchists regarded Fermin almost as a crown prince.
His son, Philip - who cared for him in his closing years - was always
amused that the anarchist paper Freedom arrived unbidden in the mailbox.

Fermin continued to paint in his top-floor flat in London's Tufnell Park
until his last few weeks. He died peacefully in his own bed. Just 24
hours later, more than 100 admirers and well-wishers gathered at the
Chambers Gallery in London's Smithfield for the private view of his first
retrospective (which continues there until November 14). His wife died in
1989; he is survived by Philip.

· Fermin Rocker, artist, born December 22 1907; died October 18 2004
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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