War and Peace in the Worlds of Rudolf H. Sauter: A Cultural History of a Creative Life | Q & A with Jeffrey S. Reznick

1 . What is the reason behind the interest in Sauter’s creative life?

I became interested in the creative life of Rudolf H. Sauter (1895-1977) while I was completing research for my 2009 book about his famous uncle, the novelist John Galsworthy (1867-1933). Sauter was like a son to Galsworthy and his wife, Ada, who did not have any children of their own, and they cared deeply about him and his creative endeavors. Whereas Sauter has been a supporting player in biographical, historical, and literary studies of Galsworthy—including my own—in my new book he is the lead. Here I pull him out of his uncle’s shadow, asking and answering a host of questions about his life: As an artist, poet, playwright and writer what were the subjects of his work? What were his inspirations and motivations in choosing these subjects? Where, when, and under what circumstances did he display and publish his work? How were his various productions received? Through the extensive research underpinning this book, I reconstruct the arc of Sauter’s creative life and body of artistic, literary, and theatrical work which spanned three-quarters of the twentieth century and reflected the subjects of war, love, memory and concerns of modern times, including the environment and nuclear war. 

Born in 1895, Sauter came of age with the “generation of 1914,” that cohort born between the years 1880 and 1900 whose lives were forever altered by direct experiences of loss and trauma. His upper-class English privilege placed him in the same educational and social circles with those young men who would eventually serve king and country at the front, losing their lives in battle or surviving forever changed through their war experience. However, Sauter’s German birth and lack of British citizenship would seal his fate as an “enemy alien,” placing his comfortable life on a different path—to internment—with which he sought to cope through his creative skills of drawing, painting and writing. Following the war, like many former internees, Sauter both recalled his captivity and sought to forget it as a means of moving forward with his life. Two and a half decades later, during the Second World War and many years after he had become a naturalized British citizen, his life could not have been more different than it had been during the Great War. He enlisted in the British army, serving the nation that had previously interned him as an enemy alien and marshalled his artistic skills yet again, but this time to capture national mobilization, readiness and the resulting experience of war on the home front. Sauter held onto these and his previous wartime experiences for the remainder of his life, later recalling them, creatively recasting them and investing them with new personal and professional meaning. So, in the constellation of histories of war experience, captivity and modern memory we can now include this cultural history of the wartime and peacetime worlds of Rudolf Sauter and his creative life.

2 .  Which was the most intriguing part of your research and why?

The most intriguing part of my research was the very journey of it as I met and worked with—both face-to-face and virtually—so many kind and generous people along the way, including archivists, librarians, historians, art collectors, museum specialists, and, of course, the holders of the copyright in Sauter’s body of work, which remains in place until 2047. In the end, this book would not have been possible without the support of all of these individuals, and especially the copyright holders. So, I look at my research and writing about Sauter’s creative journey as a creative journey itself, one akin to tackling a complex puzzle, locating each piece, figuring out how one fits with another, and making the resulting picture meaningful as a historical narrative and a contribution to scholarship. I’ve been very fortunate to work on many projects during my career—every one interesting—but this one stands out as the most complex and rewarding both personally and professionally. 

Speaking of copyright and another intriguing aspect of this project: All the intellectual work I produce through my official duties as a historian employed by the National Library of Medicine—including this book—belongs to the U.S. Federal Government and is not subject to copyright within the United States. Therefore, I cannot claim the copyright in portions of this book which I have authored, and neither can I transfer any copyright nor accept any royalties. So, as my work as a federal historian advances the greater good, so too does this book through its copyright status, and as it reveals the creative outlook and existential concerns of its subject in times of war and peace.

3 . Which was Sauter’s most significant work?

Sauter completed many significant works during his lifetime, both artistic and literary. One of the most significant was his provocative painting Homo Sapiens: MCMXL, which he completed around 1939-40 and submitted for display in the 1940 United Artists Exhibition in Burlington House, supporting the Lord Mayor’s Red Cross and St. John Fund and the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution. Described as “gruesome” by one critic, the work depicted an air raid warden in a gas mask and anti-gas suit standing against a background of corrugated iron. Homo Sapiens: MCMXL stands among Sauter’s most significant works for many reasons. It marked the beginning of his painting many more contemporary wartime scenes—from barricades and bombed out buildings to doodlebugs and searchlights—all of which were fundamentally different in style and theme from those he created during the First World War when he was interned as an “enemy alien.” Second, Homo Sapiens: MCMXL is significant because I believe it no longer exists in its original form and the only extant copy—embedded in a digitized issue of the New York Times—holds many lessons: about new ways to see and examine a global event though the eyes and experiences of a singular creative life, about research required to locate source material to construct and reconstruct that life, and about the dispersal and fate of an artist’s oeuvre.

4 . How do you think the readers would benefit from this book?

I hope readers of this book will appreciate how I have made Sauter’s life meaningful in itself and at the intersection of several fields of scholarship. This book has elements of biography but offers much more as it deliberately excavates and reconstructs Sauter’s life through a variety of primary textual and visual sources: from his artwork which is scattered around the world, or in fact lost, to his body of published and unpublished poetry as well as a multitude of letters, photographs, and other images. This book is part life study and part cultural history—indeed a cultural biography—located in a growing constellation of such works which exist dynamically and valuably between traditional historical studies and strict biographical narratives. Moreover, this book unpacks the depth and breadth of history embedded in the fleeting and unsatisfying treatments of Sauter which appear in studies of his uncle. Essentially, this book gives Sauter agency largely if not completely denied to him, granting him his own voice in the experiences and narrative of his own creative life. This book is also in dialogue with the field of art history, particularly the disparate body of work which recognizes the multifaceted character of the artist’s studio and encourages more explorations of this creative, meaningful, and provocative space. Sauter conceived some of his studios out of necessity, some he designed, and some were the results of his uncle’s patronage. One he built with remarkable attention to detail, documenting each and every step in his realization of the space. Some were cursory and outdoors along the routes of his international travels. Regardless of their origin and shape, Sauter embraced every one of his studios with gusto. Together these spaces are hallmarks of his story fundamentally because uncovering and focusing on them gives him agency as an artist, indeed as an historical figure who experienced periods of war and peace in his own unique ways.