Portrait of Otto and Elisabeth Schmeida 1 oil on canvas 51 x 49 cm 2020
In the summer of 2019, whilst rummaging through a box of secondhand snapshots at a flea market in Berlin, I spotted an envelope full of handwritten letters. I bought the letters together with a selection of the snapshots and headed back to my hotel for a closer look. It turned out that they had been written in 1917 by the same man who appeared in several of the photographs. According to his headed notepaper, this man was Otto Schmeida, the director of the Trockenmilch Verwertungs Gesellschaft und der Deutsche Condensmilch Gesellschaft m.b.H., or ‘Dried Milk Recycling and German Condensed Milk Company’.
Back in the UK, a Google search revealed Otto as the author of a treatise on milk storage published in the ‘Magazine for the Cold Storage Industry’ in their December 1916 number. Intrigued by his obvious prominence in the trade, I traced Otto’s progress by using Google Maps to have a look at the increasingly luxurious looking flats and houses he lived in with his wife Elisabeth, between 1916 and his death in Hamburg in 1957. Otto and Elisabeth liked a party and in one snap Otto even makes a comical ‘Sieg Heil’ salute surrounded by friends in fancy dress. This would have been a dangerous gag for anyone to crack during the Second World War, let alone the director of a company whose offices were just around the corner from SS Headquarters in Berlin.
It’s incredible how much information you can retrieve these days from the smallest clues. It’s also mysterious how someone’s most personal effects can be dispersed and buried amongst the boxes, tins and folding tables of the market stallholders and house clearance men. But for me, the main motivation for making paintings from these or any other second-hand photographs, is the drive to explore modern European history as experienced by ordinary citizens, to try to understand how we got to where we are today.