Beryn Hammil of Corte Madera shows off an assortment of medallions made by her grandfather, artist Benno Elkan. A year ago she inherited several boxes that contained dozens of original photographs of his sculptures, a manuscript for his autobiography
and extensive notes and documentation of his life and career.
Photo By Jeff Vendsel
BY JIM WELTE
Marin Independent Journal
For Corte Madera interior designer Beryn Hammil, the blow the economic downturn dealt her business was a serendipitous one.
Just as Wall Street was crashing and her clients’ discretionary income was evaporating in the fall of 2008, her cousin Tony Elkan unloaded a half-dozen boxes belonging to her late grandfather, German-born British artist Benno Elkan. The boxes had spent the nearly 50 years since Benno Elkan’s death in storage, and Tony Elkan had kept them in his garage in Berkeley for 30 years.
What was supposed to be a five-minute drop-off-and-run turned into an eye-popping, gasp-inducing discovery of a nearly comprehensive account of Elkan’s life and career.
“It was astounding,” Hammil said.
German-born British artist Benno Elkan stands in front
of his most famous work, the Knesset Menorah,
given to Israel by British Parliament in the 1950s.
Inside the six boxes were reams of photos of Elkan’s sculptures, including one of the most famous pieces in Israel, a 15-foot high, 50-ton bronze menorah outside the Knesset in Jerusalem that was given by the British people to the still-new State of Israel in 1956. The work, which depicts the early history of the Jewish people, was in many ways Elkan’s crowning achievement in the years before his death in January 1960.
Elkan, who fled from Germany to England in 1933 amid the rising tide of Nazism and after receiving a letter ordering him to stop sculpting, was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his effort.
The boxes also included a manuscript of Elkan’s unpublished autobiography along with correspondence with some of the famous people of which he created bronze busts, including Winston Churchill, economist John Maynard Keynes, John D. Rockefeller, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini and Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel.
The boxes had a clown car effect, as her grandfather’s memories kept pouring out of them. Hammil had been familiar with some of Elkan’s work, but the enormity of it all was overwhelming. As she dug deeper and deeper, it became clear to Hammil that what started as a simple storage project was turning into much more than that.
“I said, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” she said. “I can’t put this under my bed in a box. This is too important. He was too important an artist.”
In the past year alone, Hammil has undertaken a number of projects to promote Elkan’s work and preserve his legacy. She has self-published a coffee table book about Elkan’s busts, and hopes to do another focused on the medallions he created.
She also connected with the director of the renowned Akademie der Kunst in Berlin, home to Germany’s national archives, who has since agreed to include Elkan’s materials in the archive. Elkan’s work officially will be unveiled at a state event at the Akademie in October.
“We are very sure that his art and opinions will persist, and we are keeping his memory alive here in the archive,” said Wolfgang Trautwein, the director of the archive at the Akademie. “He is an important person as an artist and he had a very interesting career.”
Hammil traveled to Berlin in September 2009 to see the new building that will house her grandfather’s archives. As she stood in the glass dome of the Reichstag building in Berlin with a panoramic view of the city, Hammil was overcome with what she had set out to do and actually making it happen.
“Here was all of Berlin in front of me, there was the German flag flying, and I could just feel the real sense of closure,” she said. “I feel like I’m bringing my grandfather home.”
Despite the sense of closure, Hammil harbors even broader goals for her grandfather’s work. She hopes to help create an exhibition of Elkan’s sculptures, and also wants to find a way to have Elkan’s final piece, a memorial to victims of the Holocaust that was abandoned in a warehouse after his death, recreated in some way. She said someone like Steven Spielberg, whose Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation seeks to gather testimonies from Holocaust survivors, would be an ideal partner.
In many ways, a project that was dropped at her doorstep has become her life’s work.
“Not having children, I have often wondered as I get older, what mark will I leave? Somebody’s sofa? A nice paint color? That’s not it,” she said. “The mark that I’m going to be leaving is bringing my grandfather’s work to light again. That’s what my life is about. It really gives me a sense of purpose.”
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