Jack Bilbo’s autobiography, very lavishly published by his own imprint, The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, in 1948, carries a subtitle that sums up the man and his life: “Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo: The first forty years of the complete and intimate life-story of an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity”. As self declarations go this takes some beating, and the autobiography itself (the resemblance of much of which to adventure fiction is probably not entirely coincidental) is nothing if not readable. Whether all or even much of it is true is a question that crops up continually while you read it, but even if only a small fraction of its material closely matches what might be called an authentic account of the real Jack Bilbo’s life and times – Jack Bilbo being, anyway, a persona that had been created by Jack Bilbo himself in order to escape his original identity as a German Jew born Hugo Cyrill Kulp Baruch in 1907, the son of the owner of a successful theatrical props and costumes empire in Berlin – you’d still have to admit that the man led a pretty remarkable existence.
The 1948 autobiography certainly has its share of exaggerations, but the parts that are actually documented seem extraordinary enough. Bilbo travelled a lot, was involved with anti-fascist organisations through the 1930s, ran a bar in Sitges, Spain, aiding Republicans during the Civil War, and wound up in charge of one of the few Modern Art Galleries to remain active in war-time London, where he gave Kurt Schwitters his most comprehensive and significant exhibition in England, much of which was back on view in Tate’s Schwitters in Britain exhibition during 2013. Whether, between these escapades, he was also touring China with revolutionaries, working with smugglers in Mallorca, found his way to his father’s house in a ‘White’ district of Berlin during the Spartacist uprising with an escort of Red Army soldiers, whose lives he’d saved, got involved in an assassination attempt, met Sigmund Freud after a suicide attempt at the age of 18, or lost his virginity to and very nearly married a 21 year-old mixed race woman in the American South while en route to Hollywood when he was only 14 (but passing as 19 to get work on the ships that took him to America in the first place) is all possibly (or possibly not) more questionable.
At times, Jack Bilbo’s memoir reads more like Hemingway on steroids than any kind of factual account (or, perhaps more accurately, Jack London, his admiration for whose writings was, by his own account, the source of the ‘Jack’ in ‘Jack Bilbo’). But Bilbo himself is disarmingly open about his own tendency to distort the record when it suits him. During the 1930s, finding himself back in Berlin from America and desperate for money, he wrote a pulp crime book that his memoir explains was initially intended as a money-making fiction (he called it I Carried a Gun For Al Capone) but found it more marketable when chance misunderstandings with a German newspaper led to its serialisation as a factual account, which was later picked up by a British publisher. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bilbo seems to have shrugged and played the part required of him, acting out the role of an ex-gangster for anyone who fancied listening. A notable raconteur and charismatic storyteller, his 1946 collection of short stories, published under the deliberately double-edged title Out Of My Mind, apparently resulted from nights he put on at his gallery in London where guests listened to Bilbo’s grisly, strange and unlikely tales and had to guess which were true, which false, and which neither, because even Bilbo himself wasn’t entirely sure.
He seems, in short, to have treated his own life as a fiction, to be rewritten as he went along on whatever terms he liked: a kind of archetypal Modernist position if ever there was one. You could say that he often seems to have operated as a paradoxically honest confidence trickster, with interesting results. There’s no evidence whatsoever that he had any interest in art, or any training in it, before his arrival in London in 1939, but at some point after that arrival he appears to have decided to become an artist, working furiously to create a series of 34 canvases, which he then touted around galleries. According to his memoir, having been laughed at and refused an exhibition everywhere, he simply set up his own: The Modern Art Gallery, which eventually settled at 24 Charles II Street. His German nationality led to a period of internment, where he met many other Jewish and Leftist intellectuals, collectors and artists forced to flee the Nazi regime, including Kurt Schwitters, so on his eventual release found he had a ready-made stable of contacts with internationally important figures who were not only available but in need of his help to continue their own work. By 1942 he was a genuine artist, curator and dealer, showing Picasso at his own gallery and his own curious works with David Zwemmer, among others. By 1944 he was a feature on Pathé newsreels.
Were his paintings good? Not by most standard measures, for which Bilbo himself had nothing but contempt anyway, but they have something that is hard to dismiss, at least at their best (he is not, shall we say, a very consistent painter). An uncensored strangeness, an ahead-of-its-time absurdist black humour, a makeshift aesthetic that transcends Bilbo’s own technical limitations more often than it plausibly should, all allied with an imagination that paints whatever passes through it, disregarding most conventional criteria of taste and aesthetics. It’s no wonder that he struck up a quick rapport with Schwitters. Perhaps the best way to think about Bilbo’s own artworks is as those of a ‘bad’ painter with an inconsistent, largely accidental originality, but an originality nonetheless. He’s not a deliberate ‘bad’ painter like Picabia, not an innocent like Henri Rousseau, and clearly not an ‘outsider artist’ in any meaningful sense either. It turns out that he may have been weirdly, if subliminally, influential, too: many of his paintings look disconcertingly current, with a sensibility more common in 2014 than in the 1940s. If so, this must have been mediated in indirect ways. For example: some of Bilbo’s paintings (and certainly the concrete garden sculptures he made in Weybridge after 1945, which are no longer extant) seem to have been reference points for Tony Hancock and his writers when they devised their feature-length art world satire The Rebel (1960).
More intriguingly, especially from the perspective of the Robert Holcombe project, Jack Bilbo’s memoir has a physical but slightly phantom presence in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bunk! series of collages, projected at the ICA in 1952 and later made into a series of prints at the time of Paolozzi’s Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1971 (it also transpires that the story of the Bunk! collages may itself be as fabricated as anything in Bilbo’s memoir, but that’s another story). For whatever reason, the image that contains the Bunk! of the Bunk! series is properly known by one of Bilbo’s titles, built as it is on the page containing Evadne In Green Dimension (1945) as a tipped-in colour plate in the 1948 autobiography. That Bilbo was also present in London and Weybridge until 1949, the year after Holcombe arrived at the Slade (where he also, fictionally, met Eduardo Paolozzi) therefore positions Hugo Baruch, aka Jack Bilbo himself, a man deeply enamoured of self-fictionalisation, at the epicentre of Holcombe’s own formative fictional milieu, which opens up some interesting possibilities. Besides, Bilbo retains his own presence, his estate now represented by England & Co gallery, with whom the artist Aaron Angell recently collaborated to put his own work alongside some of Bilbo’s drawings. He has also made several cameo appearances in the convoluted narrative of Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden‘s ongoing series of noir-inspired historical drawings. In the face of all this, if Bilbo was a fantasist, as seems at least partly the case, he was a fantasist with an uncanny knack of bringing his fabrications into reality.
All images are scanned from the pages of Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo (The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, London, 1948). The book is currently out of print.