Most of us have seen these images many times before but failed to spot the author. This is not surprising at all. The information available on the internet about Herbert Smagon to be found in English is very sketchy, though it can be found in other different European languages, like German and Italian, also in Russian. Smagon’s presence in social media is practically non-existent and his website (www.art-smagon.de) seems to be long kaput and abandoned. His biography in English is available on this website Galleria d’Arte Thule.
Herbert Smagon was born on January 2, 1927 in Karwin, Silesia (nowadays part of Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He experienced first-hand the harassment that the German minorities suffered in that particular region by the Czechs. He fled with his family to Berlin. By the time Herbert Smagon turned 14, until the end of the war, he and his family stayed in Vienna. In 1943 he served his military service as an auxiliary staff member of the German Luftwaffe, later on he studied in the Academy of Fine Arts of the Austrian capital.
During this period he won an award for ‘best young artist from the city of Vienna’ and his works were even exhibited at the Vienna Hofburg Palace. His award-winning work “Luftwaffenhelfer” was painted during breaks while in military service which consisted on defending his position with anti-aircraft 8.8 cm-Flak against flying attacks by the Allied bombers. By this time Smagon enjoyed a promotion granted by previous Reichsjugend-Führer Baldur von Schirach then Governor of Vienna.
After the war all Herbert Smagon’s works up to 1945 disappeared forever.
He started afresh in the city of Stuttgart as an independent graphic artist and illustrator. He won several international awards as a graphic designer for advertising. Today he lives and works in the Black Forest. In the 1950s Smagon declined participating in group exhibitions due to issues related to how things were turning out in the European art world, which he believed were antithetical to the innate longing for beauty by human beings. He sensed that this tendency by the mainstream was part of the attempt to destroy the foundations of European Art. Thus he also parted ways with ‘artistic’ institutions of the day in Germany.
Herbert Smagon belongs to the generation of eyewitnesses who survived the hell of the European catastrophe. His work tells the story of the horrors of the spoils of war (perpetrated by the so-called victorious ‘Allied Forces’ on the German people) that the political institutions wish to silence even up to this day. That would explain why Herbert Smagon remains a kind of ‘cult figure’ in the fringes of today’s art world (if even that is the case at all).
His paintings about the end of WWII in Germany are like a graphic depiction of HELLSTORM The Death of Nazi Germany. It is impossible for me not to shudder inwardly when beholding paintings like The Murder of Ms Hurtinger’s Niece, Occupation of the city of Roessel, Living Torches, Crack-Babys or what I believe is his masterpiece: Dresden 1945-1989.
In my opinion the most arresting feature in Herbert Smagon’s work is his peculiar graphic style in contrast with the themes he depicts. As I commented recently in a popular social media outlet, his End-of-WWII illustrations look like a children’s fairy tale book turned into a nightmare of horror and destruction in which everything beautiful and holy has been defaced, violated, burned and destroyed in the most hideous of ways. There is nothing redeeming about these images. The heroism and the tragedy shown by the protagonists of these pictures is drowned by the maelstrom of sheer horror they experience in the face of total annihilation. These pictures basically represent the End of the World from a German perspective.
Here there is a video on Youtube produced by Scorched Earth entitled The Controversial Art of Herbert Smagon, which serves well as an introduction to his work. The images combined with the uncredited music (I believe it is Lisa Gerrard’s) make the whole thing all the more poignant.
Smagon continued painting all through the rest of the 20th Century and beyond. His two most popular paintings from this period were created near the end of the Cold War Era: Modern Family (1988) and The Fall Of The Berlin Wall (1989). In both he portrays, with cruel irony, the dystopian German society of the end of Century which had sprouted out of the ashes left by the Third Reich’s destruction.
I still belong to the generation of eye-witnesses of the 20th Century connected with the fate of the Germans. As an educating artist I feel the whole force of historical truth as I experienced it, a truth which is concealed at all costs today but will be revealed as a testimony for future generations.” (Quote transcribed by author of this article)