Hedda Oppenheim: sketching the faces of history

Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 3, 1997

Hedda Oppenheim: sketching the faces of history

Now retired, the Palo Alto artist looks back at a career of capturing the leaders of the 20th century on paper

by Rewa Hulden-Hodges

For more than four decades Hedda Oppenheim sat before some of the most important people of the 20th century--and calmly sketched their faces. The names boggle the mind: Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Jean Paul Sartre, Saul Bellow, Haile Selassie.

Her work has taken her all over the world, but this gifted, enterprising artist lives on a quiet residential street in south Palo Alto. Life, however, has not always been quiet for Oppenheim.

She has experienced adventure, travel, and heartbreak, but always with sketch book in hand. In the process she became one of the world's most sought-after sketchers. Her work has appeared in dozens of newspapers throughout the world and hangs on the walls of many museums and galleries.

Now 88, Oppenheim only sketches for fun these days--flowers and landscapes and, of course, her grandchildren. She occasionally exhibits her work, including a display a few years ago at the Jewish Community Center on Arastradero Road.

During a recent interview in her home, she recounted her life, both the tragedy and the joy.

As a teen-ager in Berlin, she was the only girl admitted to the Kunst Gewerbe Technical and Drawing School. Later she took private lessons, then entered the prestigious Berlin Art Academy.

Paris beckoned. On May 1, 1932, she boarded the Paris train to continue her art studies at the Academy Julian.

While visiting her in Paris, her father became very ill; she took him to a famous sanatorium in Geneva. There, Hedda noticed people entering the League of Nations building.

"With my pencil and sketch book," she says, "I went to the press secretary for permission to sketch portraits. He gave me a press card. I managed to rough-sketch 10 people in an hour. My final sketches were drawn with technical drawing pens or charcoal."

Because her father needed further treatment, they went to London. Here Hedda met Joseph Oppenheimer, a famous Berlin and London society painter. She showed him her sketches.

"Your sketches are excellent," he said. "Show them to the newspapers."

"I went to the London Daily Telegraph and knocked on several doors," she recalls. "A gentleman answered. I spoke German, then French, and minimal English. Nothing helped. Finally I placed my sketches in his lap. He glanced at them. 'Go to Paris, sketch the President of France for me.'"

"That sentence I understood. The gentleman was the editor. He handed me my sketches. I was dismissed.

"I took off for the Palais dea Elysees to find President Jean-Paul Doumergue. I will never forget the experience," she recalls.

"Many journalists were waiting at the foot of a wide staircase for the parliamentary session to end. Soon President Doumergue appeared.

"I rushed up the stairs, planted myself in front of him, pencil and sketch book in hand, and said, 'Please stand still, I want to draw you!'

"The president's famous smile froze. He said, 'Don't expect me to stand here; I am going to lunch now.'

"I had already started drawing as he walked down the steps. I walked down backwards, watching and drawing him, finishing the sketch. The journalists cheered."

Returning to London, the Daily Telegraph editor accepted her drawing, but commented, "You will have to change your name. 'Hedda Oppenheim' is too long and too German."

"I changed it to 'Hedo' by joining three letters of my first name to the first letter of my family name. I signed the sketch 'Hedo.' I have been that name ever since."

The Daily Telegraph commissioned her regularly, always paying one Guinea per sketch, ($4.50 US).

Paris was now Oppenheim's home base. In London or Geneva she stayed with friends, doing sketches at the League of Nations, or painting portraits of children.

Having long been interested in fashion drawings, she approached Mr. Vogel, editor of the Paris fashion magazine, Jardin des Modes. He allowed her to sketch in his publishing house where a fashion model posed for his artists once a week.

"After a few weeks of sketching," she commented, "I sent a page of the new fashion drawings to my London paper. They published them.

"The London fashion editor came to Paris. She chose the dresses, the mannequins modeled them, and I made the drawings. Each published drawing had five to eight sketches."

On September 3, 1939, France declared war on Germany. Everything changed. The French government rounded up hundreds of Jewish women. Oppenheim was one.

Their destination was Gurs Concentration Camp.

"On bits of paper I sketched scenes of our daily life," she said in recounting her days in the camp. "One day we heard America had entered the war. The armed guards seemed confused. 'Let's run,' my friends said. 'The gate is open.' "We walked for hours, to the village of Navarence, where an innkeeper hid us.

"Our freedom lasted two months. The French puppet police recaptured the four of us and put us in the Gurs prison (near the Spanish border). "Every day we wrote letters to the commander expressing our innocence of wrong-doing. Finally he released us."

Danger was everywhere. Oppenheim went to Cagnes, an artist colony where she met and married Heinz Brunell, another artist. The Nazis were looking for Heinz. Oppenheim and Heinz became Henrietta and Henry Dupoy. With their artistic abilities they were active in the "underground." But Henry was caught and imprisoned.

Oppenheim's thoughts and diary of August 1944 tells of her anguish and activities:

"The unspeakable horror of the news slowly invaded my being, wracking every part of my body . . . I went to the Red Cross and got bad news. The last train had left France for Germany with Henry . . .

"A publishing house gives me orders for greeting cards. My hands are stiff from cold and rheumatism, but I draw several dozens for them . . .

"I return to Paris. My hands, feet and legs are frostbitten . . . Every day I go to Porte d'Orleans to look for Henry . . . Lists are posted. Never Henry's name."

A New Year--1945. The Paris Daily Telegraph took Oppenheim's first post-war sketches.

She again sketched the new showings at the famous fashion houses. London's Daily Telegraph and Daily Express published them.

Later that year, her visa for Palestine arrived. She traveled with other Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to Haifa.

"I did not want to be idle," Oppenheim comments. "The Palestine Post, in Jerusalem, published my fashion drawings.

In the next 16 years her art captured people and their culture in Israel, the United States, Turkey, Greece, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Africa.

Her works hang in the exhibition halls of Israel, New York, Washington, D.C., Turkey, and Thailand, as well as in many private galleries and homes.

Oppenheim has many stories of the time she spent with the wealthy, powerful and influential.

Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor, proposed marriage during his sketch. Oppenheim recalls Selassie saying: "I have watched you for a long time. The Abyssinians are related to the Jews through the Queen of Sheba. You should be my wife. I would like many children, the color of milk coffee." Says Oppenheim, "I was embarrassed. . . I refused the marriage proposal."

On Moshe Dayan, the Israeli leader: "Moshe Dayan was cross with me for drawing the side of his face with the eye patch. 'Why didn't you do my other side,' he asked after he saw the sketch."

Author Saul Bellow, in a display of vanity common to many men Oppenheim sketched, wanted Oppenheim to make sure all his wrinkles didn't show in the sketch. Bellow told Oppenheim, "Don't draw all my face lines."

Paul Flandin, the French minister for transportation, was on the telephone while Oppenheim sketched. "Once he looked up and said, 'My conversation is personal. It is not meant for your ears.' After I finished I didn't know if I should get up and leave or not, so I sat and sat fidgeting for over an hour while he completed his telephone conversation."

On English writer Arthur Koestler: "He looked fierce, mean and serious. His blond wife was very sweet and smiling. They didn't seem to fit together."

Oppehheim came to Palo Alto from Israel in 1977 after she married Erich Schatzki, who had been invited to teach at Stanford on a two-year program. The couple decided to stay. Today, Oppenheim lives with her adopted daughter, Michelle Silver, her son-in-law, and two of her grand children, Eric, 3, and Julia, eight months.

"I still paint and sketch. I adored my work for the press. I was proud that I could meet so many outstanding personalities. The short contact with them enriched my life, since, by drawing them I could catch some of the brilliance they reflected, and keep a fleeting moment of their lives in the folders of my collection."

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