Power of a Paintbrush, The

18 June 2021

The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II
by Chantal Stehwien and Barbara Stehwien
Published by Landscape Art Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$29.95 ISBN 9-780991-964963

I was familiar with the moving story of German-born artist, pacifist, and prisoner-of-war survivor Fritz Stehwien via the book Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective. That earlier, softcover title included black and white and colour images of the prolific artist’s work, including landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes. Now Stehwien’s family has collaborated again to release a hardcover that celebrates the man (1914-2008), his art, and his story.

The Power of a Paintbrush: The Story of an Escape from the Prison Camp Stalag XXA after World War II, revisits how Stehwien “relied on his artistry to survive [a] devastating time of war,” and the 30-page book includes a generous selection of high-resolution images of his original art, including oils, watercolours, and both pencil and charcoal sketches.

“Fritz was always an artist,” and when the Second World War began, he was an art student at the Hamburg Art Academy. “He was drafted and forced to serve in the German army,” his family writes, first in France, then he was sent to the Russian front. Fortunately, his artistic talent was recognized by superiors and he was commissioned “to illustrate news reports to be distributed for propagandist purposes.” His unit leader, General Theodor Scherer, not only kept the gifted soldier off the battlefront, Scherer also oversaw the publication of a book of Stehwien’s documentary drawings, and the artist was moved to Warsaw, “where the Panzerkompanie printing press was located during German occupation”.

Scherer’s respect for Stehwien’s work and the older man’s kindness was the beginning of what would become a fortunate theme: supposed enemies showing compassion during wartime. While in Poland, Stehwien met another stranger—the “dark-haired and very beautiful *Zofia [not her real name],”—who’s a subject of one of his images in this book, and who risked her own safety to help him escape a POW camp.

Stehwien wasn’t the only POW artist at the camp: another young soldier, Wolfgang Niesner, was also there, and the two became lifelong friends. There’s a sketched portrait of Niesner in the book, and, likewise, one of Niesner’s portraits of “Comrade Stehwien,” both dated 1945.

Stehwien was transferred to a “specialist” camp at Ilawa, “where Soviet forces gathered those prisoners who had special skills, ranging from radio technicians to doctors, and indeed, artists”. Stehwien’s artistic prowess and “experience in church and mural painting” soon saw him commissioned to work on “a large-scale public propaganda mural … painted on bedsheets due to the scarcity of conventional materials”. He also created portraits of several prison officials, and this “endeared him to his captors”. When Stehwien became ill, he helped a camp-connected Russian doctor with medical drawings, and in return was given “better food portions”. The artist also put his talent to use by creating portraits of Russian officers.

Do read the book to learn how Stehwien’s art eventually led to his escape from the Stalag and his safe return to Miltern, Germany. His art saved him and he eventually emigrated to Canada, but “the horrors of war-battle” were always with him.


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