Hans Neumann – the man who saved Mustique
In 1976 Hans Neumann, who had just built Point Lookout, bought 60% of the Mustique Company shares, as Colin Tennant had run into financial difficulties. His purpose was solely to save the island from the looming threat of larger-scale development.
“Colin and I understood each other,” Hans said later, “Some of the homeowners were harsh, aggressive. He’s an English gentleman. There’s a clash of personalities. For Colin, form and content are what matter. Many didn’t understand. And Colin can change moods like a child. It was better for him to make an offer to me, a kindred spirit who believed in the limited development of the island. We didn’t want big commercial enterprises here, hotels, a golf course. I was silent. Then I became very loud.”
Hans personally subsidised the island for many years, allowing space for the formulation of a new long term plan. In 1988, shares were made available in parcels of no more than 5% to homeowners. Until 2003, Hans and his daughter retained a seat on the board and a block of 30% of the shares, which continued to provide stability over the years as it prevented dramatic policy shifts or substantial deviations from the plan.
Brian Alexander put it simply “He saved Mustique”.
Hans Neumann was one of Venezuela’s greatest industrialists, building a business through the development of industrial paint and other coatings. But much of his early adulthood would be spent in a struggle for survival during the violent political upheavals of World War II.
The Neumanns had been a prosperous German-Jewish family, living and working in Prague, rising to prominence, and some affluence, as the leading manufacturers of industrial paint. Hans’ father Otto had built the family business during the period after the First World War when Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent state, free of Austro-Hungarian rule. It was in these conditions that the fortunes of many secular, hardworking Jewish families rose – and with them came the emergence of a cultural intelligentsia.
This would give world literature three major writers – Kafka, Werfel and Rilke. Artists Egon Schiele, Alphonse Mucha, the avant-garde group Devetsil and the composer Janacek all contributed to Prague’s position at the centre of European culture. The Neumann brothers, Lothar and Hans, were educated well, and sent to the University of Prague to study chemical engineering with a view to joining their father’s successful business. Much later on, after all the dislocations occasioned by the next World War, it may well have been their nostalgia for these inter-war years that would inspire them to become leading patrons of the arts and media in Venezuela. Later still, Hans Neumann’s modernizing vision would subtly inflect a shift, a new approach, to Mustique that was less encumbered with the colonial past.
But in Czechoslovakia things were changing abruptly in the late 1930s. The Sudetenland – Bohemia and Moravia, the wealthy industrial territories where the Neumanns had their factories – was annexed in 1938, followed by the annexation of all Czechoslovakia by the Wehrmacht in March 1939, bringing an end to the policy of appeasement.
Of 34 members of his family, 25 were murdered by the Nazis. Nevertheless, against all odds both brothers survived. Astonishingly, Hans did so by hiding in plain sight in the heart of the Nazi empire. His remarkable story of survival was recently documented in detail by Hans’ daughter Ariana in the critically acclaimed New York Times Bestseller ‘When Time Stopped: A Memoir of my Father’s War and What Remains’. (www.ariananeumann.com)
After the liberation of Prague by the Russians they set about getting the family paint factory going again. Then the Communists carried out a coup in Prague in 1948. This spelled the end for the Neumann brothers and their enterprises in Czechoslovakia. It was time to leave Europe for good. They made a careful study of world conditions in their sector, looking for the most promising country in which to establish a paint factory, and Venezuela was selected.
Arriving in Caracas in 1949, it marked a new beginning. As Neumann later recalled in an interview, “the first thing I saw on arrival at the port of La Guaira was a giant cockroach, that, and the heat that literally fried us were my first impressions. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. During the voyage, instead of taking the time to learn it, I played table tennis and won the boat championship. The result was that in the early days I had to resort to a Czech-Spanish dictionary and use all verbs in the infinitive.” Nevertheless, with the paint formulas from their father’s Czechoslovakian enterprise, the Neumanns started their business with a loan of a hundred thousand dollars, naming it ‘Montana Fabrica de Pinturas’, and they became the leading supplier of paint to the domestic market. In addition to turning out paint, ‘Montana Resimon’ was established in 1959 to meet the need for resins, varnish, ink and paintbrushes. Montana Grafica – a paper manufacturing and printing plant – was launched because none of the local printers were able to produce satisfactory labels for their paint cans. By 1969, the companies were turning over sales of over US$12million, thanks in part to expanding into industrial maintenance, wood, marine and automotive markets for paint. Developing an additive that prevented the adhesion of dirt and dust for painting road signs and tunnels, for example, led to the Neumanns securing many lucrative government contracts. In 1970, these diverse interests were merged into a large conglomerate called CORIMON CA, the first Venezuelan company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
To a certain extent Venezuela had proved to be a challenging place to do business. The Neumanns had arrived in Venezuela just after the political coup of 1948, and the beginning of General Perez-Jimenez’s five-year dictatorship. The F.A.L.N. was formed by the Communist Party with the aim of retaining strategic presence through acts of terror. During a period when oil pipelines were sabotaged, the US Embassy in Caracas was bombed and kidnappings were carried out in the public eye, the Neumanns’ factory was torched, the resins and paint igniting in a spectacular conflagration.
The brothers were a new breed of industrialist. Entrepreneurs with a sense of philanthropy too, an almost unknown combination at the time.
Yet in other ways Venezuela was a canny choice. In 1950, while the rest of the world was struggling to recover from World War II, Venezuela’s oil wealth had made it the 4th largest economy in the world. Having escaped the devastation of the war, and with a ready source of cash from oil revenues to hand, the Venezuelan President could afford to build the country’s future. So the Neumann’s businesses developed in tandem with a construction boom that saw a wave of showcase modernist buildings in the capital as well as infrastructure development. Perez-Jimenez began to see himself as a modernizer. Highways were built linking Caracas to the coast; the slums of Caracas were cleared and replaced with colourful high-rise buildings, hotels and factories. In each case, Perez-Jimenez and his associates took a cut of the commission. In the rapidly developing urban culture of Caracas, European modernism was coming to be seen as a political tool, a means to reject tradition and backwardness, provincialism and colonialism, a means of achieving development, or of catching up with the US. If modernist architects in Europe had turned away from traditional buildings and monuments because they were seen as being too implicated in the politics and problems of the past to warrant retention, the modernist artists, designers and architects in Venezuela came to be seen as the vanguard of the desarrollista – as the agents, not just of development, but of a new way of being.
The brothers exemplified this, they were a new breed of industrialist on the Venezuelan scene. Entrepreneurs with a sense of philanthropy too, an almost unknown combination at the time. Both Hans and Lothar had begun to build up substantial collections of art. Whilst Lothar amassed a significant private collection of Art Nouveau, Hans collected work by European painters whose reputation had been established in the first half of the twentieth century such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Bacon and Klee. In addition, he acquired and championed the work of the new generation of Venezuelan artists such as Carlos Cruz-Diez, Jesus Soto, Alejandro Otero and Marisol Escobar, placing them at the epicentre of 20th century modernism.
They offered their patronage to a number of art foundations as well as the Museo de Bellas Artes. In 1964. Hans Neumann, in conjunction with his brother and the National Institute of Educational Training, founded IDD, the Institute of Drawing and Design in order to support the training of the industrial and graphic designers of the future. It was at the printing workshop Nena Palacios, the beautiful socialite and graphic designer whose workshop was at the centre of the Venezuelan art scene, and the place that high profile celebrities like Ava Gardner and the Chilean poet and diplomat, Pablo Neruda, would come to visit, that Neumann had developed his idea of founding an international institute of design. Venezuela had a growing industry but there was a shortage of trained designers in the country and the plan was that IDD would remedy this; how Hans achieved this would reveal his skill in brokering complex deals. He approached his brother Lothar who had been focusing his philanthropic efforts on supporting economically disadvantaged children in need of educational support and together they developed the Neumann Foundation. Next, Hans approached Nena Palacios’s brother-inlaw, Oscar Palacios Herrera, who as the president of INCE had developed a National Apprenticeship Scheme offering a wide range of technical training courses. In turn, Palacios Herrera won the support of the National Institute for Entrepreneurial Training and the Ministry of Education. The Neumann Foundation made a substantial foundation bequest and INCE agreed to offer institutional support and more financial backing and so, in 1964, IDD was launched.
As Hans was later to recall, “Help was needed in the task of modernising the country and adapting it to the challenges of the future. The project was novel for the time. At that period there was only one design institute in South America, in Brazil, although Argentina had a development centre, so the initiative was important because by then Venezuela had a growing industry and needed designers”. Although the initial plan was to train both industrial and graphic designers, graphic design soon emerged as the major area of study. Perhaps surprisingly, given Venezuela’s long history of European occupation, Europe was still seen as the primary focus of inspiration. And here we come to the nub of it: the core belief that technical and visual training conducted by modernist artists and designers, for the most part from Europe – as in the case of Gego (Gertrude Louise Goldsmith), or the minimalist graphic artist, Gerd Leufert and the sculptor Harry Abend – but also from an urban Venezuelan background (as in the case of Nena Palacios Zuoloaga) would be the means to stimulate creativity and change by planting international modernism in Venezuela.
Hans was progressive in other ways. He was committed to industrial innovation, corporate responsibility and educational reform, as well as sponsorship of the media. When the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1989, he was instrumental in helping Eastern Europeans immigrate to the country. He owned the only English language newspaper in the country, The Daily Journal, and served as the chair of its board of directors for many years. He wrote many articles on the socio-economic and political environment in Venezuela.
In 1995 a series of strokes left him half-paralyzed and wheelchair bound. But in 1999 he launched TalCual, the first newspaper to voice opposition to the government of Hugo Chavez, by forewarning its readers of the likelihood of economic mismanagement and social misery under the Chavez regime.
Neumann would subtly introduce his modernist, progressive vision to Mustique but, having also an aptitude for keeping a low profile when required, this successful businessman would usher in substantial changes in such a way that the main impetus would always seem to come from elsewhere, and never from him.