The Reluctant Artist

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong1/17/2020 6:0 AM GMT+08  • 9 min read
The Reluctant Artist
Growing up with a mother who has always painted, lawyer Nicholas Hanna never thought much of the paint pots strewn around the house, or the paintings that covered the walls of his home. A serendipitous incident that saw one of Dorle Lindner’s paintings
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Growing up with a mother who has always painted, lawyer Nicholas Hanna never thought much of the paint pots strewn around the house, or the paintings that covered the walls of his home. A serendipitous incident that saw one of Dorle Lindner’s paintings being sold to a client began his journey to bring her talent to the world.

SINGAPORE (JAN 17): It was 1965, and young artist Dorle Lindner was bored. Her fine arts education at Munich’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts held no more surprises for her — it was too rigid, too regimented. She was tired of painting pictures like ‘A Man Walking with His Umbrella in the Rain.’ “Bored stiff,” was how she put it.

In 1966, six weeks after she was enrolled into the academy, she packed her bags, quit school, and set off for New York. She had heard of the rise of abstract impressionism there and wanted to learn more about the movement. Her father was absolutely furious. Kurt Lindner was a wealthy industrialist who had survived the ravages of war-time Berlin to rebuild the family fortune, and his daughter’s behaviour was totally unbecoming of a young lady from a well-heeled family. Incensed that Dorle had quit the academy, Kurt refused to support her in any way, thinking that without money she would quickly return to Germany and art school. Yet Dorle not only persisted, but thrived in New York. She got a day job as a mail clerk at the famous Plaza Hotel, and spent her free time visiting museums and learning English.

The luxurious and iconic hotel, a staple among dignitaries and celebrities, was where Dorle met David Douglas Duncan, a renowned photographer who had previously documented the works of the legendary abstract artist Pablo Picasso. She approached Duncan without any hesitation and showed him her portfolio. Among her work were some produced on scraperboard — an art form of direct engraving which involves scratching a blank ink surface with a scalpel to reveal the white chalk beneath. Duncan immediately recognised the conceptual and intellectual similarities between the Spanish master and Dorle. He took some of her samples and went away for a few weeks. She did not hear from him for some time and life went on, eventually bringing her back to Germany in March 1967, where she continued working on her art.

Then, a wrongly-dialled number set the wheels of love spinning, sending her on a different path. One Gregory Hanna, a Greek living in England, had dialled long-distance to a wrong number in Germany while trying to order some auto spare parts. That wrong number was Dorle’s. Intrigued by her well-spoken English on the other line, he persisted for several hours on the phone despite the misdial. The next day, he was on a plane to Germany for the weekend to meet Dorle, and two weeks later, they were married.

Years passed, and Duncan finally returned with news — he wanted to feature her in a book titled The Magic Worlds of Fantasy. The 112-page book took some time to edit and prepare. By the time it was published, it was 1978 and Dorle had become a mother of two boys, aged eight and four. Exhibitions were planned and the organisers wanted her to make appearances and showcase her talent, but she declined. Her focus was on her family. The published book featured Dorle’s early scraperboard works alongside those of three other abstract artists. In the book, Duncan described an incident in which he showed her works to Picasso. The famous artist remarked: “She has her own world, too.”


Dorle’s incredible story was related to Options by her eldest son, Nicholas, who is today a successful lawyer based in Singapore. When we met him at his home in Bedok, several paintings hanging on the walls were being taken down and carefully wrapped. The paintings, done by his mother, were bound for a one-day special exhibition of her works, held at the Miaja Gallery on Nov 22 last year. Yet the exhibition, and the subsequent formation of Lindner Art, was never truly in Nicholas’ plans until a client visited his home, saw one of Dorle’s paintings, fell in love, and offered to buy it. “[The client] looked up and saw the picture — a 2m by 3m painting — and he loved it,” recounts Nicholas. “He said, ‘It’s giving me chills; I really, really want it.’ I told him it’s not for sale, to which he replied, ‘Everything is for sale, it just needs the right price.’” Nicholas laughed. “We had a couple of glasses of wine and he kept coming back to the picture. By the end of the evening, a number was agreed upon, but I never actually thought [he’d buy it]. You know, people say a lot of things.”

But after a week or so, the client called him and asked, “How long would it take you to get the painting to me?” Nicholas jokingly told the client to make payment before he would take the painting down, roll it up and deliver it. To his surprise, the client agreed. “I didn’t hear anything again for a while. Then, we went away on holiday to the Maldives, and I got a text in the middle of the night. I was agitated — I thought, who is texting me at this ridiculous hour?” he recalls. “It was the bank, saying that I had received the money and it felt amazing. I delivered the painting personally and the client was very happy.”

Some weeks later, another client expressed interest in the artworks. “He asked, ‘Can I come and have a look at the paintings?’ I said, sure. He then said, ‘I really like this one, can I buy it?’” Nicholas relates. Although he also told this client the painting was not for sale, he eventually relented and sold it to him.

But the way his mother’s paintings clearly resonated with so many set him thinking seriously about finally introducing her work to the world after being hidden all these years. “Her art is loved by so many — I used to have a big painting in my house in the UK. It was a ground-floor flat and in summer, I used to open the French windows that were along the street,” he recalls. “It was not uncommon for people to stop and look into my house and at the painting. I used to go into the living room and just find a group of people just standing outside my window, looking into my house. And I got a feeling there was just something electric about these paintings.”


In 2017, Nicholas and his brother discussed showcasing their mother’s talent to the world. “We felt that one of the greatest things a child can do is to honour their parents for the sacrifices they’ve made. My brother’s a successful architect in the UK, and I’ve had a very good career as a lawyer, and that has come about because our parents made huge sacrifices. And one of the sacrifices I think my mother made was [giving up the chance to become] a very famous artist.”

Although Dorle never stopped painting, says Nicholas, she chose to focus on bringing her children up instead of being a famous artist. He adds that growing up with a mother who was often “in her own world” was challenging. “There’re so many stories I can tell you… she’s a very eccentric woman. When I was growing up, she used to smoke 60 cigarettes a day. And there were many times when she forgot to pick me up from school because she was painting,” he says. “So I would be sitting there with my brother, and — there were no mobile phones in those days — the headmaster used to call the house and no one answered. Eventually she’d come pick us up or we’d walk home!” It was because Dorle was working on her art, he explains. “It would take her months to prepare a picture, and the time it took to [paint] one would take anywhere from four hours to four months. And she’s been experimenting [with different mediums]. Most of the time [the paintings are] expressionism of things in her life; and that’s the beauty of an abstract artist — a feeling within them to be able to design something that touches someone who’d never be able to paint such things. It’s about passion and art, and desire, and the sacrifices she made to ensure the family comes first.

“[My mother]’s personality is eccentric, but also understated. She was never really into fame and fortune. She is interested in her art, in being able to express her art. So for these different reasons, the family decided [we should] try and do something.” Nicholas knew nothing about putting an art exhibition together, so he enlisted the help of several clients, friends, and an art director. Singapore was a natural starting point, as Dorle loves the country and thoroughly enjoys her visits here.

“A year or so ago, we had chilli crab with the family and she loved the chilli crab — she said it was the best meal she ever had in her life. She asked the chef to bring her the head of the crab and he thought she was completely batty,” Nicholas says with a laugh. “They cleaned it and she took it to make a sculpture, which took her several months.” Eventually, after much hard work, the exhibition finally came to fruition and Dorle’s art has generated a lot of interest, including from renowned art houses.

The Singapore exhibition will be the first in a journey Nicholas hopes to take all the way to Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, New York and London. For now, however, he intends to continue helping his mother achieve the recognition she has always deserved. “If nothing else, it’s to help her bring her name out [to the world],” he says.

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