René Willner is a prolific artist, working in various media such as pen and ink, pastel, and oil on canvas. During the many decades of his artistic life he has produced an impressive oeuvre which reflects both his personal biography, as well as the tumultuous, often painful history of Western society in the twentieth century. His works can be found in major public and private collections such as the Rijksprentenkabinet of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Brussels, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), the Newark Museum in New Jersey, Gallerie Brachot in Brussels, Gallerie Du Perron in Genève, the Harold and Edith Rosen collection in Baltimore, the collection Onassis and many other private collections in the United States, Israël, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Belgium.
René was born in 1936 in Leipzig, Germany as Manfred Willner. His parents, Gershon Willner and Gusta Derfler, originated from Galicia in Central Europe. Fleeing the local climate of persecution and pogroms, his parents settled in Leipzig, Germany, where they married in 1932. With the help of his uncle and benefactor Israel Lieber, Gershon Willner set himself up as a furrier, while Gusta Derfler was a popular and well published author. In 1937, René’s younger brother Leo (Leopold Berthold) was born.
After 1933 life became increasingly difficult. His mother lost her publishing contract, his father lost his job, and they lived off what was earned from a small shop and library they had opened up. Following the Kristallnacht in November 1938, with the shop in ruins and hardship increasing, René Willner fled Germany with his parents, brother and his teenaged cousin Sacha Blimbaum (Blaine) who managed to come with them. Stateless and leaving behind their extended families, they got to Antwerp. During the German invasion of Belgium in 1939 they fled again, this time to Paris. There his father Gershon Willner was picked up during a razzia, subsequently interned at the camps Drancy and Vernet and near the end of the war murdered in Auschwitz. Together with his mother and brother, René Willner was at first interned by the French, yet the three of them managed to get out and go into hiding in and around the area of St. Affrique, Aveyron in the French Pyrénées.
As it was too dangerous to stay together, the children were now seperated from their mother as well. René Willner and his brother stayed in hiding, keeping each other safe from danger, cold and starvation. By the end of the war they were reunited with their mother and cousin (who had managed to get to London). They then left France for Belgium and immigrated to the United States in 1947.
From an early age onwards, René Willner was an avid draughtsman. In the United States he attended the School of Fine & Industrial Arts in Newark, New Jersey and worked at the Art Students League in New York. He took lessons with Louis Spindler, Willem de Kooning and worked at Andy Warhols factory. In 1957 he had his first solo-exhibition in New York, and, until 1963, was also working as a commercial artist and art director. In 1963 he returned to Europe. He was based in Brussels, exhibiting among others at the art galleries Brachot, Agora and Wildanger. He became acquainted with René Margritte en Paul Delvaux, and took lessons at the Brussels Academie. In 1965, after traveling extensively in Europe and the Middle East. René Willner settled in The Netherlands where he lived with his wife and two children on the island of Marken and in Amsterdam. He closely befriended and worked together with Max Bueno de Mesquita and other Jewish artists.
Today, René Willner lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Solo-exhibition, New York
312 East 3rd Gallery, New York
Forest Hills Gallery, Queens Blvd
Gallery Bleecker, New York
Galerie Brachot, Brusssels
Galerie Agora, Brussels
Galerie Wildanger, Brussels
Galerie L’Angle Aigu, Brussels