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The Last Degenerate Artist

28/03/2014 16:59 GMT | Updated 28/05/2014 10:59 BST

This is the true story of an old, old artist, sitting in a wheelchair, listening as his legacy is defined by other people at his own party. His name is Hans Feibusch and he's a small, ancient figure, wrapped up in woollen blankets, rolled by his carers out to the periphery of an event organised in his honour. Yet still vitally aware and curious, his eyes follow proceedings and he seems constantly on the edge of speaking. It's 1998 and it's his 100th birthday party.

We're in a plush suite of rooms somewhere down the back corridors of the Royal Academy in London. I've never been here before, it's all dark wood and thick burgundy carpets. It smells of polished silver and a thousand artists' feet - though that's probably down to the presence of a spectacular cheese-board. This evening my girlfriend and I are phoney guests, here for free champagne and curiosity and to be seen out in the right place. Probably half the other guests are phoney too, because Feibusch is an austere, craftsmanlike figure, not a thrusting conceptualist trendy. But his paintings cover the walls and they're wonderful.

Hans Feibusch is the oldest person I've ever met, with veins shining through pale, paper-thin skin on his wrists when I shake his hand. Although some family is here, the gig doubles as a launch for a replica 'studio', down in a gallery in Chichester, so the bulk of the crowd is old-school art world aristos. Some of them are going to speak - the gathering is an opportunity for academics in bad suits to remix and filter Feibusch's life story through lenses of self-aggrandisement. They'll take turns to trade his tale...

Hans Feibusch is the last of Hitler's Degenerate Artists. The last survivor. It must feel funny to be 'the last' of a group, simply because you're still alive. The degenerates were the collection of German artists - otherwise unconnected to each-other - who were named and shamed, exiled and imprisoned, because their art was defined as 'retarded' and 'contrary to the public good' by the Third Reich. The Nazis even curated a grand exhibition of it, to show the German people what to avoid. As a teenager, Feibusch had fought on the German side in the trenches of the Great War, yet by the end of the 1930s, with the next war inevitable in Europe, he'd long fled his country for England.

The rest of his century was calmer. He was no subversive; built a successful career, working here for many years as a muralist, often painting on a grand scale in sacred spaces like churches. He did portraits too. It's the stuff of a rich, full human life, as well as a regional gallery brochure's potted biography.

Here's the moment I won't forget and it's tiny by comparison: the third dull academic in a row is droning relentlessly on about Fiebusch's artistic merits and human virtues, when the artist himself leans forward in his wheelchair to get attention. He cries out: "Enough! Enough!". Sharp intakes of breath and the speaker is left writhing in discomfort, bringing his bit to an early close. Heckling his own eulogy, Feibusch reclaims his space and makes the evening unforgettable.

Later on, many glasses downed, I shake his hand and drunkenly mumble how great his work is, though it's the man who impressed me more than the brush strokes. I say nothing of any consequence.

Two weeks later I'm wandering through the Tate, in the building near Vauxhall Bridge on the north bank of the Thames that's now Tate Britain, though this took place shortly before the Blair Government's huge rebranding exercise. Over in one corner, hung on its own and facing towards the main entrance, where many will see it, there's a small Feibusch painting. I immediately recognise it, even from a distance, because I was so recently surrounded by them and he'd made such a big impression. So I waltz over, excited to check out this old fellow I just met, getting (I assume) a birthday present of recognition from the art establishment, where everyone, not just the suits, can learn about him and appreciate a life well lived.

But the painting is not a gift, it's a memorial. According to the rectangle of white card stuck next to it, Feibusch died aged 99, days shy of his actual 100th birthday. In our greed to drink his fizz, we toasted him prematurely and now he was toast.

That was in 1998. Part of the preciousness of the memory came from a belief that he wasn't remembered by anyone else. For years I Googled him, got no results - and was therefore convinced he'd left no legacy at all. Nobody had heard of him. It became almost meta-physical; an internal ghost story that made me doubt my mind, as such a vivid memory seemed completely unattached to reality. Then in 2004 I realised I'd been Googling 'Hans Weibusch' by mistake for all that time; in the end I'd just got the spelling wrong. That discovery reduces the weight of the memory and also the tale: witness a piece that begins life as a meditation on legacy, then becomes a simple name-dropping anecdote.

Never mind though, next time you're computering aimlessly, google 'Hans Feibusch' and see his work for yourself. It's beautiful and he is remembered.