Painter and graphic artist Alva (né Siegfried Solomon Alweiss) was born into an observant Jewish family to traditional Galician parents in Berlin, Germany on 29 May 1901; he lived in Galicia until the age of ten. After leaving school, he began a career in commerce, then studied music at Stern's Konservatorium, Berlin (1919–1925), before turning to art, legally adopting the shortened form of his name, 'Alva', in 1925, studying painting in Paris in 1928 and exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne. In 1934 he travelled in Palestine, Syria, and Greece, and held his first solo exhibition in Tel Aviv the same year. Following Hitler’s accession to the German Chancellorship in 1933, Alva became ‘stateless’ after his passport was cancelled since neither of his parents was German. He returned to France and from there fled to London in 1938. In the same year, he completed a symbolic painting, Exodus, which references both the ancient biblical account of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt and the artist’s own ‘forced journey’ from Germany. The anonymity of the figures evokes the systematic mistreatment of an entire race under the Nazi regime and the wider displacement of war.
In 1940, following the introduction of internment for so-called ‘enemy aliens’, Alva was briefly interned on the Isle of Man, where he produced a number of internment drawings. After his release a monograph by Maurice Collis 'Alva, paintings & drawings' was published in 1942; a second title by Collis, of recent paintings and drawings, published in 1951 had a foreword by the British art historian Herbert Read. In 1944 Alva was included in the opening exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery’s new Portman Street premises, and this initiated his relationship with the gallery which included a lecture in November 1948 on 'The Purpose of Painting', in which he claimed inspiration from Rembrandt and Daumier among others; he also participated within group shows at the gallery on numerous occasions including in 1949, 1950 and 1956. He held solo exhibitions at the Waddington Galleries, London in 1958 and the Leger Galleries, as well as elsewhere in continental Europe, Israel, the USA, and South Africa.
Both his painting and graphic work moved between figuration and abstraction in a broadly expressionist style and often engaged with his Jewish faith. His graphic work included illustrating and decorating a version of the first chapter of Genesis and producing a series of studies of the Prophets in lithograph serigraphs. He also contributed illustrations to Yiddish publications in London between the late 1930s and 1940s, including the cover design for Y.A. Liski's 'Produktivizatsie' (Productivisation), printed by East End printer Israel Naroditsky in 1937 'For, du kleyner kozak!' (On Your Way, Little Cossack!) in 1942, and the cover illustration to Malka Locker's 'Shtetl'. He painted portraits of Locker and the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, among others, as well as symbolist paintings on Jewish life.
Alva died in London, England on 13 November 1973, the year that his autobiography, ‘With Pen and Brush: The Autobiography of a Painter’ was published. His work is held in UK collections including the Ben Uri Collection. His work has been shown at Ben Uri on many occasions including in exhibitions in 1988, 1998 and 2017, and was among the Ben Uri collection loans to the exhibition ‘Achievement: British Jewry’, curated by Charles Spencer, at Camden Arts Centre, London, in 1985.