24 November 2015

Immigrants, paintings and identity - Jewish artists in London

In July 1915, in an East End restaurant called Gradel’s, the Russian-Jewish artist Lazar Berson invited other artists to support each other culturally and artistically. They planned literary and musical evenings together, to be held in their shared language, Yiddish.

The resulting organisation was Ben Uri Art Gallery. Made up of both historical and contemporary works, the Ben Uri collection eventually spanned 120 years and now includes 380 artists from 35 countries. 67% of these artists were émigrés.

The 1915-2015 century of Ben Uri was always going to be celebrated, but based in a small and temporary space in St John’s Wood, Ben Uri’s treasures were mostly squished up in storage. Now the 70 selected works are being display­ed instead at King’s College London, in the Somerset House East Wing gallery. The exhibition is called Out of Chaos: 100 Years in London.

Rosenberg, Self portrait  
National Portrait Gallery, London

This exhibition is showcasing works that might be not well known. The selected art illustrates the immigrant experience via 19th century artists eg Solomon Hart, the first Jewish made a member of the Royal Academy in 1840, Simeon Solomon and Solomon Joseph Solomon. Then the visitor is invited to view the artists who worked in London in the early C20th, including the sculptor Jacob Epstein. As I have said in previous posts, the Whitechapel Boys were special artists. They were a group of young men that went on to become some of my favourite English writers and artists of the era. I discussed only three: Mark Gertler (1891–1939) was born and raised in Spital­fields, Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918) moved to Stepney as a school boy and David Bomberg (1890–1957) grew up in Whitechapel. Reviewers have suggested that their experimentation gave shape to British Modernism.

And there are examples of the Lon­doners’ intern­ational contemp­oraries, including Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine and Georg Grosz. Finally we will consider the intense, modern imagery of School of London painters Josef Herman, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and RB Kitaj.

You can see the entire online gallery, but I would like to focus on 3 works. The self portrait of Isaac Rosenberg (1915) was a surprise. It seems this immigrant teenager was training to be a painter before the Great War broke out. He fought in the war between 1915-18, dying in the battle of Arras; if anything, we know him now for his war poetry. Yet here we have a sensitive, confident self portrait, dated before he was faced with death and destruction.

Gertler, Merry-Go-Round 
189 × 142 cms1916
Tate Gallery, London

Thankfully the Tate Gallery made a loan of Mark Gertler’s most celebrated work, Merry-Go-Round (1916), his conscientious objector’s reaction to WW1. This very large painting depicted sixteen figures travelling on horseback around a colourful fairground carousel, arranged in five groups of civilians and soldiers. Were the participants screaming?

I particularly liked David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre (1920). The Jewish audience had faces that cannot be seen clearly. Were they exhausted from a day’s work in the factories and shops? Were they embarrassed about not being as well dressed as the Top Hats below? Could they not understand the actors’ speeches well enough?

This exhibition explores a century of past, Jewish émigré history, but it is also creating future dialogue about the universal relationship between immigration, identity and art. Every émigré community in the world has probably faced the same social and political upheavals: loss of extended family, loss of a home, no knowledge of the new land’s language, financial struggle and perhaps distrust from the other citizens. In light of the intense anti-asylum seeker and anti-immigrant environment found today in Australia, Britain, France and everywhere else, it will be interesting to see what parallels visitors to the Ben Uri collection draw.

Bomberg, Ghetto Theatre 
Ben Uri Gallery, London

The exhibition closes in mid December 2015. As ever, if readers cannot get to London in time, I recommend the 2015 exhibition catalogue. It charts a fluid engagement with British and European art and the transition from traditionalism to modernism. The catalogue starts with early artists, including the pre-Raphaelites and the early colourist, Alfred Wolmark, the so-called father of the Whitechapel Boys. And the only Whitechapel Girl Clare Winsten, just one of  the artists who made a distinct contribution to early British modernism.


Andrew said...

I love Merry-Go-Round. It is pleasing to hear it is a large work.

Train Man said...

My parents agree that immigration is the same bitter sweet process for everyone. Good to universalise the conversation in art.

Hels said...


This 1916 painting is bold, coloured and amazing, but with lots of different interpretations e.g1 a Merry-Go-Round being used as normal carnival attraction in the middle of the War To End All Wars. eg2 Gertler's guilt at being safe-ish in Hampstead while his family living in the East End was in terrible danger of being bombed.

Hels said...

Train Man

*nod* Every immigrant says the same thing. Even if they were desperate to leave their homeland and sat in a Displaced Persons' Camp for years in a tent waiting for a visa, it is indeed a bitter sweet process.

So our question now: given that the exhibition wants to create future dialogue about the universal relationship between "immigration, identity and art", how well is it achieving its goal? Are the paintings too British to generalise more broadly? Do modern viewers understand that the non-British artists (eg Soutine, Chagall) were themselves immigrants from Russia, Belarus and Lithuania to France?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Have you seen the listings for Sotheby's Judaica sale next month? It includes a few interesting paintings, although not from the school you discuss in this post. Here is the link: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2015/important-judaica-n09447.html?cmp=email_n09447_cat_important_judaica_112415-112515#&page=all&sort=lowPrice-desc&viewMode=list&lot=85&scroll=2506


Hels said...


thanks for the reference which I examined straight away. I love the illuminated manuscripts and the silver ritual art objects, but alas there were very few paintings between 1890 and 1930. I can certainly try other Sotheby's catalogues, reached through the same url.

Towner Art Gallery said...

David Bomberg: A Sense of Place will be exhibited at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne until the end of September 2016. Towner holds a number of paintings by Bomberg in the permanent collection. With loans from national institutions, including Tate, Ben Uri Gallery and Southampton City Art Gallery and from private collections, this exhibition brings together a selection of Bomberg’s landscape works to present an overview of the sense of place that he portrayed in these paintings, and how each of the landscapes was so significant to him.

Hels said...

For an analysis of Leon Kossoff's career, read an excellent post called "Christ Church Spitalfields by Leon Kossoff" in the blog Spitalfields Life. If anyone had read the book "East End Vernacular: Artists who painted London's East End streets in the 20th Century", they might write a short review.


Hels said...

Many thanks. Just as well Ivor Weiss exhibited widely in England and North America; if it wasn't for London’s Ben Uri Gallery, I don't think I would have seen his work. His earliest works shown here (mid 1960s) are wonderful, but I would love to see his WW2 and post-war works.

See Ivor Weiss
Spitalfields Life