Show Hide image

A creative space for all

NS art critic Tim Adams celebrates the restoration of a part of the East End's soul

It is entirely fitting that Rachel Whiteread has acted as a consultant on the £13.5m refurbishment of the Whitechapel Gallery. If ever there was an inside-out building, it is this one – not in style so much as substance. The life of the streets around Aldgate and Brick Lane has always seeped into the Whitechapel, and no other London gallery ever feels quite as open to the world beyond its doors.

The gallery was originally conceived by the Reverend Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, as a way of bringing inspiring history paintings to the masses: “the finest art of the world for the people of the East End”. From the beginning, however, the people of the East End saw this as a two-way arrangement, and began to create some of the finest art of the world for themselves.

The second-floor reading room in the revamped gallery – which on the whole is an inspired piece of hollowing out and stripping back – celebrates this radical heritage, and locates the gallery’s soul. It is divided in two. In one half, around four of the well-worn wooden tables from the original Whitechapel Library, are shelves filled with catalogues and monographs from the gallery’s century of artistic engagement. In the other half is a series of works on paper by the first “Whitechapel Boys” – Isaac Rosenberg, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Mark Gertler – who grew up in the Jewish ghetto of Whitechapel at the turn of the century.

It is a credit to the new space that these works still feel perfectly at home. The spirit of the Whitechapel that always seemed to place it where the energy lay – the first British showings of Les Fauves and the cubists; the first look at Picasso’s Guernica; the first Pollock show; the definitive Frida Kahlo – was rooted in their example.

In the years before the First World War, the gallery and library were a second home to the aspiring artists who lived in the East End. Rosenberg, most famous as a war poet, but an equally gifted fine artist, met Bomberg and the others here. The gallery had electric light, so it stayed open in the evenings until ten o’clock. The young friends, dirt-poor, would bring drawings and paintings to show each other, and talk literature and politics for free. On the Sabbath they would continue their conversations with other young Jews of the area on the “monkey’s parade” along Whitechapel High Street – the widest pavement in London – whose shop signs, now often in Bengali, were then all in Yiddish.

Their circle grew to include the refugee painter Jacob Kramer, John Rodker – later publisher of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound and of James Joyce’s Ulysses – and Clara Birnberg (the only woman among the “boys”). In her memoirs, a typescript of which is also on display, Birnberg recalls the moment she met the charismatic Rosenberg, sitting with his friends, who were at the time loudly discussing what kind of woman an artist should marry. When she introduced herself, he joked with her that his real talent lay not in drawing or poetry, but in sculpture; he was however prevented from pursuing this gift because his mother, just up the road, “liked to keep the house spotless”. For a few years after that, Birnberg and the Whitechapel Boys were an alternative Bloomsbury Group, with comparable talent, fewer opportunities and a distinct lack of country houses.

Partly inspired by Whitechapel shows, they assimilated the modernism of Kandinsky and the futurism of the Italians in different ways and wedded these to the life they saw around them. The work assembled for the gallery’s reopening exactly captures that pre-war moment. Gertler’s Rabbi and Rabbitzin pushes the idea of portraiture toward modernism, while Kramer’s Day of Atonement features a line of elders in prayer shawls and exaggerates their abstract geometries. The most audacious of the group, Bomberg, who was expelled from the Slade for embracing cubism, is represented by a tubular field of racehorses; the character of the most single-minded, Epstein, is displayed in a study for his masterpiece The Rock Drill. Rosenberg was sceptical about Continental trends – “All I can ever see in cubism is a house falling down,” he noted, with characteristic gloom; his exquisite self-portrait here emerges from the page like a death mask.

To stand among these pictures in this place is to be transported back to the arguments that created them. (The librarians at the Whitechapel never bothered to put up “Silence” notices – the place was all about talk.) The arguments ended abruptly, however, soon after these works were made. The First World War first divided the Whitechapel Boys, then destroyed them. After detailing the full horror of the Somme in his poetry, Rosenberg died on the Western Front (along with two early directors of the gallery); he only enlisted, he said, so that his mother would get her “separation allowance” and keep their home together. Bomberg fought and returned; Gertler and Rodker were conscientious objectors (the latter, after some time on the run from the authorities, spent most of the war in Dartmoor).

When the Armistice came, they continued to meet at Whitechapel from time to time. Epstein and Bomberg and Gertler all went on to have solo shows in the gallery, but it was never quite the same again. However, their presence here, a hundred years on, in the grand new space with its impressive “outreach” and educational programmes, not to mention its new cafe, is a perfect and timely reminder of what a public gallery can inspire and achieve. The East End has one small corner of its soul restored.

Tim Adams is art critic of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue