Migrants and modernists: what did Jewish artists do for us?

The Ben Uri gallery's latest exhibition explores 100 years of Jewish art in London.

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Out of Chaos – Ben Uri: 100 Years in London
Somerset House, London WC2

For an instance of plus ça change synchronicity, few exhibitions are as timely as the one on show in King’s College London’s display rooms at Somerset House. As chaos reigns nightly around the Eurostar ­tunnel entrance at Calais, “Out of Chaos – Ben Uri: 100 Years in London” shows what happens when desperate migrants do make it to these shores and bed in.

Between 1870 and 1914 roughly 150,000 Jews fled the pogroms of eastern Europe for Britain. A large tranche settled in east London and it was in Whitechapel in 1915 that one immigrant, a Lithuanian painter called Lazar Berson, founded the Jewish National Decorative Art Association (London). Better known as the Ben Uri Society, after Bezalel Ben Uri, the craftsman who built the Ark of the Covenant, the organisation was intended to serve the cultural needs of east London’s Jews, giving émigré artists a platform for their work outside Britain’s hard-to-break-into established institutions.

It was an opportune moment. In 1914 the Whitechapel Gallery had held an important show called “Twentieth-Century Art: a Review of Modern Movements”, within which was a Jewish section. East End Jews were among the prime movers in introducing European modernism to Britain and the Whitechapel exhibition included work from the “golden generation” of Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Jacob Kramer and Isaac Rosenberg.

A century after its formation, the Ben Uri Museum and Gallery has a collection comprising nearly 1,300 works by 390 artists from 35 countries. In a mirror-image of the archetypal Wandering Jew, it has had 12 homes in London (it is now based in St John’s Wood) and is looking for a new one. Thus, “Out of Chaos” is both a centenary celebration and an exercise in profile-raising.

The 1914 roster is a reminder of just how important a role Jewish artists have played in British art, not only through their example but also through teaching (Bomberg especially). Their bloodline flowed in mid-century through Barnett Freedman and Josef Herman, and later through R B Kitaj. It can be found today in, among others, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.

All but one of the paintings in the exhibition are the museum’s own, the exception being Mark Gertler’s extraordinary Merry-Go-Round of 1916 (which it sold to the Tate in 1984 to raise money). D H Lawrence described this picture, showing a fairground ride with soldiers and civilians screaming as they circle endlessly, as a “combination of blaze, and violent mechanical rotation . . . and ghastly, utterly mindless human intensity of sensational extremity”. It was, he wrote, “the best modern picture I have seen: I think it is great, and true”. It is indeed one of the most potent of all war paintings, without a gun, trench or fleck of mud in sight.

Merry-Go-Round is also representative of the supra-Jewish strand of art in the Ben Uri Collection. Although there are many pictures in the exhibition that are explicitly Jewish, others have no religious or sectarian overtones. Fifteen drawings showing dreamy aesthetic-movement scenes, a gift by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite Simeon Solomon, were the first to enter the collection. The message carried in joyous paintings such as Halen, La Ciotat (Harbour Scene) of 1929 by the Romanian Arthur Segal and Summer Morning in Madeira (1950) by the German South African Irma Stern is simply about painterly style (late post-impressionism with its dots and dashes of pure colour in the former; vivid expressionism with its broad handling in the latter).

And yet, with a few exceptions, it is the pictures about the Jewish experience that carry the most weight. The Emigrants (circa 1910), the Belgian painter Victor Hageman’s sombrely realist group portrait of a family, shows a version of exile that, by the time Josef Herman painted Refugees (roughly 1941), had become hurried and deadly. Herman, who made it from Poland to Glasgow, was the sole member of his immediate family to survive the Nazis; his painting shows a moonlit cityscape with a man, woman and two children, Goya-like eyes wide with fear, fleeing for their lives as a symbolic cat on a rooftop crunches a mouse in its jaws.

While there is also symbolism in Chagall’s crucifixion scene Apocalypse en Lilas, Cap­riccio (1945) – a hermaphroditic Christ surrounded by scenes of anti-Jewish atrocity – there is little in George Grosz’s characteristically excoriating Interrogation of 1938, in which the balding, bespectacled Jewish anarchist poet and playwright Erich Mühsam is bloodily whipped, in biblical parody, by three porcine Nazi guards.

Jewish suffering necessarily forms a vital strand in the Ben Uri Collection but “Out of Chaos” is far from grim, because its deeper subject is not Jewish exceptionalism, but rather the resilience of culture.

Until 13 December. Details: benuri.org.uk

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais