Ben Uri At 100

The centenary exhibition of "the art museum for everyone".

The art of an aftermath: “Day Of Atonement”, 1919, by Jacob Kramer, ©Estate of John David Roberts, by permission of the William Roberts Society

The Ben Uri Gallery centenary exhibition at Somerset House reveals an extraordinary art collection, but it also tells us a great deal about modern Jewish art and the role of immigrants and refugees in 20th-century British art.

“Refugees”, c.1941, by Josef Herman, ©Estate of Josef Herman

The exhibition, Out of Chaos, is dominated by two waves of outsiders. First, there are the Anglo-Jewish artists who were born around 1890 and emerged just before the First World War. The Whitechapel Boys — including Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer and Isaac Rosenberg — were all sons of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Pale. They were drawn to traditional Jewish subjects: for example, Gertler’s Rabbi and Rabbitzin (1914), Kramer’s Day of Atonement (1919) and Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre (1920).

“Ghetto Theatre”, 1920, by David Bomberg, ©Estate of David Bomberg

But at the same time they came of age during the heyday of Modernism. “The new life should find its expression in a new art,” Bomberg said in a newspaper interview in 1914. Roger Fry’s controversial Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 were held when these young artists were studying at the Slade. The Ben Uri was founded in 1915 when the École de Paris was at its heyday, just two years after the Armory Show brought Modernism to America. They were drawn to traditional Jewish subjects but it was tradition with a Modernist twist.

“Rabbi and Rabbitzin”, 1914, by Mark Gertler, ©Ben Uri Collection

However, they engaged with Jewish subjects. What is striking about the second wave who dominate this exhibition — Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied central Europe, from Adler, Bloch and Meidner to refugees who came as children like Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach — is how they avoided Jewish subjects. No images of Judaism, almost no traces of the Holocaust, hardly any engagement with Israel. Until recently, most post-war work by Jewish artists has avoided obviously Jewish subjects. But there is nevertheless something dark and troubling about the solitary figures by Freud, the urban landscapes and thick black swirls of charcoal by Auerbach and Kossoff. To use David Sylvester’s phrase, these works by Jewish artists are “The Art of an Aftermath”. 

“Portrait Of A Woman”, 1957, by Leon Kossoff, ©Leon Kossoff

The most violent images in this exhibition, however, speak more directly of the suffering and displacement of the Nazi years. Two astonishing crucifixions, one by Chagall and the other by Emmanuel Levy, two violent scenes of interrogation by George Grosz and Refugees, by my father Josef Herman, are all recent acquisitions by the Ben Uri. Put together with the work of the Whitechapel Boys and the post-war Anglo-Jewish artists, these show the variety and vitality of modern Jewish art and its complicated relationship with modern Jewish history.

“La Soubrette”, 1933, by Chaïm Soutine, ©ADGAP, Paris and DACS, London

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