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The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE GLO­RIA TESSLER

LET ME in­tro­duce you to a few friends of mine. We don’t meet very of­ten but when­ever we do our en­coun­ters are mag­i­cal. Th­ese fleet­ing re­la­tion­ships are not with peo­ple but with paint­ings. In the past few weeks I came face to face with them again — David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre (1920), a Cu­bist por­trayal of an au­di­ence dressed in red, but whose flinty faces tell a dif­fer­ent story, and Chaim Sou­tine’s La Soubrette (1933), ac­quired by the Ben Uri in 2012 with the help of funds and donors. The sub­ject’s down­cast eyes in­di­cate the re­straint of a maid­ser­vant, but per­haps also a more Jewish irony. Or Mark Gertler’s 1914 sepia Rebbe and Reb­bet­zin warmly show­ing the round­ness and so­lid­ity of their lives to­gether.

But some of th­ese painterly friends of­fer a more dif­fi­cult mes­sage. For in­stance, Marc Cha­gall’s Apoca­lypse en Li­las, Capriccio (1945), fea­tur­ing the cru­ci­fied Christ, naked but for his talit, watched by a grin­ning man with a mous­tache and swastika arm­band. Or, even more dra­matic, Em­manuel Levy’s Cru­ci­fix­ion, an Ex­pres­sion­ist car­i­ca­ture of an Ortho­dox Jew on the cross an­grily in­vok­ing his God and sur­rounded by crosses.

The Ben Uri gallery, sit­u­ated in North West Lon­don is in its cen­te­nary year. My first en­counter with it was on the top floor of a syn­a­gogue in Dean Street, its one-time home, whose bright and airy vis­tas en­cour­aged you to spend hours gaz­ing at the works on show. Vi­brant paint­ings like Mark Gertler’s Merry Go Round, (since sold to the Tate) — cre­ated well be­fore the Nazis came to power but its mes­sage shows at least one rider bear­ing a prophetic re­sem­blance to Hitler.

Th­ese paint­ings — vi­o­lent, del­i­cate, trans­for­ma­tive, sur­real, sym­bol­ist — are among the 1,300 works of art painted by 380 Jewish artists from 35 coun­tries dur­ing times of fam­ily joy, fear, per­se­cu­tion, es­cape and mar­tyr­dom.

Many artists rep­re­sent a Jewish his­tory blighted even be­fore the Nazis banned their work as de­gen­er­ate, and are now in what the Ben Uri calls its “hid­den col­lec­tion”, hid­den be­cause there is re­ally nowhere for them to go.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, as in its cur­rent cen­te­nary ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don’s Som­er­set House, the Ben Uri has a chance to show some of its col­lec­tion. This one is called Out Of Chaos, be­cause so many of th­ese great works were cre­ated dur­ing the most di­vi­sive and dan­ger­ous pe­ri­ods of Jewish life. Yet, in a time of pogroms or death camps, the gifts of th­ese re­mark­able artists flour­ished. Many Fac­ing page: Marc Cha­gall’s were in the van­guard of con­tem­po­rary art.

David Glasser, Ben Uri chair­man de­scribes the works as a “snap­shot of less than five per cent of this won­der­ful but hid­den col­lec­tion”. The Ben Uri does its best to bring out some of the works in ex­hi­bi­tions, on its web­site and in na­tional ed­u­ca­tion pro­gramme, but the real tragedy is that there is no home large enough to dis­play them. And yet they present the true land­marks of Jewish his­tory,

And it is not just his­tory. The art is con­tem­po­rary, too. For ex­am­ple, among the work on show at Som­er­set House are two pieces cre­ated in 2008 with a fem­i­nist mes­sage: So­phie Robert­son’s dig­i­tal pho­to­graph, Rage, show­ing a young woman scream­ing while lac­ing her­self into a corset and Jac­que­line Ni­cholls’s Ma­ter­nal To­rah, sim­ply depict­ing a corset.

From its mi­nus­cule gallery in Lon­don’s Bound­ary Road, the Ben Uri of­fers a mes­sage of in­clu­sive­ness. In the ex­hi­bi­tion pro­gramme, Glasser ded­i­cates the ex­hi­bi­tion to all the im­mi­grant artists who came to Bri­tain in the 20th Cen­tury. There is a rea­son for this. The Gallery it­self was founded in 1915 in Lon­don’s East End with 80 works. Many fa­mous Jewish artists now in the Ben Uri col­lec­tion were first ex­hib­ited in the Whitechapel Art Gallery, home to many im­mi­grant artists, and the Whitechapel Boys, as they were known, helped found Bri­tish Modernism. They in­cluded Ja­cob Ep­stein, Ja­cob Kramer — whose Day of Atone­ment is also on show at Som­er­set House — Isaac Rosen­berg and Al­fred Wol­mark.

Glasser is al­ways keen to stress the uni­ver­sal as well as the Jewish as­pects of the col­lec­tion. “In 1994,” he says,” Dean Street’s au­di­ence was al­most 100 per cent Jewish — in 2014, at Bound­ary Road its au­di­ence was di­verse and less than 20 per cent Jewish, as it is es­tab­lished within the na­tional and in­ter­na­tional mu­seum sec­tor”.

Keep­ing th­ese trea­sures hid­den not only de­prives present and fu­ture Jewish com­mu­ni­ties of their im­por­tant her­itage, but re­turns them, in the dark­ness of stor­age, to the dark and har­row­ing past in which so many were cre­ated. Glasser has been res­o­lute and con­sis­tent in his long bat­tle for a per­ma­nent Lon­don home for th­ese trea­sures.

It is noth­ing less than shame­ful that not all the wealth of the com­mu­nity can pro­vide a suit­able gallery for them.

And yet grand-scale Jewish phi­lan­thropy is ev­i­dent in Bri­tain’s ma­jor art in­sti­tu­tions.

The Clore Gallery at Tate Bri­tain houses the world’s largest Turner col­lec­tion, a tra­di­tion of arts donor­ship fol­lowed by Sir Charles Clore’s daugh­ter Dame Vivien Duffield . There are wings and rooms in art gal­leries and mu­se­ums all over Bri­tain named for Sir Harry and Lady Djano­gly who promi­nently sup­ported the Na­tional Gallery, the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, the Royal Academy and the Bri­tish Mu­seum, as well as help­ing de­velop the Jewish Mu­seum. Tate Mod­ern has named its Level 3 East gallery in hon­our of the Is­raeli ship­ping mag­nate Eyal Ofer, who do­nated £10 mil­lion to sup­port Tate Mod’s new de­vel­op­ment. But, al­though th­ese phi­lan­thropists have not ne­glected Jewish causes, An­glo Jewry’s ma­jor art gallery is left in the cold.

In a film about the Ben Uri cur­rently show­ing at Som­er­set House, Sir Ni­cholas Serota, di­rec­tor of the Tate Gal­leries and a former di­rec­tor of the Whitechapel Gallery, en­dorses the Ben Uri’s need for a cen­tral Lon­don lo­ca­tion to en­gage large, di­verse au­di­ences, and says this can­not be achieved in the sub­urbs. But David Glasser has his sights on wider hori­zons. See­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of se­cur­ing fi­nance for a Jewish gallery, he would be happy to find an area of 60,000 sq ft in which to share the Jewish émi­gré ex­pe­ri­ence with other im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. This, he says, will ac­cess an au­di­ence of four mil­lion rather than the 150,000 drawn from the do­mes­tic Jewish com­mu­nity.

But isn’t this our story? And if it hap­pens, will it come at the ex­pense of Jewish art? While it is a great idea to share our sto­ries with oth­ers, surely the is­sue of Jewish art is piv­otal to our own Jewish im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence. Any­thing less will I fear, sell us short.

The prove­nance of the Ben Uri Gallery is es­sen­tially Jewish. Can no one come to its res­cue?

GES IMA TY ET G : O T O H P PH OT O : G E T Y I M A G E S

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