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?