Ben Uri Gallery Explores 100 Years Of Emigre Artists At Somerset House

The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum started life as an Art Society founded by Jewish émigrés in London’s Whitechapel 1915 and is the oldest Jewish cultural organisation in the UK.  To mark its centenary the gallery is staging a celebratory exhibition in Somerset House (2 July-13 December 2015). 

The original Art Society was founded in order to provide support for Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant artists and craftsmen who were working outside the cultural mainstream. It gave support to artists such as David Bomberg, Jacob Epstein, Jacob Kramer, Mark Gertler amongst others who were new to Britain and were trying to find their way as artists.  Over the years the Ben Uri has amassed a collection of over 1300 works, spanning 120 years by over 380 artists who originate from 35 countries across four continents.  During its formative years Ben Uri moved frequently within the East End and to and from the West End and in the year 2000 was awarded museum status. The exhibition sets out to reflect its 100 years old history and to identify its new strategy as London’s first Museum of Art Identity and Migration.

On the year’s hottest day so far, it was a welcome relief to visit the cooler lower ground floor Inigo rooms within Somerset House. Many of the works are familiar to me as my first job after graduation was cataloguing the collection when the Ben Uri was housed on the fourth floor of a building in Dean Street that is now the Soho Theatre.  Others have been acquired subsequently.  The exhibition is organised chronologically and thematically covering integration and identity; conflict and Modernism; forced journeys; Postwar, 2001-the Present and finally The Future.  The selected works, dating from the 19th century to the present, all portray a very personal history from the depiction of Jewish rituals, attempted assimilation and trying to make sense of their new world and situations within Britain.  The enrichment these émigré artists gave to our Modern British art is immeasurable.  The passion for their subjects and energetic expressionist styles and sense of colour brought a European sensibility to Britain.   Each face tells a long story of its own: from the Romantic Pre-Raphaelite Simeon Solomon; the Eastern European couple in Sabbath Afternoon earnestly continuing their rituals with the Industrial East End smoking out of the window behind them; Victor Hageman’s The Emigrants depicting three generations of one family forced to leave their home and embark on an unknown journey; the devout worshippers in Jacob Kramer’s Day of Atonement and Clara Klinghoffer’s distinctive portrait of Orovida Pissarro – granddaughter of Camille. The section of works that have the most lasting effect on me is the room that explores the rise of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’ group of artists in the period just before, during and after the First World War – the centrepiece of which is Mark Gertler’s Merry Go Round 1916.  Now owned by the Tate, (it used to hang above my desk when I worked at Ben Uri) it shows the nightmare of war with soldiers, sailors and their sweethearts travelling in an endless circle, unable to dismount, mouths open in silent screams painted in violent orange and blues with a tilted composition. David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre shows a weary audience in drab colours, their unanimated faces expressing a weariness of life despite the setting of the otherwise lively Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel where the classics were performed in Yiddish.

The exhibition widens its scope to cover the issue of identity and migration in general especially during the era of Nazi Germany. This includes a stunning self-portrait by Max Lieberman from 1927; a watercolour and ink drawing by Georg Grosz shows the brutal handling of his friend Eric Muhsam the anarchist Jewish writer and a rare early painting by Josef Herman of refugees complete with facial details and strongly influenced by Chagall with its dominant blue colour.

The influence of the Whitechapel boys continues through the work of Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, who both studied under Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic. Kossoff’s powerful charcoal portrai of N M Seedo continues the Expressionistic trend while Auerbach’s vibrant scene of Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II bears his familiar heavy impasto palette with strong yellows and blues and is a welcome addition to the Ben Uri collection having been acquired in 2004.

The exhibition concludes with film, video installations and photography as represented by artists from other nationalities in line with the museum’s new direction. However, the celebratory history of Jewish immigrant artists is unique to Ben Uri and I’m not convinced that widening the collection and education programmes to encompass ‘fellow minority communities’, as Chairman David Glasser says in the catalogue’s introduction, is the direction to follow.

 Words/Photos: Sara Faith © artlyst 2015

Watch 100 Years Of The Ben Uri Collection @ Somerset House

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