Jewish tradition and modernism. Home and continuity. Homelessness and dislocation. Tension was built into the history of Ben Uri from the very beginning. The gallery was founded in 1915, at the crossroads of two very different moments. The first was the wave of Jewish immigrants from east Europe and Russia, arriving in Britain at the turn of the century. The Ben Uri became one of a number of Jewish cultural institutions that emerged at this time (along with The London Jewish Hospital Committee – 1907, The Arbeter Ring or Workmen’s Circle – 1909, The Feinman Yiddish People’s Theatre – 1912, and the newspaper Di Tsayt – 1913). As David Mazower writes in the Ben Uri centenary catalogue, “The ‘Jewish ghetto’ of Whitechapel and Stepney came of age in the 1900s and 1910s…. The Jewish East End of 1915 was a much more self-confident and assertive place than it had been a generation before with new newspapers, bookstores, charitable organisations and political groups all catering for the large Yiddish-speaking population.”
The second was the heyday of high Modernism; Roger Fry had just held his two Post-Impressionist exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries (1910, 1912)—these were “equivalent,” Mark Gertler wrote later, “to the impact of the scientists of this age upon a simple student of Sir Isaac Newton.” In Paris, the École Juive was at its height. In 1913, the Armory Show brought Modernism to New York. The moment was famously summed up by Virginia Woolf: “On or about December 1910, human character changed.”
So, this was the time that the Ben Uri was founded, and a new generation of Jewish immigrant artists came of age. Known as The Whitechapel Boys, this group included David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg, Jacob Kramer, and one solitary Whitechapel Girl, Clare Winsten (born Clara Birnberg). They were remarkably homogenous: born in the early 1890s, all immigrants or the children of immigrants from the Russian Pale, all Yiddish-speaking, all grew up formed by Orthodox Judaism, and were drawn to scenes of Jewish life. Their best-known works include Gertler’s Rabbi and Rabbitzin (1914), Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre (1920), and Jacob Kramer’s Day of Atonement (1919)—all of which can be found in the Ben Uri’s collection.
What these pictures capture is the coming together of east European Jewish tradition and Modernism—tradition, in other words, with a Modernist twist. As David Bomberg told The Jewish Chronicle in an interview in May 1914, “the new life should find its expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions.” This explosion is perhaps best summed up by the refugee artist, Josef Herman, my own father, who wrote in Jewish Quarterly, “The founders and pioneers of the ‘Ben Uri’…brought with them a love for, and devotion to, the Yiddish cultural tradition which was at the time – at the turn of this century – flowering in their countries of origin. … The new writers and artists gave expression while at the same time transforming and re-evaluating that which was valuable and lasting in the past and the present.”
This generation had an astonishingly brief flowering. Rosenberg was killed in the First World War, Kramer returned to Leeds in the early 1920s, Gertler committed suicide in 1939, and the American immigrant Jacob Epstein struggled to find public commissions. In 1938, Bomberg wrote to the Ben Uri, “The Jewish artists are starving[,] none of us can work, most of us receive one form of charity or another.”
As this group waned, a second wave of immigrants—refugees from Nazi-occupied central Europe—arrived. This included German-Jewish artists like Martin Bloch, Ludwig and Else Meidner, Hans Feibusch, and Fred Uhlman, as well as east Europeans like Jankel Adler and Josef Herman, and child refugees like Lucian Freud, Frank Auaerbach and Eva Frankfurther. Although they arrived in Britain between 1933-1940, their real impact was felt after the war, especially during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. In the case of Freud and Auerbach, in particular, their greatest impact has come in the last thirty years.
What is striking is the contrast between these two groups. In both cases, there is the central importance of home, belonging and dislocation, between traditional Jewish subjects and Modernism or Expressionism. But if the tension between tradition and Modernism is overt in the work of the Whitechapel Boys, the work of the later refugees is dominated by absence, the lack of Jewish images, as well as the war and the Holocaust as subjects. It is a completely different kind of art. Of course, this isn’t to say there aren’t pictures of the war or the Holocaust—Adler’s Two Orphans (1942) and Herman’s Refugees (c1941) are two such examples. However, the larger story is of absence, which then explodes in powerful ways in the post-war work of artists like Freud, Auerbach, and the British-born Leon Kossoff, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants: deep layers of paint, lonely figures, desolate London landscapes, dark, thick swirls of charcoal on paper. What this difference shows is that questions of identity and belonging are complex and far from straightforward.
The Ben Uri provided a home for two generations of immigrant and refugee artists. These talents are at the heart of its extraordinary collection, the only institution of its kind in Europe. As the Ben Uri looks forward, it looks to reinvent itself, finding a new identity by building bridges with new immigrant groups who are already transforming contemporary British art.
Out of Chaos; Ben Uri: 100 Years in London, 2 July – 18 December 2015, Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS