Ben Uri Gallery’s centenary exhibition features the best Chaïm Soutine in the UK — the violently tactile representation of a weary, wary maid, “La Soubrette” (1933), in white apron — and a rare Marc Chagall, “Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio” (1945). Frank Auerbach’s bright, architectonic 21st-century summer landscape, “Mornington Crescent” (2004), greets you as you arrive; German impressionist Max Liebermann’s old-age self-portrait, caught between pomp, anxiety and resignation, pulls you into a gallery evoking Berlin on the cusp of catastrophe. Back in Britain, David Bomberg’s cubist-inspired “Ghetto Theatre” (1920) celebrates one ethnic minority, while Eva Frankfurther’s kitchen-sink realist “West Indian Waitresses” (1955), set in a Lyons Corner House, depicts the stoicism and dignity of another.

All these artists are Jewish, but so what? Can art be defined by race or religion, especially when the greatest Jewish artists have been determinedly secular? And can the museum which owns these fine works reinvent itself for our global, multicultural age?

Out of Chaos, on display at Somerset House in London, marks the founding in July 1915 of what was then “The Jewish National Decorative Art Association (London), Ben Ouri”, in the East End of the city (today Ben Uri’s own, much smaller, premises are in north London). The most fascinating thing about this show is the conflicted, jumbled, multiple identity of the collection, which tells at least three stories.

First, it celebrates art’s power to bear witness, as key elements of Jewish experience unravel across 100 years. Warsaw-born Alfred Wolmark’s “Sabbath Afternoon” (1910), set in a still London interior but with the window open to draw in the wider world, is about difference yet assimilation. Victor Hageman painted the dark frieze of apprehensive passengers, “The Emigrants”, for the Speth family, who owned the Red Star Line ships taking many Jews to America. Chana Kowalska’s naive, folkish “Shtetl” (1934) records the last days of eastern European village life. Persecution (Leo Haas’s drawing of children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp) and memory (“The Ghost Town”, Holocaust survivor Shmuel Dresner’s 1982 collage of ripped, burnt books) are leitmotifs of the collection.

Second, Ben Uri offers an incomplete but eye-opening showcase of European Jewish achievement. It ranges from Soviet conceptualists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, whose “Big Bang” (2004) considers the relationship between mysticism and science via symbols of swastika, Star of David, Malevich’s black square, to Berlin Secessionist painter Lesser Ury, rival to Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner in his fleeting 1920s urban panoramas such as “Berlin Street Scene”, peopled by angular fashionistas highlighted against a rainy grey background.

Third and more comprehensive is the unfolding of Jewish contribution to and integration (or not) into British culture. This strand begins here with homosexual painter Simeon Solomon, whose arrest in a public lavatory in 1873 ended his professional career. Ben Uri’s dreamlike charcoal portraits of an imaginary young man, “The Rabbi”, and the delicate androgynous heads “Night Looking upon Sleep her Beloved Child” date from his last years, when he was variously alcoholic, pavement artist, asylum patient and Catholic convert.

Solomon died in 1905; within a decade the Whitechapel Boys of the next generation, raised by eastern European immigrant parents, became England’s most innovative artists. Ben Uri’s trophy work here was for decades — until it was sold in 1984 to Tate, which now loans it back — Mark Gertler’s glowing, anti-war “Merry-Go-Round” (1916). Under bullet-shaped clouds a vertiginous tilting carousel of metallic blue horses whirls unendingly, the mouths of its riders — uniformed sailors, soldiers and their sweethearts — open in a constant scream of terror.

This and Bomberg’s “Racehorses” (1913) are futurist masterpieces which brought early European modernism to Britain. A similar pattern was repeated in the 1930s with the influx and influence of German and Polish artists such as Martin Bloch (the high-colour, compressed landscape “Svendborg Harbour, Denmark”, painted on the run from Nazi Germany) and Josef Herman (the hallucinatory “Refugees”, where a giant black cat dangles a mouse over a family fleeing hallucinatory, moonlit Warsaw).

That expressive strand is pronounced in paintings by the great postwar artists — Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, Joash Woodrow — of what used to be called Anglo-Jewry. The term is now embarrassingly quaint yet irreplaceable in describing a milieu at the intersection between the British establishment and outsider status, with continuing European inflection. When, for example, Lady Caroline Blackwood took Freud to an aristocratic party in the early 1950s, Randolph Churchill, British MP and son of Winston, shouted to the assembled guests that the house was “turning . . . into a bloody synagogue”.

Have Jewish artists traditionally been responsive to radical currents because they have felt outside the mainstream? Bomberg died ignored, in absolute poverty; Gertler committed suicide; Woodrow was a recluse. Or does Jewish art tend to the expressive because collective Jewish experience has been so dislocated and tragic?

Having pondered the question for years while writing a biography of Chagall, I still don’t know what, if anything, makes Jewish art Jewish. And it is to Ben Uri’s credit that no clear-cut answers are suggested to interpret a collection which is at once haphazard yet resonant of, though not restricted by, something like an ethnic sensibility.

That disappears in the contemporary work concluding the exhibition: Rachel Garfield’s documentary You’re Joking, Aren’t You? about racial prejudice against blacks, gypsies and Jews; Nirveda Alleck’s video, Perfect Match, about a boxing contest, addressing African stereotyping; photographs by Israeli artists; Jacqueline Nicholls’ merging of a corset and prayer scroll “Maternal Torah” alongside Sophie Robertson’s fashion shots of a woman by turns howling at a corset and revelling in a pearl necklace.

Eva Frankfurther’s ‘West Indian Waitresses’ (c1955)
Eva Frankfurther’s ‘West Indian Waitresses’ (c1955)

Most of this is easy, obvious, too politically correct to be interesting, and random — not all these artists are Jewish. Clearly, for cultural and demographic reasons — London’s Jewish population was 172,000 in 1911, 289,000 in 1951, 149,000 in 2011 — Ben Uri needs to go beyond its Jewish roots to survive. In a London where 37 per cent of people were born outside the UK, Ben Uri’s mission today to become a museum “for everyone” of “Art Identity Migration” feels right. In 1922’s Ulysses, James Joyce made his modern flâneur Leopold Bloom a Jew, and perhaps Jewish experience of rootlessness, integration, cultural difference yet belonging, remains a useful template.

But Ben Uri must grasp that nettle boldly. It is seeking to leave its St John’s Wood premises for a more spacious central London location. This will give scope to show not only Israeli artists — though an exhibition of how Israel’s visual art has reflected its changing society in the past 60 years would be a marvellous British first — but the story of the Palestinian diaspora, of the Arab Image Foundation, of Jewish-Arab co-operative projects. If Ben Uri seizes such provocative opportunities, it will truly become a must-see museum for everyone, as well as building on the distinguished collection here.

‘Out of Chaos, Ben Uri: 100 Years in London’, Somerset House, London, to December 13.

Photographs: Ben Uri Collection. Chagall and Soutine: Ben Uri Collection/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

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