Today I want to turn away, very deliberately, from this assault on the civilised values I treasure and share something uplifting for the spirit, something that speaks en passant of creative responses to war and terror and hatred. Every generation faces the challenge of making something beautiful, and of lasting value, in the face of the upheavals and horrors that are always with us.
If you haven’t already seen it, can I recommend a gem of an exhibition that’s on right now in Somerset House on the Strand in London? It is sponsored by the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, and closes on 13th December, and it’s certainly worth an hour or so of your time. I want to say a few things about it because if you do visit it I can guarantee (I think) that you will come out of it feeling, in several ways, blessed. It’s called ‘Out of Chaos’ and celebrates a century of Jewish émigré life through some of the key works of the Ben Uri collection.
The Ben Uri was founded as an arts society in Whitechapel in 1915 – so it is 100 years old and they are celebrating that through this exhibition. In just half a dozen smallish rooms you journey through the last century of Jewish artistic engagement with British life and European history - and the whole of what the 20th century brought into being, for good and ill.
At the end of the 19th century there were already Anglo-Jewish artists here in the UK, exploring the themes of integration and identity; and they were joined at the turn of the century by European Jewish artists, men and women who came as immigrants to the East End of London and wanted to preserve and record Jewish traditions and Yiddish-speaking identities within this new environment. Out of this rich mix there arose the so-called ‘Whitechapel Boys’ – a group of Jewish artists who were at the cutting edge of new developments in artistic modernism. Jacob Epstein, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg (who was also a poet, and died aged 27 in the trenches) were responding to the artistic and technological revolutions that were going on throughout Europe (especially in Paris), an era which overlapped with the traumas of the First World War.
I want to share with you a couple of paintings you can find in the exhibition in the second room which focuses on the themes of this period. One is Bomberg’s Racehorses (1913)
which was met with incomprehension and hostility when it was first seen. The Jewish Chronicle, then as now an occasional bastion of unreflective prejudices, dismissed Racehorses as ‘opposed to all that is rational in art’ because it displayed ‘horses that could never possibly win races’. That’s true: the subject is as conventional as you can get, but the artist strips it of conventional detail and gives you the animals in a mechanistic whirl of frozen movement, a rush of stiff-jointed angles; these horses haven’t got four legs they have 20 legs.
Almost like a woodcut, one sees the influence of Cubism and Futurism, and of those famous photographs of horses in motion by Edweard Muybridge. What Bomberg produced here, as a precocious 22 year-old, is a dazzling avant-garde experiment in an age coming to be dominated by machines, the spirit of which suffuses the work.
Bomberg’s work influenced that of a second of those Whitechapel Boys. Let’s look at Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round (1916).
This work – now in the Tate Britain - was originally owned by the Ben Uri until it was sold by them in 1984 to guarantee the gallery’s future. It was completed in the third year of the War and captures the nightmare of the conflict: the carousel (modelled on the one on Hampstead Heath) is frozen in motion, the fairground horses carrying uniformed soldiers and sailors and their sweethearts whirls round and round, the mouths of the riders wide open in an unending scream. D.H. Lawrence called the painting ‘horrifying and terrible’ – which it is: there is horror and terror etched into the faces of these riders caught up in a dizzying endless circuit – and thought it ‘the best modern picture I have seen’; and said that Gertler had given us a ‘real and ultimate revelation’.
It stands comparison with Picasso’s Guernica as a defiantly anti-war protest – at the beginning of the War Gertler registered as a conscientious objector, though he tried to sign up later but was declared medically unfit - and in some ways it strikes me as even more powerful that Guernica because it captures the glee and helplessness with which the participants are caught up in the action. The carousel evokes both the jauntiness of the mood in which soldiers set off to do their bit for King and Country, but also the machine-like mechanical nature of the conflict. The horses’ back legs are shaped like raised rifles, the clouds are like shells falling from the sky, the red, white and blue of the British flag glow as the excitement of the War becomes the fearfulness of war and the whirligig jollity merges into the frozen screams from which no-one can escape.
As Lawrence intuited, something new is being revealed here, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the artist was Jewish. This has always been part of the Jewish ‘mission’ – to look into a society from the margins and offer a commentary on what is seen. This is not always, as you can imagine, a popular position to take up. Gertler’s painting was still unsold at the time of his death in 1939. But now we can see that it is a masterpiece.
One of the things this exhibition does is to remind us of the enormous contribution Jews have made over the last 100 years to the cultural life of the nation. At a time when issues of asylum and the UK’s role in offering a welcome to refugees is at the forefront of the political agenda, spending time with some of the glories of Anglo-Jewish art , often created by Jewish immigrants and émigrés, is a salutary reminder of what so-called ‘outsiders’ can offer their host nation.
Further rooms at the exhibition offer key works by a range of British and European Jews – from Chagall to Frank Auerbach, Jacob Epstein to R.B.Kitaj, Leon Kossof and Joseph Herman to Max Liebermann – exploring issues of identity and migration during the era of Nazi Germany and the post-War period. And there is some very powerful contemporary photographs by Israeli and British Jewish artists towards the end of the exhibition.
Let me talk about just one work from the middle section of the exhibition, Joseph Herman’s ‘Refugees’ from 1941.
Herman was born in Warsaw in 1911 into a poor, working-class family. He became a graphic artist and in 1938 fled the rising tide of anti-semitism – first to Brussels and then, when the Germans invaded, he was able to get to the UK, to Glasgow where he learned quite quickly through the Red Cross that his entire family had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. He’d already started a series of works on Jewish themes and these portraits of a disappearing world darkened to include pogroms and the destruction of the Ghetto. He moved to London in 1943 where he held his first London exhibition together with a little known Northern artist called L.S.Lowry.
This painting, ‘Refugees’, was thought lost for over 60 years, and was re-discovered only after his death in 2000. It’s a haunting work and although you can see the spires of a lost moonlit snow-bound Warsaw it evokes a much wider east European story of displacement and exile - and is of course utterly contemporary. A family is on the move, carrying their bedding with them: father , mother, child and baby, their eyes wide with fear and panic. A universal story of upheaval and flight. The threatening nature of their unknown fate is symbolised by the huge cat squeezing the life out of the bloodied mouse. The cold indifference of the moon’s eye, picked up in the cat’s eye, looks down on one family - which stand for so many, then and now. It’s powerful, poignant, frightening, moving – Herman has created a deeply human work of identification with the oppressed, a humanistic and of course deeply Jewish portrait of suffering and exile and loss.
This capacity for human fellow-feeling became a dominant motif in Herman’s work: he eventually made his home in a Welsh mining village and made his name with his dignified and empathetic portraits of miners, which remain some of his best-known works.
There are nearly 70 works on show, taken from the Ben Uri collection, and each one deserves its own time and space. The Ben Uri has recently re-defined its purpose: it recognises that these Jewish themes of identity and immigration, of forced journeys and necessary integration, are part of a larger conversation in this country in which the rich contribution of immigrant cultures needs to be exhibited and celebrated. They have hosted in recent years exhibitions by African, Korean and Caribbean artists and they have a real vision of being (though they don’t put it this way) a source of blessing to other peoples, using the special nature of Jewish experience to enlighten, to educate, to inspire. If you go along to Somerset House I think you will leave this current exhibition moved and exhilarated, humbled and inspired. Don’t miss it.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London on November 14th 2105]