EXHIBITION REVIEW: Ben Uri - Out of Chaos

By: Jessie Bond | Date 01.10.2015
Out of Chaos marks the centenary of Ben Uri, the oldest Jewish cultural organisation in the UK. Founded in 1915 by Russian Jewish émigré Lazar Berson in London’s East end, the initial aim of Ben Uri was to celebrate and encourage the study of decorative Jewish art.
Racehorses (1913), David Bomberg Ben Uri Collection © The Estate of David Bomberg
This exhibition explores the progression of Ben Uri over the last 100 years, and provides an aptly timed reflection on the impact of conflict and the displacement of people, on modern art movements in the capital and beyond.

The exhibition starts at the turn of the century, with paintings depicting domestic interiors; a reoccurring subject through which the preservation and continuation of Jewish traditions was celebrated. Samuel Hirszenburg’s large canvas Sabbath Rest (1894), one of Ben Uri’s earliest acquisitions, depicts three generations of a family gathered to keep the Sabbath. In contrast, The Breakfast Table (1921), by Solomon J. Solomon, shows an opulent English drawing room. Two candlesticks on the mantelpiece are the only reference to Solomon’s Jewish origins, signalling integration into British social life.

The emergence of the Whitechapel Boys coincided with the beginnings of Ben Uri, and works from this group are a highlight of the exhibition. The influence of cubism and futurism on nascent British modernism, as well as the devastating impact of the First World War are seen through the selection of paintings and drawings on display. In David Bomberg’s Racehorses (1913), the influence of Eadweard Muybridge’s photography can be seen, as well as beginnings of the Vortocist style. Bomberg enlisted in 1915, and his later painting Ghetto Theatre (1920), reflects the impact of his time in the trenches. His depiction of the lively Whitechapel Pavilion Theatre is claustrophobic, with the audience made up of blank, mask-like faces.

Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round (1916), on loan from the Tate, is an obvious centrepiece. Given to Ben Uri in 1945, the painting was sold in 1984 to raise funds to ensure the future of the organisation. Merry-Go-Round depicts uniformed soldiers, sailors and their sweethearts, trapped on a carousel. Their mouths are opened as if to scream, yet their faces are oddly expressionless, creating a nightmarish analogy for the inescapability of war. This sits alongside Issac Rosenberg’s more humble, yet poignant Self-portrait in Steel Helmet (1916) made on a scrap of paper in the trenches. Rosenberg was killed on patrol in 1918 and this is his final self-portrait.

Inevitably the impact of the Second World War and the forced migration caused by the Holocaust is a recurrent theme in many of the later works. Both artworks made during the Second World War and many decades after are displayed, making a compelling survey of responses to conflict, persecution and exile, from the documentary to the satirical. Key works include George Grosz’s The Interrogation (1938) and The Lecture (Letter to an Anti Semite) (1935), which express a caustic rage against anti-Semitism. Works such as Refugees (c.1941) by Josef Herman and Terezín-Theresienstadt (Children on the Way to Auschwitz) (1945/66) by Leo Haas explicitly depict deportation, whilst others, such as Girl Behind Barbed Wire (c.1940) by Alfred Lonitz, offer an insight into the internment of German speakers seeking exile in Britain.

Alongside the selected artworks, fascinating archival material illuminates the journey taken by Ben Uri over the last century. This includes: copies of Renesans from 1920, the first Yiddish language literary and art historical magazine to be published in the UK; a copy of the catalogue for Degenerate Art, an exhibition held in Nazi Germany in 1937, many artists from which have been shown at Ben Uri or feature in the collection; exhibition invites, including a hand painted invitation card by Sonia Delaunay; and photographs of exhibition private views and the Ben Uri Orchestra performing in the gallery in the 1960s.

In recent years, the aims of Ben Uri have shifted to more broadly represent art, identity and migration. This expansion also applies to media, with photography and video playing an important role. Photographs showcased in the exhibition range from Dorothy Bohm’s almost abstract Torn Poster, Southbank, London (1990) to the more reportage Homesh Evacuation #01/Taken Down (2007) by Natan Dvir. A video by Rachel Garfield, You’re Joking, Aren’t You? (2005), explores attitudes towards migrants in London. The monologue delivered straight to camera, creates an insightful account of prejudices faced by the contemporary émigré community, proving that the work of Ben Uri is as necessary now as it was 100 years ago.


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