On the Ben Uri Gallery

by Barendina Smedley

There is something distinctive and, yes, slightly thrilling about the sound made by an auction house catalogue being pushed awkwardly through the letter-box then falling, cushioned by its soft plastic envelope, onto the worn-out coir matting beneath. And indeed, this morning I was glad to discover a Sotheby’s catalogue arriving in just such a way.

It was only when I extracted the pleasingly bulky softback catalogue from its plastic that I felt a lurch of alarm.

The cover image was, surely, David Bomberg’s great [Woman] At The Window (1919). It’s a work that’s been in the Ben Uri collection since 1920. I last encountered it in the brilliant Bomberg show that took place earlier this year at Pallant House in Chichester, organised in conjunction with the Ben Uri Gallery. Leafing quickly though the catalogue, which relates to a sale in late November, it became apparent that several other familiar images from the Pallant House show were also there in the catalogue, not least the luminous Mount Zion with the Church of the Dormition: Moonlight (1923), acquired by the Ben Uri Gallery in 1928.

As you may have gathered from what I have just written, the Pallant House Bomberg show depended heavily on the Ben Uri Gallery — as indeed would, by necessity, any serious Bomberg retrospective. But so did the William Roberts show at Pallant House a couple of years ago. So did the Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Whitechapel Boys’ show in 2009. So do quite a lot of exhibitions dealing with British modernism, if only because several of Britain’s best modern artists have been Jews, and for more than a century, the Ben Uri Gallery existed to encourage and support the work of Jewish artists in Britain.

The Ben Uri Art Society was founded in 1915 in London’s East End. It was created by a Jewish immigrant, Lazar Berson, as an exhibition and selling space for Jewish artists who often faced discrimination and exclusion from more well-established art galleries and institutions. Surprisingly, perhaps, the funding came not from Britain’s well-established and active Jewish philanthropists, but from much more recent arrivals from the Yiddish-speaking Pale of Settlement, contributing their hard-earned pennies towards the idea of a Jewish museum.

Slightly later, the organisation — named after the craftsman who is believed to have built the Ark of the Covenant — also took to buying work by Jewish artists. Over the years, it has amassed a collection of some 1,300 works, including not only masterpieces by well-known artists such as David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, but also important work by artists whose work is neither so well understood nor appreciated. There is an excellent short essay about the history of the Ben Uri Gallery in the front of the Sotheby’s catalogue I mentioned earlier, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in learning more.

As late as 2002, the Ben Uri Gallery was happy to be labeled ‘The London Jewish Museum of Art’. More recently, however, the Ben Uri Gallery has chosen to re-invent itself as a showcase for displaced or émigré artists in general, rather than for Jewish artists in particular. This shift in branding is very emphatic. On their website, for instance, the organisers of the Ben Uri Gallery announce that ‘We hold Europe’s only collection principally dedicated to emigre artists whether refugees or immigrants by choice or as more often as a result of terror. This unique collection comprises of over 1300 works by over 400 artists from 40 countries of birth.’

And in the last few days, the Ben Uri Gallery, discontented with its current Boundary Road site and having struggled to find a new base in central London, has announced an even more significant development. David Glasser, the organisation’s executive chairperson, explained that they now plan to get rid of half the existing collection — 700 works. Some of the works will be auctioned, while others will be given away to organisations that can derive a ‘meaningful public benefit’ from them. The idea is to fund, among other things, an initiative to use art as a means of managing dementia, and also to give the Ben Uri Gallery’s award-winning study centre a stronger online presence.

Mr Glasser went on to say that the Ben Uri Gallery was no longer distinctive enough. He told the Guardian that there is no real demand today for ‘a Jewish institution for a Jewish public about Jewish artists’. He does, however, feel certain that there was a pressing need for an organisation exploring and championing immigrant artists. And so that is the route that the re-invented Ben Uri Gallery will take.

I suppose, at one level, this ought to be a cause for celebration. Heaven knows the story of British, or perhaps specifically English art, has always been, to an almost humorous degree, the story of emigré achievement — England as net importers of cultural labour. To think of historic English portraiture, for instance, is to conjure up a roll-call of artists from elsewhere. Holbein, Mytens, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller, Winterhalter, Tissot, Sargent, Orpen, Annigoni, Freud, Rego — literally not one of these was English by birth, yet each is central to how many of us imagine various periods of English history. And that’s not even including Rubens, Hollar, van de Velde the younger, Pissarro, Sickert, Kapoor — I could play this game all day, and I’m not even an actual art historian.

So today, living as we do in a climate where our own Prime Minister has vowed to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigration (always presumed to be ‘illegal’ until proven otherwise, especially for those from unfashionable religious backgrounds) — a climate in which previously fairly benign politicians have been queuing up to say that we all need to listen more respectfully to those UKIP / AfD / Trumpian ‘concerns about immigration’, which often sounds like code for something else — it’s more important than ever to insist on the contribution made by immigrants to our national cultural life.

At that level, it is hard not to salute the Ben Uri Gallery’s change of mission. It should also be said that there are manifestly diaspora communities here in the UK that are very badly understood, where they are noticed at all, by mainstream British cultural consumers. There are almost certainly artists out there who face the same informal barriers to success — lack of the right connections, more or less conscious racism, or simply incomprehension — faced by Bomberg, Gertler and their contemporaries at the time when the Ben Uri organisation was first developed. There’s certainly a logic in updating the remit of the Gallery to take account of this. The idea of using art as a way of working with dementia patients also sounds very worthwhile.

And yet there is something that makes me a bit queasy about the change, and I think it’s worth mentioning that, too.

My first experience of the Ben Uri Gallery came in 2001, when the organisation was undergoing one of its periodic episodes of homelessness, and so ended up putting on a major loan show in the Bond Street rooms of Philips the auctioneers (now Bonhams). There’s a catalogue that commemorates this show, called The Ben Uri Story. I went along, however, not because I was interested in the Ben Uri Story per se, but because I had recently fallen head-over-heels in love with the work of Frank Auerbach, some of which was apparently included in the exhibition.

I should also add that I went along to the exhibition harbouring all sorts of doubts about its basic premise. Yes, I loved Auerbach’s work — but I loved it because of its hard-won, handmade, slightly painful quality, because of everything I had read about his practice, everything I’d read about him. And it has to be said that, at least in what I had read at the time, Auerbach had not given the impression of being a particularly ‘Jewish’ artist. Which is to say, he seemed to me then, based on what I had read, to be someone who had made a very conscious effort to turn his back on his own horrific, heartbreaking, literally tragic family story, someone with no interest in religious or ethnic labels, someone to be appreciated as an entirely unique individual, defined in his own terms, encountered in a sort of neutral zone of pure aesthetic appreciation. (Let’s all pause to remember that this was 17 years ago, and one shouldn’t have to apologise for learned a few things as the years go by, eh?) But anyway, I was by no means convinced that it was in any way useful for me to view Auerbach through the prism of his Judaism.

The Ben Uri show convinced me otherwise.

It was, first and foremost, a very strong exhibition. It included work by some very well-known artists, notably Bomberg, who — along with de Kooning, although I realise this is a niche perspective and don’t want to get into a fight about it right now — has to be understood to get much sense out of Auerbach’s achievement. But it also included work by artists I’d never encountered, dealing in some cases with strands of subject matter about which I knew absolutely nothing. I’m not Jewish, my family background isn’t Jewish, and so gaining access to the incredibly rich and varied treasure-trove of Judaic culture and tradition remains an ongoing project, if a very rewarding one. And it did, in the end, tell me quite a lot about Auerbach that I didn’t know already.

Because that’s the logic of pulling together an exhibition, or indeed a major collection, of Jewish art — the result ends up providing commentary on all the choices made, the roads taken or not taken, the many strategies available when it came to confronting a century that included, among quite a lot of other events, the attempted obliteration of Europe’s Jewish population and that diverse, evolving, complicated culture.

The Ben Uri Story included all sorts of things. It included images of traditional, orthodox Judaism which probably would have embarrassed the younger, trendier, more secular and assimilated artists of the Great War era — the sort who were hanging out at the Slade, creating a central strand of British modernism. It included fewer Holocaust references than I had expected, perhaps suggesting that for many — Auerbach perhaps included — the enormity of what had been done to the Jews, to humanity, took more than a little time to confront, to process, to find its way intelligibly into the language of the visual arts, perhaps because it was a bigger and more terrible thing than I, a non-Jew although an immigrant myself, could easily comprehend. It included reminders that ‘normal’ things — enjoying the beauty of flowers, the proximity of a lover’s naked body, the effect of light on landscape — were and are also part of being Jewish. It spoke, if indirectly, to the argument made by antisemitic bigots like Munnings that modernism was intrinsically non-English, which was, by implication, why Jews were always at the forefront of it. The exhibition served, finally, as a helpful hint that different Jewish artists define their Judaism in many ways — often, as in Bomberg’s case, changing sharply over the course of a lifetime — and that as such, my own understanding of Auerbach’s Judaism might be naive, shallow and due for a bit of eventual revision. (This book helped.)

In any event, I left the exhibition realising that the Ben Uri Gallery had done a very good thing by showing those hundred paintings from their collection in the way that they did. And in the years that have followed, I have felt grateful for Ben Uri loans to countless other shows, the organisation’s scholarship and enthusiasm. Articles about the forthcoming sale keep emphasising, for some reason, that the Ben Uri Gallery is a ‘small’ gallery. Well, if so, they always managed to punch massively above their weight.

So I am sad, in a way, that such a unique, important collection is being broken up and dispersed. Of course, ‘de-acquisitioning’ happens a lot, and needn’t always be a bad thing, either. There is little point in holding on to thousands of works that are never shown, or locking up value in unwanted work while not having enough cash to pursue some central institutional mission.

I am not sure, however, that either of these applies in the case of the Ben Uri Gallery. Nor am I entirely convinced by Mr Glasser’s explanation, although perhaps I simply misunderstand it.

First of all, is it really right that there is no real demand today for ‘a Jewish institution for a Jewish public about Jewish artists’? As mentioned above, I’m not a Jew — I’m an Anglican Christian, albeit not a particularly orthodox one — but I’m nonetheless conscious of having benefited enormously from the Ben Uri Gallery. Nor am I certain that Jewish artists no longer need encouragement, support and inspiration — a point to which I’ll return in a moment.

Does Mr Glasser really feel, for instance, that there was ‘no demand’ for the David Bomberg exhibition which the Ben Uri Gallery arranged in conjunction with Pallant House? Or for the William Roberts show at the same venue, to which the Ben Uri Gallery made generous loans? Both exhibitions got brilliant reviews in a variety of publications and were also full to bursting when I visited. Many of the reviews explicitly noted that only now was Bomberg really achieving the reputation that this cantankerous, stubborn, deeply intelligent man has for so long deserved. The work of the Ben Uri Gallery is part of what made that development possible. Does that not seem a worthwhile achievement? Yet once the Sotheby’s sale in November is finished, it will no longer be possible for the Ben Uri Gallery to make as strong a case for Bomberg as they did earlier this year. That seems to me, anyway, a backward step.

And then there are the lesser artists, the non-superstars. It is true, of course, that their work, shown in the right context, tells us a great deal about the experiences, interests, influences and personalities of a variety of Jewish artists working in Britain from the late nineteenth century onwards. But it is also true that tastes change, reputations shift, the paintings that were most fascinating ten years ago aren’t always the ones that make an important show in ten years’ time.

We happen to own a near-abstract painting by a Whitechapel artist, born in Galicia (her village is now in Ukraine) but an emigrant to London, named Clare (or sometimes Clara) Wisten. Wisten is not, it must be said, particularly well-known. Yet she was a contemporary of Bomberg, studying with him at the Slade, and pushing on the boundaries of representational art every bit as firmly, passionately and powerfully as he did. As a woman, however, and as an actual immigrant — Bomberg, in contrast, was born in Birmingham, albeit to immigrant parents — she faced even greater challenges to the success of her career than did her male contemporaries. What happened to her, and why is she not a big name? Increasingly, audiences want to hear these sorts of stories, and to learn more about the figures that mainstream art history has for too long neglected. One of the best references to Clare Wisten in print is a very fine essay in a Ben Uri (of course) publication about Isaac Rosenberg, another friend and colleague of Wisten’s. But will the new Ben Uri still care about stories like this, so deeply embedded in the stuff of their older remit — and will they still have the pictures necessary to tell those stories? Will they still bother with initiatives like the exhibition of their work hosted by the German embassy in London, commemorating German artists in exile in Great Britain, 1933-1945? The drawing they use to illustrate this latter event is one that has been included in the Sotheby’s sale.

The Sotheby’s sale is, by the way, expected to raise up to £2 million. In some sense, of course, this is a huge amount of money — but it terms of art, or London property, it isn’t very much at all. And against this, the Ben Uri organisers will have to balance the concerns they have, surely, now raised in the minds of donors and supporters. What is the point of giving to an organisation when its rationale is capable of shifting in such a dramatic way?

I should probably add at this point that I am sure the people responsible for making these difficult decisions regarding the Ben Uri Gallery’s future have thought deeply about what they are doing, explored all the alternatives, devoted far more time and energy to these questions than some casual recipient of this Sotheby’s catalogue will ever do. Almost certainly, they are doing the right thing. There are plenty of institutional responses that look misguided if one doesn’t know all the facts. It is very easy to second-guess other people’s choices. Many of the most resilient institutions out there change constantly, which is what allows them to thrive and expand and develop.

And yet the Sotheby’s catalogue, sitting here on the kitchen table in front of me, still makes me feel a bit queasy.

It will, no doubt, be a great experience to see these works all hung at the Bond Street auction rooms. Not least, seeing a work hung for sale is always a bit different from seeing it in a normal exhibition. It’s possible to get right up close to the paint surfaces, to touch, to ask serious questions. A different sort of critical faculty engages, keener and more intimate. And I am also fascinated to see how the Ben Uri Gallery gets on with their new set of projects, and of course wish them well in all that they do.

It’s probably just an accident of timing. Last Saturday’s murder of eleven entirely ordinary, slightly elderly, Jewish Americans, shot dead in their synagogue purely because they were Jews, is a hard thing to get out of my mind. One of the victims was a 97-year old lady — a ‘young spirit’ according to her rabbi. Two others, in their 50s, were mentally disabled men, by all accounts enthusiastic members of their congregation and always anxious to help, who used to enjoy welcoming visitors to shul with an open prayer-book and friendly greeting. Did they greet their murderer as he approached? Did they reach out to him, in the full kindness and generosity of their faith?

Should any of us, here in 2018, have to stop to imagine these things?

But we can, and we do. Meanwhile our Prime Minister, in her public declaration that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’, evoked, knowingly or otherwise, a very old and dangerous anti-semitic trope. The American president, denouncing ‘globalists’ in the course of a political rally, first listened warmly to shouts of ‘George Soros!’ and ‘lock him up!’, then responded by repeating ‘lock him up’! He beamed as he did so. The current Labour leadership seems unwilling or unable to reassure its Jewish members and their friends that they remain welcome within the party. And as anyone who bothers with Twitter is all too aware, even the most innocuous posts by Jews — tweeting, in general, about things that have nothing to do with Judaism — are met, in the comments underneath, with the most vile, rancid and self-confident antisemitic abuse.

I’m not a Jew, but all this frightens me.

And perhaps that’s why, almost unconsciously, the reinvention of the Ben Uri Gallery worries me a little, too. Of course, I can see that stepping away from an explicit identification with Judaism is a perfectly legitimate means of broadening the Gallery’s remit, reaching out to new generations of immigrant artists, carrying forward an ongoing project without being limited by its past definitions. That all makes sense.

But at the same time, I worry that the central issues that prompted the foundation of the Ben Uri Art Society back in 1915 haven’t gone away — that despite high-profile exhibitions and important roles for Jews within the British arts establishment, specifically Jewish art still needs protecting, defending, explaining and supporting, even here, even now, even today. And if the Ben Uri Gallery no longer see that as their central role, who will?