Ben Uri at 100: Art, Immigrants, London

Blog post by Jim Ranahan Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 11th December 2015

Which historical and contemporary experiences lie behind the Ben Uri slogan ‘Art, Identity, Migration’? This blog considers the realities behind these descriptors and the ongoing importance of “Identity” in the context of art and migration.

Ben Uri Out of Chaos flyer
Advertisement for Ben Uri centenary exhibition “Out of Chaos”, 2015

Ben Uri’s centenary year has been marked by formal and informal celebrations, the centrepiece being ‘Out of Chaos; Ben Uri: 100 Years in London’, the outstandingly successful exhibition at Somerset House which closes on 13th December 2015. These celebrations reflect Ben Uri’s ethos as summarised in the phrase ‘Art, Identity, Migration’, which has recently been augmented by the strap line ‘Art, Immigrants, London’. It is appropriate at this time to consider the reality behind these descriptors and in particular the ongoing importance of ‘Identity’ in the context of art and migration.

Edwardian London provided the impetus and the inspiration for Ben Uri’s establishment. In 1915, the guiding principle of Ben Uri’s founding members was to encourage and support Jewish art and artists, with a specific focus on Yiddish identity and culture. Yiddish East London was a cultural phenomenon as unlike the Twenty First Century city, the Capital was then much less obviously varied and differences were often focused on social class and (Christian) denominational allegiances. However, the mass migrations of the 1880s onwards changed Londoners’ notions of ‘otherness’ as large numbers of strikingly ‘different’ people arrived, whose language and religion both separated them from and touched latent prejudices within elements of the host society. The cultural shock waves of a rapid visual and aural change in parts of east London cannot be under-estimated and should be considered in light of recent reactions to and experiences of large scale migrant arrivals.

blog2_BU_Corr_Berson_1916
Correspondence from the Ben Uri archives in Yiddish, 1916 – 1917

A striking feature of London’s Edwardian Yiddish community was the practice of name changes, where anglicised names were sometimes adopted in place of Yiddish or Hebrew equivalents. This was often a consequence of pressure on migrants to assimilate and reduce their state of ‘otherness’, a process which would also be prompted by self-defence in the face of local hostility to communities. This could sometimes be driven by economic pressure, where a Yiddish name would not be regarded as an asset if a trader’s target market was predominantly non-Jewish. Examples of such name changes are found amongst Ben Uri’s founding members, for instance the Honorary Secretary Judah Beach (Yehudah Pshibish) and Edward Good (surname abbreviated from Goodack). Pressure to assimilate came from both ‘mainstream’ society but also established Anglo-Jewry which had to some extent socially integrated whilst preserving religious independence.

Ben Uri’s formation was prompted in part as a reaction to this assimilation pressure and it is telling that both Beach and Good ensured that Yiddish art and culture was at the forefront of Ben Uri’s activities. Despite the committee members being fluent in English, Ben Uri’s business for many years was undertaken in the Yiddish language. Edward Good adopted the Yiddish pen-name ‘Moshe Oved’ and submitted work to Ben Uri under this pseudonym for many years.

blog3_Oved_Mosheh_Chanukiah_with_Doves
Mosheh Oved (aka. Edward Goodack or Edward Good), ‘Chanukiah with Doves’ (not dated)

blog4_Mosheh-Oved-Exhibition-flyer
Flyer for ‘An Exhibition of Sculpture by Mosheh Oved’, Foyles Art Gallery, 1952, from the Ben Uri Library

Ben Uri fulfilled a vital function for the Yiddish community in providing a focus for its art and culture, but it also widened its focus to the established Jewish community, for instance attracting Israel Zangwill and Sir William Rothenstein who lay outside the East London Yiddish heartland. Ben Uri also encouraged second generation members of that heartland to develop their own responses to living within a community placed within and alongside a largely non-Jewish society. In such ways, Ben Uri reflected and facilitated a more appropriate means of balancing migrant identity within a host society than the pressured assimilation that resulted in personal name changes.

blog5_Gertler_Rabbi_and_Rabbitzin_1987-115
Mark Gertler, ‘Rabbi and Rabbitzin’ (1914)

Throughout its existence, Ben Uri has reflected the wider and changing interests of the Jewish community as it responded to artists from various backgrounds seeking a platform for their artistic work. The traumatic experience of the Nazi persecutions and Holocaust resulted in a number of artists seeking support and encouragement. Moshe Maurer was a refugee from Antwerp in 1940, although he did not practice art until the 1950s. In 1970 Pierre Rouve observed that ‘Moshe Maurer never came to this country, though he arrived here many years ago. His heart stayed behind in a distant land’, being a reference to Maurer’s youth in Brody, a predominantly Jewish town in Russia [1]. This example of an exile’s continuing affiliation with a past existence is familiar to many refugees and in Maurer’s case is reflected in his artistic work, examples of which are held by Ben Uri.

blog7_Art_01_105_Moshe-Maurer-Exhibition-Private-View-invitation
Invitation to Private View of Moshe Maurer ‘Paintings – Gouaches’, 1957 (Archival reference no.: Art/01/105)

Ben Uri has also exhibited work by artists from across the Jewish Diaspora, reflecting a further role of Ben Uri as a beacon for non-British Jewish artists and a means of introducing their work to London based Jewish communities, such as that by Alfred Cohen. Born in Chicago in 1920 of Latvian Jewish parents, after World War Two he moved to Europe to develop his artistic skills and his first exhibition at Ben Uri was in 1958.

blog9-alfred-cohen-private-view-invite
Cover and first page of a flyer for the Ben Uri Art Gallery’s first exhibition of Alfred Cohen’s work, 1958 (Archival reference no.: Art/01/117)

As the Yiddish and wider Jewish community has become more settled within British society over the past century, so the focus of Jewish artists has altered. Lily R. Markiewicz for instance explores the reality of a contemporary non-religious Jewish identity against a wider social backdrop, through work such as the installation ‘I don’t Celebrate Christmas’. Ben Uri’s reference library contains information on this and similar work which may not have been exhibited or formally collected by the Gallery.

blog9-Markiewicz_I_-dont_celebrate-Christmas-Camerawork
Lily R. Markiewicz, ‘I don’t celebrate Christmas’ from the Ben Uri library (published by Camerawork)

As Ben Uri begins its second century, it remains committed to celebrating Jewish art and ensuring that the community’s distinctive identity is supported. Ben Uri’s history and collections reflect the long and often hard transition made by a newly arrived migrant presence to a settled community. This process has generated many lessons which may be of benefit to newer communities in London and Ben Uri is happy to share these lessons and also to learn from others. If you would like to share your experiences, please visit the Out Of Chaos Centenary website.

Notes:

1 Pierre Rouve, an Introduction to ‘Maurer’, Exhibition Catalogue for the Mercury Gallery, London 1970 (Ben Uri Reference Library)