Taking Stock: the Ben Uri Archives in the Centenary Year

Blog post by Jim Ranahan Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 4th November 2015

I am the new archivist at Ben Uri and I have spent my first few weeks coming to understand both the nature of the organisation and the extent of its archive. I replace Claire Jackson who worked closely with curators and others to research and develop the centenary exhibition ‘Out of Chaos’ and the related programme, in which the archive has featured directly. I am re-introducing the blog series instigated by Claire and I begin with a personal response to Ben Uri, from my initial contact with the formal archive and through recently created records likely to enter the archive in the future.

I want to start with one word:

post it note thank you in russian

This single word (Russian for Thank You) caught my eye at Out of Chaos, Ben Uri’s centenary exhibition at Somerset House in London. It was written on a yellow ‘post-it’ note on the comments wall, a simple yet effective way of gathering views from the exhibition’s many visitors (18,000 since July and likely to be much higher by the time it closes on 13 December).

While I cannot know what lies behind this particular message, it is symbolic in that it is prompted by the centenary of Ben Uri’s formation. Many of the founding artists were (or were descended from) refugees fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Russia and eastern Europe. 1915 was a difficult time for the world at large, not least for Jewish people. Anti-Semitism was rife in Britain and across the globe and events in eastern Europe were catastrophic for Jewish people there.

It is therefore important to remember that Ben Uri’s strapline ‘Art, Identity, Migration’ is not a marketing ploy. It is a heart-felt recognition that the experiences and motivations of the gallery’s founders, those who nurtured and developed it and those who continue to support it, stem from amongst the most ardent and genuine emotions that exist – acknowledgment of our shared humanity and how art can reflect, support and reinforce that essential characteristic. One hundred years on and persecution and displacement of populations through strife are still generating refugees. In its centenary year, Ben Uri shares its experiences and particular insights with communities who are seeking to establish and develop their own, distinctive position within British society. These various experiences and insights are reflected in the Ben Uri archive, which charts a range of migration stories, from newly arrived emigres, child migrants, children of settled families and third and later generation members of the Jewish diaspora. These and related experiences will be explored in the coming weeks, but I start with two contrasting yet complementary examples.

sochachewsky photo
Photograph of Maurice Sochachewsky exhibition catalogue, 1969 (Archival reference no.: ART/02/027)

The life of Maurice Sochachewsky (1918-1969) demonstrates a strong commitment to our shared humanity. This striking photograph post-dates his injury whilst with the British army during World War Two. Sochachewsky’s determination to serve his country had previously been matched by his solidarity with Welsh miners, when he shared their camaraderie and hardship in their village of Tal-y-Wain and in their colliery, both in Monmouthshire.

Welsh Village
Maurice Sochachewsky, “Welsh Village” (not dated)

Sochachewsky’s outlook on life, as reflected in these cases had been shaped by his experiences and observations in East London’s Jewish community. Not only did he encounter close knit communities and the realities of working life in the East End, but he witnessed at first hand the effects of domestic and (via new refugees) European anti-Semitism. Ben Uri has a selection of works reflecting aspects of the London, Welsh and later phases of his life. Sochachewsky’s photograph is taken from a catalogue of an exhibition at Ben Uri commemorating his life (Archival reference no.: ART/02/027).

sochachewsky-740

Cover of Maurice Sochachewsky exhibition catalogue, 1969 (Archival reference no.: ART/02/027)

Unlike Sochachewsky, who was born in England of settled Jews, Margaret Marks’ experience was directly affected by ferocious anti-Semitism.  Born in Cologne in 1899, she was targeted by the Nazis as a Jew practicing ‘degenerate’ art. Forced to sell her ceramics business, she sought refuge in England. The invitation card shown here indicates her acceptance by Ben Uri (Archival reference no.: ART/01/134). Her continuing significance was marked on 11 November 2015 during the Ben Uri Centenary programme with a lecture on the life and career of Margaret Marks given by Katie McGown of the University of Kent.

Marks drawing of Pianist
Margaret Marks, Leff Poushnoff, Pianist (1933)

Marks Private View
Margaret Marks exhibition ‘Mosaics, Paintings, Drawings’ private view invitation 1960 (Archival reference no.: ART/01/134)

These and many other experiences relating to art. Identity and migration are reflected in the Ben Uri Gallery and archive and we are keen to share the insights gained and to help others share their experiences. You can leave your own stories on our Out Of Chaos Centenary website: http://benuri100.org/your-stories/

Forthcoming blog posts will examine specific aspects of Ben Uri through its archive. In the meantime, please visit ‘Out of Chaos’ www.benuri100.org and make sure you visit the ‘post-it’ wall. We will welcome your contribution to this wonderful resource.

Post it Notes at Ben Uri centenary

NOTES

1 ‘This ‘post-it’ note, when combined with the very many others on the ‘Out of Chaos’ comments wall represents an informal and spontaneous version of the conventional ‘visitor comments’ book, which traditionally is kept as part of an exhibition’s documentation.  Given the significance of ‘Out of Chaos’ as an activity by Ben Uri, the comments will be recorded digitally and also retained as tangible objects, to provoke discussion at future community engagement events.

2 Larry Domnitch ‘World War One at the Beginning of 1915: One Century later’ in Jewish Press 13/01/2015