In this week’s blog we examine the origins of Ben Uri and the parallel story of the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts founded in 1906. Both took inspiration from the biblical craftsman Bezalel Ben Uri.
Where does the name Ben Uri came from?
Then the Lord said to Moses, See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all manner of workmanship – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. (Exodus 31, 1-5).
Bezalel Ben Uri is the name of the master craftsman mentioned in the bible as creating the tabernacle where the spirit of God was to dwell. The word Bezalel can be translated as ‘in the shadow of’ or protection ‘of God’. He was the son (Ben) of Uri of the tribe of Judah.
Bezalel School of Art 1906
The 1915 founders of Ben Uri were not the first to use the name of this ancient figure to call for a renaissance in Jewish Art. Ten years earlier at a Zionist congress held in Basel in Switzerland a resolution was passed to create a ‘Bezalel’ school of Art. Boris Schatz, who was running an art school in Bulgaria, opened the Bezalel School (later Academy) in Jerusalem in 1906.
To help him start the school Schatz took with the artist, Ephraim Lilien who taught there during the opening year. In some versions of the logo design for Bezalel by Lilien there is a representation of Bezalel Ben Uri building the tabernacle but who also looked suspiciously like Schatz himself! In most versions of the logo the figure does not appear.
Bezalel Logo for Schatz’s own use
The Jewish National Art Association London Ben Ouri 1915
It is not clear whether the London founders of Ben Uri, as it quickly became known, chose the second part of the biblical name in order to differentiate themselves from Bezalel in Jerusalem or in homage to its ideals. Certainly Lazar Berson, the creator of Ben Uri, was a great admirer of Lilien, writing a 1915 article about him for his regular column in the Yiddish paper Die Tsayt.
The Palms of Sakkarah (Lilien)
The first secretary of Ben Uri, Solly Abrahams even used the pseudonym Bezalel on official Ben Uri communications.
Ben Uri Headed Paper. Abraham Bezalel (Solly Abrahams)
Like Bezalel in Jerusalem, Berson set about giving art classes creating items inspired by Biblical themes.