Archives for November 2015

Out of Chaos | Chairman’s Essay

Immigration figures table

Immigration to UK 1901—2011. Click image for full-size PDF version

‘Out of Chaos’ is often an understatement of the trauma involved in journeys of migration – each narrative is defined by the precise context of ‘from what to what’ and ‘from where to where’. Right at this moment there will be a banker, or a lawyer, and his or her family, crossing the Atlantic first-class, transferring from Wall Street to the City of London. When they reach their new home, the temporary chaos of moving will end sweetly.

Equally, right now, there are refugees being trafficked or cast adrift in unseaworthy, decrepit boats at extortionate financial and personal cost as they flee tyranny and uncertainty to find a new life in Europe, gambling, if they actually know, on beating the odds of the high risk of drowning in the Mediterranean and surviving the journey. For them, it is not when, but if, they reach land; as they exchange one chaos for another. This is the way it has always has been for those fleeing for their lives. This too is our context and reflects the history of Ben Uri, The Art Museum for Everyone, and the art and scholarship that we share.

Out of Chaos, Ben Uri: 100 Years in London explains our history via visual stories, both traditionalist and modernist vocabularies frame the artists’ ‘forced journeys’ from Russian pogroms at the turn of the 20th century, and from Nazi persecution and genocide in Europe during the years 1933–45. The London narrative begins in a congested, tightly-knit immigrant society in Whitechapel, where two languages (Yiddish and English) were spoken.

The institution, Ben Uri, was founded in July 1915 by Russian-Jewish émigré Lazare (Eliezer) Berson, a decorative artist who had recently left Paris, where he had shared an apartment with the famous sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. Ben Uri was originally intended as an ‘Arts Society’ to provide support for Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrant artists and craftsmen who were working outside the cultural mainstream. It was named after Bezalel Ben Uri, the biblical creator of the tabernacle in the Temple in Jerusalem, and to indicate kinship with the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, established nine years earlier in 1906. Its vision was to become a National Museum of Jewish Art and Crafts in the mould of the Bezalel School, and Berson and the founding fathers aspired to build a permanent collection of work by Jewish artists, the majority of whom were immigrants.

Stop for a second and imagine the scene: a Russian émigré arrives in London from Paris in 1914. His language is Yiddish and he inspires a mix of mostly left-wing intellectuals and thinkers, small businessmen, artisans and, of course, artists, to create a Jewish art society with the ambition of becoming a National Museum. The charisma, foresight and tenacity of Berson and his fellow founders must have been extraordinary in an area as poor and cramped as Whitechapel at the best of times, but this occurred in the first two years of the First World War, when concerns were elsewhere as many residents were fighting and dying for King and country. Berson was both politically aware and engaged, which conflicted with the founding members’ view that the institution should be non-political and non-religious, solely focussed on art and creativity (a policy also adopted by the new Board in October 2000, some 85 years later). Following a dispute about Berson’s political activism, he left London suddenly in late 1916. Soon after, the creative parameters of the Society were extended to embrace the ‘plastic arts’ and to facilitate the formation of a collection of outstanding importance, not just for Ben Uri but for the nation at large.

A century later, the collection, principally in store, comprises in excess of 1,300 works by some 390 artists (67% of émigré, 27% women, 33% contemporary) from 35 countries, with significant bodies of work by many important British artists, including Frank Auerbach (11 works), David Bomberg (14), Jacob Epstein (6), Mark Gertler (11), Josef Herman (10), Jacob Kramer (12), Simeon Solomon (13), alongside celebrated examples by European masters including Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Max Liebermann, Reuven Rubin and Chaïm Soutine.

During its formative years, Ben Uri moved frequently within the East End, and to and from the West End, eventually acquiring its first permanent premises – a Georgian townhouse at 14 Portman Street, behind Marble Arch – in late 1943, where it remained until 1961. In 1964, it moved to the fourth floor of a synagogue building in Dean Street, in ‘swinging’ Soho, where it was eventually awarded museum status, but was served notice in 1995 and forced to close in 1997, when the site was redeveloped as The Soho Theatre. Ben Uri subsequently became homeless and moved from one office to another, successfully kept alive by a determined and committed leadership. In October 2000 a new Board, inspired by the richness and diversity of the collection, took over responsibility for the museum. Fired by a radical vision and strategic plan to reposition an intensely heritage proud Ben Uri as a fully-engaged mainstream art museum, it implemented far reaching changes and established art, identity and migration in London as the principal focus. Successfully re-launched as ‘The London Jewish Museum of Art: The Art Museum for Everyone’ in January 2001, Ben Uri quickly found a temporary new gallery / home in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, in June 2002, where it still uncomfortably exists, having long outgrown both the physical space and the north London location.

A centenary is a rare achievement and provides an opportunity to reflect and explain what makes the museum distinctive. More people visit museums every weekend across the country than sporting fixtures, but without the same sense of passion and ownership.

London has some ten ‘national’ art galleries, attracting some 25 million visitors each year, and they are the dominant players, presenting to the public unparalleled, world-leading exhibitions and engagement. We visit regularly but how many of us or London’s minority communities feel ownership – feel they are ours?

We had to think afresh when we set about the challenge of forging a new direction for Ben Uri in order to secure its future for the final 15 years of its first millennium, and the whole of its next. We had to address one fundamental question if we were to find a route to be distinctive, meaningful and successfully compete for London’s time and attention: What is the real opportunity for museums to make a continuous difference to people’s lives and the society we live in as it has to be bigger than simply sharing great collections? Work that out and we could analyse how the smaller museum (Ben Uri) can add incremental value to its society; how we could generate a communal sense of ownership; how we can engage six figure visitor numbers and share experiences; how in a world of increasing options and reduced funding we could be distinctive and sustainable. Our conclusion was that museums have a unique opportunity to exploit their assets – collections, scholarship, communication skills and inventive programming – as an effective and needed vehicle for ‘social integration’ which is, and will continue to be, one of contemporary society’s greatest challenges. That remains our over-arching objective and our programming is the vehicle.

Art is an extraordinary leveller. People of diverse ethnicity, social status and age stand together in front of it, or draw and paint side by side, and the differences melt away. Art is a universal, unspoken language between them. Museum programing has to constantly exceed expectations but, for smaller institutions like Ben Uri, to survive and prosper we have to generate measurable incremental value, to actively shape our programming as a whole to widen audience appeal, much in the vein that the immigrant artists, who were the backbone and beneficiaries of Ben Uri a century ago, found ways to integrate without subsuming their personal or artistic identities. London today has over 3.5 million immigrants, richly contributing to the success and diversity of our incredible city, and this number will continue to grow exponentially for as long as London is a world-leading economy and a safe haven from corruption and autocracy. Exhibitions of African, Korean and Caribbean artists in recent years demonstrate our unswerving commitment to this philosophy.

Having clarified our purpose, we could design the vehicle. We add to our wide ranging exhibitions – both historical and contemporary – a complementary agenda addressing issues of migration and identity. We tour our exhibitions nationally and internationally in partnership with other museums. We publish scholarly but accessible books distributed world-wide. We maintain a spotlight on Nazi looted art and the moral stance that has to dictate actions. We continually develop new pupil and teacher resources, available to over 16,000 schools through the London Grid for Learning and the National Education Network. We pioneer wellbeing and art therapy programmes. We offer iPad-drawing, as well as life-drawing classes. All this has resulted in significant increased visitor numbers which, by our analysis, are now some 80% secular and increasingly multicultural, compared to less than 5% a decade ago.

The future for Ben Uri in our second century will continue to focus on social integration as its principal purpose, through our twin strategic initiatives: the first, a new ‘Museum of Art, Identity and Migration’ which will uniquely share its space with fellow minority communities so that they, alongside us, can tell stories of their recent émigré journeys to London and together we will exhibit contemporary art emerging from within our communities. The second is a large, carefully located central London home for Ben Uri, where the current formula of sharing our world-class collection, combined with fresh minded survey exhibitions embracing two centuries of creativity and associated learning and wellbeing programmes, can be expanded appropriately to attract and engage significant visitor numbers. We continue to search for the right location to present individually, or combine both visitor engagements as our planned acquisition of some 60,000 sq. ft. on the South Bank would have delivered, but just slipped through our hands to an in-funds commercial bidder – the perennial challenge of the not-for-profit sector.

The visitor potential for a museum focussing on identity and stories of migration through high art and emerging artists, much presented by individual communities themselves is based on the reality that minorities in any context feel strength and confidence in numbers and in this context, the greatest pride in seeing their heritage being explained and shared with large, wide ranging audiences by them, not others. We believe this is the key to creating a real sense of diverse community ownership and ever increasing visitor number engagement. The opportunity is to stimulate and engage with new generations of visitors many of whose communities don’t see the traditional ‘we present to you’ museums relevant or of interest.

Museums can play an important role in enabling social integration. Generating pride in differences (through art) is a much preferable alternative to suspicion and scapegoating easy targets, particularly the immigrant population, for society’s problems as this museum’s Jewish founders and so many of its artists collected over the first 50 years would testify.

Life and choices today are of course very different but to give you a measure of the potential of community pride and sense of ownership, in 1906 at the Whitechapel Gallery over 150,000 people visited the exhibition Jewish Art and Antiquities in the six weeks to 16th December. The opening hours were between 12 noon and 10pm daily to facilitate the majority who worked extended hours every day to survive. Some 100,000 Jews lived in Whitechapel at the time. Was it community pride or wide general interest across London generating 150,000 visitors – 25,000 visitors each week? The principles demonstrated a century ago are equally valid today.

Ben Uri is a jewel in London’s rich cultural crown, albeit still desperately in need of a permanent home in the centre of our great city. We have all the components in place and the people ready to deliver the vision and secure the museum’s exciting future and together, with your and London’s support, we can and will.

Blog post by David Glasser Ben Uri Executive Chair / Posted 28th November 2015

Alfred Wolmark: A Case Study for considering the Migrant Child

Blog post by Jim Ranahan Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 17th November 2015

Alfred Wolmark is a major figure in Anglo-Jewish art and is also respected for his role in founding and developing Ben Uri. As such, his artwork has been well publicised and critically appraised over many years – see Ben Uri’s Learning resource on Wolmark and Judaism.

However, Wolmark is also a prominent example of a migrant child, brought to England at a formative age and therefore experiencing the three main dimensions of migration differently to adult migrants and their children born in Britain. These dimensions are summarised as place of origin; place of settlement and the journey between the two.

Wolmark Self Portrait
Alfred A. Wolmark Self-Portrait (1902)

Whilst most migrants experience the competing orbits of émigré family and a wider British establishment, the actual memory of the original homeland and migration process differs. Adult migrants make a conscious decision to migrate (or at least they respond to severe external pressures). Adults retain some control over the re-location process (however arduous that actually becomes). Migrant children and those born here have no such control, but the former may respond to the situation differently to ‘true’ second generation children.

Both groups draw their migration and settlement reference points from their own families and émigré communities, with ‘host’ communities often only later featuring. Additionally, migrant children often have direct experience and residual knowledge of the original homeland – with familial affiliations and / or traumatic insights into the actual migration process. Such direct experience will inevitably be partial and depending on the age profile, may be almost subliminal. However, it is this experience which may influence how a migrant child responds to the re-settlement process and future developments, when compared to second generation siblings or contemporaries. I hope that an initial consideration of Wolmark’s pattern of and response to migration will prompt similar consideration within other communities.

Wolmark In the Synagogue
Alfred A. Wolmark In the Synagogue (1906)

Aaron Wolmark was born in 1877 in Warsaw, then in the Russian Partition (of Poland). When aged six years old, his family migrated to England, initially to Devon before settling in the East End of London. Wolmark was of an age to comprehend the migration process and to retain a memory of life and family in Warsaw. Whilst in his twenties, Wolmark returned to Poland for three years and it is tempting to speculate on what drew him back. Certainly, some of his famous early work drawing on his Jewish heritage dates from this period. However, it is also important to remember the competing effects on Wolmark’s development, as a Jewish migrant child growing up within a supportive home environment [family and émigré community], but set within a wider and sometimes hostile society.

By 1895, just when Wolmark was attending the Royal Academy Schools, British anti-Semitism was becoming more overt and strident. Wolmark would have witnessed this and may have experienced it first hand, at the same time as he encountered in East London increasing numbers of refugees fleeing continental anti-Semitism. This strained and emotive atmosphere provides the backdrop for Wolmark’s adoption of the forename Alfred in the mid-1890s. However, he retained the name Aaron and was known as Alfred A. Wolmark for the rest of his life. He also remained committed to a distinctively Jewish cultural presence within Britain, working with Ben Uri for many years and serving as a vice president of Ben Uri.

Wolmark Still Life
Alfred A.Wolmark Still Life (1930)

At first sight, this community focused cultural awareness is at odds with Wolmark’s growing rejection of overtly Jewish imagery in his own works, as he adopted an advanced modernist style as the new century progressed. However, this move towards the artistic avant-garde reflects at least in part Wolmark’s access to and perhaps acceptance of a developing continental art tradition. Apart from his return to Poland, Wolmark also visited France, Spain and the U.S.A. and he gained many artistic insights.

His increasing use of bold colours attracted the nickname ‘King of Colour’ and his reputation as a colourist led to him being rewarded in 1913 with a commission for stained glass windows in Saint Mary’s Church, Slough (completed in 1915). This was significant, both for Wolmark personally (as he had not undertaken major glasswork before) and for inter-community relations, given contemporary levels of anti-Semitism and Wolmark’s background. His abstract rendition of an Old Testament subject, ‘Days of Creation’ would not have compromised either his professional or personal views at this time.

Wolmark Stained Glass Window
Historic Glass Window at Slough Parish Church by Alfred A Wolmark Extracts and Reports (1915)

Whilst the Ben Uri archive encounters Alfred Wolmark as a largely self-assured individual, offering little direct insight through the available records to his formative years and early motivation, his biographical details accumulated from family and via later researchers provides a partial insight to his personal migration story. His immersion in the East End émigré community may ultimately not have been sufficient to meet his personal development as an artist, but whilst he looked ‘home’ to Jewish Poland and ‘abroad’ to Europe and the U.S.A. for inspiration, he never forgot the rich Jewish heritage in Britain. He deserves the esteem that Anglo-Jewish art circles and Ben Uri hold him in.

Ben Uri is keen to share migration stories with other communities. If aspects of Alfred Wolmark’s experiences as a migrant child chime with or differ from your experiences, please leave your own stories on our Out Of Chaos Centenary website.

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).


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:

Forthcoming blog posts will examine specific aspects of Ben Uri through its archive. In the meantime, please visit ‘Out of Chaos’ 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


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