Bezalel and Ben Uri (Part 2)

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 7th August 2014

Centenary Stories from the Archives

Continuing the story of the relationship between the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and Ben Uri in London, founded 9 years apart.

In the last blog post, we learned how both Ben Uri and Bezalel were started and both chose the name of the biblical craftsman, Bezalel Ben Uri, as an inspiration for their mission to revive and promote Jewish art.

Bezalel and Ben Uri Find a Home

Two years after starting the Bezalel school in Jerusalem, its founder Boris Schatz had purchased a building in 1908 in Shmuel HaNagid Street. He opened a Museum in 1912, whose collection became the nucleus for the Israel Museum in 1965.

Bezalel 1913
Photo of Bezalel Jerusalem in 1913

In contrast, in London, although the Ben Uri was active, it had no venue of its own. The Committee could not even decide where it should be located. Lazar Berson, the Director, had a studio in Notting Hill, but in March 1916 he proposed that they should look for a better space:

It should be as nice as possible and richly decorated with Jewish artworks to serve as the first steps towards a Jewish Museum…with regard to this proposed plan […] Sofer suggested that the location of the studio should be moved nearer to the East [End].

Berson abruptly left England for America in September 1916 and his art classes folded, although Ben Uri continued with lectures and social events at members’ homes and hired halls. The growing permanent art collection was kept at the house of their secretary, Judah Beach, in West Hampstead.

The Ben Uri Committee continued looking for a home however they had ongoing monetary problems. Pictures had been purchased with loans from benefactors, who were often Committee members and appeals to recoup the monies did not always raise enough. Membership fees were not regularly collected and money was often lost on lectures once venue hire was paid. An offer to bring Ben Uri under the umbrella of the Jewish Association of Arts and Sciences (known as the Society of Jewish Artists) but ‘still maintain it’s autonomy as a separate entity’ was rejected: ‘The Ben Uri does not need a separate artists society because the Jewish artists who love their people will come to the Ben Uri of their own accord’ (Minutes 2nd August 1919).

The Society of Jewish Artists put on an official exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1923, whilst the Ben Uri had yet to exhibit their collection, except at one-off events in rented rooms and members’ homes.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, although Bezalel had reopened in 1919 after a year-long hiatus because of the war, it also had its own financial problems. Funding, which had originally come from supporters in Germany, was very tight in the difficult post-war economy. Schatz visited Europe and the USA for a succession of fundraising trips.

In 1924, whilst visiting Carlsbad (Czech Republic) Schatz met Morris Mayer, the editor of Di Tsayt (a Yiddish daily paper) and close confidant of the Ben Uri Committee. Back in London Mayer reported that the Bezalel School needed to raise £1000 to continue its activities and was looking for £100 from each country. The Ben Uri Committee asked for an official letter to find out exactly what was required and when this arrived (May 1924) they, despite their own problems, pledged £5 towards the £100 sought.

The first Ben Uri Gallery Opens!

Opening Great Russell Street 1925
Ben Uri Opening of Gallery and Club 1925

A momentous event happened on March 1925 – a venue was found for Ben Uri, not in the East End, but opposite the British Museum in Great Russell Street. The first Committee meeting there was held in candle light ‘good old time style’ as the electricity was not connected. The members were full of optimism, a talk as given on the ‘correlation of the Jewish People with the Arts’ and it was reported that their Vice President, the artist Leopold Pilichowski, was going to Israel to witness the opening of the Hebrew University, and it was agreed that he would also represent Ben Uri at this auspicious occasion.

Within weeks of opening it was clear that the club was not to be a success. When Pilichowksi returned to England with a painting he had made of the University opening, he also had received a letter from Boris Schatz asking for the Ben Uri collection, particularly the Hirszenberg picture The Sabbath Rest, pictured.

Hirszenberg Samuel The Sabbath Rest
The Sabbath Rest by Samuel Hirszenberg

Edward Good, a Committee member, said that if they sent it to Jerusalem ‘at least we would have done something. This is a consolation should it come to this’. There was a vigorous discussion and it was proposed to reply: ‘It is vital for London to have a little Museum having regard to the fact that London possesses so many Jews’. Nevertheless it was also agreed to have another meeting to discuss the future of Ben Uri and a final appeal was to be published in the Jewish press.

Sending to Jerusalem
Extract from Minutes 10 March 1926

There was no agreement to send all or part of the collection to Israel, although a donation of a sculpture was made in the 1960s. However, in 1926, the Great Russell Street Ben Uri clubhouse was closed and the Committee did not meet again for four months. All was not lost as not long after, an opportunity was to arise to show most of the collection in a major exhibition which garnered national attention – but that is a future tale in this series of blogs.

What happened to Bezalel? Lack of money forced it to close in 1929 and by the time it reopened in 1935 Boris Schatz had died during a fundraising trip to America in 1932. An emotional eulogy was read by Edward Good at the Ben Uri AGM. The Bezalel Gallery became part of the Israel Museum but the art school continues until today.

Despite the difficult times for Bezalel and for Ben Uri both survived to celebrate their centenaries, Bezalel in 2006 and Ben Uri next year in 2015.