All You Ever Wanted to Know About #PolesinUK But Were Afraid To Ask – Talk by Jakub Krupa

Thursday 13th July saw UK Correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, Jakub Krupa, deliver an engaging talk at the Ben Uri Gallery.

The talk went beyond the usual press headlines about migrants and fake scare stories of how Poles are eating the Queen’s swans in one of the Royal Parks, and revealed the true story of Britain’s largest foreign-born community – the Poles.

He has written on the Polish community in Britain for numerous British media, including The Guardian and a Polish cultural quarterly Przekrój.



Jakub Krupa and guests at the Ben Uri Gallery. Click on the images below to enlarge.






Art Behind Barbed Wire

‘Art Behind Barbed Wire’: Ben Uri acquires rare internment portrait painted in 1940 in Huyton transit camp, Liverpool by artist internee Hugo ‘Puck’ Dachinger


In June 1940, following Churchill’s directive to ‘Collar the lot!’, Austrian artist Hugo Dachinger was swept up in the mass internment of around 27,000 so-called ‘enemy aliens’, mostly Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, who were interned in hastily adapted camps all over the country. Dachinger spent five months at Huyton Camp, Liverpool within the recently built Woolfall Heath Estate, divided from the non-internees by an eight-metre high barbed wire fence. Despite the overcrowding and poor conditions at Huyton, Dachinger’s artistic output was startlingly prolific and included landscapes, scenes of everyday life, posters and even nudes, as well as vivid, often highly coloured portraits.

This head-and-shoulders portrait of an unidentified older man with white hair and moustache and startlingly blue eyes, painted in the third month of his internment, is likely to be one of the middle-class refugee intellectuals, writers and artists with whom Dachinger mixed in camp. The blue and yellow palette can be found in other Huyton portraits (one dated only three days earlier). Although the sitter’s large-collared, tightly-buttoned overcoat has a military feel, perhaps further suggested by the visible headline ‘Air Fights in Many Spheres’, it carries no insignia, and Dachinger’s warm treatment of his subject contrasts with his sharply satirical, sometimes cartoonish works featuring camp officers. With traditional art materials in short supply, Dachinger and fellow artists (who included Martin Bloch and Walter Nessler) executed works in a variety of accessible media, often using discarded newspapers (The Times was considered the best) as supports. These could be primed with gelatine collected from boileddown bones mixed with flour, a method leaving stories of war tantalisingly visible beneath, and which Dachinger, a former designer, often included to great effect (there is a poignancy here in the visible righthand column of ‘Domestic Situations Wanted’, since this was the only hope of passage for many female refugees). Twigs were also burnt to create charcoal and paints made from brick dust or food ground with linseed oil or olive oil from sardine cans, though here Dachinger appears to have used watercolours perhaps mixed with toothpaste (particularly in the hair) to make the pigments less transparent.

Following Huyton, Dachinger was sent in October 1940 until his release in January 1941, to ooragh Camp, Ramsey on the Isle of Man, where he continued to paint. In November he held an exhibition of his internment drawings entitled Art Behind Barbed Wire, advertised with an arresting poster of his own design, and later exhibited at London’s Redfern Gallery in April 1941.
About the artist: Graphic artist, designer, painter and sculptor, Hugo ‘Puck’ Dachinger was born in Gmunden, Upper Austria in 1908 to Jewish middle-class parents. He studied at the School of Arts and Crafts in Leipzig, Germany (1929–32), paying for his tuition by selling portrait drawings and working as a salesman and window-dresser. Afterwards he worked as a graphic designer, moving in 1932 to Vienna, where he invented a system of moveable type (patented in 1933) and established workshops in Leipzig, Zagreb and Budapest. In 1938, travelling via Denmark, he immigrated to England, settling in North London and establishing the successful Transposter Advertising Ltd firm with Ernst Rosenfeld (which closed in 1945). From June 1940–January 1941 Dachinger was interned, first at Huyton, Liverpool and then in Mooragh Camp, Ramsey, on the Isle of Man. After release he married fellow artist and German émigré Meta Gutmann (who nicknamed him ‘Puck’). He exhibited at German-Jewish émigré Jack Bilbo’s Modern Art Gallery in London in 1942 and alongside fellow Austrian artists at the prestigious Redfern and Leger Galleries from 1941–45, also continuing to work as an inventor and designer for various publishing companies. Dachinger’s work has been included in survey exhibitions including Kunst im Exil in Grossbritannien 1933-45 (Berlin, Oberhuasen, Vienna and London, 1986), Art Behind Barbed Wire (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2004) and Ben Uri’s Forced Journeys: Artists in Exile in Britain, c. 1933-45 (London, Isle of Man and Birkenhead, 2009–10). In 2012 the Austrian Cultural Forum held the first UK Dachinger retrospective; his work is also held in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the Manx Museum, Isle of Man.


The Avant-Garde, Sots Art and the Bulldozer Exhibition of 1974

Vitaly Komar

The Avant-Garde and the Roots of Unofficial Art.

The Russian avant-garde’s revolutionary struggle with the traditions of the old culture led to the division of art into ‘official’ and ‘unofficial.’  Prior to the First World War,  the first avant-garde opposed the academic salon art that was fashionable at the time. After the Second World War and the death of Stalin, the second avant-garde opposed official Socialist Realism.  However, by that time Soviet Russia’s unofficial artists had shed the naïve nihilism of the early 20th century avant-garde. They were aware of the ancient Roman aphorism: ‘The new is simply what has been well forgotten.’  They believed in the value of pluralism, in the gradual evolution of fashion, and certain traits of their art were reminiscent of late modernism.

An eclectic crowd was unified under the banner of opposition to the Soviet regime: it ranged from liberals and Trotskyites to religious nationalists and criminals. For unofficial artists, this conceptual eclecticism was an alternative to the tragic extremism of the revolutionary years, when the Russian avant-garde became the ‘official’ art of the regime.  Rather, it played the role of the ‘King of the Carnival’, who was then sacrificed at the dawn of Stalinist culture.  It is curious that Lenin, unlike Mussolini, did not like the Futurists; however he used their anarchic energy to destroy a number of bourgeois traditions that hindered his pursuit of power.  In the first years of the revolution, avant-gardists established a bureaucratic state system of support for art, and they enjoyed the privileges of the Soviet elite. The majority of old-fashioned realist artists were the unofficial non-conformists starving in the underground during the short-lived revolutionary carnival.  True, they took their revenge. After staging a ‘palace coup’ and seizing power,  put avant-garde artists on a diet of bread and water.  We often forget today that the post-Revolutionary avant-garde and Soviet official realism were two sides of one coin, of one socialist utopia.

The ‘Soviet experiment’ provides a lesson in paradox: during historical periods of avant-garde elitism, the role of the true avant-garde may actually be played by any vibrant irritant of elite taste, including tomorrow’s ‘counter-avant-garde’ of the art market.  

In order to grasp the historical roots of Russian culture’s division into official and unofficial, it should be recalled that the first Russian professional unions were established just after the February revolution in 1917.  Artists of all styles and schools united into one Union of Cultural Workers.  After the Bolsheviks disbanded the Constituent Assembly and forbade opposition parties and press, all the unions went on strike. A split took place: the avant-garde artists became ‘strike-breakers’ and were given government positions and commissions.  The recalcitrant leaders of several other unions, teachers and bakers, for example, were executed. As Lenin said, ‘world war has transformed into civil war.’

The division of Soviet Russian art into official and unofficial was a latent continuation of the civil war and an echo of the great, forgotten strike.  At the beginning of the 1930s, ‘Socialist Realism’ won out. All artistic organizations were banned, and the avant-garde was exiled from Soviet museums into the underground; forbidden to exhibit, its works were not allowed to be reproduced in art magazines. Only the ‘conceptual branch’ of the Russian avant-garde remained — but outside museum walls and exhibition halls.  The red banners and slogans of Agitprop openly survived on the streets throughout the Stalinist period.  Thus, official art was further divided into the art of the elite and the mass art of the people.  For years no one realized that in the 20th century USSR, within the framework of totalitarian Art-Deco, there existed not only official ‘Socialist Realism’, but ‘official conceptualism’ as well.  The latter was not acknowledged by art historians for decades, just as the street art of western advertising was not recognized until the arrival of Pop art, which unified mass and elite art, placing popular images in a museum context.


Like all tyrants, Stalin was short-sighted.  The dictator had not understood that in seizing half of Europe, he had actually led a Trojan horse in behind the Iron Curtain.  After his death, ‘unofficial artists’ gradually began to peek out from underground. During Khrushchev’s thaw, Yugoslavian, Polish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Albanian and German art books and magazines appeared in Moscow.  They had no less an influence on my friends and myself than the ideas of the Prague Spring had on Mikhail Gorbachev and other perestroika activists.

During my youth, artists of the second avant-garde, to which I belonged, were called ‘non-conformist’ and even ‘dissident’.  Our art was termed underground and unofficial. Despite this, when I studied at the Stroganov Art Institute, the art works of a few unofficial artists began to appear in official exhibitions. This process came to an abrupt halt in 1962 at a huge exhibition in Moscow’s Manège, when there was a confrontation between Khrushchev and the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. After that, public poetry readings at the monument to Mayakovsky were forbidden as well.

Sots-art and the motivation of the unofficial artist.

After Leonid Brezhnev came to power, Russian art entered a new stage.  At the beginning of the 1970s ‘Sots-art’ appeared—a conceptual movement that united unofficial and official art for the first time. [‘Sots-art’, A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art, by Ian Chilvers, Oxford University Press, 1998.) This method was apparent not only in Russian art, but later in Chinese art as well. Sots-art combined the conceptual branch of the Russian avant-garde—the banners and slogans of Agitprop– with a dangerous nonconformist gesture. It filled Socialist Realist form with the content of opposition. This unusual creative approach was an expression of the fundamental duality and conceptual eclecticism of our consciousness.

Sots-art was closer to conceptualism than Pop art was. If Pop art was resulted from the overproduction of goods and advertising, Sots-art emerged from the overproduction of Soviet ideology and its visual propaganda.  Having lived in New York for many years now, I see western advertising as ‘consumerist propaganda’ and Soviet propaganda as ‘ideological advertising’.

As one of the founders of Sots-art, I would like to share my view of some of the psychological motives driving independent artistic creation, when Soviet censorship reigned and there was a total absence of anything resembling a capitalist market. In this text the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ are deliberately interchangeable — not only because, at the time, Alexander Melamid and I were co-artists, i.e. worked together as a single entity, but also because any artist’s participation in a movement or style is always a form of unconscious collective authorship.

At the time, our criteria for gauging the success of our art had nothing to do with making a career, no matter what the price. Most important to us was fulfilling our fantasies of freedom and independence.  In trying to do this, we created our own curtain inside the Iron Curtain. It was an ephemeral curtain delineating a bohemian ghetto: a fragile model of the provincial eccentric’s behaviour in a totalitarian society. It was an attempt to preserve a mythological, almost perverse loyalty to our principles and image of self-worth. We were all attached to the old-fashioned, romantic notion of the ‘unacknowledged genius’.

Inevitably, this drew us into a dangerous game with the ‘censor as a viewer’ and with ‘the viewer as censor’.  Visual metaphors became protective masks as well as allegories.  The ‘carnival’ we created both mixed and juxtaposed form and content, parody and travesty, context and subtext. Our work was the development of our own artistic biography, and of our common historical context.  At the same time, it was assumed that ‘historical value’ would sooner or later become aesthetic value.  The artist’s life was seen as a work of art, as the ‘novelization’ of the artist’s life.  In 1973 Alex Melamid and I created two artists: their paintings, biographies, letters, documents concerning them, and so forth.  One of them, Appeles Ziablov, was the first abstract painter. Ziablov was a serf who lived in the 18th century; in protest against the style of the official Academy of Arts that he was forced to conform to, he hung himself.  The life of the second artist, Nikolai Buchumov, was no less dramatic. An argument with a left-wing avant-garde turned into a fistfight and the artist punched him, leaving him blind in his left eye. Buchumov then left Moscow and lived the life of a hermit; he painted landscapes, and as a true realist he faithfully depicted his nose on the left side of his paintings.

We saw our art as creating a conceptual history; our materials were not only photography, painting, text, installation and performance – but time itself. The contextual process of art’s creation was the more important in our evaluation of our work than the finished artwork itself.  It seemed to me that the era of class struggle had mutated into an era of the struggle between contexts.

The Russian avant-garde called for Alexander Pushkin to be thrown off the ship of modernity.  But I think that the following lines from Pushkin’s own poetry actually shed light on the avant-garde’s most secret desire:

All that threatens us with peril,

An inexplicable pleasure does hold…

For the hearts of mortals.


As I have already said, our art led to a dangerous opposition to totalitarian censorship.  In effect, our art was a manifestation of the self-destructive impulse of the subconscious.  The Russian characters in Sacher-Masoch’s novels made it clear that there is no contradiction between hedonism and the desire for self-destruction.  In this light, today we can see Van Gogh’s suffering and suicide as a travesty of the ‘crucified artist’. Both Christ and Van Gogh were recognized only by a narrow circle of followers during their lifetimes.  It is no coincidence that Van Gogh was a preacher in his youth. When he cut off his ear, he was subconsciously repeating the action of Saint Peter, who, according to the Gospel of John, cut off the ear of the high priest’s guard in the garden of Gethsemane. The great Vincent thus saw himself as the guard and the apostle simultaneously. He was the self-destructive enemy and his own follower at the same time.  And in this regard, I believe that one of the earliest analogies to unofficial art is the catacomb art culture of ancient Rome. Paradoxically, the mysterious ‘self-destructive instinct’ is many-faceted: it can manifest itself as altruism, masochism, self-sacrifice in the name of ideas or children, as well as in alcoholism or drug addiction.

The Bulldozer exhibition and the Apogee of Unofficial Art.

Apartment exhibitions were unique to the second Russian avant-garde. In the spring of 1974, at one of those ‘apartment exhibitions’, during a Sots-art performance, everyone was arrested, including the veteran unofficial artist Oskar Rabin, and myself.  We were interrogated all night. Unable to find anything criminal in our actions, the police released us the next morning.  Much as they wanted to, the authorities could find nothing objectionable in the performance.  The performance was noisy—Soviet marches were played, and my colleague Alex Melamid and I, playing Stalin and Lenin, shouted commands into a microphone to artists on a stage.  Under our direction they created a huge Socialist Realist canvas depicting the heroic labour of Soviet workers.  When there was an unexpected knock on the door and the police appeared, the audience initially laughed — people thought that this was part of the performance.

A few days after the arrests, Oskar called me and proposed repeating the performance at the apartment of his friend, the poet Alexander Glezer.  This time the performance proceeded without any brouhaha and we began to discuss new ways of showing our art.  We couldn’t use the exhibition halls; unofficial art was not allowed there. But the great outdoors seemed possible.  We believed that the authorities were changing their attitude toward artists. I even wrote a proposal for the creation of a second, alternative artists union.  Though this project eventually came to be, there was dramatic public outcry just months after the performance.  The ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’ became was the apogee of unofficial art’s history.  On 15 September, 1974, in the Moscow park Belyaevo, the authorities destroyed art by many unofficial artists,  among them Oskar Rabin, Lidia Masterkova, Evgeny Rukhin, Vladimir Nemukhin, and Alexander Melamid and me. Today, few people can imagine the sensational flood of international press this confrontation elicited.  I will never forget the words of the legendary BBC commentator Maksim Goldberg: ‘Many bureaucrats in the west would love to send bulldozers out to destroy contemporary art, but the laws of the land don’t allow them to.’

When I saw the bulldozers heading our way, any illusions I may have entertained regarding Soviet law disappeared instantly. I watched in a trance as people in plain clothes destroyed our art and professionally beat and arrested whoever resisted them.  I froze.  But when they knocked me down into the autumn mud and grabbed my painting Double Self-Portrait: Komar and Melamid as Lenin and Stalin, my fear vanished.  A number of our Sots-art pieces had already been mangled, but the Self-Portrait was particularly important to me.  When one of them stepped on the picture, intending to smash it, I suddenly imagined that it was a self-portrait of us not as Lenin or Stalin, but as Tolstoy or Gandhi.  I raised my head, and quietly, in a trusting voice, said: ‘What are you doing?  This is a masterpiece!’ Our eyes met and a different sort of contact arose inexplicably. Perhaps on hearing the word ‘masterpiece’ he remembered something long forgotten.  I don’t know, but he didn’t smash the work, he simply tossed it into the back of a truck. A moment later, still lying in the mud, my eyes followed the garbage-filled truck as it drove off into history.  I smiled. Was this my ‘finest hour’?  Maybe every artist secretly dreams of his work being destroyed by the viewer?

As you can well imagine now, I have no intention of excavating the layers of 1970s Moscow landfill to find it.

Like all avant-garde artists, we dreamed of breaking down the barrier between art and its audience, but the paradox was that at first we erected this barrier ourselves, by the very act of creating our works.  At the Bulldozer Exhibition, as we advanced to meet them halfway, the audience (in this case the KGB) had literally broken down the barrier,.   It was the same form of collaboration as the destruction of Greek statuary by the Christians. Or Lenin and Stalin’s destruction of Christian churches. Or the iconoclasm of Russian dissidents who wanted to destroyed statues of Lenin.


The unbearable feeling of isolation made us leave the underground for the streets in search of an audience.  Today many people have forgotten that the Soviet state owned everything: the army, the secret police, all the banks, offices, buildings and supermarkets.  It also owned all the galleries, museums, exhibitions, art magazines, the entire press, all the film studios, all the radio stations and television channels.  Therefore, unofficial artists could only work in the very rooms and cellars where they lived.  In these living spaces we showed our art to a narrow circle of friends and acquaintances.  We often drank all night, arguing about art and reciting poetry.  Kitchen discussions substituted for the absence of freedom of speech and reviews by art critics. The idea of showing our art outdoors was born on one such evening at Oskar Rabin’s apartment.  Something that the west might see as a commercial gesture (an outdoor show) was an avant-garde gesture in Russia.  For a time I believed that the air wasn’t the property of the bureaucracy.

Artists of varying styles participated in the Bulldozer Exhibition, but unfortunately not all our friends and colleagues supported us.  For example, the artist Ilya Kabakov declined to participate a week before the exhibition. Speaking to Oskar, Ilya said that he’d been standing on all fours his entire life, and leaving the underground for the street was the gesture of a man who stood on two legs.  Then he looked at Alex and me and added ‘… or on two hands, like these young Dadaists…’  I cannot pass judgment on this ‘metaphorical cynicism’. All of the publishing houses belonged to the state and as a member of the official artists union, Ilya earned his living by illustrating children’s books.  A kind of duplicity or dualism was typical of many of us, to varying degrees.  Depending on our principles, we became ‘weekend’ professional artists. For example, I gave drawing lessons and privately tutored students to take the entrance exams for the art institutes (in the USSR education was free, which meant the competition was fierce).  Once I even designed a camp for Young Pioneers. Such contradictions were manifested not only in our life style, but in our art. 

Until the end of the 17th century, an original and colourful version of canonic Eastern Orthodox icon painting flourished in Russia.  Subsequently, Peter the Great’s reforms in the early 18th century brought western Renaissance traditions to Russia, with their three-dimensional spatial perspective and realistic treatment of light and shade.  But in folk art the love of ancient Russian traditions remained; their two-dimensional treatment of colour and form contrasted with the three-dimensional treatment of space. In some 19th century Russian cathedrals I have seen a unique dialectic of eastern and western styles.  Two-dimensional planes and three dimensional depth.  Faces and wrists are painted in a realistic academic manner, but the background and clothes are rendered in the style of medieval icons.

A similar conceptual eclecticism is apparent in some of the most original works of Soviet art in the period of ‘totalitarian art-deco’, and during the transition from the avant-garde to Socialist Realism. Again, the faces and hands are painted realistically, while the background and clothes are rendered in a cubo-futuristic style.

The source of this dualism lies not only in Russia, which is located on the border of two continents, and the cultural traditions of Europe and Asia. Duality is universal. During the early Renaissance we see it in the art of Northern Europe, and in the south in Italy. It is a projection of humanity’s basic duality, the division into male and female.

Many works of unofficial Russian art were ahead of their time, and were forerunners of what came to be called ‘postmodernism’ and the ‘transavantgarde’  in the 1980s. At the beginning of the 1970s, Oskar Rabin painted a portrait of his Soviet passport: on a large canvas, combining conceptualism with expressionism.  At the same time, another outstanding unofficial artist, Oleg Vassiliev, began to combine geometric abstraction with postimpressionism.  In 1972, in Sots-art, we (Komar and Melamid) combined two styles: ‘unofficial and official’,  ‘private and public’,  ‘introvert and extravert’, for the first time, and also used a significantly larger number of ‘multi-faceted’ styles and concepts than had been done before.  At that time I realized that all individuals, in one way or another, become part of a collective historical style. We viewed the history of art as a dictionary of intonations.  In works such as Heinrich Böll’s Meeting with  Solzhenitsyn at Rostropovich’s Dacha,  in our installation Paradise, in the polyptych Biography of a Contemporary, in our ‘Post-Art’ project, and others, we reflected the multi-stylistic, conceptually eclectic consciousness  of the Soviet Union’s second avant-garde.


Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

Vitaly Komar Interview with David Glasser: The Yalta Conference

This year Komar and Melamid’s Yalta 1945, first shown at documenta 8 at Kassel in 1987 and later at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, will be on view at the Ben Uri Gallery in London.

Since 2003 the artists have worked individually, but images of the Yalta Conference continue to appear in the works of Vitaly Komar.

Ben Uri Chairman, David Glasserr, met with the artist.

David Glasser (D.G.):

Vitaly, tell me how the Yalta theme first appeared in the work of Komar and Melamid?

Vitaly Komar (V.K.):

Oh, that’s a long story.  I was born in Moscow toward the end of World War II.  When I was just over a year old, the Yalta Conference, that famous meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, took place in the Crimea. The Allies were preparing for victory in 1945 and were negotiating the future world order and the founding of the United Nations.  Many years later, after I immigrated to New York, I saw a photograph of that meeting for the first time.

Quite unexpectedly, the photograph enchanted me. It felt as though some inexplicable power plunged me into a kaleidoscope of contradictory images and impressions from my past and present, my life in different worlds: in the world of Stalin, the world of Roosevelt, and the world of Churchill.

This eclectic, and sometimes absurd, kaleidoscope has appeared on and off in my work, both individual, and together with Alex Melamid.  The best known work on Yalta theme was the multi-panelled Yalta 1945, shown at documenta 8 in the late ’80s.


This year Yalta 1945 will be shown at the Ben Uri Gallery. How would you describe the concept of the installation, and the images in it?


Yalta 1945 is a polyptych consisting of 31 paintings.  Each panel is a 48-x-48-inch square, but the mediums vary: you have oil, tempera, mixed media and assemblage.  Some are on canvas, but a number are on wood.  The different styles of the paintings reflect changes in mood, as well as different periods of art history, which in turn reflects the larger conceptual eclecticism of contemporary consciousness.  For me, eclecticism is synonymous with pluralism and tolerance. All of us have divergent images and conceptual opposite coexisting in our minds. We believe in Darwin, and in God.

My mind is like a ‘Russian salad’ filled with wide array of tastes and textures. I love the art of very different and what you might think are incompatible artists, styles, movements, times and peoples. 

I view the history of art as a whole as an eclectic polyptych, full of contrasts and contradictions. The triptych at the heart of the Yalta photographs is just as contradictory and eclectic as art history, if you think about it. We have the three allies sitting next to one another: the King’s Servant, the Democratic President, and the Bloody Dictator.  For me, the image in this photograph has become a visual symbol of what I call ‘conceptual eclecticism’.

The polyptych begins with the images of Churchill and Roosevelt drawn from the Yalta photograph, but executed in a painterly, expressionistic style; in the second panel Stalin is painted in a traditionally realistic style, and the panel fades into darkness to the right of him.

Next is a conceptual, pop-art rendering of the superpowers’ names abbreviated as a mirror image: US/SU. Then comes a classical ‘Judgment of Solomon’, which was a frequent subject in Renaissance painting. The figure of a soldier holding an infant and a sword symbolizes the post-war division of Europe that emerged from the Yalta Conference.  There is a large industrial fan, symbolizing the ‘winds of history’ in one of the lower panels.

The squares in Yalta 1945 remind me of blocks or puzzle pieces in a children’s game, where the order could conceivably be changed. The images change, but the panels follow a pattern reminiscent of a path through a labyrinth.  In one square an illustration of a Russian children’s story shows a fox holding a roasted duck on a tray, as if carrying it toward the next painting, which depicts a huge nose. A subsequent composition incorporates images of medieval Russian icons into Russian avant-garde motifs. This is followed by an erotic female nude that metamorphoses into an abstract expressionist panel, and then op-art-like geometric ornamentation.  Images follow in quick, sometimes absurd succession like a kaleidoscope version of hopscotch: there’s a pink fish, its head and tail on different squares; a menorah; a panel of fur; a three-dimensional spherical mirror—and all are interspersed with a variety of yellow, green, blue, and red monochromes.

The piece ends with the hybrid image of a blindfolded skull—an attribute of Justice overlaid on the emblem of Vanitas.


Why is the work called Yalta 1945?  The conference was held in secret, but it is well known now that it took place in 1944.


Because 1945 was when the plans made at the conference came to fruition. The Allies won and even though Roosevelt didn’t live to see the end of the war, the idea of a new world order and the creation of the United Nations was victorious.


Why did the photographs from Yalta captivate your imagination and evoke so many contrasting images? Can you recall their origins, or explain the reason for this fascination?


Very well.  I’ll try to play archaeologist and dig down to the earliest layers of my consciousness.

From childhood I was surrounded by images of Stalin, even in my bedroom.  When I was five years old, my parents divorced, and Mama exchanged the photograph of my father hanging next to my bed with one of Stalin.  Like my father, Stalin was dressed in a military uniform.  Moreover, one of the most common honorifics for Stalin was ‘Father of All the Peoples’.

I started school at age seven.  On the first day, the entire class had to proclaim loudly: ‘Comrade Stalin, Thank You for Our Happy Childhood!’. The same slogan hung over the entrance to our school.  The background was red and the letters and exclamation mark were white.  In 1953, when I was ten, the Father of all the Peoples died.  The people were orphaned.  The new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, ordered statues of Stalin to be destroyed and banished his image.

After Stalin died, Mama substituted a picture of the Mona Lisa for the portrait of Stalin in my bedroom.  The previous year, everyone had celebrated the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s birth.  Almost as many pictures of Mona Lisa, with her famous smile, were printed for the occasion as portraits of Stalin and his famous moustache.  Gradually, the succession of portraits that hung over my childhood bed merged in my muddled head.  Today, when I see Marcel Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa, I am reminded of my happy childhood.

For over 20 years before Stalin’s death, his image surrounded every Soviet person, not just me. Portraits of Stalin were everywhere: in books for children and adults, in magazines and newspapers, in the movies and at exhibitions, on each floor of my school, on the walls and roofs of buildings, and even in the sky.  I later realized that this visual propaganda had been firmly ‘imprinted’ on my young brain.

One time, when I was six years old, I actually saw the real, living Stalin.  Not in my bedroom, but on Aleksei Tolstoy Street.  My grandfather and I were walking somewhere.  Suddenly we were stopped by guards.  A line of identical black cars drove out of the gates of Vyacheslav Molotov’s gothic mansion at high speed. As they passed me, I caught a glimpse of that well known face.  Our eyes met.  Then Stalin disappeared.

My grandfather was an old man, a Jew who had been deeply frightened by the Soviet authorities.  Today I understand why he asked me not to tell anyone about the incident, and tried to convince me that it wasn’t Stalin, just some soldier with a moustache.

Many years later, when I had become a professional artist, memories of that ‘mirage’ were transformed into the painting I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child (1981-82). It became part of a series of paintings that Alex Melamid and I called ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism’. Today that piece is in the collection of MoMA in New York.

During my childhood Stalin was often portrayed together with Lenin or other heroes of Soviet history, sometimes even with people whom he had never actually met, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  But I had never seen the photo of Stalin with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt — his allies in the historical victory over Hitler.  As a young man I visited the Crimea, and Yalta, which is a wonderful city on the Black Sea.  I have marvellous memories of the place.  But even in the palace/museum, where the Allied leaders met, there were no photograph of them.


How do you explain this strange absence?


It was probably one of many decisions taken by Soviet censorship during the Cold War.  In those years, Soviet people were shown Churchill and American presidents through the frightening, surrealist lens of political satire.  Gloomy, humourless black-and-white drawings portrayed the Western leaders as evil swine and goat-like devils. It was quite some time before I realized that the mirages of my childhood world were dangerous illusions.

As I said earlier, the first time I saw the photograph of Yalta was in 1978, in New York.  The photograph suddenly plunged me into a kaleidoscope of images that were directly and tangentially connected to different aspects of my life.  I saw the three allies as emblems, three personifications of the three different and incompatible concepts that stood behind them.

I was struck by the conceptual eclecticism of this ‘metaphorical triptych’.  Some of the earliest appearances of this type of symbolic eclecticism were the hybrids in ancient mythologies that combined images of man and beast. In our historical time, photographs of the Yalta meeting combined juxtaposed political mythologies. I saw the image of these three men as a single creature–a three-headed, multi-armed ruler, who combined the contradictions of monarchy, tyranny and democracy.

What brought such different people together as allies?  The answer is simple: a common enemy.  And in fact, one of the first paintings on the Yalta theme, was ‘The Yalta Conference: Excerpts from a Future History Textbook’ (1982) where Hitler appears as a participant in the Yalta Conference, standing like a shadow figure behind Roosevelt (as ET) and Stalin.  Like I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child, this work was part of the ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism’ that Melamid and I produced together.


Images of Yalta have appeared at different times in many of Komar and Melamid’s works, including the series ‘50 Public Mural Projects for the United Nations Building in New York’, (1987-95), which I find particularly interesting.  Tell us a bit about that project.


That series originated in a big drama. In 1990, we submitted three mural proposals for a public art work at the U.N. One of them was chosen and approved by the CITYart Foundation, which was overseeing the project. The Yalta image was part of that mural proposal. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the neighbourhood Community Board, which also had to approve the final choice.  At the time, I met with one of the members of the Community Board and he told me that many former Eastern Europeans lived in the U.N. area. For them, he said, Stalin was the incarnation of evil, and they wouldn’t want to see him portrayed at the U.N.  I pointed out that even in Catholic churches depictions of Satan were allowed.  But my argument had no effect. That was when I realized that in America, censorship moves from the bottom up, unlike the Soviet Union where it came from the top down.

Even though the mural project wasn’t accepted, the subject was intriguing, and those first mural proposals grew into the series ‘50 Public Mural Projects’, which we exhibited at the Storefront for Art & Architecture in 1995 in honour of the 50th-anniversary of the end of World War II and the establishment of the United Nations.


In 2003, you and Alex began working individually, yet Yalta continued to appear in your work, for instance, the ‘Three-Day Weekend’ project.  Why was that?


Whenever I looked at the actual photographs of the Yalta ‘troika’, my imagination ‘secreted’ three strands of unexpected images.  This ‘secretion’ is similar to the conditioned reflex of salivation in Pavlov’s dogs.  But these visions often seemed absurd to me, and I couldn’t explain their connection to the Yalta Conference.  For example, in one painting based on that photograph, Roosevelt’s body appeared with the head of the alien ET, from Steven Spielberg’s popular film; or in a number of polyptychs from the “Diary” series (1984-85), including The Minotaur as Participant in the Yalta Conference.

Many years later, I began to understand the connection between Roosevelt and the image of ET.  I found a long-forgotten photograph from my childhood, where I am sitting between my parents, in the centre of our ‘familial troika’.  I am in the middle, like Roosevelt in the Yalta photograph. My mother is in the place occupied by Stalin. I think it’s possible that living in America I subconsciously felt that I myself was a sort of ET — an infantile creature from another world, an alien from another planet and another political system.

Once I understood this connection, I began work on the ‘Three-Day Weekend’ project. [In 2006, part of this project was exhibited at the Ben Uri Gallery, D.G.]  In that project, images of the Yalta conference combined with my childhood family photograph and emblems of different religions.  I saw the eclecticism of utopian ecumenism as being connected to my personal biography.

My mother was raised in a family with Jewish traditions, and my father in a family with Christian traditions.  But in the Soviet Union, the country of ‘atheist fundamentalism’, my parents became members of the Communist Party.  Thus the culmination of this project were works in which religious pop symbols were united with political pop emblems like the Soviet hammer and sickle, a symbol of social utopia.

A similar combination can be seen in Austria’s state emblem — a two-headed eagle holding a hammer and sickle in its talons.  It would actually be a good symbol for Putin’s Russia. It’s an old tradition: in the Metropolitan Museum I saw a similar combination in an ancient Byzantine relief carved in ivory: Adam holds a hammer, and Eve a sickle.

Vitaly Komar

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell





Genocide is a Personal Thing

Blog post by Jim Ranahan Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 26th January 2016

Holocaust Memorial and Ben Uri

Meyer  In Memoriam 1942
Family Photograph (in memoriam 1942) by Klaus Meyer

Rarely has a place-name attracted such infamy as Auschwitz. Reviled around the world, it is synonymous with horror and cynical cruelty almost beyond comprehension. Yet the crimes represented by this place-name (and alluded to by Klaus Meyer’s ‘Family Photograph’ above) were comprehended by the perpetrators and by their victims throughout Europe – and are comprehended wherever else they occur. The need to make sense of the enormity of these crimes and their very personal nature and consequences underpins the continuing importance of Holocaust Memorial Day (in Britain) and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. These days provide an annual focus on the constant need for us all to counter humans’ capacity for inhumanity.

Holocaust Memorial Day logo 2016
Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 logo

Ben Uri supports Holocaust Memorial Day in a very practical way, by providing a digital resource for the London Grid for Learning to support Holocaust Studies for students of GCSE History and GCSE Art & Design. This resource can be viewed online and it uses artwork to explore the reality of the Holocaust and its aftermath, in order to minimise the risk of future genocide. Given Ben Uri’s association with artists of émigré backgrounds, there is a natural focus on specific Jewish experiences of and artistic responses to the Holocaust. Indeed, Ben Uri’s foundation by artists who personally witnessed Russian and Eastern European pogroms (or whose families had suffered these) has provided the Gallery with artwork offering an insight to endemic persecution of minorities – the critical action which ultimately underpins genocide. Reflecting Ben Uri’s ethos of building on its Jewish experience to help other migrant groups, the Gallery’s work for Holocaust Memorial Day is on behalf of all victims, whether targeted by race, ethnicity, religion, political belief, disability, sexual orientation or any other decreed ‘qualifying characteristic’.

Meyer Memoriam Back
Reverse of ‘Family Portrait’ marked for publication

Whilst the focus of Ben Uri’s Holocaust digital resource is on the selected artworks themselves, the images in this web article are taken from monochrome photographic reference prints of the artworks, even where the original artwork has colour.Avoidance of colour in an art gallery blog is unusual, not least as the use or non-use of colour is a deliberate act by the artist and must be respected [1]. However, this web piece has an archival rather than artistic perspective and focuses on the prints themselves as evidence of a specific but completely prosaic gallery activity. They form part of the editorial process for the design and layout of images included in a catalogue, with a predominantly monochrome format [2]. These prints and their associated negatives, contact sheets and processing / cropping instructions chart the laborious process facing picture editors in a ‘pre-Photoshop’ age. Their very work-a-day function invests the prints with a particular poignancy, once the actual subject matter of the images carried by them is considered and the personal stories of the artists are understood. A small selection is considered, whose relevance to contemporary circumstances should underscore the core message of Holocaust Memorial Day 2016: Don’t Stand By.

A case in point is the lead image, the original of which is a woodcut and linocut on paper by the painter and print-maker Klaus Meyer. Produced in 1982, ‘Family Photograph (in memoriam 1942)’ commemorates the murder of Meyer’s mother, brother Ulrich and other relatives at Auschwitz forty years previously. Alongside the obvious tragedy represented by this artwork, a further personal layer is hinted at through the time elapsed before this refugee artist (who fled Nazi Germany in 1938) could turn away from his trade-mark views of Hampstead Heath and references to German and English literature [3].

Fraenkel Dr Gaster
Head of the Haham, Dr Moses Gaster by Elsa Fraenkel

This sculpture from 1936 embodies two distinct examples of flight from persecution. Elsa Fraenkel was an established artist when she fled Nazi Germany, arriving in Britain in 1935. The subject of her sculpture illustrated here is an earlier refugee, Moses Gaster arriving in England in 1885 after expulsion from Romania.

Still Life with Skull by Josef Karpf

Josef Karpf’s ‘Still life with Skull’ introduces a standard artistic motif in the memento mori (remember you must die) tradition, but his personal experience imbues this conventional artistic setting with added poignancy. Karpf was a Polish diplomat who, with his wife Natalia claimed asylum when recalled from London in 1950. They had both survived barbaric experiences, Natalia in the Nazi concentration camp in Plaszow, Josef in a Siberian labour camp [4].

Frankfurther Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a Woman by Eva Frankfurther

Eva Frankfurther’s work belies her personal experience of the Holocaust era. She was born in Germany and escaped the Nazi regime as a nine-year-old refugee, enduring the trauma of persecution, displacement and resettlement. Her suicide in 1959 is one more tragedy to be added to the roll call of Holocaust and ongoing genocide across the world.

The witness borne by Ben Uri’s collections holds up a mirror to contemporary society. The personal consequences of past crimes are apparent in the stories of the artists as much as in their artwork. The ultimate failure of such crimes in their stated aim of eradication is also apparent in the flourishing work of artists from the victimised and subsequent generations. This is a positive message which can be shared with artists and communities currently vulnerable to intolerance or worse. However, as Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 reminds us, there is no room for complacency. The causes of bigotry and hatred remain, with ignorance, fear and intolerance remaining potential breeding grounds for attitudes that can ultimately result in calamity. Ben Uri consequently is committed to working through education and outreach with like-minded people from all communities to ensure that we Don’t Stand By.


1 Please note that artworks in the Ben Uri Collection can and should be viewed in their true state (colour or otherwise) at

2 ‘Jewish Artists: The Ben Uri Collection.  Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture’ Edited by Walter Schwab and Julia Weiner (1994 2nd Edition) ISBN 0-85331-655-4

3 ‘Klaus Meyer: Obituary’ Daily Telegraph 26/07/2002

4 ‘Natalia Karpf: Obituary’ Daily Telegraph 11/07/2007

Useful Sites

Ben Uri Holocaust Learning Resource

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

University College London Centre for Holocaust Education

Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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

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

Observations from Across the Ocean, Segal’s “Halen, La Ciotat”

Blog post by Claire Jackson Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 20th November 2015


Moving to another country simultaneously strengthened and made me question my own identity. My name is Olivia, and after traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to earn my master’s degree at the University of Leicester, I found myself applying for an internship in the Learning Department at the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum as the culmination to my master’s program. I was attracted to the Ben Uri because of their focus on art, identity and migration, themes that resonate with me after spending the previous ten months receiving an education not only in Museum Studies but also in British culture. My classmates and I would laugh at the funny similarities and differences between our cultures. Although we all spoke the same language, there were many strange expressions and pronunciations, which made for some interesting conversations. Our language both united and divided us, a reminder of the powerful role it plays in creating our identity. And yet, we were also united by our interest in museums and through the art and artifacts we encountered throughout our course. As I worked and lived alongside students from all over the UK and abroad, my identity began to shift, inevitably shaped and changed by my experiences in England.

I believe that art has the ability to transcend our differences and although it is often strongly tied to the artist’s identity, it ultimately speaks to each person individually. The ability for us to reflect and find personal significance in a piece of art is what enables it to unite us. However, I am also painfully aware that not everyone feels comfortable looking at and discussing art. This is an obstacle that museums and galleries internationally must work to remove, so that art is more accessible to everyone. This is something that I feel very passionate about and plan to spend my career working to address.

Personally, I often find myself drawn to landscapes. Landscapes seem to have a universal quality and yet are also strongly tied to identity. The view from your childhood bedroom window, is a landscape that few forget, the local park or schoolyard are landscapes that, although particular to a time and place, are also more generally relatable. On my first visit toOut of Chaos I was immediately drawn to Arthur Segal’s Halen, La Ciotat (Harbour Scene). The beautiful colour palette and Segal’s unique combination of impressionism and cubism drew me in. But as I studied the painting further, I grew nostalgic for the Boston harbour as it rekindled fond memories of the summer I spent there a few years ago. Although Segal was painting a port in France, for me the painting took on a new meaning through my own experiences. Through art there is the possibility not only to get a glimpse into the artist’s identity but also to explore our own.