Lazar Berson was born in 1882 in the village of Skopichky, Russia (now Lithuania). Little is known about his early life, though he probably spoke Yiddish at home and received a traditional Jewish religious education. At the turn of the century, he studied painting in St Petersburg, where he was influenced by the Jewish cultural renaissance, and the renewed interest in Russian and Jewish folk art and craft.
Circular Design for Ben Uri Art Society c. 1915
Berson took these ideas to Paris, where he continued his studies, probably as a student under Professor Cormon at the École des Beaux-Arts. Later, Berson recalled that he studied ‘together with a prayer quorum of Jewish children’, referring to the large number of mostly Eastern-European Jewish artists then working in Paris.
He exhibited at the Salon d’automne alongside Chagall, Bakst, Kisling and Pascin in 1911 and 1912, and lived at the same address as Lipchitz. In contrast to other École de Paris artists who embraced modernist styles, Berson maintained the decorative approach of traditional folk art and sought to develop a specifically Jewish type of art.
Following the outbreak of the First World War Berson moved to London, where he set up a portrait studio and wrote articles for Jewish newspapers, espousing his uncompromising Jewish nationalist, Zionist and fierce anti-assimilationist views.
In 1915, he realised his long-held ambition of forming a society for Jewish art when he founded ‘The Jewish-National Decorative Art Association (London) “Ben Ouri”‘, at Gradel’s Restaurant in Whitechapel. In ‘the Ben Uri studio’ he brought together a number of East End artisans, who together with the jeweller Mosheh Oved worked on a series of decorative ‘Jewish’ designs on wooden plates and bowls.
In addition, Berson produced the Ben Uri Album, ‘one of the worlds’ first Yiddish art albums’, published in 1916 by the Ukrainian-born Hebraist Israel Narodiczky. By 1916, the Society had over 100 members and had organised many events and classes, but in September of that year, Berson without warning left for America, only resurfacing late in life in Nice, where he continued to work as a painter, and died in 1954.