On a sunny autumn day, I took the Tube to Abbey Road in London. Braving Beatles fans intent on finding the Abbey Road crosswalk, I walked over to Boundary Road. There, I found the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum and its splendid Friends and Influences exhibit, which includes works by Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and R.B. Kitaj.
These artists all shared Jewish and immigrant backgrounds and frequently painted the same models. This splendid show showcased the high quality of Ben Uri exhibits – it remains London’s only gallery that focuses on Jewish and immigrant art.
Founded by Lazar Berson in 1915 in London’s East End as an art society, the Ben Uri was a gathering place for the increasing numbers of Russian Jews to discuss art, and for the more talented among them to show off their works. In 1933, an influx of European artists fleeing Nazism was added to the mix, as the Ben Uri became an “unofficial artistic sanctuary.”
The Ben Uri’s centenary exhibition in 2015 was a huge success, and included works by Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Mark Gertler and many other famous names. But issues such as a lack of space and funding remained, and so, last January, the museum announced that it would be heading in a new direction.
Faithful to the themes of “art, identity, migration,” the museum will focus on sustainability and public benefit. The Ben Uri Research Institute is an ongoing project designed to digitize all the museum’s catalogues, from Ben Uri’s earliest days and onward. The museum may also acquire new works or dispose of surplus ones, either through sales or gifts to museums or charities.
On the day of my visit, a crew of young interns were hard at work on their laptops, helping to bring this project to fruition. Among the books and homey atmosphere of the gallery’s lower floor, it was startling to come face-to-face with a vibrant Soutine, as well as a powerful Holocaust-themed Chagall.
Making the permanent collection of about 1,400 works more widely accessible outside the rather small confines of the gallery, the current strategy stresses sharing exhibits with other spaces. These have included recent shows in the Polish Social and Cultural Centre, the German Embassy and towns like Gloucester, where exhibits focusing on themes of migration and identity have been very well received by the public and critics alike.
Another bold move involves bringing reproductions from the Ben Uri collection to older people and those living with dementia, some of whom live in social isolation.
The 16-24 week programs, which include art therapy and discussions about the images, has proved to be beneficial for them, as well as their caregivers.
All the works shown are from the Ben Uri collection, though not all the participants are Jewish. A celebration, often in the form of an amateur show curated by the participants, marks the end of each project.
“Last year, an advanced dementia lady taught us what engagement looked like. It was like a light came on when she connected with one of the street names in a painting and not only remembered the Battle of Cable Street (the Oct. 4, 1936 anti-fascist battle provoked by Oswald Mosley’s march into Whitechapel as head of the British Union of Fascists), but some Yiddish words, as well. Another chap remembered that he had been part of the protest, when he was just 13,” said Emma Hollamby, the director of Ben Uri’s arts and dementia program.
On another occasion, Solomon J. Solomon’s painting, The Field: The Artist’s Daughter On A Pony, which depicts a smartly dressed little girl, was shown at the Nightingale Hammerson Jewish Care Home. It turned out that the child depicted in the painting (who lived at Nightingale Hammerson at the end of her life) was the grandmother of the home’s current general practitioner. Honouring the connection, Ben Uri presented the original painting to the home as a long-term loan – and it is now proudly and elegantly displayed in its lobby.