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Making Waves: modern British masterpieces from a European trust

Making Waves: modern British masterpieces from a European trust

 
 

Essay by James Hyman

Exhibition curated by James Hyman for the London Jewish Museum of Art. The Ben Uri Gallery, London.

Catalogue by James HymanMajor paintings by William Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Walter Sickert, Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash, Christopher Wood, David Bomber, Graham Sutherland, Michael Ayrton, John Minton, Edward burra, Edward Wadsworth, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, William Scott, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron.

This publication is available from the gallery, priced at £5.00.

TEXT EXTRACT:

Sixty years ago this year, the young Jewish artist, Josef Herman, held his first exhibition in London at the prestigious Lefevre Gallery. Already gaining a reputation on the continent, the exhibition marked Herman's arrival on the London art scene and led to an invitation for the artist to meet one of the most distinguished impresarios in British art, the then Director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark. It was the middle of the Second World War but the Englishman's advice was terse and made such an impression that even half a century later Herman could recall it vividly: Mr Herman, you are a very talented painter but my advice to you is to go back to Europe. Clark explained: We English have a great sense of nature but not of humanity.distinction between nature and humanity provides a dichotomy that is a key to understanding the different qualities so often assigned to British and Jewish art. A belief that Jewish art is somehow different from other art has informed its presentation in Britain throughout the twentieth century. As early as May 1914, when the Whitechapel Art Gallery staged a massive exhibition entitled Twentieth Century: A Review of Modern Movements, one of its galleries was labeled 'The Jewish Section'. Including fifty-four works, it was guided by the choices of David Bomberg and the display included not just familiar Anglo-Jewish artists such as Gertler, Brodsky, Rosenberg, Meninsky and Wolmark but also, following a visit by Bomberg and Epstein to Paris, works by Modigliani, Pascin and Kisling. Just months later the Ben Uri was founded, partly stimulated by this exhibition and its presentation of Jewish art both as contributing to international trends and as something distinct and separate.

Just as the majority of artists on show in the 1914 exhibition were not Jewish, so it is in the present exhibition. Conceptually very different, nonetheless, in each case the selection illuminates the wider context in which Jewish artists have worked. The paintings, drawings and sculpture selected for Making Waves can be seen as a foil to those of many of the leading Anglo-Jewish artists of the twentieth century: indeed the only painting included by an artist of Jewish origin is David Bomberg's exquisite, jewel-like The Outskirts of Toledo (1929) (plate 10), which was formerly in the collection of Josef Herman.

It is hoped, therefore, that the staging of the present exhibition at the Ben Uri will not only showcase an exceptional collection of twentieth century British paintings but will also stimulate a wider debate that will allow the distinct achievements of Anglo-Jewish artists, famous and obscure, to be perceived all the more clearly. To this end the selection focuses on a number of key aspects where this contrast is at its most acute: early twentieth century portraiture, responses to war, depictions of the sea and coast and forms of abstraction. Whilst twentieth century art by Jewish artists has often been characterised as expressionist and figurative - an urban art of domestic interiors and mundane neighbourhoods - the British artists in the present exhibition are more emotionally detached as they explore the countryside from land, sea and sky or pursue innovative new Modernist paths.

The scene is set by the high-class elegance of subject and refinement of surface to be found in the drawing rooms of William Nicholson, here represented by two major portraits and an exquisite still-life (plates 1,2,3). This is a world apart from the prosaic settings and emotional toughness to be found in a range of working-class Jewish artists. Nicholson's Young Woman in White (1895) (plate 2) - one of the artist's earliest mature oil paintings - is a well-mannered homage to Whistler's Portrait of the Painter's Mother, that despite its subject-matter appears to affirm Whistler's belief in the representational aspects of a picture being far less interesting than its formal ones. This is no less true of Nicholson's Portrait of Sybil Hart-Davis (1913) (plate 3). The great-great-granddaughter of King William IV and his actress mistress Mrs. Jordan, Sybil is both regal and slightly vulnerable, teasing and alert. But again emotions are held in check and it is formal elements that especially engage the artist: an asymmetrical arrangement positions the sitter on the far left and once more much of the canvas is comparatively bare.
After the beautiful surfaces of paint, atmospheric subtlety and reined-in emotions of Nicholson, it is to Walter Sickert that one must turn for a more emotionally charged, at times almost expressionist vision. Sickert, of German origin, made England his base, bringing with him an immense daring, that is especially evident in his Camden Town Interiors. This inspired not only Sickert's contemporaries but also future generations, from Bomberg and Coldstream to Auerbach, Kossoff and Freud.

Walter Sickert's Summer Afternoon (c.1909) (plate 5) has a matter-of-fact title that belies the raw power of the paint handling and the even rawer power of its subject-matter. One of a number of works that Sickert painted following newspaper accounts of a murder in Camden Town not far from where the artist had a studio, it presents a twilight world that is both tender and mysterious, evoking rather than describing its subject.

Unsurprisingly, an even greater rawness is to be found in responses to the horrors of the First World War. The extraordinary generation of prewar students of the Slade School of Art - including not only Bomberg and Gertler but also Nevinson, Spencer and Wadsworth - created some of the most disturbing images of the Great War. Gertler's Merry Go Round (1916), for many years the Ben Uri's most famous painting, is now one of the Tate's most celebrated works, a change in ownership that says much about this duality between Jewish and International art: not only one of the most challenging paintings by an Anglo-Jewish artist it is also one of the most profound and disturbing responses to the war by an artist of any background or nationality. Similarly Epstein's Rock Drill (1913-16) has deservedly gained a distinguished place as one of the most ambitious of all twentieth century sculptures.

This, too, was the context for Nevinson's strongest paintings. From a Paris Plane (1919-1920) (plate 7) is a taut, powerful composition that contrasts with Gertler's depiction of psychological trauma and Epstein's vision of man as an automated killing machine, to create an image of formal brilliance that focuses on something more positive. The engineering triumph of early aeroplanes is here celebrated by Nevinson in one of the very first paintings to depict the experience of flight: struts and crossed wires provide a powerful structure through which may be glimpsed the channel port of Dieppe.

It would be decades later before other artists took up this aerial challenge, first in depictions of the Second World War and then from the later 1950s through recreational gliding, most notably in the cases of Alan Davie and Peter Lanyon, whose paintings reveal an exhilarating new conception of space and light. Lanyon's Cross Country (1959-60) (plate 22) demonstrates this perceptual basis to seemingly abstract paintings. An initial impression of gestural abstraction gives way to suggestions of sky, a horizon, a beach and even sea across which the wind rushes.

Appropriately it is the sea, the coast and specifically the English Channel - the literal divide between Britain and mainland Europe - that is at the heart of the present exhibition. Whilst many Jewish artists might be said to inhabit a realm of earth and fire, these British artists inhabit a lighter world of air and water. Water runs through the exhibition from key paintings of the 1930s to the achievements of painters of the artist's colony of St. Ives in Cornwall. It is the dynamic center of Christopher Wood's bold Window at Marseilles (c.1929) (plate 9), a distant view in Paul Nash's daring Opening (1930-31) (plate 8) and the principal subject of Edward Wadsworth's expansive English Channel (1934) (plate 16). In each case, however, the ambitions are very different.
In Window at Marseilles the initial comfort of Christopher Wood's cosy interior, with its inviting armchair, and attractive view of the port is quietly subverted. Despite the beautiful, soft colours, black is everywhere - inside and outside - and the scene is framed by the drapes of a black curtain, which has the portentous weight of condolence stationery. In contrast the mood of Wadsworth's extraordinary tempera painting The English Channel (1934) is very different. An epic scale combines with an intimacy of touch as the beach and sea stretch endlessly across our field of vision. The setting was a favourite one for the artist, although by the decade's end this would change: having family connections with Germany the artist was not allowed to visit the coast during the war years.

The lead-up to war also inspired Edward Burra whose magisterial Camouflage (1938) (plate 15), formerly in the collection of Felix Topolski, was derived from the artist's travels in Spain and the impact of the Spanish Civil War. In Camouflage disconcertingly abrupt changes of scale add drama to one of Burra's most disturbing images. However, whilst British intellectuals invariably sided with the Republican struggle in Spain, Burra's attitudes are less evident. What he cared about, above all else, was people. It is people, especially in social settings, that fill his watercolours and drawings from the bars of Harlem to the port of Marseilles, from the Cabaret to the Pub. In the lively, late watercolour, The Boozer (1964) (plate 14), Burra uses a tight composition to emphasize the proximity of the drinkers and an almost lurid palette evokes the noise and vibrancy of the bar.

An altogether different response to the war is to be found in the pictures of the neo-Romantic artists, whose great champion was Kenneth Clark. Altogether more wistful, neo-Romanticism was championed for its essential Englishness and flourished during the isolationist years of the war. This was an art that engaged with the English and Welsh landscape and was typified by the phenomenal draftsmanship of Graham Sutherland, John Minton and John Craxton. In each case their artistic gifts, as with those of Edward Burra, found especially powerful expression on paper rather than canvas. But in contrast to Burra's depiction of man as a social animal in a contemporary urban habitat, theirs is a more timeless vision of solitary young men, self-absorbed and alone in nature.

Sutherland, the senior figure, provided a lead. Staying at Clark's rented house at Upton in Gloucestershire in the first winter of the war, he painted the powerful Welsh Landscape with Yellow Lane (1939-40) (plate 11). Produced in England, as is the case with all of Sutherland's early Welsh landscapes, this painting derives its power from a tension between a pastoral vision of the land and the realities of war: an acrid sky, sulphorous roads and sense of desolation all suggest the emotional turbulence of the time.

Similarly inspired by Wales (despite its title) was John Minton's magnificently intricate English Landscape (1943) (plate 13). The mystery and darkness of the imagery echoes that of Sutherland but the subject of a figure in a landscape is almost absent in the work of Sutherland and is one that Minton and Craxton made their own. In this case the solitary figure is surely a symbolic self-portrait. The prodigious draftsmanship of John Craxton, evident in his finest drawings such as Dancer in a Landscape (c.1942) (plate 12), shares such imaging but is lighter in mood. Inspired by the visionary paintings of Samuel Palmer the dancer's communion with nature recalls the early sections of William Wordsworth's epic poem The Prelude.

Viewed charitably, then, Clark's advice to Herman may have been well intentioned, rather than ignorant or prejudiced, but it does also hint at the xenophobia faced by so many mid-century immigrants. This was so prevalent that even a modernist such as the gifted young painter and critic Michael Ayrton used reviews of 1945-46 to stridently advocate a national culture that would resist foreign influence and above all the poisonous effects of Pablo Picasso. Nonetheless, Ayrton's own practice as a painter belies such rhetoric and shows his awareness of contemporary Italian painting, above all that of Renato Guttuso and his circle of social realists. Ayrton's Thunder Approaching (1947-48) (plate 17) - one of the artist's most powerful early paintings - was based on studies made in Ischia in Italy in the summer of 1947, a setting that also inspired the similarly ambitious painting, The Captive Seven (1950), in the collection of the Tate gallery.

But despite the strength of the Trust's holdings of paintings from the 1930s, it is paintings of the 1950s that are the real climax to the collection, brilliantly illuminating the heights of British Modernism. William Scott's tempestuous Large Still-Life (1957) (plate 21) has an epic scale and dramatic space in which the simplified forms of bowls, plates and cups that cling to the kitchen table have the resilience of storm-tossed ships at sea. In contrast to the quiet intimacy of Morandi's still lives, Large Still-Life is a declamatory painting in which the forms appear to burst with life.

In St. Ives, meanwhile, the land, sea and sky frequently remain as a starting point for abstraction as is evident in the work of Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron. Hepworth's powerful Discs in Echelon (1934) (plate 19) is perhaps the most purely abstract work held by the Trust. It illustrates the beginning of a four-year period in which Hepworth sought what she described as 'constructive forms and poetic structure', inspired in part by her meetings with Mondrian and Gabo in the mid-1930s and awareness of Arp and Giacometti. In contrast Hepworth's marvelous Three Groups, hand on shoulder, blue and yellow ground (1949) (plate 18) marks a temporary return to the human figure. Rather than being indebted to Modernism, its refinement suggests either the intimacy of a tempera painting or the serenity of the frescos of Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, which Hepworth saw during her two-year period in Italy from 1924 to 1926.

Hepworth's ambition was matched by that of Patrick Heron. Ochre Skies: April 1957 (1957) (plate 23) - one of Heron's earliest 'stripe' paintings - comes from an ambitious series of abstractions that were almost unprecedented in Britain. Their radicalism places them at the forefront of the international avant-garde alongside American artists such as Mark Rothko. Yet this was also the time when in London a new generation of painters including Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff were rejuvenating figurative painting, inventing new forms of representation. The dichotomy between nature and humanity could hardly be more starkly illustrated.

Today, sixty years after Herman's encounter with Kenneth Clark, the situation could hardly be more different, yet this dichotomy still remains meaningful. Nonetheless, almost ninety years since the Whitechapel's survey of Modern art, today's Jewish artists fight against any such separation, their social and cultural assimilation a riposte to any such ghettoisation. Furthermore, the most significant British artists of today - ranging from painters such as Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff to the sculptors Caro and Kapoor - long ago assumed their rightful place alongside the major figures of post-war art not as 'Jewish' artists but as powerful and distinct individuals. It is fitting, then, that this exhibition should be shown at the Ben Uri, where the story of Jewish art really is the story of art.

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