Refugees and migration, and integration and identity, are pretty timely subjects given current headlines so it’s quite some coincidence that the Ben Uri Gallery is celebrating its centenary with a show at Somerset House, Out of Chaos.
The Ben Uri Gallery is the only specialist art museum in Europe addressing these issues of identity and migration through the visual arts and this show allows them to showcase masterworks from its collection, including pieces from Frank Auerbach, Mark Gertler and Marc Chagall.
Given that Ben Uri holds the most distinguished body of work from artists of European Jewish descent, it’s no surprise that the impact of the two world wars and, in particular, the Second, loom large in this exhibition.
Mark Gertler’s cubist-inspired watercolour Rabbi and Rabbitzin was painted in 1914 and the tension of impending warfare is caught beautifully in this husband and wife sitting at their simple table but clenched together both in solidarity and fear.
The First World War, of course, had a profound effect on migration of peoples across Europe, many coming to the West and to the UK to escape a destroyed and impoverished Germany, as well as the rise of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe.
This movement of peoples is shown dramatically in a series of illustrative maps on the walls of the exhibition, but this refugee status, exacerbated even more by the rise of Nazism, had a profound impact on artists and their work.
Included in the exhibition is Josef Herman’s Refugees, a painting that was thought lost for 60 years until Ben Uri bought it last year. The painting shows a scared family escaping in the dead of night through silent but hostile streets.
This impact of Nazism and the war is powerfully depicted in the stunning The Ghost Town by Shmuel Dresner – a collage of burnt pages ripped from books that powerfully references the Nazi book burnings.
This exhibition also managed to secure Mark Gertler’s iconic Merry-Go-Round on loan from the Tate. The piece’s simple lines and dramatic colour scheme only emphasise the screams of the carousel riders as they can never get off the never-ending carousel of conflict, war and pain.
The painting was donated to Ben Uri in 1945 but it was sold to the Tate in 1984 to safeguard the gallery’s future so it’s great that the loan was secured for this display.
Ben Uri does not stop at the end of the Second World War though. Its collection, and this exhibition, continues to explore the questions of migration and identity right through the post-war years to the present day, and this part of the exhibition has some absolute gems in it.
An eye-catching piece is Eva Frankfurter’s West Indian Waitresses, a tender and quite wonderful reflection of British multiculturalism.
And the exhibition comes right up to date with modern media including photography from Sophie Robertson and the bright Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II from Frank Auerbach.
The exhibition also includes a film about Ben Uri and it’s clear that the current focus of the gallery is to find a permanent home in central London. Currently a location is elusive so do take this opportunity to see Out of Chaos at Somerset House as it’s a great exhibition that shines a light on such an important, timely and pertinent subject, and the scope of works that have been collated together to showcase the Ben Uri Gallery is unquestionably impressive.
And all this without an admission fee? That’s got to be applauded.
Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London to December 13, 2015
- Mark Gertler, Rabbi and Rabbitzin, 1914, watercolour and pencil on paper, 82.5 x 71 cm, Ben Uri Collection
- Shmuel Dresner, The Ghost Town, 1982, Collage on paper, 78.5 x 78.5 cm, Ben Uri Collection © The Artist
- Josef Herman Refugees, Gouache on paper, 60.7 x 53.2 x 3.3 cm, Ben Uri Collection © Estate of Josef Herman. All rights reserved.
- Mark Gertler, Merry-Go-Round, 1916 © Tate
- Frank Auerbach, Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II, 2004, Oil on board, 69 x 69 cm, Ben Uri Collection. © The Artist