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Aug 2010 Journal

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Art notes (review)

It has been a roller-coaster of a month for the Ben Uri Gallery. Their decision to stage an exhibition of Crucifixion paintings, Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion, split the Jewish community. A Jewish Chronicle poll immediately after the opening resulted in a 66 per cent ‘No’ vote to a Jewish gallery featuring the Crucifixion, which David Glasser, co-chair of the Ben Uri executive, rejected as out-dated and unrepresentative. He moved swiftly to email the community in an attempt to reverse this vote and was vindicated by a 200-strong wave of positive emails in favour of the exhibition.

Glasser and the curator of this show, Nathaniel Hepburn, consider the Crucifixion a valid and lucid subject for twentieth-century artists who have suffered or witnessed the Holocaust, the Soviet purges and the First World War atrocities. Many artists depict Christ’s death agony as an image of the Holocaust and mankind’s essentially wasteful nature. Many are brilliant, some subtle, others shocking, as the show’s name implies.

Glasser has fought a long and courageous battle to steer the Ben Uri in an ever more eclectic direction and has pondered the question of whether a Jewish gallery should show only Jewish art or broaden its remit to cover more universal artistic themes. This latest Crucifixion controversy proves something of an apotheosis for him. The exhibition shows 21 major paintings since 1915 including three important examples by Jewish artists, Emmanuel Levy, Marc Chagall and Samuel Bak.

Glasser’s much vaunted recent purchase, a Chagall drawing which presents an androgynous Christ in pale lilac shades with a serpent-tailed Nazi at the bottom, is described as the artist’s bleakest Crucifixion. Graham Sutherland’s tortured, thorny, blood-spattered Christ was inspired by photos he had seen of the broken corpses at Belsen. In John Armstrong’s highly gestural and stylised vision, the mourners are predominant, evoking the artist’s view of a devastated civilisation. Then Samuel Bak’s moving portrayal uses the famous photo of the young boy with his arms held up as he faces the Nazis. The painting divides into four parts: the boy’s face is centred and his upturned hands become the nailed hands of Christ. Emmanuel Levy’s well-known Christ in a tallit, beneath the red-painted word ‘Jude’, is the most self-evident of Christ’s Jewishness and the most pointed expression of Jewish victimhood at the hands of the Nazis. Do go and see this highly thought-provoking exhibition, which is on until 19 September.

This year’s Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition is a little more representative of the punters who sent work in this year than in the recent past. One of this year’s co-ordinators, Stephen Chambers, assured me that two-thirds of the work hung this year had come from open submissions. It is hard to do justice to so much excellent work, but David Mach’s massive gorilla made from coat-hangers, Silver Streak, is inevitably breathtaking. David Hockney’s treescape in four seasons and Anselm Kiefer’s disturbing Einschüsse are among 1,200 works, mainly for sale from £40 to £1 million.
 

Gloria Tessler

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