Jul 2003 Journal

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Art Notes

What do Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Walter Sickert, Barbara Hepworth and Edward Burra have in common with the Ben Uri Art Gallery (BU)? You've guessed: they're all at the BU's Making Waves exhibition and not one of them is Jewish. Not a hint of Auerbach, Lucian Freud, or Kossoff, although one Bomberg lurks towards the back. And this is London's major Jewish art house in its new Boundary Road premises, whose Jewish works remain largely in storage. Why are we served up twentieth-century masterpieces when many talented contemporary Jewish artists struggle to be shown? The answer is written on the BU's walls and implies rejection of the ghettoisation of Jewish artists in favour of their twentieth-century British contemporaries who breathed the same air and were influenced by the same passions as they were. That is the sole link in the BU's attempt to 'stimulate wider debate'.

All 23 paintings came from one collector: 'The finest work you will see under one roof, first time seen en bloc', says BU director David Glasser. Hence the preoccupation with the elements, earth, sea and sky, with its political commentary in Paul Nash's wartime devastation of the European countryside. Barbara Hepworth's fragile nude paintings, and Edward Burra's leery Boozer, whose face seems to have morphed into a pint of beer, all speak for bucolic Britain. Anything but the urban emotional landscape that seems to many to invoke Jewish art.

Would you describe Auerbach, Freud or Mark Gertler as ghetto artists, just because their roots inform their work? I hardly think so. But James Hyman, who curated this exhibition, feels it impossible to consider Jewish artists - whose historical context was the ghetto - in a vacuum. And someone at the private view wondered whether there was such a thing as Jewish art at all!

So are Jews to be banished to the shadowlands, ousted by mainstream artists, drummed out of their only authentic gallery? 'We are not trying to exclude Jewish artists', said a BU spokeswoman. 'We will still sponsor the Jewish Artists of the Year awards and the Picture Fair, in which artists are encouraged to donate their works.' The BU is clearly keen to open up the debate between Jewish art and British art. That is a welcome and courageous move. But please don't leave Jewish artists totally out of the picture!

One Jewish artist who has no problem at all with roots is Judy Bermant, whose first woman show for over five years was staged at the Garden Suburb Gallery. The widow of the author and journalist Chaim Bermant, she illustrated his book jackets and included a few watercolour portraits of him in this retrospective. Judy's gentle filigree etchings, prints and watercolours evoke most sensitively the places where she is most at home: Hampstead, Camden and Israel, where two of her children live. The works are a compelling testament to her immersion in a sense of place and local colour - the undulation of trees in the breeze, a deserted Arab village, the harbour at Acre, and an old man studying, whose expression she has caught with such lightness of touch.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:'One hundred years on'
next article:RG's Interface