May 2012 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

The shifting demographic of British art is explored by Tate Britain in Migrations: Journeys into British Art, an examination of the multi-culturalism influencing home talent. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, the experience of European immigrants, including Dutch painters and later those in flight from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, may have some resonance with today’s refugees. But many 17th-century artists came here to seek British patronage. We can reflect on Holbein’s Henry V111 or Anthony van Dyck’s Charles 1, while 19th-century artistic ideas flowed through France, Britain and America.

But it is hard to recognise artists’ otherness inside Britain. It is essentially art in extremis. Hatred of war and of anti-Semitism are among the gauntlets Jewish artists threw down while integrating into British culture, as the Whitechapel Art Gallery famously indicated in its early exhibition of Jewish settlers, some refugees from Nazi Europe. They brought artistic challenges through genres like Expressionism, which the Nazis banned and parodied in their ‘degenerate art’ exhibition. The Tate’s examples include Mark Gertler’s The Artist’s Mother, warm, wise and cynical – her black satin finery betraying her worn-out, workaday hands. But Gertler’s haunted, spectral Jewish Family tells another tale.

David Bomberg’s Vision of Ezekiel explores the reduction of humanity into geometric shapes. Jankel Adler’s powerful The Mutilated shows the brutal impact of war. Oskar Kokoschka’s menacing The Crab represents Neville Chamberlain in his betrayal of Czechoslovakia, identified in the painting as the small swimmer. Jacob Kramer’s rectilinear Jews at Prayer contrasts with Sir William Rothenstein’s more literal Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, a study of Jewish angst if ever I saw one. Kurt Schwitters’s 1942 work Relief in Relief understates migration by his use of tickets, stamps and other examples of the detritus of urban civilisation. The Tate includes other works by Epstein, Hans Feibusch and Marie-Louise von Motesiczky (until 12 August).

Johan Zoffany, another European immigrant, this time at the Royal Academy, painted the disappearing world of Georgian and Italian high society, using wit and intensive brushwork to immortalise their aristocratic life-style. The Frankfurt-born 18th-century artist studied painting in Regensburg before travelling to Rome and moved in 1760 to London, where he caught the eye and patronage of newly crowned King George III. His conversational pieces catch the interplay between his sitters, exemplified by his eccentric composition of a musical family afloat, topped by the father as ‘captain’ doffing his hat. These are compelling, everyday faces, quirky faces, with their innocent-looking children, their formally attired dowagers and young mothers in the sort of finery and frippery you would hardly take to the seas in.
Zoffany’s group portraits have satirical edge. The Tribuna of the Uffizi, depicting a lavish studio with nude models, evokes a libertine world, yet one frozen in time.
As the British Empire expanded, Zoffany went to India to portray British diplomats and military heavyweights lording it over the locals. But things turned still darker as he painted the sacrifice of a Hindu woman on her husband’s funeral pyre. Back in Britain, in declining health, he became haunted by the spectre of the French Revolution. Gone was the painstaking detail of the earlier years as the delicacy of his observation diminished into a terrified Impressionism.

Gloria Tessler

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