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Oct 2004 Journal

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Art notes

As the synagogues of the old Jewish East End opened to the public last month for Jewish Heritage Day, visitors pored over the old marriage books, vivid with social history. Jewish names appeared beside Jewish trades: tailors, buttonhole-makers, carpenters. This Jewish immigrant history is personified by a painting in Ben Uri's exhibition Rediscovering Wolmark, which continues until November. Alfred Wolmark's depiction of The Carpenter, created in the tradition of the Old Masters, shows a middle-aged man sitting beside a heavy, wooden table strewn with wood shavings, his eyes burning with Torah wisdom as he studies the holy book in his free moments. His face is full of tender refinement, but his hands are swollen from the work. Beside him is his son or grandson. The arresting thing about this painting is not simply the heritage point, but the fact that the table contains as much life as the man's face and, while his expression seems comfortable with hard work and study, the child's face is already bright with the hope of a different - perhaps more secular - future.

Wolmark's other paintings from this period - The Elders and Succot - show rabbis with rapt expressions as they recount their individual philosophies. This is a virtual reality of Jewish history, as alive today as when they were painted. But later, Wolmark favoured a more extravagant style, painting his wife Bessie in the exotic finery and colours of a study by Gauguin. Indeed, by 1911, while honeymooning in Brittany, he was painting in a late Impressionist style and he produced 90 works, the largest output of his career. Wolmark by this time favoured the more subtle drama of light on hard surfaces. The Portrait of Dottie Konstam, a full-skirted woman with a huge parasol painted in 1915, has a touch of Renoir but for the pointed intelligence of her face and, by 1930, a rather unattractive portrait of his two sons has an almost Boys' Own comic feel to it.

Over the next five years Wolmark discarded his earlier styles for post-Impressionism. He returned from France to find himself hailed as a British Fauve, and he was numbered among the British modernists of his time. His work became enhanced by the mysterious use of dark backgrounds and sfumato, and his friendship with the sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska resulted in works of mutual appreciation. Wolmark's is a dashing full-length matadorial study of the sculptor in red and black, while Brzeska responded with a powerful bust of Wolmark, his Cubist head twisted painfully on the huge axis of his neck.

The Jewish content of Wolmark's work inevitably became more subtle. He admitted to being drawn away from 'rabbis in long beards', in favour of the colours and space of Jerusalem, its bright skies and the 'colour of the resplendent Orient'.

Dorothy Brook's Tree of Life was commissioned for WIZO by its UK Hon President, Leila Wynbourne MBE, in memory of her four-year-old grandson David, who died in 1979. The tree, delicately made of maple wood, to which each new silver or gold leaf added celebrates a personal event to its donor, now hangs in WIZO's Miriam Sacher lounge between the portraits of Elaine Blond and Rose Hertz. One leaf was placed by David's twin Jonathan and another by deputy Israel Ambassador Zvi Ravner for his new granddaughter. Lady Jakobovits was presented with one on behalf of her numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Glorial Tessler

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