Art for the people

By East End Walks
April 5, 2009

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the VIP preview re-opening of a great East End institution - the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Sadly it is still a rarity for galleries to be established in the most impoverished areas. The creation of the Whitechapel at the end of the 19th century owed much to the lobbying power of Canon Samuel Barnett and Henrietta Barnett - who were both already responsible for the creation of Toynbee Hall - through which Oxbridge graduates became social/community workers/welfare advisors to the poor and a range of adult education opportunities were offered.

In its early years the gallery nurtured and displayed the artistic talent that emerged out of the grime of the ghetto that became known collectively as that of "The Whitechapel Boys" and one of the rooms of the redesigned gallery opens with an exhibition dedicated to them - with offerings from Gertler, Bomberg, Kramer et al which are on display until September.

The redesign has been done with exquisite care, giving it a modern feel but retaining a sense of history. And that rooting of the gallery's unique history is aided further by another eye-catching exhibit that stands in Gallery 2 - on loan from the United Nations building in New York - a life-size tapestry version of Picasso's haunting work, Guernica. Made in 1937 as fascist bombs rained down on Spanish democrats during the bloody civil war launched by Franco, it was displayed at the Whitechapel in 1939.

Picasso himself always insisted that the work was a more general cry of anti-war protest rather than being specifically about his country and it is impossible to look at it and think about what is happening within it without recalling the terrible horrors experienced more recently by civilians in Srebrnica, Falluja, Darfur and Gaza.

In the middle of the room stand a set of glass cases joined together forming a circle. The displays inside are about about the relationship between images and politics. One case displays some leaflets and posters current enough to include the "Storm the Banks" protest last week, And in the centre of this case is my leaflet headed "Take a radical step" advertising my East End walks.

Pause for a groyser kvell...

Picasso's original "Guernica" remains in Madrid- too fragile to travel now. And if it evokes memories of the Spanish Civil war - it should also be recorded that some 150 East Enders, many of them Jewish, went to fight against Franco's fascists in Spain. And you can find out about some of them on my next Anti-Fascist Footprints walk on April 19th (book online at


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