Philistines? What, Us?

By Geoffrey Paul
January 13, 2010

Does something still linger in our genes of the biblical prohibition against making graven images? I must confess to being confused by - on the one hand - portraits of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, which are ubiquitous in the homes and meeting places of his followers, and those frequent, alien, media shots (Brooklyn, Mea Shearim, New Square) of chasidim, hands to faces, trying to avoid the image-making ability of the camera lens. And all the wedding pics, and barmitzvahs, etc etc and mug shots of rabbis which accompany their contributions to this and other newspapers. What gives? And why do I ask the question?

Because, while we deny our philistinism and point with rosy cheeks to Jewish Book Week and the great crowds it musters, and even to our turnout for the Israel Phil (more social outing than musical appreciation?), we do not display any great enthusiasm for Jewish art. Ah, you may ask. Jewish art? Well, I think the Financial Times' wonderfully sensitive and percipient art critic, Jackie Wullschlager, said it all in her column in the weekend edition of that newspaper. She had been to see the great exhibition of Ben Uri - Jewish Art Museum gems, now at rhe Osborne Samuel gallery in Bruton Street, London, which includes the recent challenging Chagall discovery, Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio (1945), which earned so much attention in the national Press.

But let me quote Wullschlager: "....this show raises the whole vexed question of whether there is such a thing as Jewish art, and , in turn, whether a Jewish Museum of Art has a role in a multicultural society. For, while some of the masterpieces at Osborne Samuel...are pertinent to Jewish history...most are not obviously so,..

" I veered wildly on this subject while writing Chagall’s biography, but Ben Uri’s acquisition of 'Apocalypse' is, for me, decisive. First, without Ben Uri scholarship, a significant work would have disappeared into private hands: we need small, focused museums to keep art history alive and in the public arena. Second, had it been acquired and displayed in a larger collection – the Pompidou, Tate – 'Apocalypse' would still impress, but as a smallish work on paper it would be dwarfed, and its context lost, particularly in the anti-historical bias of Tate’s permanent displays. Third, a painting of such stature deepens our response to other Ben Uri works. Now we read the wariness and self-doubt in Liebermann’s 1927 self-portrait in the light of rising Nazi threats, and see echoes of 20th-century destruction, regeneration, in Auerbach’s luminous 'Mornington Crescent'."

And where will you see all these wonderful works when the Osborne Samuel show closes at the end of January? Nowhere! To our shame - but Ms Wulschlager doesn't spell it out - Anglo-Jewry can afford almost anything except a suitable home for its truly mind-blowing art collection of which those items to be seen in Bruton Street are but a minute selection.. Philistines? What, us? No way. See you at Book Week....


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