Artist makes Jewish history on the walls of JW3

Leon Fenster speaks to the JC about what inspired his eye-popping mural, which is being unveiled this week


In Leon Fenster's mural, Queen Elizabeth I is depicted watching the trial of her Jewish doctor Rodrigo Lopez, who was found guilty of plotting to poison her (Photo: Leon Fenster)

“I'm obsessed with trying to put entire worlds into single artworks,” says artist Leon Fenster, whose vast mural depicting the entire history of Jewish London is appearing on the side of JW3 for all to see from Friday.

Fenster, who lives in London, has previously created artworks telling the story of individual families, communities, cities and social movements. For this commission for JW3, he thought: “Could I do the same thing for Jews in London?”

“What I've been doing for the last however many years is what I’m now doing for the community I grew up in, the community that's closest to my heart.”

To start the process, the artist gathered all the stories he could think of before talking to as many people as possible, including tour guides and community leaders.

Fenster began by painting Jewish boxers Daniel Mendoza and Harry Mizler in the ring, a homage to his own grandfather, who boxed.

While historical events such as The Battle of Cable Street are included, the idea was to reject chronology entirely, says the artist, who set out to create an artwork that gave the impression of “satisfying chaos”.

Fenster describes the 26.5m x 14.2m mural as “a collision of historical memories in a single space, an artwork that lets us inhabit our memories and dreams in the same way that we actually remember our memories within dreams. It's a kaleidoscope of the world of one community.”

In the colourful work are more than 150 faces of legends, locals and historical figures: kosher butchers, bakers, tailors, and seven significant but diverse rabbis - Julia Neuberger, Lionel Blue, Miriam Lorie, Joseph Dwek, Louis Jacobs, Joseph Hertz and Jonathan Sacks. There is also a young Nicholas Winton directing Kindertransport trains.\

Historically popular Jewish professions are represented too: three famed agony aunts - Margorie Proops, Claire Rayner and Irma Kurtz, and black cab drivers, depicted by a taxi careening across the mural. Fenster was intrigued to discover that back in 1971, 5,000 of 13,000 black cab drivers were Jewish.

“Jewish grandmothers in St John's Wood hope their children will become lawyers and doctors, but back then, it was taxi driving that was seen as a good stable, respectable job. A lot of the lingo was even inspired by Jewish terms.”

Elsewhere, Sigmund Freud gazes at the flying acrobats of Marc Chagall's The Dance and the Circus, the 1950 mural he painted for the Watergate Theatre in London, which no longer exists. This linking together of characters from across different generations is found throughout the artwork.

“[Freud and Chagall are] both about dreams - exploring dreams and exploding Jewish dreams. It's the satisfaction of combining these incongruous things, colliding together,” says Fenster. “People from different generations, but also from different places, who never met, yet had something in common. Or combining things which have seemingly nothing to do with each other, like the agony aunts, another Jewish profession, curiously, and then combining them with the tailors and dockers, who went on strike in solidarity with each other.”

Fenster takes inspiration from Dutch masters, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for their “slightly cheeky storytelling, where they tried to encompass the whole of a story in a single artwork; I love the mischievousness of it.”

Humour is key to his work, seen in the inclusion of Benjamin Disraeli - who was famously baptised - celebrating his imagined bar mitzvah and Queen Elizabeth I watching the trial of her Jewish doctor Rodrigo Lopez, depicted as if she is at the theatre.

The hub of social life that was the East End’s Russian Vapour Baths, known as the Schewzik’s, are also included. “Men would go on a Friday afternoon for Shabbat. These spas were a wonderful place, where different communities would meet that would not meet otherwise.”

Since there is so much of Jewish history to be learnt, QR codes can be scanned for the accompanying guide’s explanations of every reference in the mural.

“I hope that everyone finds something that really resonates with them and which is then an access point to the wider story. Obviously, there are so many more stories that I would have loved to have put in, but you can't get everything in.”

Fenster studied architecture and sees similarities with the artwork he now creates. “I think the best architecture should transport you to some other world. I hope people can kind of walk through and find their own path through this artwork.”

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