Life & Culture

The man who made the menorah

As we light the first candles for Chanukah, Eli Abt profiles the artist Benno Elkan who created potent symbols of the Jewish nation


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Having watched the combative exchanges in the Commons about and around Israel’s war against Hamas, we’ve perhaps forgotten there was once a wholly different climate of mutual regard between the Mother of Parliaments and the Middle East’s only genuine democracy.

No one entering the Knesset building in Jerusalem is likely to miss the massive 4.3-metre-high seven-branched bronze Menorah standing opposite, presented in 1956 by the UK’s Parliament to Israel, its multiple biblical scenes by the sculptor Benno Elkan (1877-1960) depicting the story of our nation from its biblical beginnings. Yet unlike familiar names such as Chagall and Lipchitz, Elkan appears somehow to have vanished from the tally of prominent 20th-century Jewish artists, much as that early fund of mutual parliamentary goodwill appears to have disappeared as well.

Having first come under the influence of Rodin and others in Paris, Elkan soon made his name in post-First World War Germany with large-scale works such as the granite monument of a grief-stricken woman erected in Frankfurt in tribute to the country’s fallen heroes. Predictably dismissed by the Nazis as a Jewish scam and removed in 1933, when he fled to England, it was reinstated in 1946. Elkan’s work was furthermore to earn the distinction of inclusion in Josef Goebbels’ notorious Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937.

He soon exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy as both sculptor and medallist, and was often commissioned to fashion portraits, in stone as well as in bronze bas-relief, of the great and the good including Beveridge, Keynes, Churchill, Rockefeller, Courtauld and Toscanini, together with fellow Jewish notables such as Samuel, Menuhin, Rothschild, Hertz, Montefiore and Weizmann.

However, it was his large and distinctive seven-branched Menorah sculptures in bronze that distinguished him above all as a Jewish artist. The candelabrum was an artefact he recognised as standing at the very heart of the Jewish narrative, whether in the sanctuary of the Sinai wilderness, Solomon’s first Temple, the second Temple of the Maccabees, on the sarcophagi of Rome, or on the walls and floors of synagogues throughout the Mediterranean world since the 2nd century. Elkan focused on the Menorah in preference to the Magen David as the authentic Jewish symbol illuminating the life of the nation, well before the founders of modern Israel adopted it in 1948.

“I have sought to give visual expression to the spiritual history of the Jewish people,” he wrote, “from the days of Abraham to those of the Warsaw ghetto… the determined valour of the fighters for freedom against slavery, the age-long revolt against oppression of the spirit, the bitterness of homelessness, and the joy of return from exile to native land.”

Developing an intensity of emotional expression shared by other German artists of the time such as Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach (both detested by the Nazis), he imbued these works with the drama and richness of his people’s story, so that they began appearing in academic and ecclesiastical settings such as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge; New College, Oxford; Buckfast Abbey; and Westminster Abbey where, in the midst of the Blitz, Elkan accompanied his two-metre high Jewish Menorah with another depicting Christianity.

He had done so at the request of his client Arthur Lee, 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham, who had given Chequers, his Buckinghamshire country house and estate, in trust to the nation in 1917 to be used as the prime ministerial retreat in perpetuity. A prolific benefactor, Lee went on to co-found the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Why this eminent philanthropist’s example of championing large and overtly Jewish works from a refugee artist of the calibre of Elkan was never followed by the Jewish community, in particular by its many prominent patrons of the arts, must remain a mystery, the more so since Elkan was active in the Ben Uri Art Society of the time.

One of his most perceptive early Jewish sculptures is the 1928/9 group of the five Maccabean brothers in the form of a Chanukah Menorah, made in the context of the ongoing rise in German antisemitism following the end of the First World War. The war leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff had begun promoting the notorious “stab-in-the back” slander against Jews and others to excuse Germany’s defeat, notwithstanding that 100,000 Jews had served in the German forces, 12,000 of whom had perished. Building on these tropes, Hitler had published Mein Kampf in 1925, its principal thesis being a Jewish “conspiracy” to achieve world domination, a fabrication soon gaining wide acceptance in right-wing German politics.

Convinced of the need for Jews to look beyond those hatreds to a wholly different future with their enemies vanquished, Elkan invoked the spirit of Chanukah by depicting in his sculpture the heroism of the Maccabees in battling for Jewish independence against the Seleucid Empire. Significantly, however, Elkan omitted from the work any provision for housing the eight lights to be kindled on the festival.

Dominating the group is the powerful and muscular Judah, hammer in hand, who led the revolt from 167BCE to 160BCE. Centre left is Jonathan, the youngest brother, who headed the Hasmonean state from 160-143BCE, while on the right Simeon, who had freed the Jews of Galilee, wears the crown of priesthood bestowed on him in 142BCE until his death in 134BCE. At the bottom are Yohanan and Eliezer, the two remaining brothers, the latter crushed by one of the elephants the Greeks had introduced as a powerful new instrument of warfare. Yet the lightly armed Judeans, intent on maintaining their way of life and faith, had in the end defeated these infinitely superior forces.

By omitting the Chanukah lights from his work it’s possible Elkan wanted to emphasise the time for celebration may seem far off, liberty will need to be fought for, sacrifices will have to be made (all five brothers were to lose their lives in the struggle), yet freedom will prevail. And so it came about. Some 20 years after Elkan first shaped his Maccabean warriors in an increasingly hostile Germany, and three years after the Shoah, David Ben Gurion was to lead the War of Independence on behalf of a nascent State of Israel.

Eli Abt writes on the Jewish Arts.

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