Life & Culture

Year in Review: the arts in 2019

A year for learning from the past


It was a year for remembering and celebrating the past. Eighty years after the start of World War Two, refugees, and survivors were the focus of much artistic endeavour.

Much of it was thanks to one woman, Monica Bohm-Duchen. She conceived and set up a festival, Insiders/Outsiders, to celebrate the contribution made to this country by the refugees who fled here from Nazi persecution.

The festival, which continues until March 2020, covers architecture, visual art, music, literature, theatre photography, design and dance, and took place in venues all over the UK.

It linked the refugees of the Nazi era with refugees today, and in its scope and geographical reach was probably the biggest Jewish-themed event ever to have been held in this country. One highlight was the Ben Uri Art Gallery’s exhibiton of émigré artists, another was the photographs of Gerty Simon on display at the Wiener Holocaust Library. Taken as a whole, the festival displayed again and again that Britain was changed by its new citizens, for the better.

Another hugely challenging project opened at the Jewish Museum London in March. Jews Money Myth exposed the roots of antisemitism by looking at this tricky subject. Museum director Abigail Morris and curator Joanne Rosenthal drew together films, prints, paintings, objects and caricatures, some so toxic that they included in the display their debates about how to present this material. It was due to close in July, by popular appeal it stayed open until October. “As a museum, we can offer the long view. We give people the chance to learn and find out. We’re shedding light into dark and tricky areas,” said Ms Morris as the exhibition opened.

“Wasting time is not on. There’s so little time left,” said Frank Bright, one of the Holocaust survivors interviewed in the Arthur Cary’s stunning BBC documentary The Last Survivors, which in the course of 90 minutes managed to find new things to say about the Shoah by simply listening to the people who witnessed genocide as children and showing the effect it had on their lives, their families and their work. It has won one award and should win more.

Other notable documentaries celebrated the lives of Jewish women — Dr Ruth Westheimer, relationships expert, and Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was also the subject of a feature film, On the Basis of Sex. At the Barbican, an exhibition featured a woman artist who had been for too long overshadowed by her spouse. Lee Krasner died in 1984, and her work was generally overlooked in favour of her husband Jackson Pollock.

This summer Krasner’s work was given a major retrospective at the Barbican, a glorious display of colour and innovation, ranging from collages to self portraits, to huge abstract paintings. “I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point,” said Krasner, and her art made many feel more alive this year.

Another artist celebrated this year was Abram Games, Britain’s official war poster artist celebrated in a book, an exhibition at the National Army museum, a documentary and with the unveiling of a blue plaque. “His distinctly modern style must have seemed like it was from outer space at the time,” wrote John Belknap in the JC.

On television, many of our writers had opinions on Shtisel, as the Israeli drama series set in a Strictly Orthodox community in Jerusalem took Netflix by storm. Its portrayal of a society often seen as closed and mysterious, won hearts, opened minds and made a star out of handsome lead Michael Aloni, who played confused artist Akiva of the many fiancées.

The UK Jewish Film Festival in November — bigger than ever — featured many landmark classics, from When Harry Met Sally (30 years old) to A Serious Man (10 years old) but showcased much new talent as well, with French director Elise Otzenberger’s debut, My Polish Honeymoon a worthy choice for the opening gala, featuring possibly the year’s most irritating Jewish couple discovering their family histories on a trip to Poland.

After all the looking back, composer Sam Eastmond’s defiantly contemporary and forward-looking composition BRIT-ISH was a bracing blast of fresh air. Commissioned by JW3, Eastmond based his music on interviews with members of the Anglo-Jewish community. “What excites me,” he told the JC, “is lots of people making a noise.”

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