Jewish Artists & Critics at Tate Britain

Sketch of three sheep shearers, Ystradgynlais, Josef Herman, ca1946 • Tate Britain

The recently launched exhibition at the Tate Britain, Tate Archive 50, provides a fascinating window into the history of the gallery. In 1970 the Director of the Tate, Sir Norman Reid put out a call to artists, asking for their help in establishing a national centre for documenting and researching fine art practice in Britain. The Tate Archive emerged from this appeal and now holds more than 1,000 collections containing over 20 million pieces.

With so much to choose from, Tate Britain has assembled a representative exhibition showcasing treasures from each decade in the twentieth century, illustrating key moments in the development of British art practice, criticism, and exhibition.

Within this vast collection can be found the contributions Jewish artists and critics have made.  You can find letters and early versions of poems by Stepney-born poet and artist, Isaac Rosenberg, whose poetry is regarded as some of the finest to have come out of the carnage of World War One, in the 1910’s display, but the majority of the Jewish material can be found in the 1930’s and 1940’s and are directly related to either anti-Fascist artistic protests, or was created by refugee artists fleeing Nazi persecution.

One example of works by Jewish refugee artists is a sketch of the Welsh mining village of Ystrangynlais by Josef Herman, who emigrated to Britain in 1940. He lived in the village for eleven years, having originally only intended to stay for a couple of weeks and produced a wonderful collection of drawings and watercolours documenting everyday life in the community. These can be viewed online in the Tate’s digitised collection.

Not all the artists featured were adults when they fled persecution. German born radical artist, Gustav Metzger, is featured in the exhibition with pages from the manuscript he wrote.  It lays out his ideas about ‘auto-destructive art’ – a concept rooted in their experience of antisemitic attacks on Germany’s Jewish community before the outbreak of World War Two and the rising potential for mass destruction and violence globally.

The collection featured is not solely focused on art and artists, but also concerns itself with the wider world. Art historian Klaus Hinrichsen donated a collection of photographs and documents from the Hutchinson Internment Camp on the Isle of Man. Large numbers of German and Austrian citizens in Britain were initially detained as ‘enemy aliens’ including a large number of refugees from those countries. Among them were an unusually high proportion of artists and intellectuals whose personal and intellectual lives during their internment can be glimpsed in these photographs. Hidden Treasures also features the Manx National Heritage Library and Archives which holds more information about the Internment Camps.

These items are only the tip of the artistic iceberg, and the exhibition covers a vast number of topics in a relatively small exhibition space. Tate Archive 50 presents a well rounded and representative history of twentieth century British art through photographs, documents, and artifacts. We at Hidden Treasures think it is an excellent way to spend a cold afternoon this winter – in person or online.

– Daniel Cesarani

Hidden Treasures visited the exhibition in October. The Tate Britain is currently closed following Government restrictions. It will be reopening in the beginning of December.


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Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain