The Ben Uri Gallery is one of the best London museums you’ve probably never heard of. Founded in 1915 to support Yiddish-speaking, émigré artists and craftsmen, the gallery has evolved over the years to incorporate all sorts of British Jewish artists, both foreign and native-born. Its own peripatetic existence has led it from the East End to Soho to, since 2002, its current, delightfully poky abode in St John’s Wood.
The institution is currently fundraising to buy a larger venue in central London that befits its important collection and programme – but in the meantime, there’s this exhibition to mark its centenary. Loosely structured around waves of Jewish immigration to Britain, the 70 works from the museum’s collection form precisely the sort of display that would never fit into its present home. Some of the pieces are simply too vast, such as Polish-born Samuel Hirszenberg’s traditional, rather academic 1894 painting of a Jewish family at Sabbath.
The more obvious highlights are the explicitly avant-garde episodes: the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, whose cubo-futurist experimentation gave shape to British Modernism (Mark Gertler’s caustic, anti-war masterpiece, ‘Merry-Go-Round’, having been sold to Tate, is loaned back); or the intense, gestural imagery of ‘School of London’ painters Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and RB Kitaj (though the latter’s rather tame portrait is something of a disappointment). From there, the show moves on to various contemporary artists, many working in video, who parallel Ben Uri’s recently expanded, more universalising remit as a ‘museum of art, identity and migration’ that gives equal weight to other minority experiences. Given which, there could have been a more nuanced focus on notions of Jewish identity – its shifting, contested constructions – in the exhibition’s earlier sections. But overall this is a fascinating glimpse into Britain’s multiculturalism, both past and present.