The Ben Uri Gallery have just opened two new exhibitions looking at the contribution of German migrant artists to Britain.
The Ben Uri Gallery may not be on your radar if you’re used to trekking around the likes of the National or the TATE. Naturally, these iconic institutions with their hundreds of masterpieces have their place, but sometimes visiting a smaller, more niche, and often more thought-provoking gallery is worthwhile.
Housed in North London, the Ben Uri Gallery is dedicated to art and migration; a small but perfectly formed gallery with regularly changing exhibitions addressing questions of movement and visual arts. Their latest exhibition, ‘Refugees: The Lives of Others’ looks at the various ways German refugees have contributed to Britain’s 20th century art scene. Of course, these artists did not merely choose to come here for our tea and our incredible weather – the majority of the artists came here because of the Nazi situation in Germany: anti-Semitic laws in 1933 meant many Jewish artists were forbidden to practice, and so they fled abroad in order to continue to do what they loved.
Ben Uri’s newest exhibition is particularly relevant today, given our current refugee crisis: I attended the opening night of the gallery’s German-centred feature and it is stunning. The ground floor is dedicated to a young lady called Eva Frankfurther, who escaped to London with her Jewish family in 1939. After studying at St. Martin’s School of Art, Eva found that she wasn’t all that excited about the London art scene, and she moved to Whitechapel to work in Lyon’s sugar factory. The East End in the 50’s was a hub of various migrant communities: these West Indian, Cypriot and Pakistani people were the inspiration for Frankfurther’s artwork, which she completed during the day after her night shifts at the factory.
Often dark in colour, Eva Frankfurther’s sketches and paintings depict people at work or rest, going about their daily lives in the smog of the city and interacting with friends, families and fellow refugees.
Downstairs in the basement gallery, a whole host of diverse German artists are on display. There are the more well-known names such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, as well as sculptors, sketchers and painters you’ve probably never heard of. It’s not just the varied works that is inspiring though; the artists’ stories are as important here as the art on show. Many of the artists were interned, so a lot of the paintings are those which were completed in a camp.
Rough and unpolished sculpture by Margarete Klopflesich contrasts with the abstract, graphic style of Elisabeth Tomalin’s ‘Head’; Frank Auerbach’s textural images are even more exciting alongside Hans Scheleger’s lithographic prints for London Transport. What brings all these incredible artists and works together is their shared identity as German refugees in our country, a place of safety away from the horrors of Hitler, and one where they could continue to thrive with their artistic talent.
We did it once, and we can do it again. Let’s hope that Britain supports, embraces and nurtures the art of all the diverse people who are coming to call our home theirs.