Jewish Culture and Art: Fine Art

At the turn of the 20th Century there was an emerging group of artists known as the Whitechapel Group or Whitechapel Boys. They comprised of several men and one woman. Influences were from their Jewish background and identity and the changing art movements of the time towards Modernism and reflecting the impact of the First World War.

The Whitechapel Gallery was founded in 1901 in East London next door to Aldgate Library. Another significant factor was the Slade School of Art where Mark Gertler, Clare Winsten, Isaac Rosenberg, David Bomberg and Bernard Meninsky studied, assisted by the Jewish Education Aid Society, the organisation was supported by philanthropists.

David Bomberg was born in Birmingham to a Polish family, he was expelled from the Slade in 1913 for being non-conformist. In 1914 Bomberg and Jacob Epstein curated a Jewish section in the Whitechapel Art Gallery – a defining moment in British/Jewish art. Bomberg enlisted in 1915 and served as a Sapper with the Royal Engineers.

In 1916 he shot himself in the foot. No-one knew if it was accidental or deliberate. He therefore left the front, but was later recalled to service. In 1918, Bomberg was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund, to produce a series of paintings of the war. Sappers at Work was a title of one painting – a modern depiction of the sappers digging tunnels under Hill 60. Battle of Messines.

Sappers at Work. Canadian Tunnelling Company, R14, St Eloi – David Bomberg 1918 Courtesy IWM

In 1914 the Germans, trying to break the stalemate of trench warfare, exploded mines under British positions at Festubert, in Belgium, inflicting terrible casualties. The British responded, recruiting professional miners, and by summer 1916 they had 33 companies of tunnellers at the Western Front. The tunnel at St Eloi was 1,650 feet long and 125 feet deep. It was used to explode the largest mine of the war.

This was one of 19 mines exploded at the launch of the Messines offensive in June 1917 and helped the British 41st Division to capture the village.In 1918 David Bomberg, who had served in the Royal Engineers, was commissioned by the Canadian Government to paint the operation.

Bomberg was a major figure in the London avant-garde, influenced by Cubism and Futurism. He reduced his subjects to geometric forms, full of tension and kinetic energy. The Canadians, however, asked him to avoid abstraction, and rejected his first painting as too Futurist.

This work is a preparatory sketch for a second version, now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, in which Bomberg compromised and produced a more representational work. The tension and geometry that interested Bomberg are still evident in the complex rhythm of the beams against the curved tunnel walls and in the figures’ poses, but the bright colour and bold abstraction of the first work have disappeared. Bomberg has included himself in the foreground of the picture carrying a heavy beam to show his feeling of being burdened by this task.

Bomberg painted ‘At the Window’ in 1919 (From BenUri Gallery) . It expresses his overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and futility of war. The lonely woman dressed in black looks outwards longing to escape. Bomberg enlisted in 1915 and was shocked at the horror of it. He shot himself in the foot and spent two years in recovery. He returned to service in 1918.

At the Window by Bomberg, David. 1919. © Ben Uri

The poet and painter, Isaac Rosenberg, of the 12th Suffolk Regiment also suffered through the war, describing his feelings about trench warfare during his time on the front:

I have just joined the Bantams and am down here amongst a horrible
rabble – Falstaff’s scarecrows were nothing to these … my being a Jew
makes it bad amongst these wretches.

Isaac Rosenberg: Selected Poems and Letters. Enitharmon Editions Pub. 2003
Self-Portrait in Steel Helmet by Rosenberg, Isaac. 1915. ©Ben Uri
Self-Portrait in Steel Helmet by Rosenberg, Isaac. 1915. ©Ben Uri Gallery
Image ID 001561

An East End boy who had imbibed the English literary tradition at London’s Whitechapel Library, an institution that had become known as “the university of the ghetto”, Rosenberg was part of an extraordinary artistic flourishing among Jewish immigrants. To pursue his painting, he enrolled in the Slade and found himself among a gilded generation. Other students included Stanley Spencer, CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash, Dora Carrington and Rosenberg’s fellow Jews, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler.

Isaac-Rosenberg-001 – Copyright the Issac Rosenberg Literary Estate

Rosenberg enlisted because of a poverty that finally overwhelmed his moral judgment that war was no solution to anything, a view inherited from his parents: “My people are Tolstoyans and object to my being in khaki.” Gertler, too, was a “passivist”, as he put it, and opposed to the war’s “wretched sordid Butchery”. (Source:  The Guardian –

Rosenberg was killed at Arras in 1918, hoping that his transfer request to the Jewish Legion had been granted. His last surviving letter – written rapidly in the brief light of a stub of candle he had found – speaks of his urge to write a battle hymn for the Jewish Legion, “but I can think of nothing strong and wonderful enough yet”.

Admired by Pound and described by TS Eliot as the “most extraordinary” of the first world war poets, Rosenberg’s best-known poems, “Louse Hunting”, “Break of Day in the Trenches”, “Dead Man’s Dump”, are canonical works in this most poetry-rich of conflicts. His death at 27 has been mourned by Geoffrey Hill as one of poetry’s “most severe losses”.

Fourteen Illustrations to the works of Israel Zangwill, vol. 13, The Cockpit by Wolwark, Alfred. 1925. © Ben Uri
Fourteen Illustrations to the works of writer Israel Zangwill, vol. 13, The Cockpit by Wolwark, Alfred. 1925. © Ben Uri Gallery

Mark Gertler was born in 1891 in a slum in Spitalfields, London to East European Jewish Immigrants. He was educated at the Slade School of Art. He had pacifist views, but in 1916 when summoned to join the army he was turned down because of his parents’ nationality – enemy aliens – and also he suffered from tuberculosis. Gertler on arriving at Slade School of Art painted a series of family portraits.  

Merry-Go-Round 1916 Mark Gertler 1891-1939 Purchased 1984

His painting the Merry-Go-Round 1916, of soldiers and sailors trapped on a roundabout, it is considered a brilliant piece of anti-war art. In 1939 he committed suicide This perception took artistic shape in The Merry-Go-Round, one of the masterpieces of British modernist painting. Gertler’s image of uniformed men and stereotyped women revolving on a carousel, mouths open in an apparently endless scream, developed slowly. Preparatory sketches of heads have subtle nuances of portraiture.

In the completed work, part of the Tate collection, traces of individual personality have been leached away. Gertler simplifies the faces and composes the stiff figures inside a mechanical nightmare of machine-age militarism, imprisons them on their ride, sets them violently and meaninglessly spinning. When DH Lawrence saw it on display in 1917, he wrote to Gertler:

I have just seen your terrible and dreadful picture Merry-go-round.
This is the first picture you have painted: it is the best modern picture
I have seen: I think it is great and true. But it is horrible and terrifying.
If they tell you it is obscene, they will say truly. You have made a real and
ultimate revelation. I think this picture is your arrival.

Lytton Strachey also felt the deeply unpleasant shock of this image and remarked: “I felt if I were to look at it for any length of time, I should be carried away suffering from shellshock. I admired it, of course, but as for liking it, one might as well think of liking a machine gun.”

Strangely, when the painting was exhibited, critics failed to make the connection with war and militarism. They saw the machine age. They saw something so new and shocking it didn’t make sense: “The Man Who Has Painted A Noise” shouted one headline. For King and Country? restores  the sense and context to Gertler’s wartime masterpiece just as it does to many individuals’ forgotten stories. (Source:  The Guardian –

Gertler in fancy dress – Photograph owner unknown

Jacob Epstein – Born in America 1880, son of Russian Polish immigrants. Moved to London in his twenties and became British in 1911. He was promoted by Walter Sickert and part of the Camden Group, he was a sculptor. He enlisted in 1917 in the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was allowed to leave the military and never went to the front.

He became one of the most important sculptors of the twentieth century. One the of the few of the Whitechapel group to receive recognition in their lifetime. Epstein sculptures such as Mother and Child with its Conceptual approach partly inspired by African Art confirmed that tradition, was being overturned in favour of new Geometrical Art. Terse and clear cut.

Bernard Meninsky – Born in Ukraine in 1891, grew up in Liverpool. In 1912 he entered the Slade School of Fine Art. Enlisted in 1917, in the 40th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. He served in Palestine as part of the Middle East Campaign before becoming a British citizen in March 1918. He suffered a mental breakdown admitted in Salisbury Royal Military Hospital in Plymouth. Discharged invalidated out of army.

With Sickert’s help Meninsky became war artist for the Ministry of Information. The resulting works can be seen at the Imperial War Collection. He suffered from poor mental health after the war and committed suicide in 1950.

Joseph Kramer – attended art classes in Leeds sponsored by Jewish Educational Aid Society. Kramer, though not a practising Jew, made a speciality of Jewish subjects. He moved to London, attended Slade College of Art, during WW1 he became a regimental librarian.

After the 1917 Balfour Declaration, artist Jacob Kramer supported the idea of creation of a national Jewish Home in Palestine. His design of the program shows hard working men under the star of David setting the foundation of the new state of Israel.

Design for a Programme by Kramer, Jacob. 1920. ©Ben Uri Gallery

In 1919, he produced a painting titled A Day of Atonement. He returned to Leeds never sought fame, due to alcohol problems and died 1962.

Kramer, Jacob; The Day of Atonement; Leeds Museums and Galleries;

Alfred A Wolmark was born in Poland and lived in Devon, he moved to London his father opened a tailor’s shop in the East End. He was different than other Whitechapel boys he painted landscape pictures. Throughout his career he painted Jewish religious scenes. Wolmark went to the Royal Academy School of Painting – during the war, he was declared medically unfit – but his illustrations to support the writer Israel Zangwill’s work demonstrate a revulsion to war and its terrible cost.

Clare Winsten – Born Clara Birnberg in Romania 1892 arrived in Britain in 1902 lived in the East End. Being female she felt discriminated against by her peers. She was an activist in campaigns for Women’s rights and a member of Women’s Freedom League. She married Stephen Weinstein during the war both campaigners for conscientious objectors – her husband was imprisoned for refusal to enlist.

These artists lived mainly in London, but two of them had connections with Sussex.  Mark Gertler knew members of the Bloomsbury Group, such as Dora Carrington and Clive Bell, who were visitors to Charleston near Firle.  In December 1918, Gertler visited Leonard & Virginia Woolf at their home in Rodmell, Sussex.  Alfred Wolmark illustrated the works of Israel Zangwill who lived in East Preston during the First World War.

Other artists include:

Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) aged 42 when war broke out – born in Bradford – attended Slade School in 1888. Part of the Camden Group. 1914 Rothenstein was asked to produce work for the Ministry of Information. He nurtured artists like Mark Gertler, and war artist Paul Nash. He came across the Machzike Adass Synagogue in London East End by chance and he considered it a subject worthy of Rembrandt. He rented a room nearby and produced over the next three years eight paintings. One of which was Jews mourning in a Synagogue. Which he presented to the Tate Gallery. Where Roger Fry who was a prominent critic shamed it because he was in that period reactionary to Modern Art.

Soloman J Soloman – Born 1860 – studied at Royal Academy and Ecole de Beaux Art – 1886 Founder of New English Art Club. He joined the Artists Rifles, a home defence unit in 1914, as a private. He was interested in camouflage. In Dec 1915 he was allowed to visit the Front Lines to examine French Camouflage techniques. His ideas were accepted, and he produced camouflage for the British on the front line. He was given the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel by General Haig. He set up a camouflage school in Hyde Park. He focused on disguising techniques for netting, spy trees and camouflage for tanks and Royal Navy Vessels. The New English Art Club encouraged and supported British Impressionism.

New English Art Club – original members were: Walter Sickert, in his studio 8 Fitzroy Street on Sat afternoons. Each artist contributed an easel to present a picture the rest remained in stacks behind.

This consisted of eight original members: William Rothenstein, his brother Albert (later name changed to Rutherston), Walter Russell, Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman and Sickert and Ethel Sands (at some time she was ousted from the New English Art Club when all the women were ousted). In 1907 Lucian Pissaro the son of Camille Pissaro the impressionist painter also joined. They then became the Camden Town Group which twice a year sent exhibitions to the New English Art Club.