Whitechapel at War: Isaac Rosenberg and his circle
Ben Uri Gallery, 108a Boundary Road. London NW8, until 8 June
It seems that Isaac Rosenberg thought of himself as a poet rather than as a painter, but that is to undervalue his distinct dual contribution as an artist. Although he exhibited little in his short lifetime, he trained at the Slade and was actually an artist–poet in the English Romantic tradition of William Blake. Remarkably, this is the first exhibition to examine his achievement solely as a painter in the context of his peers. Although there is not a great deal to see, the quality of the work assures Rosenberg’s place in the pantheon. The show is the sixth in a series organised by the Ben Uri to explore the lives and careers of London-based Jewish artists born, raised or working in the East End in the first three decades of the 20th century. (Others have included Bernard Meninsky, Mark Gertler and Alfred Wolmark.) This exhibition coincides with the 90th anniversary of the end of the first world war and is a fitting moment to reconsider the reputation of one of its myriad lost talents. Rosenberg was killed on April Fool’s Day 1918, aged just 27, less than six months before the war’s end.
He was born in Bristol in 1890, the second child and eldest son of Russian and Yiddish-speaking Jewish émigrés from Lithuania. In 1897, the family moved to Stepney, where the young Isaac grew up, and at school he showed more interest in drawing than in anything else. There was no money to send him to art school, however, and he was apprenticed to a Fleet Street photo-engraving firm, a fate he lamented as being ‘chained to this fiendish mangling-machine’. He took evening classes in painting at Birkbeck College, and then was fortunate enough to secure the patronage of a trio of wealthy Anglo–Jewish ladies who sent him to the Slade (1911–13) where he won prizes. His health was not good and he was dispatched to South Africa by the same support group, yet he returned to England and enlisted in the army in October 1915. As he wrote to Ezra Pound, there was a ‘strong temptation to join when you are making no money’. He had written to Laurence Binyon: ‘I find writing interferes with drawing a good deal, and is far more exhausting,’ but from 1915 onwards most of his energies went into his poetry.
The creative dilemma of any painter–poet (and one immediately thinks of such a contemporaneous figure as David Jones) must be, which aspect comes first in the individual scheme of things — painting or poetry? The curators of this enjoyable exhibition suggest that ‘ultimately, Rosenberg’s greatest problem as a painter was that his yearning for self-expression was more readily fulfilled in poetry’. Certainly in 1911 he was described as being ‘depressingly self-absorbed’, and his greatest pictorial achievement is in fact the long series of self-portraits he painted and drew. (In mitigation, it might be said that Rosenberg was too poor to afford models, though other artists have nearly always managed to find friends and family to pose, as well as using the mirror.) I wish there were more paintings of other subjects on which to assess him: the two small landscape panels here show a real gift for the evocation of other aspects of nature besides the human face.
The exhibition begins with a group of four self-portrait oils, swiftly followed by three more, a trio of trilby-hatted images, including the best-known which is borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery. It isn’t a common experience to enter an exhibition to find seven self-portraits by the same artist ranged upon one wall. Their concerted regard could be considered rather intimidating. As it is, I can imagine that an unwary viewer might feel overwhelmed and inclined to view the serried ranks of Rosenbergs as somewhat supercilious-looking if not directly confrontational. (It may be the long upper lip.) In fact, the three-quarter profile he favours does tend to make him appear slightly foxy, particularly in the harshly brushed ‘Self-Portrait in a Pink Tie’ (1914). This painting, which looks more European expressionist than its fellows, with its almost savage vertical brush marks, chiselling the features as if from a block of wood, may simply be unfinished. Compare it with ‘Self-Portrait in a a Red Tie’ (1914), altogether more strongly modelled, in which Rosenberg lifts his chin significantly higher. The look here is more knowing than questioning, more sensual than sensitive.
Contrast both these self-images with the almost Old-Mastery self-portrait (but also painted in 1914), in which Rosenberg shows considerable skill in chiaroscuro and other traditional effects. It’s the most conventional and least immediate of the series, but it says a great deal by its reticence. Taken all in all, from highly finished to scraped-back (as if he had lost a skin), this sequence of self-portraits is quite remarkable. It sets the tone for the show: intense, semi-confessional and introspective. On the opposite wall is a trio of powerful female portraits, of which I particularly liked ‘Clare Winsten’, very drily brushed but oddly serene. ‘Portrait of Sonia’, a richer, more fleshly painting, is also less original, being reminiscent of Rosenberg’s friend Gertler.
Downstairs are two marvellous but rather frightening drawings by Gertler for his satirical masterpiece ‘The Merry-go-round’, one in red chalk, the other in charcoal on blue paper. Other contemporaries featured here include Horace Brodzky’s interesting Symbolist portrait of Gaudier-Brzeska (and Gaudier’s elegant drypoint of Brodzky), a couple of pencil drawings by Clare Winsten of Rosenberg portrayed on the diagonal with hair like flame, two military portraits by Jacob Kramer and two Meninskys of soldiers arriving on leave or departing. There are also more of Rosenberg’s self-portraits, including the poignant 1916 one in steel helmet, done in black chalk with touches of gouache on crumpled brown wrapping paper. A trio of Bomberg drawings includes a very fine one called ‘The Billet’ (1915), borrowed from the V&A, angular, threatening and densely worked in black ink. Among other notable things by Rosenberg are the lovely pencil drawing of Marda Vanne (1914), an oil on board from 1912 called ‘Trees’ (1912), in which electric touches of red and blue appear among the more expected greens and browns, and a delicate early drawing of the artist’s mother.
What a talent he had, though perhaps not a very experimental one. He recoiled from Futurism and was probably more innovative in his poetry, which shares the acute eye for visual detail, but also the ability to see the larger picture and not get overwhelmed with description. Despite his divided allegiances to pen and brush, Rosenberg was able to produce images from ‘the heart’s dear granary’ which continue to enthral and move us. The handsome accompanying catalogue is reasonably priced at £25 in hardback, containing several clearly written and informative texts and a wealth of reproductions.
The Ben Uri, which is named after the craftsman who designed and built the Ark of the Covenant, is the London Jewish Museum of Art, the only dedicated Jewish Museum of Art in Europe. It’s currently looking for a bigger space in which to spread itself, as the ground floor and basement galleries in Boundary Road are rather cramped for a museum of its scope and ambition. The quality of exhibitions mounted here in recent years certainly merits the best-possible setting to showcase the art. After London, the Rosenberg show will travel to Leeds University Gallery (16 June to 5 September). A new biography of Rosenberg by Jean Moorcroft Wilson will shortly be reviewed in the books pages.