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A different portrait of ‘migrants’

30 March, 2017 — By John Gulliver

At the Ben Uri Gallery on Tuesday: Charlotte Schwarzer, head of culture and education at the German Embassy, curator Sarah MacDougall, artist Eva Frankfurther’s sister Beate Planskoy and David Glasser, chairman of Ben Uri

YOU can’t keep Brexit out of anything nowadays.

Of all places, at all times, no one, I am sure, at the opening of an exhibition in the crowded art gallery in St John’s Wood on Tuesday evening expected Brexit to rear its head – but it did.

With an earnestness I had never seen before in the Ben Uri Gallery, chairman David Glasser launched into a passionate speech about the dangers of Brexit, while carefully treading a politically balanced middle line.

We were living in a world of “alternative facts” and “post-truths”, he lamented, especially in the world of the social media as facts can change by the minute, and in the process “migrants” can so easily get “stigmatised”.

“No matter who you are – fat, small, black, yellow…whatever faith, Jewish, Muslim, Christian – you are entitled to human rights,” he said.

John Philipp’s etching of Albert Einstein, 1929 (Ben Uri collection); and Frank Auerbach’s 1990 etching, Jake ( © The Artist/Marlborough Gallery)

The current exhibition shows art by Jewish German migrants; next, the gallery will hold an exhibition of art from Polish migrants; then the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the world. It was important to emphasise that migrants needed human rights, said Mr Glasser.

It seemed he had been inspired by one of the founders of Marks & Spencer, Israel Sieff, who in 1938, faced with the rise of the Nazis, wanted the Ben Uri gallery to exhibit the works of German refugees. Today, said Mr Glasser, a similar plea can be made – to protect migrants.

He spoke after introducing Charlotte Schwarzer, from the culture department of the German embassy, who praised Ben Uri Gallery for mounting the exhibition of German artists who had been driven away by the Hitler regime.

Eva Frankfurther’s Woman With Two Children, and West Indian Waitresses. images: Private Collection © The Estate of Eva Frankfurther

Mr Glasser had spoken without notes and with a quiet but powerful passion. “Where did that come from?” I asked. He said he had been thinking about it for some time.

Clearly, he is the driving force behind an exhibition which is one of the most important now being held in London – important not only because of the uniqueness of the exhibits but also because it is making a political statement that needs to be made.

The exhibition, curated by Sarah McDougall, is astonishing – the ground floor is dedicated to the extraordinary art of Eva Frankfurther who fled to London from the Nazis with her family, studied art, and then – unlike other art students – turned her back on the arty world of artists and worked at cafés and other manual jobs to find material for her art.

Her works included portraits of the new immigrants of the 50s – mainly Afro-Caribbean, people whom artists of the time paid little attention to. But depressed, she ended her life at 30.

Erich Wolfsfeld’s Portrait of Dorothy Stone (© Erich Wolfsfeld estate) and, right, Eva Frankfurther’s Stateless Person (Private Collection © The Estate of Eva Frankfurther)

Her sister, Beate, who lives in Highgate, told me, full of pride, that she had waited 27 years to mount the exhibition. Most of the canvases had been stored in her loft. Her sister’s works had been exhibited before but not on this scale. Though Beate had suffered a fractured arm after being knocked down recently by a dog on the Heath, she was determined to attend the opening night.

Below, in the basement of the gallery, is an exhibition of more than 30 canvases including a stunning portrait by the great Frank Auerbach, who lives in Mornington Crescent, and, eclectically, the cartoonist Vicky, who also committed suicide in early middle-age.

Standing in the crowded gallery I imagined how my grand-parents, refugees from Poland and Latvia, would have admired the exhibition – and how there is a long continuum from today’s refugees back down the decades to earlier generations of refugees.

Don’t miss this exhibition – schools should take their pupils to it, the public should go to it in their droves.

• Refugees – The Lives of Others: two exhibitions exploring the contribution of German refugee artists to 20th Century British Art. Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, NW8 0RH, 020 7604 3991, http://benuri.org.uk/

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