By Jon Cronshaw
It is 150 years since the first synagogue was built in Leeds, marking the Jewish community’s official establishment in the city. And now a new exhibition celebrates the landmark by showcasing the community’s contribution to the Yorkshire art scene.
Jewish Artists in Yorkshire is based around the major Jewish artists in the University of Leeds’ art Collection, including Jacob Kramer, Philip Naviasky and Willy Tirr. Curator Layla Bloom said: “We felt this would be the perfect opportunity not only to celebrate the artists in our collection, but also to pay tribute to some of the great patrons in our history. The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery is named after some fantastic Jewish patrons – so we’re really thankful to them as well as the artists.”
As well as important artworks from the Leeds collection, other works by Jewish artists are also represented, including Jacob Epstein’s stunning bronze portrait of physicist Albert Einstein (1933) and Jacob Kramer’s painting about Jewish identity, ‘The Jew’ (1916). Layla said: “We were sure from the start that we didn’t just want this to be about the local area. So we’ve got artists featured like Jacob Kramer and Jacob Epstein who are well known internationally. But we also wanted to feature them alongside artists who are well-known locally, as well as some contemporary artists who aren’t as well-known as they should be, but hopefully will be in the future.”
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The grouping of artists based on religious or ethnic grounds can be incredibly tricky for a curator and in the past has inflamed racial and religious tensions. Layla outlined the careful balance that needed to be maintained: “We were trying to show the diversity of the community. There were a lot of people who were concerned when they heard about the exhibition that we were trying to pigeonhole people into some kind of ethnic stereotype. That’s not the case – what we’re here to do is celebrate a very diverse community, and one that is very important to Leeds.”
The range of artists represented in the exhibition all have their own unique relationship to their Judaism. Layla said: “The artists interpret the world in many different ways – some through the lens of their Jewish identity, and some not at all. It can be just a religion for people, it’s certainly an ethnic heritage for a lot of people, and some people have very little connection to it – but it’s up to the individual artist to define for themselves.”
The response from the wider community in Leeds has been an enthusiastic one. Layla said:
“I’m overwhelmed – this is the most popular exhibition opening we’ve ever had. I don’t know the numbers yet, but we ran out of wine! We had to bring out the kosher wine which we were reserving just for the religious people – and that was only 15 minutes into the exhibition opening.”
The exhibition has encouraged members of the local Jewish community to donate paintings to the gallery’s collection so that they can be seen by the wider public. Layla said: “People have a lot of pride in their heritage. We’ve had a lot of people from the community who heard about the exhibition and got really excited about it. We’ve had to people give gifts of paintings by Jewish artists for our permanent collection.”
Jewish Artists in Yorkshire is on display at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds,
until June 30.