Edwardian Encounters: Jacob Kramer – A Study in Resolvable Contradictions

Self-Portrait by Jacob Kramer, 1930

Self-Portrait by Jacob Kramer, 1930

Since July 2, 2015, the Ben Uri Gallery has been celebrating its hundredth year in London. Founded in July, 1915, by a Russian Jew, the gallery has, in the course of a century, exhibited the work of Eastern European (largely Pale-of-Settlement born) Jewish painters living in England.

In “Ben Uri at 100”, David Herman splits these painters into two groups (roughly pre- and post-World War II) and notes the “variety and vitality of modern Jewish art and its complicated relationship with modern Jewish history”. Herman argues that the so-called “Whitechapel Boys,” who came of age at the turn of the century, among them the Vorticist fellow-traveler Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg, and Jacob Kramer, expressed clear interest in Jewish-identified themes. Conversely, the post-war, post-Holocaust generation, which featured such luminaries as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, fought shy of Jewish content and only, somehow, expressed Jewishness through formal “darkness.”

Jacob Kramer clearly does not fit into the generational or identitarian binaries outlined by Herman. As Philip R. Allison writes, “He could never be reduced to something fully comprehensible that could be labelled and filed away. He was too big and too various to be catalogued” (see Spalding, p.3). A physically imposing (over 6 feet tall), strangely and heavily accented proficient boxer, Kramer was, to paraphrase Saul Bellow’s suddenly rhyming description of the troubled artist Humboldt in Humboldt’s Gift, “a [painter], thinker, problem-drinker.”

His physical presence did not, to an outside observer, legibly read “Jew,” “Englishman,” or “Russian.” His letters, which outline his artistic philosophy, read like a syntactic and intellectual struggle to make the physical and the spiritual fit together: “When the natural and spiritual elements impinges itself [sic] upon my consciousness, a terrific struggle invariably ensues, and it is by the greatest effort that I am ultimately able to translate the base substance of detailed naturalness into the essence of spirituality” (see Spalding, p.4). In the end, it all fails beautifully. Sophisticated diction meets imperfect grammar and pained syntax, and “detailed naturalness” remains an oxymoron.

It is equally difficult to place Kramer as an artist. Although Mark Gertler and Jacob Epstein worked and exhibited with the Vorticists, “the praise of the Nordic spirit” (Farr, p.231) and not-so-veiled anti-Semitism of the group, headed by Wyndham Lewis, pushed Kramer away. “Symbolist” was the name he chose for himself. Though regularly classed as a “Whitechapel Boy,” he was not actually born or raised in Whitechapel, as one might have expected.

He was born in Klincy, the Chernigov province, Ukraine (to which some current sources, troublingly and symptomatically, refer as Russia), in 1892, in a traditional, but not deeply religious, and highly cultured family. He came to England at the age of 8 and spent most of his life in Leeds, with some fruitful forays into London. The Kramers entered England years before the “Aliens Act” of 1905  but aliens, in effect, they remained, their Englishness a mere bureaucratic formality.

Kramer’s biographer, David Manson, repeatedly wonders about the origins of the singularly Jewish themes of most of Kramer’s major works. How can a man who spent more times in bar fights than in prayer and fasting, and put on false teeth more often than he did phylacteries insist so strongly on being a Jewish painter? During and immediately after World War II, the painter turned inward, even as the world exploded outward, and created his best work while mourning his father and the victims of pogroms in Russia.

One way in which Kramer defies the conventional Western understanding of Jewishness is simply by being a Russian Jew, whose self-identification is often primarily ethnic and cultural, and to whose survival his or her immediate family is more essential than a community organized around a ritual. Kramer the boxer and brawler challenges any attempts to define Jewishness strictly within the safe and respectable boundaries of religion. Kramer the gregarious and public figure and, towards the end of his life, a celebrity portraitist, also fights for the right to privacy and ability to define himself on his own terms. For instance, he exhibited little interest in forging connections with artists in post-1917 Russia. Why not, you may wonder? Didn’t he speak the language? (He did).

Jacob Kramer, 'Hear Our Voice, O Lord Our God', 1919 (The William Roberts Society)

Jacob Kramer, ‘Hear Our Voice, O Lord Our God’, 1919 (The William Roberts Society)

Let us consider the paradoxical collision of the public with the private in one of his most famous paintings, “Hear Our Voice, O Lord Our God” (1919), the title of which is a direct translation of “Shema Israel,” Judaism’s foundational prayer. The woman in the painting, as critics acknowledge unanimously, is the painter’s mother, Cecilia Kramer. The studies that preceded the painting are called, alternately, “My Mother” or “Pogroms”. The titles place a very public tragedy, or a series of tragedies, alongside familial intimacy, and the two are impossible to separate. The genocidal impulse seeks, above all, to separate a mother from a child, and is thus both fatal to, and impossible without, such intimacy.The catastrophic collapse of the public/private duality – one of the many dualities imposed upon Kramer in the course of his lifetime – occurs even before the painting is finished.

Look closely, too, at the impossibly large hands of the woman mourning the victims of pogroms. Their physical power contradicts the frail femininity of the mother’s figure, almost calling to mind the son’s boxing gloves. The hands are not just busy with everything from housework to survival but are gender-bending, calling into question the passivity of a Jewish woman (the masculinization of the Jewish woman is not an unheard-of early-twentieth-century artistic device, but here it is a gesture of strength, not of an outsider’s fear of the exotic). Contrasted with the dark colors of the mother’s clothes, they make the viewer pay attention and come alive in the midst of the evocation of death, encapsulating, like the prayer itself, both night and morning.

Manson concludes his biography of the artist on what seems to him a melancholy note: “Unlike his contemporaries, Gertler, Meninsky and Bromberg, Jacob could never confront his dual identity, that is of the British Jew. He was in exile all his life. Once he crossed the North Sea with his parents he never set firm foot on dry land again” (Manson, p.199).

Kramer did not embrace either of the bifurcated paths –religiosity or cosmopolitanism – as a twentieth-century Jewish artist was expected to do. His work, however, knows who he is and whom he wants to mourn. It is only when we want “firm” and comfortable knowledge that the gloves come off.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Bowness, Alan. Decade 1910-20. London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1965.

Farr, Dennis. English Art, 1870-1940. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Glover, David. Literature, Immigration, and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act. Cambridge, New York, 2012

Herman, David. “Ben Uri at 100.” Standpoint, July/August 2015. Web. 3 August 2015.

Manson, David. Jacob Kramer: Creativity and Loss. London: Sansom and Company, 2006.

Spalding, Frances. “Introduction.” Jacob Kramer Reassessed. London: Ben Uri Art Gallery, 1984

Helena Gurfinkel, September 2015 [Helena  is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of Outlaw Fathers in Victorian and Modern British Literature: Queering Patriarchy]

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