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Around the galleries

Ben Uri – From Chagall to Soutine

— September 2012

Associated media

Chaïm Soutine, La Soubrette (The Waiting Maid)

Darrelyn Gunzburg talks with David Glasser about the latest ‘woman’ to join the team at Ben Uri, Chaïm Soutine’s La Soubrette (Waiting Maid).

What would you do if you were a small museum on the outskirts of London and offered first refusal by Sotheby’s of a painting by École de Paris artist Chaïm Soutine(13 January, 1893 – 9 August, 1943), a French painter of Russian-Jewish origin, and one of the most celebrated and influential painters of the 20th century?  The response by David Glasser, executive chair of Ben Uri, the London Jewish Museum of Art, to Helena Newman, the chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, Europe at Sotheby’s, was understandable: ‘Yes but?! ‘Yes… but... Yes’ He spells the letters to emphasize his point.  ‘YES but’ meaning ‘“Yes – but, crikes, how will we raise the funds”, because the cost involved could be well into seven figures’.

But seven-prices are not enough to put off the art museum that punches above its weight. Back in 2010, within days of seeing it in a Paris auction house catalogue, Glasser was in discussion with grant bodies and private individuals, determined that Ben Uri would be the safe-keepers of Marc Chagall’s ‘lost’, but now celebrated, Jewish Crucifixion masterpiece, Apocalypse en Lilas, Capriccio, a gouache, pencil, Indian wash ink and Indian ink on paper, painted by Chagall in New York in 1945 in response to the Holocaust. Glasser was successful in his bid.

‘The Chagall coup gave us as much confidence in our future as it gave others in us’, says Glasser. That future had been in flux for a while. When the Ben Uri Art Society, closed in 1995, re-launched in January 2001, it repositioned itself as Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art. The title expressed its intention: it was based in London, it was Jewish by heritage, it was a registered museum, and it distinguished itself as being a museum of art, rather than of Jewish art. Its subtitle was ‘The Art Museum for Everyone’. In 2006 that distinction shifted. If it was appropriate, it emphasized the title ‘The London Jewish Museum of Art’. To the public at large it was ‘The Art Museum for Everyone’.

It was only after the Chagall acquisition and the consequent worldwide publicity that the board of Ben Uri brought forward its long-held strategic decision to publicize in a dominant manner its commitment to Art, Identity and Migration. Ben Uri was located in London, one of the world’s great melting pots of communities and émigré artists, where languages and social practices mixed, absorbed and cross-fertilized day in day out. Since 70% of Ben Uri’s collection was by émigré artists reflecting two waves of immigration, one at the turn of the century and the others during the Second World War, and since the issue of émigré artists and their stories of migration affected all communities, Ben Uri decided to place its focus on being recognized as synonymous with Art, Identity and Migration within ‘The Art Museum for Everyone’.

The proposal from Sotheby’s was a golden opportunity for Ben Uri to highlight its new emphasis. La Soubrette (Waiting Maid)was painted in 1933, the year in which Hitler rose to power in Germany, a time that prefaced the ethnic, religious, cultural or political persecution and the ensuing deluge of forced emigration of many European artists. Soutine himself escaped to Paris during the Nazi occupation, only returning to have an urgent operation for perforated stomach ulcers, from which he died in Paris in 1943. La Soubrette (Waiting Maid) belongs to a period in Soutine’s life when he turned away from the hotel staff and cooks of his earlier portraits and towards the domestic staff of bourgeois country estates. ‘It is a superb work and its provenance is impeccable’, continues Glasser.

It’s a compelling example of Soutine’s figurative work from the early 1930s, depicting an anonymous domestic maid dressed in the uniform of her profession. There are only two portraits by Soutine in public collections in the UK, and some say this is the best. So it’s wonderful that the estate was prepared to sacrifice income to facilitate this picture going to a public collection.

Sotheby’s tax and heritage department agreed with the estate that owned the painting to give Ben Uri the opportunity to try to buy it, ‘which is remarkable of the estate and wonderful of Sotheby’s’, says Glasser.

To get all aspects of this transaction in place to maximize the potential tax breaks we had to ask for longer than the original eight months agreed. The bottom line is that painting was accepted by the government body as a painting of national importance and The Art Fund changed their policy and agreed to represent us as a Schedule 3 body to maximize all the possibilities and that is what transpired. After many months of critical analysis of our application the Heritage Lottery Fund [HLF] confirmed they were also going to support it. We then raised further money and in April we exchanged contracts to buy and in June we completed.

 Glasser continues:

We are indebted to all these art funding bodies and to everybody who donated substantial amounts of money from both sides of the Atlantic to make this happen, but particularly to the HLF, The Art Fund, The V&A purchase grant fund and to Sotheby’s as without all of them the Soutine would have been sold at auction and lost to the wider generalpublic.

Aware that these great masterpieces need to be continually accessible to the public, Ben Uri will turn part of their downstairs gallery into an area that maintains highlights of the permanent collection. Without doubt, Ben Uri’s reputation has been helped by the acquisition of the Chagall, but it continues to show that it has an overall standing of excellence. As the executive chairof Ben Uri, Glasser is the one who is visible and his enthusiastic energy is palpable. He is quick to demur.

I may be the masthead but it really is about teamwork and pure commitment – most who come stay. That says something.  We have a long-serving and extraordinary team, who are and make Ben Uri. The Chagall publicly illustrated that we don’t think of ourselves as small or niche – that Ben Uri is not frightened of acquiring great paintings worth seven figures – and that we don't recognize the words ‘no’ and ‘can’t’, which is fine by us because it is true and that’s why we need to move to a significant building like the Design Museum on the South Bank (where we were recently the under-bidder). Indeed, our underlying philosophy at Ben Uri is, ‘Nothing is Impossible’.

Its corollary, ‘Everything is Possible’, burns like neon in the determination and focus shown by this small museum to ensure that it continues to compete with the major institutions to offer everyone an art gem of unsurpassed quality.

Chaïm Soutine’s La Soubrette (The Waiting Maid) will be unveiled to the public in a special exhibition entitled ‘From Russia to Paris: Soutine and his Contemporaries’ at Ben Uri’s current gallery in Boundary Road, from 4–28 October 2012.



Darrelyn Gunzburg
University of Bristol and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David
Art historian

Media credit: Courtesy Ben Uri

Editor's notes

Ben Uri, 108A Boundary Road, London NW8 0RH
Tel: +44 (0)207 604 3991
Opening hours:
Monday to Friday 10 a.m. – 5.30 p.m.
Sunday 12.00 noon – 4p.m.
Closed Saturdays
The gallery closes at 3.30 p.m. on Fridays during winter (from 1 November to 1 March).

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