By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A student leader in the UK vowed to take down or “paint over” a mural by Sir William Rothenstein, a British artist from a German-Jewish family. The mural hangs in the Senate Room of the University of Southampton and was unveiled at its current location in 2014. Emily Dawes, the student leader, wrote in a tweet: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”
She also tweeted “ONE OF THE WOMEN JUST SAID “it’s nearly armistice day so are we covering up this tapestry??” AND HOLY SHIT. FUCK YES. GRL PWR.”
She later apologized, writing “I would like to apologise for the offense and upset I have caused with what I have said. I never meant the disrespect to anyone past, present and future. My intention was to promote strong, female leadership and not the eradication and disrespect of history. I do not believe that to make progress in the future, we should look to erase the past.”
The mural she targeted, and which other students apparently also want to cover up was originally displaced at the 11th Exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society at the Royal Academy in the fall of 1916. According to a description at the University “It depicts an academic procession and the conferring of a degree on an ‘unknown soldier’ undergraduate by the then Chancellor of Cambridge University.” It was presented to the University of Southampton in 1959 by the son of the artist, Sir John Rothenstein. The University said that it “represents a unique piece of art history. It features many key academics from the era of the Great War, including Vice-Chancellors and Chancellors, and the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.”
Sir William Rothenstein and British Jewish history
Rothenstein was born in 1872 to a family of German-Jewish origin in Bradford. His father was an immigrant who came from Germany in 1859 and had worked in textiles. He worked in a Jewish area in the East End of London and also exhibited in the 1906 show Jewish Art and Antiquaries at the Whitechapel Gallery. His 1906 painting Jews Mourning in Synagogue was made after he visited a synagogue in Brick Lane. According to one account “he chanced to visit the Machzike Hadaas Synagogue [in 1902]. He was in the area on business with a solicitor, the brother of the painter Solomon J. Solomon, who urged him to visit the synagogue: ‘a curious sight, he assured me, well worth seeing’. Rothenstein was excited by the unusual scene: ‘Here were subjects Rembrandt would have painted – had indeed, painted – the like of which I never thought to have seen in London … It was the time of the Russian Pogroms and my heart went out to these men of a despised race, from which I too had sprung, though regarded as a stranger among them.'”
This was important at the time because it took place during a debate about immigration, much like today. Rothenstein was thus seeking to paint people from a minority group that was persecuted. One article notes “These painting, which include the great 1906 work, Jews Mourning in a Synagogue, now at Tate, coincided with the complex national debate over immigration which culminated in the 1905 Aliens Act. As many commentators questioned the right of Jewish immigrants to settle in the East End, Rothenstein (who shared their Jewish heritage) sought to imbue these figures with due dignity, drawing attention to their spiritual dedication in the face of great suffering.”
For his mural about the Great War he chose a different theme. In the book Men and Memories, he explained how he came upon the idea. “I happened to be at Oxford where I witnessed the conferring of degrees . . . The sight of a number of youths, booted and spurred, with their gowns over their khaki, kneeling before the Chancellor to receive their degrees, put me in mind of the age of chivalry, so touching and beautiful were these young figures; and I thought what a fine subject for a memorial painting this would make . . . I therefore painted a group of representative figures, Vice-Chancellors, scholars and men of science surrounding a Chancellor conferring a degree upon a young soldier.”
The controversy over the student leader’s comments has now become a discussion about “men being painted over,” while it actually reveals a much more tragic and disturbing trend. The larger story is that the painting, by a descendent of immigrants who would not have been considered “white” at the time of the painting and came from a persecuted minority, is being depicted as an example of white male privilege. It is part of a trend in which Jews in the West are targeted as “white”, sometimes by people who are white, and even their history is being attacked and assaulted. It is part of a process of seeking to deny those like Rothenstein their history, and discuss them as minorities. Instead a mural by this painter who explored the plight of migrants and minorities, and was himself the son of working class minority immigrants, is depicted as an example of “white men.”
That the student leader has not explored the history of the painting and major media in the UK has not noted the minority origins of the painter, shows how the UK is wrestling with race issues without looking into the true diversity of society.
A teaching moment
Lost in the outrage and the attempt to make this about “female leadership” is a necessary discussion about Rothenstein and his mural. This could be a teaching moment where both those on the more radical student left, who abhor the painting, and those outraged by the disrespect to the Great War, look at the more complex history. It is a chance to look at a painter and his generation of Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants as they navigated the complex identities imposed on migrants at the time. Rothenstein clearly wanted to explore topics in the Jewish community, but noted his own growing distance from that community. In the Rothenstein mural we see a more traditional scene relating to the Great War, far removed from his 1906 paintings. This is what was so fascinating, moving from a Jewish milieu to a traditional one, from minority and working class immigrant origins, to the center of British life at as the principal of the Royal College of Art from 1920 to 1935. Biographies of him present this complex picture, which is lost in the anger over the incident with the student leader.
Perhaps now is the time to have a teaching moment where we can learn not to stereotype as “white” people who have more complex backgrounds, and not to disregard as merely “men” a painting whose artist was more complex. Perhaps now is the time to look more deeply at history and not allow its hijacking by hate and shallow extremists.