Emmanuel Levy, like Jacob Kramer, was one of a small group of Jewish artists, whose families, fleeing persecution, restrictive legislation and economic hardship settled in the north of England as part of the wider Jewish migration to Britain at the close of the nineteenth century.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was born in Hightown, Manchester, the area immortalized by the Jewish writer Louis Golding in his best-selling novel Magnolia Street (1932), which Levy later adapted as a radio play. His father was the beadle at the Great Synagogue, Cheetham Hill and Levy attended the local Jews’ Free School, before studying at Manchester School of Art under Adolphe Valette (c.1918) together with L. S. Lowry, as well as at St Martin’s School of Art in London, and in Paris. He returned to Manchester for his first solo show in 1925. In 1928 Levy was appointed a special instructor in life drawing at Manchester University School of Architecture, recommended by Valette, whom he succeeded, and gave popular public demonstrations in portrait painting. From 1929, for several years, he was Art Critic for Manchester City News and the Evening News. Indeed, his 60-year career was so closely associated with his native city that Lord Ardwick described him as ‘a Manchester man through and through. But’, he continued, ‘there is nothing provincial or even distinctly English in his work. He is a citizen of the world’.
Although he experimented with Cubism and Surrealism, Levy abandoned these styles in favour of naturalism, specializing in figurative work exploring the human condition. His Crucifixion, a personal protest against Jewish persecution in mainland Europe during the Nazi era, is probably his most powerful work in this genre. Here, Levy has used Christ as a symbol for the suffering of the Jews. From the nineteenth century onwards, Christ had been variously depicted as a preacher, scholar, mystical visitor or a victim of anti-Semitism by Jewish artists, including Maurycy Gottlieb, Wilhelm Wachtel and Marc Chagall. Levy draws on both Jewish and Christian imagery to present Christ as an orthodox Jew with his Tallit (prayer shawl) and prayer phylacteries. The label ‘Jude’ in blood red above and the rows of white crosses (traditionally marking Christian graves) symbolise the many Jews who were being killed at the time. Religious iconography was a dominant theme in Levy’s work, and his Two Rabbis with Scrolls of the Law (Ben Uri Collection) employs a similar pared-down modern style and bold patterning to illustrate the joyous Jewish festival of Simchat Torah. Levy’s central theme, however, was always the human condition.
He held six solo exhibitions in Manchester between 1925 and 1963, with further solo shows in London, including at Ben Uri (1953, 1978 and 1989), where his work was also shown from 1935 onwards in numerous group shows. The Ben Uri Collection holds 13 works by Levy including a portrait drawing of fellow Jewish artist Horace Brodzky.