Jankel Adler was born in 1895 in Tuszyn, near Łódź, into a large orthodox Jewish family. He studied engraving in Belgrade in 1912, then art in Barmen and Düsseldorf until 1914. Adler returned to Poland in 1918, becoming a founder-member of Young Yiddish, a Łódź-based group of painters and writers dedicated to the expression of their Jewish identity. During the First World War he was conscripted into the Russian army, but resettled in Germany in 1920, notably meeting Marc Chagall in Berlin, before returning to Barmen. In 1922 Adler moved to Düsseldorf, joined the Young Rhineland circle, became friendly with Otto Dix and helped found Die Kommune and the International Exhibition of revolutionary artists in Berlin. His Planetarium frescos in 1925 were highly successful and he exhibited widely. In 1931, at the Düsseldorf Academy, he formed an important friendship with Paul Klee, who had a profound influence on his style.
In 1933 Adler was forced to flee Nazi Germany at the height of his success after his work was declared ‘degenerate’ – he was later included in the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in 1937. His arrival in Paris can be seen as part of a ‘second wave’ of artists from Russia, who were drawn west to Germany, then to France, though Adler continued to travel widely until 1937, when he worked with the printmaker Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 in Paris. He also met Picasso, who became the second major influence on his style. Adler joined the Polish Army upon the outbreak of the Second World War and was evacuated to Scotland in 1940, where he was demobilized owing to poor health. In Glasgow he and Josef Herman – whom he had known previously in Poland – became members of the influential Glasgow New Art club founded by J. D. Fergusson. Adler moved to London in 1943, sharing a house with ‘the two Roberts’, the painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, whose style he greatly influenced; he died at Aldbourne in Wiltshire in 1949.
Adler’s etching, Ein Jude, is one of five works in the Ben Uri Collection, which also holds the plate for this work. It was probably created in 1926 on the artist’s second visit to Paris and brings clean lines and a modernist technique to a beautifully executed traditional subject. In Portrait of a Woman Adler employs a a sombre palette and a bold, expressive style showing the influence of Picasso. His mixed media Still Life was acquired in 1937 after his arrival in London and a press cutting in the archives suggests that the Society anticipated the attendance of this ‘famous artist’ at a ‘festive’ event in the autumn of the same year.