Rabbi and Rabbitzin
Mark Gertler was born in a slum lodging house in Spitalfields in 1891, the fifth and youngest child of Austrian-Jewish immigrant parents ‘trying their luck’ in London. Repatriated to their native Przemysl in Galicia the following year, the family lived on the brink of starvation after the departure of Gertler’s father, Louis, to search for work in America until they were reunited in London’s East End in 1896, less than a mile from where Mark had been born. Following an unhappy apprenticeship at Clayton and Bell stained-glass makers, and a brief training at the Regent School Polytechnic, Gertler entered the Slade School of Fine Art (1908–11), aided by a loan from the Jewish Educational Aid Society – the first and youngest Jewish working-class student of his generation to do so. His spectacular progress – he twice won the Slade scholarship and left with another from the British Institution – encouraged further ‘Whitechapel Boys’ including David Bomberg, Jacob Kramer and Isaac Rosenberg to follow in his footsteps.
Three years out of the Slade, Gertler’s work became increasingly experimental. Rabbi and Rabbitzin, executed on the eve of the First World War, captures the tension between the traditional way of life depicted and the incipient warfare which threatens to overwhelm it. The concentrated, almost claustrophobic domestic interior with the scrubbed kitchen table and simple meal typify Jewish East End life of the period. The simplification of the figures and the still life objects seen from different viewpoints reflect Gertler’s awareness of Cézanne, while the treatment of the dresser and crockery shows the influence of Cubism. The presence of a grid (common Slade practice for squaring up the picture for transfer to canvas) indicates that Gertler planned a painting of the composition. A companion drawing, Rabbi and Rabbitzin with Fish, is in the British Museum.
The focus of the work is the relationship between the man and wife – without the title we would not know they are Rabbi and Rabbitzin – yoked together and anchored to their spartan surroundings. Their huge eyes increase their emotive appeal, while their enlarged hands, as in Gertler’s 1913 Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (Glynn Vivian, Swansea), indicate suffering and a life that has known hardship. The picture, as a contemporary reviewer noted, also evokes the wider history of the Jewish diaspora: ‘A man and a woman with all the history of an oppressed people behind them […] the incisive and unflinching design […] controlled without loss to their humanity’.
This work is one of 11 Gertlers in the Ben Uri Collection.