The Day of Atonement
The Day of Atonement is a study for a larger painting regarded as one of the most important in the Anglo-Jewish canon, gifted to Leeds Art Gallery by the local Jewish community in 1920 to mark Kramer’s departure for London. These semi-abstract works, drawing on contemporary influences, including Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism and David Bomberg’s own visual experimentation during the 1910s, audaciously fuse the subject of Jewish devotion during the most solemn day in the religious calendar with a new modernist vocabulary.
For Kramer, a Russian-born, Yiddish-speaking émigré, who attended art school in Leeds, the donation was further affirmation of his position within the modernist vanguard. He had first left Leeds in 1913, with support from his patron, Michael Sadler, modernist collector and Vice Chancellor of the University, and limited funding from the Jewish Educational Aid Society, to attend the Slade for one academic year. Despite his artistic talent and imposing physical presence, the year was marked by anxieties and financial hardship. Nevertheless, it provided entry to London’s bohemian circles, alongside fellow ‘Whitechapel Boys’ Bomberg and Jacob Epstein, who included Kramer’s work in the ‘Jewish Section’ in the 1914 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements.
After leaving the Slade, Kramer strove to achieve a spiritual quality in his art without jettisoning his modernist credentials, perhaps driven by a postwar mood of disillusionment. He had failed as a War Artist, spending a short time as a regimental librarian, a post facilitated by Herbert Read – hardly an experience on which to base a brave new art. In 1918 a design for a woodcut, entitled The Day of Atonement, appeared in the sole issue of the literary review New Paths, co-edited by Michael Sadleir, son of his patron. Here the procession was simplified to six angular figures; those at the front tilting their mask-like features upwards in poses that anticipate the painting. The text described Kramer as: ‘far more essentially Hebraic in his outlook than Gertler, whose Jewish extraction seems over emphasised. Kramer is a grim bitter realist […] Kramer obtains the effect of Primitivism through a ruthless elimination of all that is unessential’.
Despite Ben Uri’s early support (Study in Black and Lemon was donated by Moshe Oved in 1926 and Kramer exhibited regularly in the Annual Exhibition of Works by Jewish Artists from 1935–50), his subsequent career disappointed. Following a crisis of confidence, he returned north, eventually becoming known for his characteristic portraits of Leeds locals and notable visitors. A retrospective was held at Leeds Art Gallery in 1960. Twelve works by Kramer are held in the Ben Uri Collection.