Wells’ approach is one that I adopted in exploring migration themes through Biblical images in the Ben Uri Collection and many of the journeys he mentions feature in the exhibition images. The images I chose, begin with an L. Michèle Franklin watercolour of Adam and Eve. In her image they are naked with heads in hands, lamenting their loss, as they leave Eden. This is an archetypal image of forced migration, with those who have become migrants mourning the loss of the home they loved. The creation stories contained in the Bible quickly lead to a founding act of exile as Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. One reading of this story suggests that we are all migrants, outside of a truly harmonious relationship with the world we inhabit but looking to return to our harmonious origins.
The exhibition ends with Horace Brodzky’s 'Supper at Emmaus', an image which comes at the end of a journey and depicts the moment of realisation that the one who had been lost and mourned had in fact been with the travellers throughout their journey. As a result, the realisation comes that what we seek may be with us on the journey or Exodus we undertake, rather than awaiting us at the end. This realisation results in a new journey for the exiles and a return to their people and purpose.
In between come stories of migration in the lives and experiences of the artists who created the images included in the exhibition, with aspects of those stories becoming entwined with the Biblical narratives depicted. Attention is drawn to René Girard’s mimetic theory, whereby imitation of one another gives rise to rivalries and violent conflicts that are then temporarily solved by scapegoating others. Some artists of Jewish origin included in the Collection addressed their experience of persecution through crucifixion imagery and, thereby, played their part in exposing and subverting this scapegoating mechanism.
Many of these artists were part of a remarkable generation of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe who contributed artworks that greatly enriched British culture and churches. After the Second World War, there was an almost unprecedented expansion of the number of church buildings containing works of art, as churches were repaired or built with new work installed in them. This was a time of impassioned artistic activity, in which the catalyst for the Church was, to a significant extent, émigré artists, many of whom were Jewish. I explore the contribution made by this group of artists in a related essay called Debt Owed to Jewish Refugee Art which is also available through Ben Uri Online.
Will Hutton, writing in The Guardian in 2015, noted that refugees “are, as migration specialist Ian Goldin characterises them, ‘exceptional people’”. He continued: “Over centuries, as [Goldin] painstakingly details, it has been immigrants and refugees who have been part of the alchemy of any country’s success: they are driven, hungry and talented and add to the pool of entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers. The hundreds of thousands today who have trekked across continents and dangerous seas are by any standards unusually driven. They are also, as Angela Merkel says, fellow human beings. To receive them well is not only in our interests, it is fundamental to an idea of what it means to be human.” The history of émigré artists in the twentieth century, and the part of that story I explore in this essay and exhibition, reiterates and demonstrates the continuing relevance and significance of that message.
In relation to the story told in my essay, it is a story in which the Church is at the heart of welcome and hospitality, combined with awareness of the immense contribution that refugees make to the culture and economy of their host countries. Our current lack of appreciation for that story, these artists, and their works, is, perhaps, symptomatic of the place in which our nation’s conversation about immigration is currently stuck. My hope is that this exhibition and essay can play a small part in changing that situation.
View the Exodus & Exile: Migration Themes in Biblical Images exhibition.