Jankel Adler was a Polish Jew who had made a reputation as an artist in Germany and got included in an early exhibition of modernist art staged by the Nazis in 1933 with the aim of importing hatred into the cultural sphere. Adler moved to Paris pretty well at once, while his wife stayed behind with their child. At the beginning of the war Adler joined the Polish army, was evacuated to Britain and suffered a heart attack that got him invalided out.
This troubled history lies behind the recent exhibition of his British work from the 1940s at the Ben Uri Gallery in Boundary Road. At the start of his career, Jewish themes had loomed large. Later, references to his roots became more complicated.
The most powerful painting included in this small but choice exhibition is called Beginning of the Revolt, a title that initially makes no sense. The first thing you notice is the strange abraded surface. The paint looks as if it has been cooked, causing it to pucker into small ridges which are then brought out by a wash of darker pigment that settles into the hollows. To begin with, you don’t know whether these are effects of nature or of art, a deliberate or accidental ruin, defacement that makes imagery already mysterious even harder to interpret.
The palette is almost monochrome but with all the variety that exists in the tones between black and white, enhanced by yellowing that may be simply patchy applications of varnish. Near the top, a single smear of rust, and a background of ochre, vagaries of tone which are intensely visceral and gripping.
After plenty of explanation that I will come to in a minute, I still find the image unfathomable. Is it a huge kneeling figure with Minotaur head and large eyes or nipples in its chest, holding standards that end in a wolf’s head on the right, and—the only clear element in the whole heap of matter—a bird falling backward on the left? Is the group sailing from right to left in a small boat? The overall effect is also like a stumpy branching tree anchored in a patch of earth that doesn’t look stable.
The result is muscular, energetic, strong, yet we learn from the label that this painting is Adler’s response to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto of 1943, which was brutally put down. It is linked with three Adlers of the same period now in the Tate, all powerful in different ways—The Mutilated (opening image), No Man’s Land and Two Orphans, the last of which Adler painted for his friend Josef Herman, who lost the entire family he’d left behind in the Warsaw Rising, suffered a breakdown on getting the news, and was nursed back to health and productivity by Adler. The orphans are Herman and Adler, and the painting hung over the Hermans’ mantelpiece.
This terrible and inspiring story seems more inspiring than terrible because, among other things, both of them produced much of their best work during and just after the war.
There are explicit references to suffering in Adler’s illustrations to Kafka for example, including one of the torture machine from In the Penal Colony, and more interesting and ambiguous, a group of enigmatic figures in the thick and scumbled paint that seems to signal tragedy for this painter.
He also found symbols which let him treat oppression and threat in less melodramatic ways. Birds appear in many guises and mean many different things. Finding them concealed where you don’t expect is one of the pleasures of Adler. Another of the largest paintings in the exhibition at the Ben Uri is perhaps an optimistic obverse to Beginning of the Revolt and shows a woman releasing a dove from a cage, to go out and report on conditions outside as in Genesis? or to embark bravely on a life in exile?
The other optimistic emblem that I see everywhere is a candle alight or a lamp raised up, again just as moving when you can’t be entirely sure it is there at all
Some of his still-lives are among his most puzzling pictures. A particularly delightful one shows a table-top dotted with semi-recognisable, angular forms, while above them floats an object or two objects of more neutral hue. Is it the tablecloth which has managed to slip free of its oppressors? or birds or fish dancing above the prosaic equipment of the meal, or ghosts of events that happened here, or clouds in the sky? I favour grave-clothes of a corpse that has flown, which now do a Baroque pantomime à la Wallace Stevens.
Adler’s friend, the avant garde writer Stefan Themerson, has the answer. In 1948 he published an eccentric pamphlet with 13 illustrations by Adler masquerading as a story for children and called Jankel Adler/ an artist seen from one of many possible angles. It tells the story of the boy Jankel Adler who in 1899 believed for a minute that one of his friends had been turned into a green lizard. Themerson takes off from this mythic event to mount a hilarious defence of human imagination, in which Shakespeare Lizard writes Hamlet in 1923 and Adler Lizard paints his pictures with objects no one’s ever seen before, that are nonetheless real and definitely exist, a wonderful argument for Adler’s way of dealing with painful realties in ambiguous symbols made from everyday materials.