Lesser Ury Great Jewish Painter Dies Within Few Weeks of His Seventieth Birthday: Friends Were Arran
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Lesser Ury Great Jewish Painter Dies Within Few Weeks of His Seventieth Birthday: Friends Were Arran

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The death took place at his home here to-day of Lesser Ury, one of the greatest painters of the day and of modern Germany, regarded by many as second only to the doyen of German art, himself a Jew, Professor Max Liebermann, the President of the Berlin Academy of Art, who celebrated his 84th. birthday in July.

Lesser Ury was within a couple of weeks of his 70th. birthday, which would have occurred on Saturday, November 7th. Preparations were started several months back by a number of his friends and admirers to celebrate the occasion in a suitable manner, and the Director of the National Gallery in Berlin, Privy councillor Dr. Ludwig Justi, early in July announced that he was arranging a big one-man exhibition of Lesser Ury’s works in the National Gallery to open on his 70th. birthday. In addition to a number of his paintings which are in the possession of the National Gallery, Dr. Justi was negotiating for the loan of his most important works which are in private collections, so that the exhibition would be, as he said, “representative of the great painter who has played a notable part in the history of the development of modern German painting”.

Lesser Ury, who was born in 1861, in the town of Birnbaum, in the Province of Posen, when it was still part of Germany, had a long struggle with poverty before he won recognition, and even after he had become famous he was a poor man. His father, a small trader in Birnbaum, died while Lesser Ury was a boy, leaving him and his mother totally unprovided for. At first Lesser Ury was put by his mother into a shop, with the intention of becoming a trader, but he was a bad businessman and he wanted to become a painter. He went to Duesseldorf, Munich, Berlin and Paris, and despite much material hardship he slowly won recognition. Nevertheless, though a success from the artistic and the press point of view, his first exhibition held in 1889 brought him very little money. It was soon after, however, that he won the Michael Beer prize of the Berlin Academy of Art, which sent him to Italy. His first retrospective exhibition held in Berlin in 1916 established his fame as one of the great artists of Germany. Like Liebermann, an impressionist, his works are among the earliest and best examples of impressionism in Germany. The National Gallery in Berlin acquired three of his paintings in 1923, and the number has been added to since. His colour has been described as masterly and he has been called the most important pastel artist of the twentieth century.


He made his name chiefly by his paintings of city life and scenes, and in this regard he was called the discoverer of Berlin. He devoted himself, one of his admirers, Dr. Israel Auerbach has written, to painting the animation in the streets, the people rushing backwards and forwards, the endlessness of the lines of trees and houses, the streetcars, the wheels moving, the sparkle of the cafes, the shining pearl chains formed by the electric are lamps, the mirror-like rainy streets, the dimness of night lights and shadows, the entire wild, shrill and yet rythmic swing of the life of the big city, pounding, breathing and rotating in his pictures.

At the same time, he was devoted also to his Judaism, and he was constantly painting pictures of Jewish life and Biblical themes. Lesser Ury is a Jewish artist, Dr. Auerbach wrote, not only because he sometimes paints Jewish types, scenes, legends, but also because he is a great artist in whom Judaism lives. The Judaism in him makes itself known by the fact that we can read him more clearly in his creations of Jewish characters than in anything else. It is no accident that Ury chose Biblical motives to express his innermost thoughts. He is devoted to the Book of Books and to the breath of God that is in it, as well as to the mighty moving throng that live in that breath. He has painted Moses at least half a dozen times: drunk with vision before the shining mountain; in repose, with wise fingers pointing to the Words; in divine scorn, breaking the first tablets before the sinners surrounding the golden calf; as the outstretched arm of God punishing the corrupt world of Egypt. Again and again Moses, the Bible, and scenes showing the fate of his people appear in Ury’s work. His most famous work perhaps is his triptych “Man”, which represents first a dreaming youth, whose heaven and life are full of music, whose body and soul are filled with expectations and certainty, next a titanic man of granite, erect, lifting the whole burden of humanity to the heaven that calls and again rejects him, and finally a broken old man waiting for the end to come. So he portrays himself – Lesser Ury, the man and the artist.

His “Jerusalem” has become the property of the State Museum in Vienna, Dr. Auerbach went on, and the Temple of the B’nai B’rith House in Berlin is adorned with his “Jacob and Esau”, and his “Rebecca and Eliezer”. But gigantic paintings such as “Adam and Eve”, “The Deluge”, “Man”, even the exalted “Jeremiah”, that should belong to the world, he complained. are still in his studio.

Despite his fame, buyers have not been many, particularly in recent years, with the economic conditions in Germany so extremely difficult. He was once forced, Dr. Auerbach relates, to destroy one of his paintings, “Benjamin”, because it was too big for his poor studio, and he was too poverty-stricken to place it anywhere. He lives, dreams and talks with his pictures, which are his very flesh and blood, he continued, but material poverty often makes him grieve. It is a disgrace for us Jews, his own people, he wrote to allow his pictures to remain in his studio. In the meantime, he concluded, picturing Lesser Ury in the last few years before his death, “a lonely man, embittered, and often in the mood of his “Samson”–“Tamuth Nafshi in Pelishim”, sits surrounded by his enormous treasure. And on the other hand, the Jewish people, whom he would like to enrich, but who prefer not to recognise his treasure, remain poor”.

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