The Arty Semite

Britain's Stained Glass Master

By Anne Joseph

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“Life and Art Through Stained Glass,” a new exhibit at the Ben Uri Gallery in London, examines the artistic career of architect, painter, designer and stained glass innovator Roman Halter (1927-2012). A survivor of the Holocaust, Halter channeled much of his creativity into narrating the horrors of that experience. It was essential to him that the truth was shared, especially with younger generations.

This current exhibition is a celebration of a remarkable man who, despite the darkest of childhoods, was “devoted to the design of pure color and light,” said curator Thomas Hughes. In featuring over 70 works, Ben Uri has successfully managed to portray the range, depth and skill of Halter’s extensive oeuvre.

Born in Chodecz, a small village in western Poland, Halter was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Lodz ghetto. After its liquidation in 1944, he was one of the metal workers selected for slave labor, but instead was transferred to Auschwitz. He was later moved to Dresden via the Stutthoff concentration camp and after the RAF raids in 1945, Halter escaped and returned to a deserted Chodecz.

In 1945 Halter came to London where he became an architect, establishing practices in London and Cambridge. In 1973 he moved to Israel where, using his architectural skills within a design context, he was commissioned to design and construct the main gate to Yad Vashem. On his return to London in 1976 he decided to become a full-time artist.

From the construction of his monumental blue stained glass “Reclining Figure” (1986), which was interpreted from a Henry Moore sculpture, to the commissioned Queen’s Royal Coat of Arms, which hangs in British courts and embassies, Halter’s innovation is obvious.

The compositional tool of seamless threading runs throughout many of his paintings — a structural device taken from working with stained glass. A distinct outline separates different panels of color, and on canvas it can be transformative. The art deco style double portrait, “Couple” (1979), is a stunning example of this influence, through its use of bold patterning and defining black tracery.

Holocaust images are often inserted within the body of his paintings — a Chagall inspired technique. These can appear in unlikely places: in the folds of a beard or tresses of hair, as in “The Prophet” (1974) — one of the exhibition’s central figurative works — or hidden in the delicate lace mantilla (headscarf worn in Spain) in “Woman in Mantilla “(1974), a painting based on his mother wearing her synagogue finery.

In his later years Halter began painting tiny watercolors of his dreams, fusing his past with the present. Haunting Holocaust imagery juxtaposes with the idyllic English countryside of Dorset, where his daughter lives. One wall is devoted to this visual diary, and yet on first glance it can be easy to miss the intricacies of these graphic depictions. Under each picture in neat red ink is a written explanation of his dream such as, “I dreamt in Apr: 2006 on Sat @ 1.48am that Jewish mothers with their children were ‘gathered’ in a tight cluster in a Dorset landscape near the sea (I dreamt that I shouted to them ‘hide’) I couldn’t see SS guards anywhere.”

Halter’s stained glass windows can be found in synagogues and churches all over Britain and abroad. Biblical themes and imagery resonate, and three stained glass window reproductions, taken from London synagogues, are shown here. One is the commanding “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” (1978), which apparently stretched the capacity of stained glass design to new and near abstract limits. Throughout his artistic career, Halter chose to portray images of Jewish tradition and family; both were constant sources of strength to him.

Although some of Halter’s works are literally stained with his anguished recollections of the past, optimism and the sheer brightness of life shine through in his designs. This exhibition is a truly fitting tribute, as Hughes suggests, to a life and art through stained glass.


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