Anyone who admires Isaac Rosenberg’s poetry should go to the exhibition of his paintings at the Ben Uri Gallery in London. It’s not a large exhibition, because, of course, he was killed before his promise could be completely fulfilled, in painting as in poetry.
The best pictures are the series of self-portraits, in which he scrutinises himself quizzically – as though asking “Who are you?”
In wartime letters he drew pictures of himself, wearing military hats rather self-consciously. My favourite is a drawing of himself with a tin of marmalade (and indications of where in the dugout the rats, fleas and lice each had their headquarters.)
In his best poem (probably my favourite poem of the war) he gives what is surely a self-portrait in his description of the rat:
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies…
“Cosmopolitan” was a code-word for Jewish at the time, and Rosenberg’s sense of his race and culture was crucial to his poetry, and his sense of himself. It also allowed him to see the mainstream of British culture from an angle, and notice things that others missed.
As well as the self-portraits, there are some very good paintings of women. The exhibition gives his work a background by including pictures by other Whitechapel artists of the time, such as Mark Gertler.