Jewish Expression in Twentieth-
Century Fine Arts

Were I not a Jew (with the content that I put in the word), I would not
be an artist at all, or I would be someone else altogether.
(MARC CHAGALL)
 

Excerpted from the book
Jewish Art

THE QUESTION of what is Jewish art and who is a Jewish artist is nowhere more problematic than in the fine arts. Despite the persistent doubts and objections, Jewish artists joined in virtually all the art movements of the twentieth century. Though many artists do not make an association between their art and their Jewish birth, there have been numerous artists who acknowledge their Jewishness and the role being Jewish plays in their work. There are many whose work has mirrored the momentous events of Jewish experience in modern history. Certainly, while some artists portray Jewish subject matter or explore Jewish themes, not all do, and though many are not even representational, the work conveys both the personal expression of the artist and links to issues of Jewish life and Jewish identity. In the final analysis, perhaps the most justifiable criterion for considering a work to be Jewish art is the issue of identity, perceived or real. In certain instances, it is clear that the artist grappled with the issue of Jewish identity in creating the work of art; in others, the questions persist.

Moritz Oppenheim has been called the first Jewish painter, and his work has been characterized as a watershed in Jewish cultural expression. While his nostalgic images seem to typify a sentimental yearning for an earlier age, Oppenheim's paintings represent the effort to preserve Jewish identity, reflecting his conscious encounter with the challenges of emancipation and assimilation in Germany. When he portrayed the great eighteenth-century Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, with Johann Caspar Lavater, a zealous Swiss Lutheran clergyman, Oppenheim was alluding to an encounter that represented a decisive juncture in Mendelssohn's life as he searched for an intellectual path for Judaism in the modern world. Mendelssohn knew that Lavater's dare to disprove the Christian faith or renounce his Judaism was actually yet another episode in a long line of polemics against Jews. Mendelssohn finally took up the challenge by writing the book Jerusalem to demonstrate his belief that indeed Jews could be full participants in the modern world. Oppenheim's paintings were immensely popular and, ironically, reproduced again and thus again and removed from the context of the struggle to which Oppenheim gave witness. It is the romanticism that remains, and Oppenheim's pioneering efforts as a champion of Jewish identity are little remembered.

The spirit of emancipation which fostered Oppenheim's work in the nineteenth century reached a turning point as the century drew to a close. The ideals of the Enlightenment which had emphasized toleration and individual freedom seemed to be crumbling. While removal of some of the legal restrictions on Jews had stimulated the hopes that Jews could fully enter European society, progress was impeded with the renewal of anti-Jewish sentiment.

Jewish life in Europe was undergoing radical change. In 1881, when seventy-five percent of the world Jewish population lived in eastern Europe, a series of pogroms broke out that would eventually strike at over two hundred Jewish communities. The hostility of the mobs was unchecked by the government. Disillusioned with the status quo, eastern European Jews took drastic measures. Over two and a half million would leave for the United States to seek economic stability and political freedom. Others joined the socialist movement to try to help build a just society for all in eastern Europe. A number joined the small but determined group of pioneers who were resolute in their aim of building a modern national state in the Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.

The work After the Pogrom by Maurycy Minkowski captures the trauma felt by eastern European Jews. The painting powerfully characterizes the fear and hopelessness of the refugees. Due to his own physical disability, Minkowski was able to neither hear or speak, the painting has a sense of isolation which is perhaps heightened by the artist's own acute perception of complete and profound separation and detachment. Another politically charged painting dealing with profound loss is Samuel Hirszenberg's The Black Banner (Czarny Sztandar). While the scene specifically portrays the funeral of a revered rabbinic leader, the mourning is truly for the entire community, whose way of life was rapidly changing. Quite a different attitude is portrayed in Birth of Jewish Resistance by Lazar Krestin. Painted after the infamous Kishinev pogrom in 1903, Krestin's work depicts a new, young breed of Jewish nationalists who do not languish in grief over the horrors they have experienced but are determined to fight back and find new direction and meaning in their lives.

In central Europe the shock waves of the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus provided a rude awakening for assimilated Jews. Dreyfus was accused of treason in 1894, falsely convicted and not exonerated until 1906. It was the Dreyfus trial, which Theodor Herzl covered as a journalist for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, that eroded Herzl's confidence in liberalism and led him to political Zionism. Yet no one could ever have predicted what would come in just another generation. Max Beckmann's The Synagogue of 1919, which refers to the Hauptsynagogue (Main Synagogue) of Frankfurt-am-Main, is an almost prophetic work, portraying what once was the proud symbol of the "emancipated" Jew in a garish, topsy-turvy predawn environment. The solidity and strength represented by the synagogue when it was dedicated in the mid-nineteenth century was quickly eroding. Max Liebermann, known as the father of German Expressionism, is but one representative of a generation of intellectual, acculturated Jews who personally would experience the drastic change. Before his death in 1935, the elderly Liebermann, who became president of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, was to see all his canvases removed from German museums by the Nazis. His 1926 Portrait of the Artist's Wife and Granddaughter is a tender portrayal of normalcy in German-Jewish family life that would soon be no more.

The patterns of migration and change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are paralleled in the world of art. Almost simultaneously, there was major activity among Jewish artists in Russia, Paris, the United States, and Eretz Yisrael. There were even serious attempts made to create a Jewish art. Boris Schatz had come to Jerusalem to establish the Bezalel School, where painting and sculpture were taught along with training in crafts. Artists in Eretz Yisrael in the 1920s, many from eastern Europe, portrayed their allegiance to the Zionist ideal through works characterized by a buoyant optimism. They sought to create a "Hebrew" rather than a "Jewish" art and depicted the everyday world around them. Works like Nahum Gutman's The Small Town, which depicts the young Tel Aviv, is suffused with light and lyricism, with an almost childlike naiveté in drawing technique. But this soon changed, impacted by the artists who traveled to Paris and the United States. Yosef Zaritsky's Safed, one in a series of watercolor landscapes in which he tries to balance form and subject, reflects the influence of Cézanne.

In Russia, from about 1915 to the mid-1920s, there was a Jewish cultural renaissance. Swept up in the nationalist impulses of the time, Jewish artists, as well as Jewish writers and musicians, optimistically believed that they could forge a Jewish cultural rebirth and sought a distinctive Jewish aesthetic. The leading figures in creating a new, modern Jewish art were El Lissitzky, Nathan Altman, Issachar Ryback, Joseph Tchaikov, and Boris Aronson. Marc Chagall, who returned to his native Vitebsk from Paris during World War I, also reveals many of the same impulses in his work of this period.

The movement was invigorated in part by the work of S. An-Sky (Shlomo Zainwil Rapoport) and his 1912-1914 expedition to Volhynia, Podolia, and the Kiev area. An-Sky's quest was to study Jewish life in the Pale of the Settlement, the area to which Jewish communities were restricted beginning in 1772 at the first partition of Poland, when more than half a million Jews came under Russian rule. By 1897 there were five million Jews in the Pale. An-Sky wanted to rescue and preserve some remnant of the Jewish spiritual and cultural heritage before it was lost due to the profound changes taking place not only in political realities but in transformation of traditional society in the face of modernization. His goal was to bring about a cultural renewal rooted in Jewish tradition but constantly facing and growing toward the future. Ironically, An-Sky's perspective was already outmoded by the time he undertook his study. He was searching for what he perceived as the "authentic" Jewish experience in the world of the shtetl, but in the years preceding World War I, much of the folk heritage he sought was already disappearing. Nonetheless, An-Sky's discoveries and later exploratory trips by El Lissitzky and Issachar Ryback to record motifs in wooden synagogues provided substantial imagery for the works of the Jewish avant-garde group.

It was in the fields of book illustration and theater design that these artists were most active, and the style they favored reveals Cubist and Futurist influences known to them from Paris. The Dybbuk, written by An-Sky and based on legends gathered as part of his folklore research, is perhaps the best-known play of the Jewish theater in Russia and established the reputation of Habimah, the first Hebrew theater company, which later moved to Tel Aviv. In a painting by Leonid Pasternak, An-Sky is portrayed reading from his play.

El Lissitzky was in the vanguard of the group. Among his best-known works are illustrations for Yiddish books, including children's books, the genre to which his 1919 Had Gadya for the Passover haggadah is related. As the hopes for the creation of a national Jewish culture faded and the publication of Jewish books was restricted by the government, El Lissitzky turned away from Jewish subjects and toward the Constructivist compositions devoid of content for which he became well known. At this juncture in 1922, he illustrated Ilya Ehrenburg's Six Stories with Easy Endings and made one last work entitled Shifs Karta (boat ticket) in which he incorporated Jewish imagery. A cryptic design, there is a dichotomy of meaning, for the ticket to America normally meant freedom, and yet El Lissitzky prominently stamps the image with the Hebrew letters found on gravestones to mean "here is buried."

For many artists, fleeing the ghetto meant artistic liberation. This was certainly true for many Jewish artists who went to Paris, where they were introduced to the world of modern art. A revolutionary new vision had been forged by the Impressionists in the late nineteenth century in France, and Paris soon became a veritable mecca for artists of many diverse backgrounds. The city was the major center of the avant-garde for the visual arts as well as for music and literature. Within a few short years a rapid succession of modernist movements--Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism--would radically alter the world of art.

Many, but not all, of the Jewish artists who went to Paris fit the stereotype of the youths fleeing the poverty of the eastern European shtetl and the Orthodox faith of their parents. Others, like Amedeo Modigliani, Jules Pascin, and Louis Marcousis, came from financially stable homes, modern European and American cities, and assimilated Jewish families. From the first decade of the twentieth century until the German invasion of Paris, there were scores of Jewish artists who flocked to Paris, and the art community also included Jewish critics, dealers and collectors.

While there is no discernible Jewish style that emerged in the "School of Paris," many of the Jewish artists were part of the community in Montparnasse and frequented the café La Rotonde and the Café du Dôme. Some also shared studio space in La Ruche ("the beehive"), an artists' residence established in 1902 to serve as a place for creative individuals to live and work together. There were to be many changes that occurred over time, the pre-World War I optimism, challenges in the postwar decade of renewed anti-Semitism, the mounting fears of the 1930s as Hitler rose to power in Germany. Yet, it was a remarkable era and within the unique and vibrant Parisian environment, the Jewish artists were indeed confrères who were aware of and recognized for their Jewishness even if they sought to overcome it, and even as they pursued their singular ideals, their individual sensitivities and talents, and aligned themselves with a number of different movements.

Jules Pascin is characteristic of this phenomenon. When he arrived in Paris in 1905, Pascin had already studied in Vienna, Berlin, and Munich, where he was known for his drawings published in the satirical weekly Simplicissmus. Son of a wealthy Sephardi family from Bulgaria, he had a cosmopolitan bearing and his dynamic personality made him an early leader. Pascin served as a galvanizing force for many of the other Jewish artists in Paris who arrived in that first decade. He was forced to leave France during World War I, emigrating to the United States before returning to France in 1920. Unfortunately, excesses of his own paralleled those of the unsavory life he portrayed in his works, such as Girl with Boots; despondent despite his success, he committed suicide in 1930.

Among the artists, only Marc Chagall, who came to Paris in 1910, painted Jewish themes in a unique fusion of the Jewish folkways of his youth and modern art. As he absorbed the heady Parisian world, he also drew on the experiences of his youth in Vitebsk. A tension and biting wit are expressed in Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers. Chagall, who portrays himself smartly dressed, clearly enjoys his status as an artist. He is in Paris, for the Eiffel Tower is visible through the window. The work on the easel, however, is a very complex composition replete with Yiddishisms conveyed through visual metaphors. The work in progress is To Russia, Asses and Others, which he completed in 1912 and originally titled La Tante au Ciel ("the aunt in the sky"). The reference to seven fingers means to do something wholeheartedly; he was consumed with the intensity of being a painter.

Lithuanian-born Chaim Soutine was also a very influential figure among Jewish artists in Paris. None of his paintings have Jewish subject matter nor, in contrast with Chagall, is there any reference to his youth or family history. Yet because of the intensity of his personal style he has, perhaps more than any other of the Jewish artists in Paris, been characterized as representing the anxiety and tortured spirit of the persecuted, of the victim, and therefore the Jew.

Amedeo Modigliani was from a respected Italian-Jewish family and despite his family's subsequent financial reverses, he was well educated in both secular and Jewish subjects and received classical art training in Venice and Florence before going to Paris in 1906. While there are only sporadic references in his work in terms of Jewish content, occasional use of Jewish symbols and Hebrew letters in his drawings, it is noteworthy that the first work which Modigliani ever exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants was La Juive (The Jewess) in 1908. The artists often painted one another; Modigliani painted a portrait of the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and his wife. The painting is characteristically Modigliani, a sensitive portrayal, the figures identifiable but elongated and linear.

Chana Orloff, born in the Ukraine, immigrated with her family to Eretz Yisrael in 1905, then traveled on her own to Paris in 1910. By the 1920s Orloff's reputation was well-established, especially for her portraits.

Born in Lithuania, Chaim Jacob Lipchitz was the son of a successful building contractor. Soon after arriving in Paris in 1909, he promptly changed his name to Jacques. Lipchitz met Picasso in 1913 and soon began to make Cubist sculptures. In the 1930s Lipchitz's art was to change radically, as he moved from the geometry of Cubism to a more organic, baroque manner of expression. During this period, his subject matter expanded to include mythological scenes, biblical stories and personalities, and socially relevant themes. Lipchitz was forced to flee Paris and settled in New York in 1941.

Among those who went to Paris were also Americans. Max Weber, who was born in Bialystok, moved with his family to New York when he was ten. In 1905, he went to Paris, returning to New York in 1909. While his work clearly had been influenced by Cubism, he maintained a strong sense of the representational, as in his spiritually powerful Invocation.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, a surprisingly large number of American-Jewish artists had either been brought as children to the United States or were born of eastern European immigrant parents. Many of the artists studied at the Educational Alliance School on New York's Lower East Side, founded by the already established German Jews as a means to promote the acculturation of the new immigrants. While the diversity of artists led to a diversity of themes and styles, the work of a significant number of Jewish artists was a vehicle for social comment, especially during the years of the Depression. In documenting the world around them, the works can also be very personally revealing. Raphael Soyer, known for his portrayal of urban realism, reveals in Dancing Lesson the generation gap between the immigrant parents and their children. William Gropper's The Tailor, a biting work of social commentary, emerged from Gropper's own experience as a youth working in a garment industry sweatshop. The Roosevelt Mural was painted by Ben Shahn in 1937 for a community in Roosevelt, New Jersey, founded by the predominantly Jewish members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. The mural encapsulates the immigrant experience from the most humble to Albert Einstein, prominently pictured at the front of the masses teeming in. The pens of Ellis Island are echoed in the warrens of the sweatshop and even in the coffins of Sacco and Vanzetti. The mural was done for a housing development sponsored by the Farm Security Administration. Jack Levine, whose work is typically satirical in its social commentary, makes a very private statement in Planning Solomon's Temple. In this homage to his late father, Levine interestingly reverted to a biblical theme, likening his father to the great King Solomon.

The idyllic childhood of Chaim Gross was brutally ended with the savage beating of his parents by Russian troops. In 1921, at the age of seventeen, Gross immigrated to America. From his father, a forester in his native Carpathian mountains, Gross inherited a love of wood which would become integral to his works as a sculptor.

The gash through the very fabric of human civilization caused by World War II and the destruction of European Jewry had a profound impact on the world of art. There are numerous works which relate to the Holocaust. Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion, begun in 1938, is a powerfully foreboding message of the devastation to come. All is in turmoil. The village is being destroyed, the synagogue is in flames, refugees flee, sacred books are burned. Chagall's Christ is a Jew, wearing a tallit as his loincloth.

Some European artists like Chagall were able to flee and find safe haven in the United States. Jacob Epstein's bust of Albert Einstein was sculpted in 1933, when Einstein had resigned his position at the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences and settled in the United States. Some, like Jakob Steinhardt and Mordecai Ardon were able to go to Eretz Yisrael. Many perished. A few, like Felix Nussbaum and Charlotte Salomon, were able to inform us of their experiences through artworks left behind and preserved, even as they went to their deaths. In the aftermath of the war, many artists would memorialize the victims.

Jacques Lipchitz began his powerful Mother and Child in 1939 and completed it just after the war. The plaintive, primeval cry of the disabled mother, her child clinging to her back, resonates as a universal gesture of anguish, yet honors the resilience of the human spirit.

In the half century since the end of the war, many artists have struggled to find ways both to remember the victims and grapple with and give expression to the unfathomable reality of the Holocaust. Mordecai Ardon's triptych Missa Dura chronicles the Nazi rise to power, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass on November 9, 1938, and the ultimate plight of the victims. Moshe Gershuni's The Little Angels is a poignant remembrance of the youngest of those to die. Gershuni's work recollects not only the vast numbers of children who perished but evokes the memories of each child by inscribing the name of just a few, as if the canvas is calling after them down the black vortex into which they have disappeared. George Segal's The Holocaust was made as a public Holocaust memorial. Using his signature technique of casting living persons directly in plaster, he gave form to images of the corpses known through photographs taken shortly after the Allied liberation of the concentration camp. The lone figure standing by the barbed wire fence is based on a Margaret Bourke-White photograph; the model was a friend of Segal's who was a survivor. In its own way, the Polish Village Series by non-Jewish artist Frank Stella pays homage to a bygone world by transforming the images of the destroyed wooden synagogues of eastern Europe into works of art that echo their creativity and vitality.

Jewish life and Jewish art have undergone many changes in the post-World War II era. The State of Israel was born and Israeli art as a distinct entity came into maturity as part of the international art scene with artists with varying styles, aesthetic approaches and political ideologies about the role of art in society. Themes vary from such penetrating works such as Reuven Rubin's First Seder in Jerusalem, pondering the ingathering of Jews to Israel, to a connection to the ancient past of Eretz Yisrael, as in Itzhak Danziger's abstracted Negev sheep called The Lord Is My Shepherd. Other works focus on the land, such as Anna Ticho's sensitive landscape study Jerusalem. The range broads, from a metaphorical mythological work like Menashe Kadishman's Prometheus, to Gabi Klasmer's intense, probing Shimshon or Samuel Bak's Pardes, which return to the Bible and biblical interpretation to question aspects of contemporary Israeli life. Moreover, there are, of course, many artists whose work is nonrepresentational. Yaacov Agam, for example, has developed a unique expression through kinetic and optical art.

Jewish life and Jewish art also merged in a movement of Jewish artists working underground in the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s who came together to express their Jewish identity. The artists were young and bold and vulnerable. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend the enormity of the risks they took in order to voice their Jewishness, but it was very real. Evgeny Abesgauz was a leader of the group. His painting My Old Home, linked stylistically to Russian folklore tradition, expressed the hope of these artists that they be allowed to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel.

In the post-World War II era, New York became the art capital of the world and among the ranks of artists were many Jews. To be sure, there were many, including Ben Shahn and Leonard Baskin, whose works continued to have some Jewish content or were expressive of the artist's Jewishness. But the goal for most Jewish artists was to be accepted in the general art world, and few focused solely on Jewish subject matter. Occasionally, an autobiographical work revealed an artist's heritage, such as Larry Rivers's Europe I, a painting dealing with his eastern European antecedents.

A number of Jewish artists were important figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement, yet the Jewish intent of their work is subject to interpretation. Can one parallel Rothko's thoughts when he painted his highly personal, signature nonobjective compositions and a work like Street Scene XX, painted in the 1930s, which recalls his childhood and the protective embrace of a bearded patriarchal figure? How much can we conjecture about Adolph Gottlieb's paintings from his synagogue commissions, such as the Torah curtain made for a Millburn, New Jersey temple?

There has, however, in the past two decades been a renewed quest by a number of Jewish artists to explore their Jewish identity and to infuse their work with a particularly Jewish consciousness. Of course, this work is extremely personal in approach and style. Some works are highly spiritual like Tobi Kahn's Shrine Series. Others probe contemporary Jewish life, among them Adam Rolston's Matzo Box Series on ethnicity and popular culture or Robin Schwalb's choice of the biblical theme of the Tower of Babel for her work. Some works reflect the collective history of the Jewish people, as in R.B. Kitaj's The Jewish School (Drawing a Golem), which explores Jewish response to persecution; others draw from memory, like Irving Petlin's Street in Weissewald, where history is personalized.

When the study of Jewish art began a century ago, the major concern was the preservation of the Jewish cultural heritage. Jewish art was documented, collected, studied, and interpreted, not for its sake alone but rather as the potential source for renewing Jewish cultural life. So it is today. Whether in the realm of ritual, custom and ceremony, or fine arts, those creating Jewish art look to the past in order to look toward the future.


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