A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear.
During the Nazi period, Marc Chagall, who had left his native Russia for France and then America, dramatized the martyrdom of the Jews of Europe by appropriating the most potent Christian iconography, the Crucifixion. One of these pictures, White Crucifixion (1938), is reproduced in a new illustrated survey called Jewish Art: A Modern History (Reaktion Books, $35): It shows Jesus on the cross, naked except for a tallis drawn around his waist, surrounded by images of burning synagogues and houses, and floating, weeping Jews.
Yet this is how the critic Clement Greenberg responded to Chagall’s Crucifixions: “A new yellow plays a role, along with more ambitious or more surrealist subject matter—crucifixions and monsters. … Chagall’s two or three new major efforts—major in size and pretension—abound in patches of interesting painting, but none is fused into a complete and organic work of art.” The chilly insistence on formal analysis (“a new yellow”) and the brisk rebuke to the Crucifixion imagery—which can be admitted, at most, as an example of surrealism—reads as a complete evasion of the specifically Jewish challenge of these pictures.
It begins to seem a little suspicious, even neurotic, that Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg—two leading 20th-century American art critics whose Jewishness played a central role in their public and private identity—set their faces so completely against the very idea of a modern Jewish art. In 1966, Rosenberg attempted to tackle the relationship between Judaism and visual art head-on in a lecture at New York’s Jewish Museum titled “Is There a Jewish Art?” As he recognized, it was a funny question to ask in that venue: “First they build a Jewish Museum, then they ask, Is there a Jewish art! Jews!” He went on: “As to the question itself, there is a Gentile answer and a Jewish answer. The Gentile answer is: Yes, there is a Jewish art, and No, there is no Jewish art. The Jewish answer is: What do you mean by Jewish art?” Was it any art produced by Jews, or fine art with Jewish subject matter, or strictly “Judaica”—Jewish ceremonial objects like rimonim and kiddush cups?
Such questions are very familiar in modern Jewish cultural debates; they are regularly asked, for instance, about Jewish writers. No Jewish reference ever appears in the fiction of Franz Kafka, and it would be entirely possible to read and admire his work without knowing anything about his Jewishness. But as soon as you do know something about Kafka’s life and times, it becomes impossible not to understand his themes—alienation, miscommunication, the perversion of law—as expressions of a particular moment in modern Jewish history. That is why most readers would agree that Kafka is a Jewish writer, while insisting that Jewishness does not explain or exhaust his genius—just as calling Flaubert a French writer is the beginning, not the end, of appreciating him.
With the visual arts, however, things are even more ambiguous. While no one would doubt the existence of Jewish literature, the very phrase “Jewish Art” is still contested—even, ironically enough, in the pages of Jewish Art. Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver, the authors, acknowledge in their introduction that, almost half a century after Rosenberg, “no sole definition of Jewish art has universal applicability.” They begin by inviting the reader to “consider two paintings” of haystacks, one by Camille Pissarro, who was Jewish, and one by Claude Monet, who was not. In his lifetime, Pissarro was “often singled out as a ‘Jewish artist,’ ” above all during the Dreyfus Affair, when many of his fellow-Impressionists revealed themselves as anti-Semites. Yet simply by looking at their canvases, Baskind and Silver ask, “can we determine what distinguishes Pissarro’s painting [from Monet’s] as an example of ‘Jewish art?’ ”
In practice, Jewish Art relies on a less abstract criterion: If an artist is Jewish, he finds a place in the volume, regardless of technique or subject matter. Pissarro, for instance, is represented by a cityscape, Place du Theatre Francais: Rain Effect, an urban variation on the Impressionist haystack, which is equally inexpressive of the artist’s religious background. Many other 19th-century Jewish artists, however, were drawn to explicitly Jewish subject matter. Emancipated from the traditional Jewish past yet not quite integrated into the promised secular future, such painters turned to Jewish subjects in a spirit that was both anthropological and apologetic.
Alphonse Lévy (1843-1918) painted the Jews of Alsace, presenting figures “clad in their distinctive ethnic garb, uncompromised by urban modernity in the capital, and busy with activities of prayer or holiday preparations.” Jewish Art includes his 1883 picture Evening Prayer, which shows a middle-aged married couple standing on their balcony: The man davens, holding a book and candle, as the woman directs a slightly insipid smile to the viewer. To Baskind and Silver, “their faces display exaggerated features, which in the hands of a non-Jewish artist might well be described as caricatural,” but in reproduction at least this is hard to see. Lévy seems to be trying, rather, for an effect of frank, unintellectual good-nature, such as we would find charming in 17th-century pictures of Flemish peasants.
If there is an element of domestic exoticism in this canvas, it is nothing compared to the full-blown Orientalism of pictures like The Mother of Moses by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) or Jesus Preaching at Capernaum by the Polish Jewish artist Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879). As an Eastern European Jew—a native of Drohobycz, like the writer-painter Bruno Schultz—Gottlieb faced an even tougher path to acceptance than French or German Jewish artists did. By depicting Jesus in a synagogue—he stands before an unrolled Torah, wearing a tallis—Gottlieb tries to reinstate Christ in Jewish history, and thus heal the breach between Polish Catholic and Jewish traditions. Baskind and Silver quote his heartfelt plea: “How deeply I wish to eradicate all the prejudices against my people! How avidly I desire to uproot the hatred enveloping the oppressed and tormented nation and to bring peace between the Poles and the Jews, for the history of both people is a chronicle of grief and anguish!”
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