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.
For many 19th-century thinkers, the principle that Judaism was incapable of, or hostile to, visual beauty was taken for granted. In his passionately revisionist study The Artless Jew, Kalman P. Bland shows that this belief was shared by Gentiles hostile to Judaism, including Hegel and Wagner, as well as by Jews like Freud and Rosenzweig. Marc Chagall himself wrote that “monotheism was dearly bought—and because of that Judaism had to give up observation of nature with our EYES, and not just with our soul. … [Judaism] remained with no share in the treasures of graphic art.”
But to the historian Lionel Kochan, in Beyond the Graven Image, aniconism is not merely a burden on Jewish art; it also represents a possibility. The pressure to shun any image that could be taken as an idol led to a complete ban on three-dimensional human images. (This taboo was so deeply ingrained in Jewish culture that even David Ben-Gurion, after the 1948 War of Independence, resisted building statues to honor fallen Israeli soldiers.) But it also led to creative distortions of the natural world. Medieval Jewish manuscript illuminations, Kochan notes, have a “marked welcome for the image that is freakish, grotesque, distorted and hybrid,” because such images cannot be taken as imitations of anything in the earth, the air, or the water.
For the same reason, Kochan argues, “Perhaps also the physical image can be redeemed by its conversion into a concept. It is seen, not as a re-presentation of that which it purports to represent, but as an exercise in the presentation of an idea.” The application of this principle to a great deal of modern art is obvious. What are Newman’s zips if not presentations of an idea, which are all the more powerful and enigmatic because they bypass representation?
Abstraction, of course, has no exclusive appeal to Jewish artists. What is true of Newman’s zips is equally true of Kandinsky’s circles—or even of Picasso’s splintered cubist images. Indeed, Kochan writes that Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism, felt that “Picasso’s ‘Woman with Violin’ had ‘something Jewish about its look’ and he grounds this judgment in the view that ‘the prohibition of the portrait in Judaism means precisely this: disintegration in the symbol.’ ” Scholem concluded that “The art of Judaism seems to me in fact to rest on the symbolic disintegration of space.”
A Jewish art defined in these terms would result in a very different canon than the one assembled by Baskind and Silver in Jewish Art. Above all, it would not be restricted to artists of Jewish origin. Its central image might be Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus—a work by a non-Jewish artist that has been permanently inscribed in Jewish culture by Walter Benjamin’s messianic interpretation of it:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
No one could have seen all that in Klee’s painting before Benjamin wrote it there. In this sense, he is certainly guilty of what Harold Rosenberg calls “interpretational stretching,” which is “indispensable to fill the gap between picture and subject whenever the artist departs from depiction.” Perhaps, then, we would better off talking not about Jewish art, but about a Jewish way of seeing and talking and writing about art—one that situates paintings in a universe of Jewish discourse about the power and danger of the image. This concept restores primacy, in what feels like an authentically Jewish way, to the word and the interpreter, rather than leaving it with the image.
Indeed, one major concern of such a Jewish way of seeing would be the connection between the image, which the Torah mistrusts so deeply, and the word, which has always been the source of value and law for Judaism. Surely it is not coincidental that so many modern Jewish artists have blended text and image in their work. This practice links Charlotte Salomon, whose monumental series “Life? or Theater?” was cut short by her death in the Holocaust; Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel Maus, with its mouse-Jews and cat-Germans, evinces exactly the kind of “distorted and hybrid” imagery that Kochan describes as historically Jewish; and Archie Rand, whose immense series “613 Mitzvot” includes a panel illustrating and naming each of the commandments. In all these works, the artist takes the reverse approach of Newman’s, not eschewing language but engulfing it. Such Jewish artists might find their symbol in R.B. Kitaj’s Passion: Writing, which can also be found in Jewish Art. It portrays a man seated at a desk with a pen and inkwell, while at the same time he appears sealed in a coffin-like box: an image of creation under the highest pressure, in which writing and painting are part of the same death-defying act.
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