Serge Strosberg, Tenderness, 2007(Collection of the artist. All images are from The Human Figure and Jewish Culture (Abbeville Press Publishers, 2009).)

“Thou shalt not make graven images.” Thus reads the second commandment, which has been widely interpreted by Jews to mean that they are forbidden from depicting the human body. Yet, according to art historian Eliane Strosberg, during the 20th century Jewish artists in Europe and the United States defied that prohibition and almost exclusively painted and sculpted likenesses of themselves and of people they knew. They did so even while non-Jewish peers were jumping into Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, and other avant-garde genres. In a new book, The Human Figure and Jewish Culture, Strosberg explores the reasons why these Jewish artists set themselves apart.

Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry speaks with Strosberg about Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani, Lucien Freud, and others, about renderings of the body in ancient Jewish art, and about the mother as muse.