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Seeing Double

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.

Adam Kirsch
October 11, 2011
Camille Pissarro, Haystacks, Morning, Eragny, 1899; Claude Monet, Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890-91.(The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago)
Camille Pissarro, Haystacks, Morning, Eragny, 1899; Claude Monet, Stacks of Wheat (End of Summer), 1890-91.(The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago)

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!”

Moritz David Oppenheim (1800-1882), the German-born artist who may deserve the title of the first modern Jewish painter, had similarly patriotic goals. His scene of The Return of the Jewish Volunteer From the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance With Old Customs could not be clearer in its message. The old world of German Jewry is giving way to a more modern and assimilated generation, yet the two can still meet in a loving embrace. And the soldier-son’s service in the German army, in the war against Napoleon, shows that Jews can be super-patriotic Germans.

The Jewishness of such pictures is unproblematic because they are so easily legible—they admit of being “read” as messages and stories. In this way, they approach the condition of literature, turning images into illustrations and granting primacy to the word. Because words denote and connote, they are immediately related to the world, history, and society. But is the same thing true of a color or a line? Take, for instance, a 1955 painting by Barnett Newman, the Abstract Expressionist master. Uriel is an enormous rectangular canvas, 8 feet by 18 feet long, divided into two zones—pale aqua on the left, rusty brown on the right. It is not only nonrepresentational, but seemingly nonreferential. Certainly it would be impossible to deduce anything about the Jewishness of its creator.

Should our understanding of the picture change, then, when we learn that Newman was an American Jew, born in 1905 on the Lower East Side? What about the fact that, as Baskind and Silver write, “Even though Jews made up only around three percent of the U.S. population at midcentury, it is remarkable how many leading Abstract Expressionists were Jewish,” including Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Newman, and more?

Finally, what about Newman’s title? Uriel is the Hebrew name of the Angel of Light, an important figure in Jewish mystical tradition; other Newman canvases bear titles like Covenant and Eve. In Jewish Art, he is represented by a 1948 canvas, Onement 1, whose title seems like a pun on the notion of atonement, and on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Onement 1 is one of Newman’s “zip” paintings, named after the thin zipper-like stripe that divides the canvas lengthwise—in this case, an orange zip dividing a brown background. Baskind and Silver quote an art historian, Thomas Hess, who interprets this canvas as “a complex symbol, in the purest sense, of Genesis itself. It is an act of division, a gesture of separation, as God separated light from darkness, with a line drawn in the void.” In this way, Newman can be seen as a Kabbalistic artist, and his seemingly ultra-formalist pictures can be enlisted in a venerable Jewish intellectual tradition.

The question remains, however, whether that kind of enlistment is really more of a conscription. Certainly Harold Rosenberg thought so. In 1975, he returned to the subject of “Jews in Art” in a New Yorker review of two survey exhibitions: “Jewish Artists of the Twentieth Century” at Chicago’s Spertus Museum and “Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century” at the Jewish Museum. This essay, collected in his book Art and Other Serious Matters, lays down a strict ban on reading Jewishness into abstract works such as Newman’s. Indeed, he praises Newman’s widow for refusing to allow his work to appear in the Jewish Museum show.

“In representational art, an accord was possible between visual folk peculiarities, a collectively shared scene and appearances, and a historically dominant style in art. All that art needed to be Jewish was that the artist should turn occasionally to the ghetto or the synagogue for subject matter,” Rosenberg writes, thinking of painters like Lévy or Gottlieb. But “in the perspective of art since the Second World War, Jewish references in a painting increase the odds against its being a good painting.” This has less to do with Jewishness per se than with the high-modernist contempt for any kind of representation or narration in art: “Works … [that] represent the Jewish experience are likely to belong to a bypassed style or to be, in a significant sense, outside the art of the twentieth century.”

Indeed, the modernist and Abstract Expressionist repudiation of legible imagery, the insistence on strict form, can look like a parallel in the visual arts to the political universalism that was so dear to the same generation of Jewish artists and intellectuals. In both cases, Jewishness expresses itself by its insistence on its own absence—by the flight into the universal that has always been characteristic of modern Jewish idealism.

And might not the affinity of Jewish artists for abstraction have even deeper roots? After all, isn’t it a truism that Judaism, from the very beginning, has been hostile to representational art? It’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Many modern Jewish artists, regretting the absence of a great tradition of Jewish visual art, have blamed Judaism and its hostility to imagery, or “aniconism.”

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.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.