Jewish Art References

Jewish History and Culture: Fine Art, The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art.

• Wertheimer, Jack, ed. The Modern Jewish Experience: A Reader's Guide, New York UP, 1993. See esp. pp. 228ff.
The pace of scholarly research and academic publication in fields of Judaica has quickened dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century. The major consumers and producers of this new scholarship are found in Jewish Studies programs that have proliferated at institutions of higher learning around the world since the 1960s. From the vantage point of the nineties, it is difficult to fathom that until thirty years ago, Jewish studies courses were mainly limited to a few elite universities, rabbinical seminaries, and Hebrew teachers' colleges. Today there are few colleges at public or private insitutions of higher learning that do not sponsor at least some courses on aspects of Jewish study.
In light of this explosion of research on Jewish topics, non-specialists and educators can benefit from guidance through the thicket of new monographs, source anthologies, textbooks and scholarly essays. The Modern Jewish Experience, the result of a multi-year collaboration between the International Center for the University Teaching of Jewish Civilization and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, offers just such guidance on a range of issues pertaining to modern Jewish history, culture, religion, and society.
With contributions from two dozen leading scholars, The Modern Jewish Experience presents practical information and guidelines intended to expand the teaching repertoire for undergraduate courses on modern Jewish life, as well as a means for college professors to enrich and diversify their courses with discussions on otherwise neglected Jewish communities, social and political issues, religious and ideological movements, and interdisciplinary perspectives. Sample syllabi are also included for survey courses set in diverse linguistic settings. An indispensible resource for undergraduate instruction, this volume may also be used to great profit by educators of adults in synagogue and Jewish communal settings, as well as by individual students engaged in private study.

• Cohen, Richard I. Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, University of California Press, 1998. With the help of over one hundred illustrations spanning three centuries, Richard Cohen investigates the role of visual images in European Jewish history. In these images and objects that reflect, refract, and also shape daily experience, he finds new and illuminating insights into Jewish life in the modern period. Pointing to recent scholarship that overturns the stereotype of Jews as people of the text, unconcerned with the visual, Cohen shows how the coming of the modern period expanded the relationship of Jews to the visual realm far beyond the religious context. In one such manifestation, orthodox Jewry made icons of popular tabbis, creating images that helped to bridge the sacred and the secular. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the study and collecting of Jewish art became a legitimate and even passionate pursuit, and signaled the entry of Jews into the art world as painters, collectors, and dealers. Cohen's exploration of early Jewish exhibitions, museums, and museology opens a new window on the relationship of art to Jewish culture and society.

• Fishof, Iris. Jewish Art Masterpieces from the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Hugh Lauter Levine, 1999. Featuring the world's most comprehensive collection of Jewish art, Jewish Art Masterpieces is a a fascinating survey of Jewish history. Color plates reveal the artistry and craftsmanship of precious objects such as an 8th-century B.C.E. ivory pomegranate from Solomon's temple, an engraved marriage contract from the 15th century, and paintings by modern artists including Marc Chagall and Menashe Kadishman. Illuminated manuscripts, such as the classic Bird's Head Haggadah from 14th-century Germany, are also featured, along with synagogue interiors, Torah decorations, and Sabbath and festival objects. An informative text explores each item's historical, religious, and artistic significance and reminds the reader of the enduring legacy of the Jewish heritage.

The objects are varied, ranging the classic "fine arts" (an oil painting) to useful objects (a prayer stand) to something that isn't an "object" at all (a decorated ceiling). The works hail from Jerusalem, Rome, Italy, Yemen, Germany, Poland, Afghanistan, Spain, Moravia, Turkey, Bohemia, Morroco, and more, yielding insights into rich and varied Jewish cultures.

• Soussloff, Catherine M. Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

• Bland, Kalman P. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual, Princeton, 2001. Conventional wisdom holds that Judaism is indifferent or even suspiciously hostile to the visual arts due to the Second Commandment's prohibition on creating "graven images," the dictates of monotheism, and historical happenstance. This intellectual history of medieval and modern Jewish attitudes toward art and representation overturns the modern assumption of Jewish iconophobia that denies to Jewish culture a visual dimension.
Kalman Bland synthesizes evidence from medieval Jewish philosophy, mysticism, poetry, biblical commentaries, travelogues, and law, concluding that premodern Jewish intellectuals held a positive, liberal understanding of the Second Commandment and did, in fact, articulate a certain Jewish aesthetic. He draws on this insight to consider modern ideas of Jewish art, revealing how they are inextricably linked to diverse notions about modern Jewish identity that are themselves entwined with arguments over Zionism, integration, and anti-Semitism.

Bland has shown that the whole question of whether Jews are 'rtless' is a construction of modern thought, and has little to do with pre-modern Jews. An excellent counterweight to the vast literature that claims that Jews and Judaism are visually handicapped (Steven Fine).

• Baigell, Matthew, and Milly Heyd, eds. Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2001.
Complex Identities is a joint effort by American and Israeli scholars who ask challenging questions about art as formed by society and ethnicity. Focusing on nineteenth– and twentieth–century European, American, and Israeli artists, the contributors delve into the many ways in which Jewish artists have responded to their Jewishness and to the societies in which they lived, and how these factors have influenced their art, their choice of subject matter, and presentation of their work. The contributions reflect a broad range of contemporary art criticism drawn from the history of art, culture, and literature. By analyzing how Jewish experiences have depicted and shaped art, the collection begins to answer how art, in its turn, depicts and shapes Jewish experience.

The intersection of visual expression and Jewish experience has long been fraught with ambiguity and confounded by the most basic attempts to define its parameters. Such questions as "what is Jewish art?" or "who is a Jewish artist?" address thorny issues of the role of art in a religion that is traditionally thought to eschew graven images or any figurative representation. In the past, studies of Jews in the plastic arts were frequently attempts to catalog and "claim" as many artists as possible who were born of Jewish parents. Now, however, contemporary studies of Jews and the visual arts are often part of a more sophisticated dissection of Jewish and minority group identity that increasingly cuts across disciplinary boundaries (Lauren B. Strauss, Complex Identities, American Jewish History, Vol. 89, No. 4, December 2001, pp. 464-467).

No effort is made to isolate specific Jewish characteristics in art—there's no search for a "Jewish style." Rather, as the introduction states, "By Jewish art, the coeditors mean an art created by Jewish artists in which one can find some aspect of the Jewish experience, whether religious, cultural, social, or personal." Thus, [...] in each case convincingly, [...] modernism engages the world obliquely, for no explicit Jewish subjects appear in any of these artists' works (Carl Belz, Complex Identities, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, Winter 2003, pp. 187-189).

Jewish Expression and the Arts, Contact, Steinhardt Foundation, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2005.

Art, Jewish Virtual Library, 2008.

• Rosen, Aron. Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj, London: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, 2009.

• Stirling. The Myth of Aniconism: Image, Perception, and Power within Judaic Art: A Brief Examination of Figurative Representation in Conservative and Liberal Jewish Movements, Musings: The Interface Between Art and Society, 2010.

• Long, Rose-Carol Washton, Matthew Baigell, and Milly Heyd, eds. Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture: Antisemitism, Assimilation, Affirmation, Brandeis UP, 2010.
This collection of previously published scholarly essays analyzes the art world of the late 19th and 20th century regarding its Jewish dimensions. The subtitle is alliterative but arch. The authors concern themselves with revealing the anti-Semitic aspects of the art, the artists, and the critics of the period. Since the book is part of the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry Series, it is focused exclusively on the European landscape, and, not surprisingly, concerned with the stereotypical depiction of Jews by artists (some of whom were supported by Jewish patrons and dealers) and the prejudices of the so-called cultural elite. Some of the topics are interesting because they deal with familiar artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, George Grosz, and Otto Dix or topics such as Dadaism or the Jewish Museum in Prague. (The Dada Manifesto was written by Tristan Tzara, a pseudonym for Shmuel Rosenstock, who along with Man Ray, rejected his Jewish roots.) What is most disturbing is the tracking of the negative attitude toward modern art as being a by-product of the xenophobia developing in Europe and its resulting antiforeign (read, anti-Semitic) attacks. It is well-known that Edgar Degas joined the virulently anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards. The Jews were perceived as non-producers, living off the products of others, depicted as financial wizards and demons, and even blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. The discussion of the art of the Ecole de Paris, noted for the large number of Jewish, as well as other foreign- born artists working in Paris between the wars who were identified negatively by the French, is well-known in the history of that period. The essay by Romy Golan is a well-documented reiteration.
The collection is divided into three sections, presumably relating to the subtitle: Critical Responses to Modernism and Judaism; Coded Representations; and Affirmation. Included are essays on such disparate topics as Georges Sorel, Julius Meier-Graefe, or Michael Sgan-Cohen’s Hinneni and the Yiddish Group from Lodz in the immediate post-World War I years. The intersection of art and Jewish history in the essay on the Jewish Central Museum in Prague by Dirk Rupnow will be of interest to researchers of the Nazi’s diabolical plans for preserving Jewish culture, especially since it includes new information on the plan and its aftermath. Similarly, those interested in the impact of the Communist era on Jewish artists, whose embrace of their Jewish identity was ironic since they knew almost nothing about Judaism, will find a lucid analysis in the essay by Matthew Baigell on “Soviet Artists, Jewish Images.” Well-known artists, including Vitaly Komar, Mikhail Grobman, and Ilya Kabakov were permitted in limited fashion to explore folklore, the stories of Sholom Aleichem being a primary source of subject matter. Post-World War II architects are discussed in terms of their relationship to the Holocaust.
Each essay concludes with footnotes (more than 50 for most of them) attesting to the extensive research supporting the topics under discussion. In selecting these essays for inclusion in Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture the editors have provided a nuanced examination of factors in visual art of the modern era that have been influenced consciously or not by historic attitudes toward Jews (Esther Nussbaum).

• Baskind, Samantha, and Larry Silver. Jewish Art: A Modern History, Reaktion Books, 2011.
Covering nearly two millennia, Jewish Art: A Modern History examines the art made by Jews across Europe, America and Israel. Looking at the work of European artists including Moritz Daniel Oppenheim and Maurycy Gottlieb, Camille Pissarro and Marc Chagall, to those in the United States, such as Miriam Schapiro and Eva Hesse, Barnett Newman, and Archie Rand, as well as contemporary Israeli artists, Jewish Art provides a comprehensive, probing and lucid account of a complex subject.
The book provides a chronological, geographic and thematic framework, to examine Jewish artists against the background of an emerging modernity. The shifting Jewish identities are discussed, as well as the effects of the diaspora and anti-Semitism, which are woven directly into analyses of specific works of art.
The authors ask "what is Jewish art?" and examine the ambiguities of the Jewish experience, both religious and cultural. Rather than providing reductive classifications of the subject, they consider the variety of ways Jewish artists have defined themselves and their works.
The book offers a coherent discussion of the vexed question of what constitutes Jewish art today.

The authors of this historical survey of Jewish art [...] are not overly troubled by questions of definition. They accept that no definition of Jewish art has universal validity. Rather than engage in "border policing", separating Jewish art works (or artists?) from the rather greater number of non-Jewish ones, they prefer to identify the "Jewish elements" in artistic identity. This way they seek to avoid "reductive classifications or essentialism". They conclude:

Jews are not just members of a faith, not just members of a community, nor are they even primarily identifiable with a single modern nation state. But their Jewish identity, however determined in all its fluidity and variability, often impresses itself on their actions, including creative participation in the modern art world.

This understanding of Jewishness as a matter of Jewish self-understanding (so to speak) might be thought limitingly personal and neglectful of larger cultural and intellectual -including theological- determinants. But it is perhaps as good a delimiting stratagem as any other and it yields a rich, diverse list of artists for Baskind and Silver to write about (Anthony Julius).

The authors relate the artists and their work to their Jewish experience no matter how slight their religious affiliations may be. Jewish experience is discussed as the feeling of being the "Other" in society, the diasporic effect on one’s identity, the social conscience as a heritage derived from Biblical teachings, the Holocaust as a profound inspiration for powerful images, and the homeland experience of Israel. The text includes discussions of well-known European artists such as Amadeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine, whose work rarely referenced any Jewish symbols, along with Isidore Kaufmann and Maurycy Gottlieb, representative of several artists whose subject matter is Jewish. It is a given that Jewish artists were influenced by prevailing artistic modes and political climate as proven by such Russian artists as El Lissitzky and Naum Gabo, while others, like Marc Chagall and Issachar Ryback, were inspired by Jewish folk images. The section on American Jewish artists includes the familiar artists, such as Max Weber, Jack Levine, Larry Rivers, Eva Hesse, and Ben Shahn. The real strength of the book is the discussion of lesser known artists such as Henry Mosler, Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Abraham Wolkowitz, and Audrey Flack. The chapter "Art and the Holocaust" includes artists whose images range from horrific to allegorical; in "Home to Israel," the images range from idealized to neo-realism (Esther Nussbaum).

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 Kirsh, Seeing Double, Tablet Magazine, 11 October 2011).

• Abramson, Glenda, ed. Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture, Routledge, 2013.

Art in Israel

• Zalmona, Yigal. A Century of Israeli Art (2010), English translation by Anna Barber, Lund Humphries, in association with the Israel Museum, 2013.

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, State of the Art: One Hundred Years of Creativity, served on your Coffee Table, Haaretz, 19 August 2013:

[...] A Century of Israeli Art offers an incisive look at Israel’s visual arts and how they reflect a changing society. The original Hebrew version accompanied the 2010 opening of the first permanent exhibition of Israeli art at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. [...]

Heavy both in literary and figurative terms, the text describes local art through the lens of the discourse of identity - or more accurately, identities - in an attempt to follow the development of complex and often contradictory trends that combine to form a distinct Israeli culture. Thus, art, society and historic events are viewed here as intertwined. In the opening words of the author, "Our story will be told with particular attention to the ways in which art derives and receives meaning from its socio-political context. The world, therefore, makes frequent appearances, even if art is our main protagonist." [...]

The conflict between personal expression and the demand for socially involved art can also be an inner one, as touchingly described in the sections on Marcel Janco (‏(1895-1984, whose artistic personality somehow managed to incorporate disparate images and styles deriving from the avant-garde European Dada movement, heroic Zionism, tragic views of war and displacement and pure abstraction.

Attitude toward the East

A core theme that runs through Zalmona’s book is the changing attitude of Israeli artists toward the East, and in particular toward the image of the Arab, versus their relationship with the West. Discussing this issue in relation to the earlier works in the book, Zalmona writes: "In some respects, the Zionist view of the East is a specific example of Orientalist ideology, that is, of a Western perception of the East. At the same time, however, the East is the ancient source of the Jews' history and ultimate destination as they return to that source ... And to complicate the question of who identifies with whom even further, the Jew knew that in Europe, he himself was the Semitic Other. In other words: For Christian Europeans, the East was just 'there'; for the Jews, it was simultaneously 'there' and 'here.'"

The descriptions and analysis of numerous artworks in the book refer to this tension. For example, in The Four Matriarchs, by Abel Pann (1926). This European-born painter imagined the biblical foremothers as a group of Bedouin women, natives of the East, yet portrayed them using Western realistic painting techniques.

Reuven Rubin celebrated the birth of the Zionist pioneer as the "new Jew" in First Fruits (1923), using the Christian format of the triptych to lend sanctity to the scene, yet eschewing Western perspective in favor of a simpler and more innocent Eastern ‏(including Eastern Christian‏) view of the landscape and its inhabitants. The latter include the muscular and partially undressed pioneering man and woman, bearing the fruits of their labor. To their left is a modestly dressed Yemenite Jewish couple with a naked baby, who are also presented as part of the middle panel, reflecting the central theme of Jewish re-connection with the land. Their Easternness renders them "authentic representatives of the pre-exilic Israelite nation," contrary to many images of Diaspora Jews of European origin, often depicted in the period’s works as sickly and frail, such as is in Rubin’s own self-portrait from before his immigration to Palestine. The two side panels of the triptych portray the Arab inhabitants of the land; they are extolled for their perceived physicality and harmony with nature, yet, in contrast to the Jewish pioneers, they are passive and unproductive, either herding sheep or merely sleeping.

In the sculpture named after the biblical hunter Nimrod (1939) Itzhak Danziger turned to pagan and mythical figures of the ancient Near East, circumventing the image of the Arab through what Zalmona calls a "cultural bypass," to create a new Hebrew icon that severs its connections to the Jewish past.

Many pages and decades later, Tsibi Geva’s handling of the keffiyeh pattern in the traditional Arab headdress ‏(Keffiyeh: Homage to Asim Abu Shakra, 1992‏) is described by Zalmona as evoking a myriad of diverse political, cultural and artistic identities: for Palestinians, a symbol of resistance to Israel; for Israelis, both a threatening signifier of violence, yet also a reminder of a not-so-distant past when it was worn by sabra farmers and fighters as a sign of belonging to the land and region. The dialogue with the keffiyeh is further deepened when analyzed through an art historical perspective: On the one hand, it is a flat, Eastern decorative pattern that comes from "low" folk art; on the other, a grid, which is the basic template of American modernist abstract art in its search for the sublime. In Zalmona’s reading, though Geva realized that he could not escape his Western artistic consciousness, he could comment about himself and his attitude to the East through expropriating motifs such as the keffiyeh and using them in a Western artistic discourse, enabling viewers "to experience the chronic Israeli vacillation between identities."

The above small taste from this extensive volume reveals how Zalmona chooses to tell the story of Israeli art and some of the premises on which the book is founded. The time frame in its title asserts that a distinct body of work called Israeli art came into being with the modern Zionist movement. Since this movement was led mainly by male European Jews with a secular outlook, seeking to build a new identity in the Land of Israel, their ideological and aesthetic preferences dictated the works deemed central to the new culture-in-the-making, and these are the works most highlighted in these sections of the book.

Though local women artists are featured relatively prominently, other outlooks and works - pre-Zionist, Eastern, and both local religious Jewish and non-Jewish ones - are given marginal, perhaps token, attention throughout most of the book. When they are included, they fulfill the role of "others" in relation to the main drama.

Overturning the narrative

It is in the latter part of A Century of Israeli Art, describing contemporary art, when certain divergent viewpoints and identities receive in-depth consideration. These are specifically the ones presented as overturning the hegemonic Israeli narrative - a change in emphasis that says a lot about the ideological transformation that the Israeli cultural elite, of which the author is a member, has undergone, while also reflecting worldwide post-modern tendencies. Works that are read by Zalmona as representing post-Zionist approaches are now granted center stage, and even regarded as representing the mainstream mindset among today’s young Israeli artists. In this context, he presents Adi Ness’ photographs of male soldiers as "critiques of the mythology of the Israel Defense Forces," in their subversive stance toward the ethic of self-sacrifice, as well as through their hints of homoeroticism.

It is intriguing to contemplate who the current unfashionable-yet-serious others are, whose work is now being marginalized - certainly not those who forgo complexity and questioning, but perhaps those who reject such a sweeping definition as "the paralyzing ideological charisma of rootedness" ‏(which Zalmona deems one of the causes of today's artists' attraction to previously taboo themes‏), and who seek new forms of community and belonging. A search for connection may then become visible from within works previously interpreted as primarily deconstructing an existing ethos, such as many of Ness' photographs.

Sigalit Landau’s DeadSee [2005], the penultimate image in the book, offers a potent metaphor for re-framing the linear passage from wholeness to disintegration that is traced in Zalmona’s account, into a cyclical and unending one, as the circle of floating watermelons and body unravels but is then recreated ‏(and unraveled again‏).

The above discussion of meaningful voices from past and present that are absent from A Century of Israeli Art does not discredit its content but rather opens the door to different ones. Documenting a relatively new canon of art should be done via the acknowledged artists and movements within it. It is then the role of those unseen and unheard to question that canon and tell their alternative stories.

In terms of structure, A Century of Israeli Art progresses chronologically, divided in large part into chapters devoted to individual decades. Thankfully, this structure is not adhered to strictly, and cross-cutting themes, short biographies of individual artists, and in the case of the statue Nimrod, a definitive work of art, are allowed to deviate from the form. Though at times this reader felt that an obligation to include all "famous" Israeli artists threatened to weigh down the book, for the most part it manages to transmit an enormous amount of information while relating a deep art-historical saga. This feat is accomplished by maintaining a close connection with the visual experience throughout, giving great respect to the artworks themselves, and drawing insights from their detailed study. Indeed, there are moments in the book that remind us that alongside awareness of the socio-political context of art there remains the basic and personal experience of a viewer being moved by a single work, such as the two loving and poetic pages devoted to Yehezkel Streichman’s 1951 Portrait of Tsila - a study of the makings of home, family and painting itself, all in an intimate Tel Aviv interior.

Other items to explore
Hand of God
Wharhol's Chosen People

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