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Modern Jewish Art

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Modern Jewish art is the art of the 19th century emancipation of the Jewish communities of Europe, a process which began in the Western parts of the continent. The efforts of crystalizing a Jewish identity at a time when religion no longer had the power to generate an identity from within managed to find a means of expression in art.

After the emancipation of the 19th century, painting takes on a considerable role in Jewish artistic creation by introducing the layman spirit which put an end to the Torah’s view on the representation of images. Through art, the conflicted Jewish identity manifested its searches and uncertainty for the future. In the context of the emancipation, the former ghetto inhabitant becomes a citizen. However, even as a citizen, for the Jew his true identity remains in the fact that he is a Jew feeling proud of his roots and origin, apart from assuming the values of the surrounding society.

Consequently, the art of the 19th century (especially painting) was focused on portraying the traumas and the dilemmas which pestered the Jewish soul. The debut of the Modern Jewish Art is considered to be the World Exhibition of Paris in 1878, when Isaac Strauss presented 82 Jewish ritual objects. The exhibition was an example of what Jewish life in Central and Western Europe was like, beginning with the French Revolution. Similar exhibitions and even Jewish life related collections have been gathered by the Cluny Museum.

The above mentioned exhibition, like many others to follow, whose aim was to transplant the sacred world represented by ritual objects to the layman, was not only a search of the secure age of childhood, but also a search of a community in which the attachment to traditional values had been threatened only by external factors. The external threat managed thus to strengthen the very community it threatened, while the 19th century was characterized by a rather dangerous dissolution which began to manifest within the Jewish community.

The main themes approached by the Jewish painters of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century focus on the individual as the adult which could be the equivalent of an entire community – the Jewish community of the 19th century.

The first generation of Jewish artists of the Emancipation period was so interested in reconciliation that the expression of an authentic Jewish life was replaced with more ”ideologic” themes in character. A good illustration in this regard is the case of Abraham Abramsin (1754-1811) whose medal entitled ”Freeing the Jews of Westphalia” represents on one side Judaism as a concept kneeling in front of the Altar of Reconciliation and on the other side two cherubs – representations of Judaism and Christianity – in a tight embrace.

There is a certain perceivable tension in the manner in which these artists aproach the new social environment. Certain artists, especially the converted ones, wanted to leave aside the ghetto life, even in their works. As a result, in the first half of the 19th century no artist of Jewish origin showed any particular inclination to address issues inspired by the life of the community. But as the confidence in the assimilation/integration trend reduced, artists began approaching topics inspired by the Jewish way of life. It is as if once confronted with it, these artists acknowledged it as such. Their acknowledgement may have stemmed from the awareness that their traditional community is much safer (at least as far as their belief is concerned) than the community they led their lives in.

The first artists to have engaged in this approach were Simeon Soloman (1840-1905) in England and Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) in Germany. Solomon is credited also for the first attempt to present ceremonials and customs outside a religious environment and give them a more secular destination.

It is a fact that Jewish books had previously attempted to present such scenes, but they were destined exclusively to a Jewish audience. Thus, the collection of works by Solomon is the first of its time destined to both a Jewish , as well as non-Jewish audience. In Solomon’s works the viewer can feel a certain tension between the world of the pious Jews with their infinite respect for the holiness of the law and the new world of the Jews who are looking forward to forgetting their origins. For Solomon, portraying this lost world was a means of going back to his own roots and a search of the Judaism that has not been yet crushed by the times.

In contrast to other 19th century artists, Moritz Oppenheim not only remained a Jew true to his belief, but also became actively involved in his community, engaging in corresponding with one of the most well-known Jews of his time – Adolphe Cremieux. His attempts to approach Jewish topics are a reminder of his concern in transmitting that tradition and patriotism, as well loyalty towards one’s family and home on the one hand and towards one’s country on the other can be successfully combined.

One of his most well-known paintings – “The return of a German volunteer” expresses such an idea. In another painting he pays a silent homage to Mendelssohn by inserting him as a Jewish philosopher involved in a deep discussion with the Swiss Lutheran theologist Johann Caspar Lavater. This work is another example of the equal footage of Judaism and Christianity.

While the work of Solomon entrusted the old people as the keepers of tradition, in Oppenheim’s work, children are the future carriers of tradition. They are always portrayed as looking towards the old people, as if seeking guidance, as is the case of the painting “The Eve of Shabbat”.

Thirty years later, Samuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908), a Jewish priest born in Lodz, repainted a scene of a family on Shabbat, but the emotions deriving from the painting indicated that in his view, the attachment regarding tradition has been lost. The work of Hirszenberg is worth mentioning due to the fact that he illustrates a certain disappointment and loss of hope as far as the fate of Eastern European Jews is concerned.

Unlike Oppenheim, Hirszenberg’s work does not reflect the communication existent between various generations of Jews. Distances appear as relative in his work and what appears to more obvious is a certain game generated by the need to belong to a certain place, correlated with the knowledge that in fact one no longer belongs there and cannot participate and integrate within the harmony of that specific place.

Hirszenberg’s work features two characters: a young man and an old man, who seem to be looking at each other, but in fact they are looking somewhere in the distance. According to the critics of his work, they are an expression of the close and yet far away metaphor of the Torah – Israel who is constantly fighting God’s Angel.

There are three painting by Hirszenberg which are worth analyzing - “The wondering Jew”(1899), “Exile” (1904) and “The Black Flag”(1905). These paintings demonstrate an attempt to get to the core of the Jewish destiny and its loneliness, which had already been portrayed by other artists.

Further on, another artist, Isidor Kaufman (1853-1921) will use religious experience as a source of inspiration.

Born in Romania and brought up in Vienna, Kaufman travelled through many Eastern European countries and regions - Hungary, Moravia, Slovakia, Galicia, Russia and Poland in an attempt to transpose on canvas instances of the Jews’ lives hoping that those living in these areas have been less affected by modernization. Despite his efforts to distance himself from the Eastern-European Jews, he kept an interest in his religious past, which is very much visible in his work. Unlike Oppenheim, his work reflects less Jewish holidays and more the everyday spirit of the Eastern European Jewish life.

For the French painters Edouard Moyse (1827-1908) and Alphonse Levy (1843-1918), authentic Jewish life is centered in Alsace and Lorraine, areas which have manifested a strong resistance to modernization.

The nostalgia for rural settings, away from the buzzing metropolis, seems to be greeting the romanticism of the epoch, which operates on dichotomies such as culture-nature, integrity-compromise, purity-corruption.

Levy focuses his attention on the Jew integrated in his specific environment: at home, surrounded by his family, studying the Holy texts, performing certain rituals. The faces he paints lack elegance. In the case of men, some of their faces resemble the anti-Semitic descriptions of the time. However, this should not be interpreted as despise for his peers. On the contrary, throughout this mockery he built the Jewish humor, allowing thus Jews to mock at themselves and depriving other of such a powerful tool.

In case of paintings of individuals or family portraits, characters seem to be portrayed as pensive. However, in the beginning of the 20th century, in the works of Jozef Israels (1824-1911), Leopold Pilichowsky (1867-1931), Maurycy Minkovski (1881-1930) and Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945), such an attitude is not an expression of one communicating with God, but rather a sign of alienation. The historical context - meaning the oppression against the Jews, the fear, exile and pogroms are visible topics in the works of these painters. Nevertheless, the artistic preoccupation for such topics dates back to the pogroms of the Tsarist Empire after the assassination of Tzar Alexander II in 1881.

While the 19th century Jewish art is dominated by calmness and hope, towards the end of the century, arts begins to reflect the historical tensions, which are likely to manifest in the 20th century as well, through the avant-garde movement of Chagall. 

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