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Zionist Art Nouveau: Ideal Or Idealistic?

Artistic Expressions of’ the Jewish Renaissance

Hermann Struck and E.M. Lilien

Opened November 17, 2005

Curated by Amy Stempler

I. Edward Kiev Judaica Collection

The George Washington University

Melvin Gelman Library

2130 H Street, NW, Washington, DC



It’s just about the last thing you’d suspect of relevance and contribution to anything culturally meaningful. Its size is unexceptional, and the tiny exhibit in which it resides, occupies a pair of glass cases of the Kiev Collection at the seventh floor of the George Washington University Gelman Library. But Ephraim Moses Lilien’s (1874 -1925) etching of a man dressed in Babylonian garb with a Renaissance halo about his head – all set in a dreamy, Art Nouveau backdrop with glittering stars and volcanoes that evoke “spaghetti” – is, alone, well worth the trip. Sounds like a pointless artsy gimmick? Consider that the portrayed man is the Budapest-born Zionism futurist, Theodor Herzl, and that Herzl is boldly – even profanely – cast as Moses with the tablets in his hands, and suddenly the piece emerges as one of the most provocative gems of Jewish art.

Lilien’s move of casting Herzl as Moses makes a lot of sense. Moses is a fierce warrior, steadfast in his stance against his people’s every attempt to return to Egypt to assimilate. Moses is literally an iconoclast – he smashes the Golden Calf – and he strives his entire life for the one goal he can never attain: to enter the holy land. Like Moses, Herzl was steadfast in his view that his people must not assimilate, even to escape anti-Semitism, a view he came to embrace in college and later more strongly, during the Dreyfus Affair. Like Moses, Herzl died outside of Israel, weakened by pneumonia before he could see Israel arise as a state.

Lilien’s name might be obscure to many readers, but his work probably isn’t. He is the photographer of Herzl, and his famous photograph of Herzl leaning over a balcony at the Drei Koenige (Three Kings) Hotel in Basel, at the First World Zionist Congress, is very widely known. It would later be hijacked and re-appropriated by Zionist propaganda that would use the image for stamps, brochures and other campaign materials.

But Lilien’s portrait of Herzl-as-Moses should also be considered as an effort in self portraiture. When considered as such, it is ambiguous at best, and even foreshadows Lilien’s eventual disillusionment with the Zionist ideal. Lilien started off as a fierce Zionist, evidenced by a letter to his future wife, the assimilated German Jew, Helena Magnus. Lilien writes, “You do not know Jewry and you are like that pauper who speaks of a million and thinks of a million pennies. You think about the 800,000 German Jews, who however have no significance compared with the nine million Russian, Austrian and Rumanian Jews These millions of Jews, who all speak Hebrew and have their own poets and philosophers, do not even consider committing suicide through assimilation.” Lilien writes of the need for a Jewish state: “When a Jew writes me saying: I am a German, I have to remember the bridegroom who says ‘I am half in agreement with my bride: I want to and she does not’ The Jew must therefore strive for what is the ideal of every nation: political independence.”

But Lilien’s Zionism has something of James Joyce’s love for Dublin; he does it best from a distance, with nostalgia. Though Lilien would co-found the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design with Boris Schatz and would, by all appearances, seem ready to move to Palestine and live the Zionist dream, instead, he remained in Israel only for several months. He left Israel, armed with his portraits of Jews and his landscapes, and moved to Germany. Some of his best work was for the multi-volume set of Bibles in German that he illustrated, based on many of his photographs and paintings made in Palestine. Like Joyce, he seemed to love his country best by attacking it in his art, from a far distance. And yet, like Joyce who would forever describe himself an Irishman, and like Modigliani who overtook the Parisian art world by storm, announcing himself as Modi the “Italian, the painter, the Jew,” Lilien would sign his artwork as “E.M. Lilien, son of Jacob Lilien, who was a kohen.”

To me, The Herzl-as-Moses painting in the Art Nouveau style foreshadows Lilien’s eventual disillusionment with Zionism. Art Nouveau was born in the later two decades of the 19th century and is often called an “international style”, which explains why it later gave way to Art Deco. For Nouveau, the names to remember are Aubrey Beardsley, Antonio Gaud

í, Gustav Klimt, and more locally, American artists Louis Sullivan and Louis C. Tiffany. Nouveau relies heavily on curvaceous, often organic, forms that derived from the East.

Both curator Amy Stempler and George Washington University Assistant Professor of Hebrew, Yaron Peleg were skeptical about my proposition. Peleg, who is the author of the recently published “Orientalism and the Hebrew Imagination” (Cornell University Press, 2005), mentioned Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on ‘Camp'” (1964), which explores how “camp” experiences are often “consciously artificial.” Sontag writes, “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” She calls Nouveau the “most typical and fully developed Camp style. Art Nouveau objects, typically, convert one thing into something else: the lighting fixtures in the form of flowering plants, the living room which is really a grotto.” But Peleg finds no indication that Lilien used Nouveau in any way to critique Zionism.

I respectfully disagree. Viewers can easily recognize Lilien’s detachment from Israel in his image. Though Moses’ (Herzl’s) beard and eyebrows are bold and clear, the entire picture shows an idealistic castle in the clouds. Moses’ feet are obstructed by rapidly evaporating cloud formations. Moses, very literally, has no solid ground upon which to stand. He happens to be suspended conveniently at the moment of capture in the drawing, but Lilien offers us no indication that he won’t topple head over heels the next moment. Is this drawing then, a compliment of the Zionist state – and thus, Herzl by association – by appropriating the budding, organic creative aspects of Art Nouveau to show a ripe, healthy Zionism? Or, is Zionism a sham, a strong, powerful face upon a body that is only suspended by amorphous, unstable clouds? And that, perhaps, is why Lilien casts Herzl as Moses atop Sinai with the 10 Commandments. Moses has a choice: to keep the tablets, or to cast them down and shatter them across the mountain; that is the question.

That Lilien portrays Herzl in an Art Nouveau format is also revealing. The Nouveau forms were set in a dreamy atmosphere that later inspired much of the artistic exploration of Freud, such as in Magic Realism and Surrealism. Using that dreamy temperament, Nouveau achieved some sort of bridge between architecture and decorative design. But Lilien’s blend of Judaism and Nouveau, happily and diplomatically playing together in the same historical sandbox, is hardly a new idea. In fact, architect, Hector Guimard’s synagogue Agudath Hakehilot at 10 Rue Pavee, Paris, is arguably one of the finest Nouveau specimens, and Aubrey Beardsley’s Nouveau illustrations adorn Oscar Wilde’s play (later an opera) Salome, which tells the tale of Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome.

By combining the dreamy Art Nouveau form with Herzl’s Zionism and Moses’ revelation and receiving of the Law on Sinai, Lilien does far more than random “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey”. The image is edgy by trying to modernize Moses. But it is a microcosm for Lilien’s politics and religious views, foreshadowing his later assimilation. Maybe Lilien didn’t know for certain that he would abandon his Zionism, but his pen subconsciously drew his uncertainty and his criticism even into his idolization of the Zionist giant, Herzl. And yet in doing so, Lilien produced one of the greatest pieces of Jewish art that manages to join Herzl and Art Nouveau into “happy matrimony” to both praise and condemn Zionism, in one grand brushstroke.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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