Even in death, this loving father and zaide was still looking out for his children.
Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Museum’
Eva Hesse Drawing
Through July 15, 2006
The Drawing Center
35 Wooster Street, New York
Eva Hesse: Sculpture
Through September 17, 2006
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave. (at 92nd St.), New York
Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III, 1968, latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and unidentified materials. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Charles and Anita Blatt, 1969. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zürich London. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.
Hesse’s “No Title” (1966), a black ink wash and pencil drawing, is one of many drawings on exhibit in the Drawing Center show. The image shows three circles – one large and two small. Each circle contains many circles that are increasingly smaller, which makes the work appear like tree bark rings. The forms seem to interact and play off each other, although they don’t touch, strictly speaking. Hesse writes of the absurdity of her circles, which seem to go on forever. “If something is absurd, it’s more absurd to repeat it.”
Eva Hesse, no title, 1966. Black ink wash and pencil, 11 3/4 x 9 in.
Collection of Tony and Gail Ganz, Los Angeles. © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich London.
Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, Eva Hesse Tagebuch (Diary) 1, Hamburg, Passover 1936. Collection of Helen Hesse Charash; Ruth Marcus Hesse, “proud Mama with her two daughters,” Helen and Eva. The Hebrew headline reads, “This year we are slaves, next year we shall be free.” Wilhelm Hesse wrote, “Evchen’s [little Eva's] first yom tov [holiday]. She doesn’t understand anything about it yet, but it concerns her that diet needs to be changed.” This is a rare entry, in that it was co-written by Wilhelm and Ruth Hesse. This was the last time Eva’s mother wrote in her tagebuch.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kalman Bland’s book, The Artless Jew, examines the history of this idea, revealing how recent and retrogressive it is. The historical record itself is unambiguous; we have documentary evidence and plenty of examples of Jewish art for more than 2,000 years. Nonetheless, even in the face of facts it is still the conventional wisdom that Jews did not and still do not make art. By examining the genesis of this idea, he goes a long way to allow us to see the historical evidence in a clear light and to ultimately encourage Jews to continue to make art, see art and, most importantly, make and see contemporary Jewish Art. Our modern Jewish culture demands no less.
This is not to say that the issue of Jewish aniconism (hostility to images and image making) is not complex. As Michael Avi-Yonah explains, “Judaism oscillated between periodic episodes of restrictive iconoclasm and lenient creativity.” The broad scope of Bland’s book can best be appreciated in a quote from Harold Rosenberg, distinguished critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism. In a 1966 talk at the Jewish Museum, titled “Is There a Jewish Art?” he quipped, “First, they build a Jewish Museum; then they ask, is there a Jewish art? Jews! 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?” The unraveling of this conundrum begins in the understanding that the answers are “strictly chronological: pre-modern and modern.”
A superficial examination of the Second Commandment can immediately offer two interpretations; a comprehensive ban on all images no matter what the use, and a restrictive interpretation that forbids only a representation of G-d. One might even surmise that, “the second commandment theoretically licenses all visual images except one.” While the complexity of the differing views in the commentaries is explored, Bland maintains that, “As late as the 16th century, neither Jew nor Gentile ever noticed that Judaism was comprehensively aniconic. Secondly, as late as the 16th century, neither Jew nor Gentile ever understood the Biblical law to be a prohibition against the production, use or enjoyment of all visual images.”
He quotes a pantheon of Greco-Roman authors – Livy, Strabo, Tacitus, Josephus and Philo – who comment that the Jews were renowned for their prohibition against depicting G-d, not other images. It seems that as for other images, Jews could use or fashion as they wished. As for the Talmud, he maintains that the rabbis generally concur, quoting the famous passage concerning Rabban Gamliel bathing in the presence of a statue of Aphrodite. Additionally, the apparent contradiction between the prohibition on image-making and the command to craft the image of the cruvim and the copper serpent reflects the fundamental challenge for Jews to learn to be able to distinguish between an image and an idol – and not an outright ban on images.
Surveying the years between 1500 and 1800, Bland examines the works of Luther, Calvin and Voltaire, finding again that neither the pious Christian view nor the early Enlightenment saw the Jews as aniconic. Nonetheless, by the dawn of the 19th century the opinion of both Jew and Gentile had changed; suddenly, Jews didn’t make art.
According to Bland, the double-edged philosophies of Kant and Hegel were ultimately responsible for the birth of Jewish aniconism. Kant (1724-1804) maintained that, “Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish law is the commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” The fact that this powerful praise of the pure spirituality of Judaism flew in the face of the actual practice of Jewish art, did not hinder its force. Jews freed from the ghetto and breathlessly assimilating desperately needed the approval of European culture and happily agreed to dismiss their own cultural heritage.
Closing the conceptual trap, Hegel (1770-1831) condemned Judaism for exactly the same commandment. He maintained that, “Everything genuine in spirit and nature alike is inherently concrete and, despite its universality, has nevertheless subjectivity and particularity in itself.” Lacking images, according to Hegel, Judaism was therefore superficial and crass. These ideas were born into the fertile bed of 19th century Jewish emancipation and anti-Semitism. The “partisan opinion of anti-Semites who disparaged Jewish culture and diaspora Jews in Western Europe, and America who refused Zionist options”, both found the idea irresistible. Aniconism provided anti-Semites with a powerful weapon, while it provided an excuse, a way of fitting in for those Jews who “struggled to perpetuate assimilated Jewish life in the Diaspora.”
Ironically, in the early 20th century, as archeologists uncovered ancient Jewish art, and Zionist programs championed the creation of a new Jewish culture in the Land of Israel, the insistence on the impossibility of a Jewish art persisted. Included in a long list of intellectuals and writers who “should have known better” are: Bernard Berenson, Cyntha Ozick, Max Dimont, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean Baudrillard. Even in the two most authoritative “history of art” books, Janson and Gardner, Jewish aniconism is thoughtlessly affirmed.
As Bland’s The Artless Jew documents, the momentum of an idea, once launched and nurtured by powerful social forces, takes on a life of its own. The only way to begin to effectively combat the dangerous notion that there is no Jewish art is to understand the idea of where it comes from and why people continue to believe in it. And believe in it they do. The venerable Jewish Museum in New York maintains that there is no such thing as Jewish art, only artists who happen to be Jews, objects used in Jewish ritual and subjects that are found in Jewish sources.
The notion of Jewish aniconism must be seen hand in hand with a full understanding of the actual history of Jewish art, exactly what our artistic visual heritage consists of and which artists are making Jewish art today. As we examine Jewish culture over the last 2,000 years, we will find a rich heritage that will prove the courage and resiliency of Jewish artists in the face of this pernicious myth.
Oh, yes, Jews make Jewish art.
The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations And Denials of the Visual, By Kalman P. Bland – Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com.
Brad Sabin Hill was sitting in the Oriental Reading Room at the British Library. The Oriental Room served as home to the Jewish books, and when the collection moved to a new location, the last book to make the move was a small Jewish book that fell through the cracks and was discovered under a bookcase by the librarian in a search to ensure that everything was accounted for. As the dean of the library and senior research librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Hill was, of course, researching Jewish books. But the librarian who walked by and looked over his shoulder was hardly impressed. “Another boring Hebrew book with nothing but text,” she said.
Hill was one of four speakers at the Jean S. Moldovan Memorial Symposium of the Harry G. Friedman Society of the Jewish Museum on March 5. Under the title, “A Sacred Art: Hebrew Manuscripts & Imprints,” the symposium brought together four scholars who spoke about Hebrew paleography and dating, Italian women’s prayer books, Hebrew book art and first editions of classical Hebrew books.
Named for blockbuster Judaica collector Harry G. Friedman (1882-1965), the society has somehow managed to slip under the eye of the public and the press and carries a mysterious fraternity feel, not unlike the Freemasons. Once a month, the society of Judaica collectors meets at the Jewish Museum for bagels, pastries and coffee, followed by a lecture on some aspect of Jewish art. Then a show-and-tell period commences, where collectors showcase the pieces they have acquired since the previous meeting. The meetings are subversive at times, and the communicative currency is often based on machhloket, where battles ensue in dating objects and determining their origin – and perhaps more importantly, their worth. The society is an arena in which questions of Jewish art seem to carry cosmological implications.
This symposium was no different, interrogating what exactly we mean by “People of the Book.” Hill recounted the story of Rabbi Chananya, the son of Tradyon, who was brutally murdered – according to the composer of the Kinot – while wrapped in a Torah scroll and burnt at the stake. The letters of the Torah flew up to heaven, while the parchment burnt. This reversal of the image of the bush Moses encounters – “Behold the bush is erupting in flame, and yet the bush is not consumed” – points toward an interesting meditation upon Jewish books. After all, the physical scroll burns with Rabbi Chananya, and yet the text escapes, floating up to heaven.
Readers can comfortably infer that Judaism holds the text per se (that is, the theoretical “ideas” and “thoughts” to which the letters and words point) as more important than the actual physical parchment and ink. Surely, we are instructed to hold our sacred books dear. We bury Torah scrolls when they have outlived their usefulness. We all learn in kindergarten to kiss the holy book that slips our grasp and falls to the floor, just as we kiss the mezuzah when entering or exiting a room. But the holiness of the text seems to derive from the ideas of the text more than from the physicality of the text. Moses, after all, finds it necessary to smash the physical tablets when it becomes clear that the people violated the text of the tablets. Similarly, the parchment could have miraculously been saved with the words, and yet it burns with Rabbi Chananya. Just as his soul rises to meet its Creator, the soul of the text – the words – departs its bodily shell and leaves it to burn.
This all seems to suggest that Judaism values the text over the book. But does Judaism, in fact, value the physical text in its own right? When we are called the People of the Book, are we in fact a people who see its books as both physical objects and as texts?
There is a lot at stake in this question, to be sure. As our books become e-books, hypertexts and websites, the physical properties of texts disappear, and we approach a circumstance in which we are able to convey narratives purely (as in speech), without allowing ourselves to be bogged down by materials and actual codex (i.e. bound books) forms.
Online books are remarkable in their own right, and they represent one of the most revolutionary inventions in the history of books since the printing press. But as my professor, Paula Geyh, once suggested in a session of the course, “The Book: Unbound” at Yeshiva College, the codex form is one of the most amazing inventions in all of history. It can contain a tremendous array of information, and it is portable and wholly liberated from wires, plugs, or other such accessories.
Jewish books, Hill conceded, never reached the “dizzying heights” of non-Jewish printing. But he and the other speakers explored numerous examples of Jewish books that are striking in their own right.
Evelyn M. Cohen, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a talk entitled, “Illuminating Their Lives: Women’s Prayer Books in Renaissance Italy.” Cohen suggested that though the overwhelming majority of Jewish books were clearly made for men, some were made for women. Cohen explored the early sections of several siddurim that contain the morning blessings. Instead of the formulation, “Blessed are you G-d, master of the universe, that You have not made me a woman”, these prayer books invoke “that You made me according to Your will”, or even the more provocative “that You made me a woman and not a man.”
Not only did these prayer books invoke the feminine recitation of the daily benedictions, but they also featured illustrations of women performing ritual acts. One image from a 15th century hagaddah shows a man holding a bitter herb in his right hand, pointing at a woman with his left hand. This pun recalls the statement from Ecclesiastes, “I have found, bitterer than death, the woman.” The man suggests that he is surrounded by two bitter objects: the woman and the herbs.
This sort of pun is hardly atypical, and the same artist depicted David asleep in an illustration to accompany Psalm 34, “To David, in his ‘changing’ of his manner before Abimelech.” David pretended to be insane in an effort to protect himself from the Philistines, but the word “b’shanoto” (in his changing) can cleverly be rendered “b’shaynato” (in his sleep), a pun the artist invoked in the illustration. Cohen hypothesized that a later owner of the manuscript did not get the pun and attempted to erase the image.
But images that cast women in a fine light also preside, and Cohen explored one illustrating “ha lachma anya” (this is the bread of affliction), in which a couple – and not just a man, as was the norm in hagaddah art – holds up a basket of matzah and the man and woman gaze into each other’s eyes.
Though Cohen found that most hagaddot did not include the names of wives in inscriptions, many did feature the names of daughters. Menachem Schmelzer, professor emeritus of medieval Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, emphasized this aspect of the target audience for many Jewish books. Schmelzer explained that many books were declared “li u’lizari” or “lo u’lizaro” (“for me and my children” or “for him and his children”).
But even if we are taught never to judge a book by its cover, perhaps the greatest argument for a unique Jewish book form sits right on the title page. Hill identifies the idiosyncratic aspects of Hebrew books from the right-to-left orientation to Hebrew typefaces, oriental woodblock characters and the ornamental portal title (the gate image on the title page of many Gemaras and Jewish books) page design. Other Jewish icons include Levitical jugs, stylized temples, priestly hands and triple crowns on letters.
But Hill isolates a uniquely Jewish technique in what he calls “bloated text.” In a time where “hitting the highlight in yellow button” on Microsoft Word was unavailable to Jewish printers, printers often set off words, either by adding color or by enlarging the word. And yet, the words that were most enlarged on title pages of Jewish texts were the places (often where the book was originally published, while the actual publication area of the book is in smaller letters) and the word “sefer” (book). One book has the word “daz” enlarged (“this” from the formulation “this book is called”) leading librarians to erroneously list it under “daz” instead of the true title.
Hill sees the emphasis of the word “book” over the title of the book, the author, or the venue of publication to “clearly indicate an obsession with the book, unparalleled in non-Hebrew booklore.”
It would seem then, that although the librarian’s objection to Hebrew books as devoid of illustrations, does diagnose the unfortunate state of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, it is unfair in other ways. Jewish scribes paid careful attention to the surfaces upon which they wrote – to the ink, typography, composition and design elements. They created particularized title pages that carried their own unique aesthetic, from naming the censor to highlighting the word “book” and the printing location in larger type. These decisions suggest a body of Jewish book art that is certainly worthy of study and celebration.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.
Through April 2005
Shoshana S. and Jerome Cardin Gallery
The Jewish Museum of Maryland
15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore
The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s “Lives Lost” exhibit offers a meditation on a “dramatic but little known story” – according to the museum Associate Director Anita Kassof. The museum explores how the Jewish Baltimore community specifically came to accept the German Jewish refugees, and the refugees’ challenges in integrating into the wider community while preserving their identity.
Perhaps the exhibit’s most fascinating component is the presentation that employs a multimedia edifice in which viewers walk through a model sukkah (one family turned a transporting crate into a sukkah) and examine a variety of historical objects.
Viewers see a sewing machine and a rescued Torah; the original spice grinder that the Gustav Brunn family used to found the Baltimore Spice Company – now called Old Bay Seasoning (my grandmother has some on her shelf); black album binders with old pictures; and a network of passport papers and affidavits whereby local residents ensured that the immigrants would be economically cared for. These affidavits were a prerequisite to the immigrants’ entry into the United States, and they demonstrated a tremendous sense of responsibility, as the local residents often found themselves vouching for people they hardly knew.
The curatorial technique that organizes space by leading the viewer through a contextual framework has a lot to do with interactive curating. This technique allows the visitor to relate to the work through dialogue, rather than one-sided lectures. It is the equivalent of “Reader Response” in literary criticism. Like all techniques, it implies certain advantages and disadvantages.
One of the greatest proponents of “Reader Response” is the American literary critic, Stanley Fish (b. 1938). “Reader Response” means that texts are viewed as malleable structures that the reader molds to a large extent, rather than a fixed, concrete creation upon which the author enjoys a monopoly of interpretive powers.
Fish’s “Surprised by Sin: The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost’” (1967) argues that Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which explores the expulsion from Eden and the events immediately surrounding it on both chronological ends, presents Satan as an appealing, heroic character with whom the reader can hardly help but sympathize. Satan is proud, intelligent, persistent and sly.
At some point, though, Fish argues that the reader wakes up from a literary slumber and realizes that s/he sympathizes with Satan, who is clearly evil, over G-d. After realizing this “sin,” the reader launches a process of appeal for clemency. Ultimately, then, Milton aims to send the reader through the Adamic development of sin-realization-atonement. This trajectory of interpretation resembles a “form follows content” model, and “Lives Lost” uses it to involve the reader in a meaningful way.
“Lives Lost” leads the viewer through a maze of information that allows for projection of the self back into time. This move allows the viewer to interact with the museum pieces in a way that proves very rewarding, though hardly intuitive. Museums used to project an “ivory tower” image to their visitors. The viewers who came into the museum had to check “real life” at the door, for the museum set itself starkly in opposition to life by suggesting that it contained a certain orderliness and maturity. Post-modern curators have begun to realize that they must change the way in which they set up exhibits to present their diverse viewers with a venue that allows for different individuals to respond differently to the material, thus making for a more interesting space.
Catch phrases in the museum world are now “dialogue,” “interaction” and the like. This ideology is especially appropriate to a historical museum, which aims to preserve the past in a way that is personal and relevant to viewers.
New media and technology has ensured video and multi-media documentation, especially useful in cataloguing Holocaust victims’ testimony. Although “Lives Lost” does not employ videos (a failure on its part, and the real strength of venues such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and the like), it does feature a computer screen that lists names of the victims in a continuous fashion that conveys the tremendous number of the Baltimore immigrants, while stressing each one’s individuality.
Founded in 1960, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is the perfect venue for this sort of thing. According to its website, the museum eyes the Jewish-American experience “with special attention to Jewish life in the state of Maryland.” The museum combines the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue and the B’nai Israel Synagogue, joining them together with a museum building in the middle. This cultural and historic venue, with an eye for religious ritual in the synagogues, combines the perfect elements for exploring complicated identities.
Items I noted with specific interest were a Torah Scroll, opened to the “Song at the Sea” (Exodus XV: 1-21) rescued by Louis Kleeman before the Nazis vandalized Gaukonigshofen; a pocket watch stripped of its gold casing (as per a February 1939 law); and a silver kiddush cup that Jewish community of Ober-Remstadt bestowed upon Abraham Wartensleben, its last president. The cup shows a dent from having been thrown from a window (in Wartensleben’s house) by the Nazis during Kristallnacht. But “Lives Lost” is more than a mere amalgamation of objects.
In the catalog introduction, Avi Y. Decter, the museum’s executive director, argues that “The flight of the German Jewish cultural elite has been extensively chronicled,” but the common people often faced anonymity in the curatorial scene. “In contrast, the journeys of ordinary German Jews have received only modest attention.”
“Lives Lost” then aims to record the refugees who came to Baltimore between 1933 and 1945. In fact, as Deborah R. Weiner writes in “The Third Wave: German Jewish Refugees Come to Baltimore” further in the catalog, many immigrants resented the term “refugee,” for it invariably classified them as “other.”
It appears that not only has history written itself around many of the immigrants who did not enjoy social or economic distinction, but the language itself that welcomed them upon arrival to America seems to have aimed to disenfranchise them. “Lives Lost” also illustrates how German Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitism, and had trouble anticipating that the Nazis’ platform would actually become so murderous.
The exhibit also investigates how many Baltimoreans resented the immigrants to an extent, finding them real people rather than the idealized persons they had held them to be. Further, the exhibit tells of the Baltimore Chevra Ahavas Chesed (still effective today), which maintained cemeteries, aided the needy and the sick, and provided a venue for social interaction amongst the immigrants.
However, “Lives Lost” affected me most acutely not only because of its tremendous research and exhaustive images, paper trails and objects, but because it meditated on the local and highly personal elements of trauma, and cast me right in the middle of a totally engulfing, interactive network that was highly particularized and understanding enough to be just intrusive enough, and just open enough to allow me to enter the dialogue, rather than preaching history.
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: email@example.com
CORRECTION: I would like to extend my apologies to Elena Makarova, who curated and wrote the catalog for the Friedl Dicker-Brandeis exhibition at the Jewish Museum. In my last column, I neglected to acknowledge her name, and the credit is most certainly due to her.
of the Abstract Expressionist movement. In the mid-1950′s, this exhibition’s story ends, as many American Jewish artists had abandoned most of their heritage and were frequently loath to being identified as Jewish.
But the story was not over, not by a long shot. In spite of predictions that American Jews would assimilate themselves out of existence, Jewish artists continued to salvage bits and pieces of their Jewish heritage in the years that High Modernism crumbled and evaporated in the chaos that followed. The landmark ”Too Jewish” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1996 explored issues of identity so dear to postmodern thought. Since then, contemporary Jewish art has slowly grown stronger. In this exhibition, the Jewish Museum documents the difficult and painful first part of the story, a narrative of the road out of tradition to an illusory promised land.
Max Weber (1881-1961), the brilliant American cubist who consistently affirmed his Jewish roots in his paintings, attests to the general tenor of those times with his 1919 painting, Sabbath, showing two Chassidim and their wives whiling away a Shabbos afternoon. Morris Shulman’s Tomkins Square Park (1936) is claustrophobically crowded, teeming with mothers,
children, youths and old men engaged in endless arguments. Jewish identity here, as in many other works shown nearby, blends seamlessly into the overall immigrant experience.
Most Jews were not able to seamlessly integrate into mainstream America as Peter Blume’s 1927 Pig’s Feet and Vinegar shockingly attests. Blume (1906-1992) was born in Russia, came to America as a child and developed into a popular surrealist painter in the 1930′s. As an artist he had moved out of the city to paint the ”real America.” There he found not bucolic peace and harmony, but a world that would wrench him further from his Jewish roots, full of dislocation and estrangement. His later surreal and magic realist paintings reflected the exploitation of America invaded by the machine age. This early painting depicts the invasion of nonJewish America into his home. A hyper-realistic rendition of a pair of pig’s feet is seen on his kitchen table that is set before a window that looks out on rural America. The struggle of assimilation was in fact a war against the Jews.
This war was fought on many fronts, especially in our homes and living rooms. Raphael Soyer (1899-1987), one of the most beloved of the Jewish realists, depicted the domestic battlefield in his own home. Dance Lesson (1926) depicts his twin brother Moses dancing with his sister Rebecca as his other brother Israel plays the harmonica. His mother interrupts reading her
Yiddish paper to watch them along with her husband sitting on the couch. Ironically, his grandparents peer down helplessly from the portrait on the wall. In spite of the implicit criticism, we know the dancers will fully embrace modernity at the expense of their traditions. Close to 30 years later, Raphael Soyer painted Seated Couple (1954) that evokes the very modern Jewish couple. He is intense and simmering with modern angst. She is confident and
supportive. Their Jewishness is totally hidden.
Deciding what to give up was only one aspect of Jewish assimilation. One had to replace the old world values with new world agendas, and social justice was always high on the list. Jews became active in left wing politics and John Reed Clubs were filled with Jewish artists. Philip Evergood’s The Hundredth Psalm (1938-39) depicts the horror of southern lynchings in the 1930′s. His depiction of hooded Klansmen lynching a Black man as they played violins, mocks the verse, ”call out to the Lord, everyone on earth. Serve the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyous song.” Evergood accuses racist Christians of murdering Blacks in perverted religious zeal and, by the invocation of a Jewish text, implores traditional Jews to protest social injustice.
Protest and alarm dominate as ”Reacting to Tragedy?” charts the American Jewish artist’s early confrontation with the Holocaust. Jacques Lipshitz’s disturbing sculpture The Sacrifice (1949-57) sends a deeply mixed message in its presentation of a figure stabbing a chicken. Neither a ritual sacrifice nor slaughter for food, it is a senseless killing. Continuing the theme of
victim-hood, Saul Baizerman’s Crucifixion (1947-50) utilizes an appropriation of Christian imagery to express Jewish suffering. His eight foot high hammered copper relief sculpture suggests an armless man seen from the back. The sheet-like nature of the cooper connotes an absence behind the hammered surface, evoking the loss of millions of Jews behind a single image.
The most disturbing image of the exhibition is Hyman Bloom’s Female Corpse (1945). The artist was at the time a major figure among the emerging Abstract Expressionists and was aware of the extent of the Holocaust in wartime Europe. He went to Boston and did a series of drawings and paintings in a morgue. The lurid expressionistic images he produced are morbid meditations on the mass murders. Seen from above and calmly observed, the painting attempts to mediate the horror of a single decomposing body. Death does not end with the cessation of life, rather it gradually festers and transforms the body until it has consumed every bit of flesh. The horror of Bloom’s painting presents death as a process, a continuation of hell that offers no peace.
The works in the final room poses troubling questions. It shows a handful of examples in which the artists used Jewish subjects to create abstract art. It implicitly asks what art might have been produced if Jewish artists had embraced the vast resources of Jewish thought for content and inspiration. As exciting as it is to see Ben Zion, a founding member of The Ten, an early and overwhelmingly Jewish abstract expressionist club, produce a Jacob Wrestling With The Angel in 1935, his numerous Biblical works were mostly ignored. Even the startling painting Tablets of Moses, Jacob’s Ladder, and Menorah (1951) by Robert Motherwell doesn’t rescue the distinctly minor classification these works deserve. Motherwell remains famous for Spanish Elegy, not Har Sinai. The notorious Larry Rivers, who would go on to become the “bad boy” of late modernism and pop art, is shown here in the Rejected Ark Cloth of 1954, a failed commission because of a Hebrew misspelling. But that cannot be the reason it was rejected. Rather, the vast majority of Jewish American artists at the time knew little and cared less about Jewish tradition and culture. With no inherent connection, it was surprising the few Jewish themes they did create.
”My America,” the survey of Jewish American art in the first half of the 20th century, would be ultimately a sad show were it not for the fact that 40 years later, Jewish art was seen struggling mightily in “Too Jewish?” Now, eight years after that, there is an emerging handful of Jewish artists who move well beyond the deconstruction of ethnic identity to attack, confront and
engage in serious Jewish subject matter. We would hope that the Jewish Museum’s next survey of contemporary Jewish art will be called, “Finally Jewish Enough.”
“My America: Art from the Jewish Museum Collection, 1900-1955,” Jewish Museum; www.thejewishmuseum.org. 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423 3200. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., $10 adults; $7.50 students and seniors, children under 12 free;
Thursdays 5 to 8 p.m., pay-what-you-wish. Until July 25, 2004
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128; (212) 423-3200
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 3p.m.
$10 adults; $7.50 students and seniors, children under 12 free; Thursdays 5 to 8 p.m.; pay-what-you-wish.
Until February 12, 2003
important modernist artists in the early twentieth century. Kandinsky has been justly credited with the invention of non-objective abstract painting, while Schoenberg took music to what may have been its most radical frontier, atonal composition. Each contributed highly original creations that permanently influenced Western culture for the next century. In 1911, their paths crossed, and an influential friendship began that lasted for the next twelve years, ending in 1923 over the issue of Judaism. The current exhibition, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider at the Jewish Museum expertly traces this brief but fascinating artistic relationship.
On January 2, 1911 Kandinsky, along with fellow Expressionist painters Franz Marc, Gabriele Munter, and Alexi von Jawlensky, attended a concert in Munich of Schoenberg’s compositions, including Second String Quartet (1907-08) and Three Piano Pieces (1909). It
amounted to a pilgrimage of radical artists to hear the latest in modern music. They weren’t disappointed. Franz Marc wrote an artist friend exclaiming, “Can you imagine a music in which tonality (that is, the adherence to any key) is completely suspended? I was constantly reminded of Kandinsky’s large Composition, which also permits no trace of tonality.”.
Kandinsky was similarly moved and immediately made two small drawings that quickly transformed the concert hall stage into an abstract composition. The next day, he painted Composition III (Concert), possibly as a direct reaction to the quiet and purposeful dissonances of Three Piano Pieces. Within two weeks, he wrote to Schoenberg to discuss their common artistic interests.
Composition III (Concert) marks the genesis of their friendship. The bold integration of fields of primary reds, yellows and blues are interrupted by dissonances of nervous black lines, suggesting at times figures or trees before they dissolve into abstraction. Kandinsky wrote in
1912 in On the Spiritual in Art, “Color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.” Similarly Schoenberg wrote, “Dissonances are only different from consonances in degree; they are nothing else than more remote consonances.” One of the many pleasures of this exhibition is that the Jewish Museum has provided free headsets (sponsored by Mayor Bloomberg) that allow one to listen to the music and view the artworks simultaneously to fully appreciate the intimate relationship.
Much to his surprise, Kandinsky discovered that Schoenberg was somewhat of an artist himself, albeit a self-taught amateur. Schoenberg had been making paintings and drawings; self-portraits, portraits, set designs, fantasies and nightpieces since 1908 and in October 1910, had his first exhibition of forty-two paintings. His work is deeply introspective, echoing
explorations into the unconscious that Freud had begun in his revolutionary Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.
Typical of many contemporary Austrian Expressionists, color is used to express his psychological state. Red Gaze (1910) expresses Schoenberg’s belief in “the instinctive nature of the unconscious, unhampered by all that was acquired through taste, education or skill.” The harrowing gaze, typical of many of his self-portraits, becomes a premonition of the abyss of war and revolution that Europe would be plunged into in a few short years.
Schoenberg only painted between 1908 and 1911, a period in which he first introduced and explored atonality. The intense hostility of critics and the public to his music may have influenced his interest in this totally different medium. As a visual artist, his work is limited, even though Kandinsky was impressed enough to invite him to exhibit with the new group of radical artists.
It was the first Blue Rider exhibition. The museum has assembled a handsome selection of paintings and artists that were in the first exhibition, including the Guggenheim’s Yellow Cow (1911) by Franz Marc. The Blue Rider group, although never a formal movement, was extremely influential as a proponent of Expressionism, abstraction and the use of symbolic color in early Modernism. Schoenberg’s inclusion is an important indication of how seriously he was considered by fellow modern artists.
Schoenberg had converted to Protestantism at the age of 23 because of his “profound identification with German culture, especially the music of Bach and Brahms.” His path of apostasy would be abruptly blocked by events of the 1920′s.
After the Blue Rider exhibitions, the idealism and hope of this generation could lead to such exclamations as, “Schoenberg’s music leads us into a new realm, where musical experiences are no longer acoustic, but purely spiritual. Here begins the ‘music of the future.’” (Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art. This idealism was abruptly shattered by World War I in 1914. For eight years, Kandinsky and Schoenberg lost touch. In the 1920′s, they both resumed their artistic work, respectively pushing the boundaries of modernism. Kandinsky’s work became less lyrical and more formalistic and geometrical, while Schoenberg developed atonalism into the radical twelve-tone method that elevates dissonance into a fully structured musical aesthetic.
In 1923, Kandinsky invited Schoenberg to teach in Weimar where the artist was involved with the new Bauhaus movement. Schoenberg, under the impression that Kandinsky had made anti-Semitic remarks, harshly refused, declaring, “It cannot be. For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being but I am a Jew. I give up hope of reaching any understanding. It was a dream.”
Kandinsky offered a denial and affirmation that, “I love you as an artist and a human being. I think least of all about nationality – it is a matter of the greatest indifference to me.” Nevertheless, the relationship was effectively terminated by Schoenberg. Here the exhibition rather sadly ends.
The story, however, does not end there. A detailed reading of the excellent catalogue reveals much more. Ten years later, Kandinsky fled the Nazis to France where he spent the war, dying right after the liberation of Paris in 1944. His radical early abstract work, deeply influenced by his own musical ideas and the compositions of contemporary composers, including Schoenberg, is ensconced in the canons of the greatest early modern paintings. While he was artistically eclipsed by the brasher and ultimately more recognizable work of Picasso, he remains a seminal source of modernist creativity.
Schoenberg’s contribution would take a different path. He observed postwar anti-Semitism as early as 1921, and one might assume an artistic reaction with composition of Die Jakobsleiter in 1922, even though the catalogue states that his “first artistic exploration of his Jewish identity” began with Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way) in 1927. He wrote the libretto for the groundbreaking opera Moses und Aron in 1928, and completed the first and second acts in 1932 just before he fled the Nazis in 1933.
On his way to American exile, Schoenberg reconverted to Judaism in Paris, with artist Marc Chagall as a witness to the ceremony. The wayward son had returned to his people, a great modernist composer found in Jewish motifs a fruitful source of his creativity.
Kandinsky still provides an essential foundation for our visual culture, liberating us with the very music of the visual experience. Similarly, in a struggle of a totally different nature, Schoenberg’s pioneering musical explorations and singular use of Jewish subjects, especially in the seminal opera Moses und Aron, establishes a life-giving inheritance for Jewish composers.
We are the inheritors of both traditions.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.