The Human Figure and Jewish Culture

The Human Figure and Jewish Culture

by Eliane Strosberg

ISBN: 9780789210562

Publisher Abbeville Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Religious, Politics & Social Sciences

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Excerpt from The Human Figure and Jewish Culture:


Because the history of art is studied in terms of nation-states, the strength of Jewish art, which is not bound by borders, has been overlooked. The artistic representation of the human figure is already mentioned in the Bible, and Jewish art can be found throughout antiquity in the Middle Ages, although little is known about its creators, I may or may not have been Jewish themselves.

In modern times, numerous Jewish artists have sought to reconcile their traditions with the social and artistic utopias presented by society at large. This book focuses on how the Jewish background of these artists has fed into their creation of works centered on the human figure. It does not discuss the aesthetic aspects of their art, which have been dealt with and other studies.

The majority of the artists considered here stayed away from, or only participated in, radical art movements such as Cubism or Surrealism. In fact, the term “École de Paris” was invented to describe the multinational community of artists in that city who did not subscribe to the avant-gardes. Their work, which often revealed expressionistic tendencies, has been described as “independent art, without the convenient repetitions of a school, [which] must recreate everything for itself…It is led into making a much closer contact with the past.” Similar comments have been made about the artists of the School of London and the American Social Realists.

But what, beyond this independence, did Jewish artists in Paris, London, and New York have in common? They were immigrants who shared more with one another, initially, than they did with their host culture. As their deep-seated loyalties were gradually transferred, Talmudic erudition was transformed into humanistic concerns.

A further perspective is provided by the artist Saul Raskin, who wrote in Yiddish in 1911, “It is very difficult to find a common core, and to predict the main road which Jewish artists will take. They are too diverse in their technique…and in the expression of their artistic ago. It seems that to answer our question we do not need to look at ‘how’ but at ‘what themes’ they paint, and, even better, the themes they avoid.” Here it is interesting to note that the artists discussed in this book rarely employed Jewish motifs, if at all.

The first part of our study is a summary of the Jewish experience, describing the artists’ mind-set, and the second is an overview of Jewish art before the Enlightenment. The third and fourth parts survey the treatment of the human figure by modern Jewish artists, beginning with Camille Pissarro, who for a long time believed in making only “a disinterested art of sensation” but was forced to confront “a matter of race” in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair (plate 10). Some major artists we will discuss only in passing, in order to devote more attention to several figurative painters who were successful in their own time but werel later pushed aside by modernism: David Bomberg and Mark Gertler in the United Kingdom, Max Liebermann in Germany, Jules Pascin and Moise Kisling in France, and Raphael Soyer in the United States. Recent monographs have shed light on these artists, while many others still await recognition.

The artists discussed herein rarely explained the part that the Jewish experience played in their multilayered creativity. However, philosophers, critics, and other cultural figures provide essential clues in their descriptions of the context in which these artists worked, which was mostly anti-Semitic. To properly interpret their writings, we must keep in mind that there are two ways of looking at the history of the Jews. Viewed from an external perspective—that is, as a record of how they fared over time—their history is certainly marked by its share of grief. But from an intrinsic perspective it appears quite different, even joyful at times. This is because the true home of the Jews is the timeless system of values designed to make their exile meaningful, animated by the belief that one has been elected by God (or by one's mother).

Education and the social solidarity ensured the survival of the community, and family bonds were strong, with the mother being the matrix of life and the child symbolizing hope. In nearly every biography of a Jewish artist, at least one parent is shown to have supported his or her child's wish to study art, despite difficult circumstances.

The Jewish tradition of education also produced a deep sense of responsibility towards fellow artists: Pissarro and Modigliani in Paris or Frank Auerbach and R.B. Kitaj in London behaved as role models, treating their colleagues like members of the family.

Surely the passion for social justice shared by many Jewish artists relates directly to the lessons of the Bible, just as the cult of freedom expressed in the Sabbath, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover rituals played a role in their independent artistic choices. But can their distance from modern art movements be linked to their heritage of exile and alienation? Does their passion for books explain why they could never abandon narrative in their art? Does the fact that they had only recently gained access to classical literature relate to their preference for classical painting? Each of these questions deserves a study of its own.

As if to capture the unpredictability of their surroundings, many of these artists established a routine of drawing. In a century in which art did away with the human figure altogether, they painted from live models as a way to hold on to humanity. This book explores how Jewish artists used the human figure to express love, hope, grief, alienation, and, above all, an aversion to the nihilism favored by most avant-gardes.

Their initial attraction to figurative art may have been a reaction against its prohibition in the shtetl. At the same time, the urge to paint their mothers, children, friends, and social milieu, or to endlessly explore human nature through self-portraits, stems mostly from their Jewish experience and values. Furthermore, family members were cheap models, and portraiture was not under gallery contract. (But then, who would buy such sad and unflattering portraits?)

The fascination that Jewish artists displayed for their host city, whether it was Paris, London, or New York, complemented their attachment to the human figure as a means of self-expression: the city was where they built their new identity.

Although their frequent conjunction among the Jewish artists of the last century is noteworthy, obviously none of the traits mentioned above were restricted to Jews alone. Nor were the lessons of the Hebrew scriptures exclusive to Jewish artists, whose heroes, like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Giacometti, though not Jewish themselves, had also been raised on the Bible.

A first version of the study was published in France in 2008, accompanying the exhibition Human Expressionism at the Musée Tavet-Delacour and Pontoise. The exhibition was curated by Christophe Duvivier, director of the Musées de Pontoise.
Excerpted from "The Human Figure and Jewish Culture" by Eliane Strosberg. Copyright © 2011 by Eliane Strosberg. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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