Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe

Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe

by Richard I. Cohen

ISBN: 9780520205451

Publisher University of California Press

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

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter


Over a decade ago the academic journal Representations published a symposium on the topic "Art or Society: Must We Choose?" A literary scholar, a historian, and two art historians interested in art and society presented their perspectives on the basis of particular case studies. Svetlana Alpers, the symposium's editor and a distinguished art historian, made her position clear in the introductory remarks: "the papers made me realize that while I conduct my research considering how the knowledge of social and cultural practices affects the account I might give of a work of art, nevertheless when I am finished and look back on what I have done it is clear that my view of the relevant social practice was from the start engaged with something I had seen in the art. This is as much as to say that although the history of art may be a hybrid discipline, there is a sense, to return to the main question, that in choosing to study art one has already made a choice."1 A year later the Journal of Interdisciplinary History devoted an entire issue to what it called "The Evidence of Art: Images and Meaning in History"; its editors, Theodore Rabb and Jonathan Brown, mapped out the areas of possible interaction between historians and art historians while enumerating the shortcomings and pitfalls of the interdisciplinary method. Yet, sensing the need for more cross-fertilization between the two disciplines, they put themselves on the side of those who do not want to choose between art and society: "despite the difficulties of drawing art and history together, there is perhaps no enterprise that is more deserving of major and united effort;... As the examples multiply of interdisciplinary studies that rely on the skills of both historians and art historians to provide new insights into the significance of visual artifacts, it will become apparent that this is indeed an essential means of enriching both disciplines, and thus our ability to explicate the past."2 Indeed both these scholars have been involved for more than a generation in integrating art into history and history into art. Critics of the approach mapped out by Rabb and Brown have been no less diligent in trying to dispel the value of their working hypothesis. Francis Haskell's learned attack against the fallacies of such an enterprise elucidated many of the unsuccessful attempts by historians, including Johan Huizinga, to use visual material to un-

cover the past. Haskell chastised historians for overlooking the fact that art has its own language "which can be understood only by those who seek to fathom its varying purposes, conventions, styles and techniques. Fruitful cooperation between the historian and the art historian can be based only on full recognition of the necessary differences between their approaches, not, as is so often implied, on the pretense that these approaches are basically the same."3 Haskell warned especially, as did Rabb and Brown, against the use of the visual as evidence, arguing that historians must remember that art is formed not only through purpose and tradition but also by imagination. The debate continues, yet historians persist in weaving visual material into their studies, either as a mere backdrop to their analysis or as a central source to reach the past.

I cite the above observations as examples of some of the hurdles art historians and historians have encountered in evaluating interdisciplinary forays into art and society. I cite them neither to express agreement with nor to reject them, but basically to acknowledge their existence and note their fears. Certainly the study of daily life, inspired by the Annales school, impels historians to extend their sources beyond the textual ones, to ask questions about material that often remained outside the realm of traditional historical studies. If Fernand Braudel is right that "daily life controls us without [our] ever being aware of it," then clothes, food, furniture, souvenirs, knickknacks, photographs, monuments, and established masterpieces become part of the historian's terrain. In bringing together visual sources of high and low culture, historians seek to gain insights into an individual's or a community's behavior that further understanding of the subject under study. Consider, for example, the manner in which Peter Burke tried to determine the ways in which the public image of Louis XIV was shaped. Burke utilized a wide range of contemporary representations in different media: ballets, statues, paintings, poems, and other forms of expression were interwoven to trace the evolution of the image over time. In so doing, Burke was able to show how these images became an integral part of the king's method of rule and how they helped mobilize support for his undertakings. Burke was clearly concerned first and foremost with "society," that is, with how Louis XIV was shaped, packaged, and presented to his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century subjects, to contemporaneous foreigners, and to posterity; but in order to carry out his project, the literary sources could provide only partial answers. Turning to visual material, Burke showed, for example, how the choice of an elevated throne for Louis when he was to receive Oriental ambassadors could throw light on the attention given to minute details to magnify his public image.4 Similarly, Maurice Agulhon's extensive study on Marianne is an excellent example of how a symbol so central to modern French society could undergo such diverse forms of representation, arouse sympathy, anger and support, and provide historians a unique angle to look at the changing dimensions of French society since the days of the Revolution. The vast amount of visual objects relating to Marianne (for example, the representation of and attitude to her statues) merge with the literary material to help Agulhon arrive at some astute observations on how the republican myth became indelibly associated with the feminine figure, on the significance of regional appropriation of the republican mys-

tique, and on the interrelation between different physical representations of Marianne and ideological leanings.5 But if these examples of historical studies show how visual material has served historians to reach conclusions that go far beyond art itself, one can find similar successes in the other direction, when looking at the work of historians of art, like Michael Baxandall or Jonathan Brown.

Both Baxandall and Brown utilized social context to flesh out their discussions of Italian painting of the fifteenth century and Spanish painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Baxandall's study demands recognition of the significant role the patron played in Italian painting during the fifteenth century, determining at times quality of colors or quality of skill as well as the themes to be represented. This led Baxandall to make the claim that "the pictures become documents as valid as any charter or parish roll."6 To observe the paintings of fifteenth-century Italy is to see its society. Once againb art becomes evidence, and the choice between art and society is unnecessary. Jonathan Brown's sensitivity to the world of the court during Philip IV's reign, to the standing of artists within that court, and to how political and social change (or the lack of it) can be reflected in painting widened the horizons of the art he discussed. Brown calls this form of interpretation "contextual art history," wherein a work of art is placed within its social and ideological context and examined through its particular artistic style.7 Thus Brown's interpretation of portraits of Philip by VelC!zquez is based on both the tradition in royal Spanish portraiture and his view on the attitude of the Habsburg kings of Spain to notions of glory.8 Refracted through the spectacles of Burke and Brown, royal imagery and representation assume wider meanings, granting new perceptions of the respective societies and the particular art.

But must we choose between art and society in using visual material to study the past? Other perspectives, offering alternative ways to look at art, have certainly changed the thinking on art and society. Feminist criticism as employed by Linda Nochlin in her various essays over the last generation provides an example. In several studies Nochlin has focused on the ways in which underlying tenets or assumptions-vis-C -vis women are transmitted by the artistic world.9 Her work has been pathbreaking for feminist theory, but its importance lies also in the rerouting of interpretation to aspects and objects outside the accepted patterns, suggesting that a more ideological vantage point can bring significant aspects to the understanding of the works of art.

These examples of the ways in which art, and for that matter history, have been studied in wider contexts are indications of some of the insights to be derived from the complex interactions of fields. They are part of a wide array of challenging theoretical conceptions for historians to test and refine. When applying some of these theoretical conceptions to the subject under study hereb visual images and modern Jewish societyb a further complication arises. The visual dimension of Jewish life has often been overlooked in the study of the Jewish past, reflecting the centrality of the written text and Jewish literary tradition. Jewish education in its traditional framework, in contrast to Christian society, shied away from the use of visual images as a source of instruction and established a clear hierarchy that presented the written text as the supreme source

of knowledge and truth. Nevertheless, visual images had been present in Jewish life since biblical times, and extant sources dating from the classical period (both artifacts and synagogues) show that rabbinic opposition to interpreting the Second Commandment ("You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath ... you shall not bow down to them or serve them"b Exodus 20:4) was not as pronounced, or as accepted, as is commonly assumed. This assumption was challenged head on by Erwin R. Goodenough, the famous historian of religion at Yale University, who proclaimed in 1953 at the outset of his magnum opus on Jewish symbols that his studies had led him to conclude "that those who had assured me that Jewish art had never existed had simply not known the facts ... I discovered that Jewish art of another kind had flourished everywhere in the ancient world."10 As Goodenough showed for the classical period, images and symbols appeared in amulets, charms, tombstones, synagogue mosaics, frescoes, portals, and other archaeological remains. Without discussing his particular findings and premises, Goodenough's attitude to the visual symbols needs reiteration: "[they] must be treated as primary evidence not simply of an art, but of the life of the Jews who made the art."11 Goodenough asserted that art could provide important insights into the life of the people associated with it; his concern was in the realm of religious conceptions and beliefs, but what is important in this context is to reiterate the obvious: Jews were people of the text but did not shy away from the visual. This situation held sway throughout the Middle Ages, as is shown by the evidence from the decorative arts, illuminated manuscripts, and synagogue structures that survived the ravages of time and constant migration. Indeed through the generations, artistic expressions became an integral part of Jewish life in certain periods and communities. Yet in wide circles, academic and nonacademic, Jewish and non-Jewish, the notion that Jews and art are two opposing entities is still propounded.12

With the coming of the modern period and the gradual penetration of Jews into the visual arts beyond the normative religious perspective, the nature of the relationship of Jews to the visual realm was greatly extended and became more substantial and repercussive. Inevitably this phenomenon touched wider sections of the Jewish population and was limited neither to synagogue art nor to its creators. It is true, as the historian Ezra Mendelsohn has argued, that it was music and not art that "was seen by many nineteenth-century Jewish families as the key to successful integration into European culture and society,"13 and certain sociological and religious factors encouraged music above art; but this does not diminish the fact that a wealth of visual material relating to Jews was created by them and others in the modern period. Even if the number of Jewish artists fell far below the number of Jews involved in the world of music, various developments in European society in the nineteenth century heightened Jewish awareness of the visual dimension. The example of the building of synagogues during that period is a case in point.

Contemporary scholars of the nineteenth-century synagogue, and in particular Harold Hammer-Schenk, have illuminated how the building of a synagogue in that

period was a complicated social and economic process. Hammer-Schenk's work, at face value an architectural study of the German synagogue of the nineteenth century but on a closer look a unique exploration of mentalitC)s , showed how in planning the construction of their synagogues, Jews in Germany became involved in a self-exploration experience. Some of the questions he investigated on the basis of archival material revealed how German Jews viewed certain styles of art and how they understood them in relationship to their existence. Through studying closely the meeting notes of building committees, Hammer-Schenk recognized the intricate decision-making processb in choosing the architect, in preferring a particular historic style, in identifying with that style, and more. What emerges from his research is that bourgeois Jews were deeply associated with the process and were forced to interpret art, while engaging in a meaningful exercise to determine the nature of their Judaism.14 Furthermore, in negotiations that Jews in Germany and other countries held with local authorities on land permits for the synagogue, an assessment of what constituted "Jewish" art often surfaced, by chance, as a by-product of such discussions. Thus, for example, when Jews from Brussels submitted plans for their new synagogue in 1874, the municipal authorities at first rejected them on the grounds that they "adopted the roman style ... which is essentially Christian ... and does not recall any architectural element, not even purely decorative, of either the oriental origin, or the high antiquity of the Hebrew religion, or anything that remains from Israelite architecture." The committee stressed the desire to differentiate the Jewish house of worship from the Christian and proposed the inclusion of decorative elements associated "more with the oriental flower and ancient Hebraic architecture than with the northern countries and Catholic churches."15 At about the same time, in 1878, the first exhibition of Jewish art ever held in a public setting was displayed in Paris. In response to the Isaac Strauss collection, David Kaufmann, a noted scholar of medieval Jewish philosophy and a professor of Jewish studies in the Budapest rabbinic seminary, and Vladimir Stasov, a Russian intellectual and prime mover of the Russian realist school in art, wrote rave reviews and called on Jews to relate more seriously to their artistic tradition. Both of these examples illuminate how the increasing integration of Jews into European society brought in its wake new channels through which the visual presence made its mark and generated discussion and attention among elements of the Jewish and non-Jewish world.

Yet acknowledgment of visual material as an area of study or interest within the Jewish context has proceeded very slowly. Leopold Zunz, one of the founding fathers of the modern study of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums ), encouraged the study of Jewish art in his 1818 general call for the study of the Jewish past. This appeared to him as an important step to uncover how Jews were able to conquer natureb in the areas of crafts, archaeology, and art itself. He believed that the findings would be rewarding, would show the greater presence of Jews in these areas than had been assumed, and would reveal aspects of Jewish life hidden from the textual sphere. Zunz's mention of the arts was concealed in a general discussion of the overall needs in Jewish studies and made no impact on anyone. It took two to three generations before Jews and non-Jews

began to wonder about the meaning of the visual material in Jewish life and to ponder its communicative possibilities for Jews and non-Jews alike.

But the fact that the study of Jewish visual material lagged behind and did not penetrate any of the institutions where Jewish studies were taught in the nineteenth century in a more academic fashion should not come as a surprise. The supremacy of religious texts reigned, and when contemplating what aspects of Judaism were worthy to maintain most scholars turned to the moral and spiritual teachings of Judaism. The comment of the renowned historian Heinrich Graetz in 1846b "Paganism sees its god, Judaism hears Him"16 b was not an isolated remark, either by him or by others well-versed in Jewish sources and society. For Graetz this was a clear indication that Jews pursued higher values and principles. Not accidentally was visual creativity not where Jews excelled; as Graetz reiterated in 1887 at the exhibition of Jewish religious art in London, Jewish relics could not compare with those of other nations. Thus in his proposal of curriculum for a Jewish academy, Graetz did not include the arts, though he did mention archaeology. Art was as taboo for him as was kabbalahb the former for its relationship to paganism, the latter for its antirationalism.

The inspiration to reflect on the nature of Jewish art and to promote it at the end of the nineteenth century stemmed from certain individuals and not from any institution. Matityahu Berson's three-volume work on Polish synagogues of the eighteenth century was the product of an autodidact engaged in the collection of Judaica; so too was the pathbreaking work by David MC

To study Jewish art, customs, and habits necessitated a certain distancing from them and from Graetz's approach. Recognition of these fields as integral aspects of Jewish life worthy of preservation through study or collection was an indication that Jewish integration into European society was moving into a new stage. Following Norbert Elias, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a cultural anthropologist, has pointed to the fact that while one was still ashamed and critical of rituals and customs, one could study them, for "what one was too ashamed to do, one could study." It seems to me that this process of integration, moving from shame and rejection of one's past to studying it, required

something furtherb a recognition, and attraction, to that which one had previously found revolting or a source of derision. Following Elias's notions of the civilizing process, it would seem that once certain Jews turned the corner of respectability and became identified with the surrounding society, drank from its rich culture and customs, they found the legitimacy to pursue their own culture. In a sense the evolution of the study and preservation of Jewish art resembles the process Michael Graetz has described with regard to the establishment of the Alliance IsraC)lite Universelle in 1860.18 Jews who had internalized the social and cultural messages of the French Revolution, were well versed in French culture, distant from community leadership and traditional forms of Judaism, still identified as Jews but open to the ways their fellow French invoked the meaning of the Revolution, were moved to act on behalf of their brethren in foreign countries to raise their political status and level of culture. Those Jews who overcame shame of Jewish behavior and trepidation of how they would be seen by non-Jews, did so not merely as a response to antisemitism but as a product of their process of integration. They adopted and learned from their fellow citizens that activity on behalf Jews, or study of what seemed uncultured and unaesthetic, was as legitimate a pursuit as the study of other cultures' ways. The fact that certain non-Jews, in particular Heinrich Frauberger of the DC

Jewish exhibitions and museums covered all aspects of what became known as "Jewish art," an elusive entity that can be best encapsulated by a general definition as that "which reflects the Jewish experience."20 Jewish ritual objects, illuminated manuscripts, medals, drawings and paintings relating to Jewish figures and ritual (by Jews and non-Jews), amulets, and architecture were material that engaged the museologists and researchers. Initially, documenting and describing the material were the main endeavors, and they have remained a dominant characteristic of the enterprise to this day, extending considerably the basic knowledge on the scope and diversity of the field. Though much progress has been made and new caches of material come to light annually, an authoritative corpus remains a desideratum, and the number of reliable catalogues

raisonnC)s are few and far between. Yet the visual material uncovered during this last century, which was of course also severely depleted by the destruction of extensive collections during the Holocaust, is extensive and touches on all aspects of modern Jewish history. Thus the historian who is concerned with social processes in modern Jewish life and recognizes the malleability of the "domain" of Jewish history21 can find, as did Burke and Agulhon in their studies, visual material that deepens the understanding of certain phenomena while broadening the nature of the modern Jewish experience.

The interaction of Jews with the visual arts touches on central problems of the modern period and emerges from a vast gallery of objects. Some significant themes are the collection of and dealing in art, art criticism, connoisseurship, patronage, preservation of monuments, encouragement and facilitation of the practice of art, and attitudes to art. The scope of the visual material includes images of Jews, printed books, ceremonial art, portraits of Jews, modern Jewish painting and sculpture, synagogue architecture, Jewish monuments and memorabilia, commemorative medals, and political broadsides. A world of associations and messages are communicated in these themes and objects in their style and content, and they constitute an integral part of the modern Jew's terrain.

How then to deal methodologically with this material from the vantage point of the social historian interested in reaching cultural currents in Jewish society? Open to all types of visual material and without differentiating between high and low culture, I am convinced that visual arts talk history and constitute history. Cultural practices that can be detected through study of the visual reveal realms of behavior that would otherwise remain beyond our knowledge. Thus, in some cases the body of visual material brought me to recognize a certain cultural tendency of Jews in the modern period that has escaped scholarly attention (the recurrent longing of Jews for an "authentic" way of life); in other cases, the social-historical issue brought me to seek out the visual material (for example, the question of taste and patronage). In this sense and in others, my work has been guided less by a particular theoretical model and more by a conscious decision to integrate diverse conceptual strategies and insights, recognizing that the visual material chosen for study has emerged from a desire to uncover certain sociocultural tendencies. Though I would agree with Roger Chartier that cultural artifacts should not be reduced to reflecting social reality, the material under study does offer insights that allow an entry into a realm of society's behavior, habits, and mentalitC)s and reveal social processes.22 Moreover, as Ismar Schorsch, Ezra Mendelsohn, Elliott Horowitz, and Michael Berkowitz have shown in their studies,23 the visual dimension adds to other historical sources by permitting an inquiry into the ways Jews "construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion."24 Certainly, I have often little way of knowing how these images were related to by different audiences, and some generalizations presented may appear overly reductive in their orientation. Yet by accepting the fact that visual images can reflect social reality and inform understanding of the ways Jews looked at the world, or were looked at, I have not confined myself to

a particular setting but instead have sought parallel phenomena in the different countries where Jews lived. Thus national boundaries take a secondary importance in this study.

In tracing certain cultural developments among Jews in the modern period, I am cognizant of the pitfalls enunciated by the various critics of this approach highlighted at the outset of this introduction and have tried to avoid turning the reading of images into a preordained structure. However, there are cases when my manner of interpretation may suffer from the problem of circularityb whereby the images called upon are brought to bear evidence for a particular a priori understanding of a social or cultural behavior and then the images are seen through that prism and interpreted accordingly. But as my premise has been that the visual material, or its appropriation, has been overly compartmentalized and totally separated from research into Jewish society,25 I hope that the problem of circularity will be compensated for by the attempt to extend the ways well-known objects can be looked at and by bringing into the discourse images which interpreters of "Jewish art" have neglected because of their supposed lack of intrinsic "artistic" value.

This book proceeds in some sense chronologically, from early modern times to the twentieth century, though it is by no means a sequential narrative nor does it purport to offer an encompassing study of the visual image and modern Jewish society. Chapters are built around certain major themes in modern European Jewish history (particularly Western and Central Europe): perception of the Jew by non-Jews; attitude of Jews to aesthetics, rituals, and self-identity; traditional society's ability to modernize and prevent its demise; the experience of integrated Jews and their adaptation to or reconfiguration of prevalent tendencies in European society; and Jews as victims. The choice of topics has been guided by an understanding of the ways in which Jews in modern European Jewish society encountered modernity and struggled with their traditional background, and how the visual vantage point provides a different perspective. The visual perspective and its transmission of elements of Jewish self-awareness in modern times is the inner thread of this book. Through artifacts, paintings, illustrated books, symbols, and ceremonies this foray into the representation of Jewish society offers an alternative entre into the social landscape of European Jewish society.

Excerpted from "Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe" by Richard I. Cohen. Copyright © 1998 by Richard I. Cohen. 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.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews