Visu­al Arts

Jew­ish Art: A Mod­ern History

Saman­tha Baskind and Lar­ry Silver
  • Review
By – April 26, 2012

Jew­ish Art is a lav­ish­ly illus­trat­ed, com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of the work of artists of the past two cen­turies who have, whether they so iden­ti­fied or not, been des­ig­nat­ed as Jew­ish artists. From an ear­ly ref­er­ence to Camille Pis­saro to the most recent Israeli [Rena Castel­n­uo­va (2009)] and Amer­i­can artists[Archie Rand (2006)], the authors relate the artists and their work to their Jew­ish expe­ri­ence no mat­ter how slight their reli­gious affil­i­a­tions may be. Jew­ish expe­ri­ence is dis­cussed as the feel­ing of being the Oth­er” in soci­ety, the dias­poric effect on one’s iden­ti­ty, the social con­science as a her­itage derived from Bib­li­cal teach­ings, the Holo­caust as a pro­found inspi­ra­tion for pow­er­ful images, and the home­land expe­ri­ence of Israel. The text includes dis­cus­sions of well-known Euro­pean artists such as Amadeo Modigliani and Chaim Sou­tine, whose work rarely ref­er­enced any Jew­ish sym­bols, along with Isidore Kauf­mann and Mau­rycy Got­tlieb, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of sev­er­al artists whose sub­ject mat­ter is Jew­ish. It is a giv­en that Jew­ish artists were influ­enced by pre­vail­ing artis­tic modes and polit­i­cal cli­mate as proven by such Russ­ian artists as El Lis­sitzky and Naum Gabo, while oth­ers, like Marc Cha­gall and Issachar Ryback, were inspired by Jew­ish folk images. The sec­tion on Amer­i­can Jew­ish artists includes the famil­iar artists, such as Max Weber, Jack Levine, Lar­ry Rivers, Eva Hesse, and Ben Shahn. The real strength of the book is the dis­cus­sion of less­er known artists such as Hen­ry Mosler, Moses Jacob Ezekiel, Abra­ham Wolkowitz, and Audrey Flack. The chap­ter Art and the Holo­caust” includes artists whose images range from hor­rif­ic to alle­gor­i­cal; in Home to Israel,” the images range from ide­al­ized to neo-real­ism.

Works by pho­tog­ra­phers, a major com­po­nent of con­tem­po­rary Israeli art, are also includ­ed. The book is a wel­come dis­til­la­tion of crit­i­cal writ­ing that exists else­where, as indi­cat­ed by the exten­sive foot­not­ing. The authors have brought togeth­er mate­r­i­al that is oth­er­wise inac­ces­si­ble to most read­ers and have done so in a very read­able style. Regret­tably, the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of prove­nance of the repro­duc­tions is not eas­i­ly locat­ed in the pho­to-cred­its locat­ed at the end of the book. Both authors are pro­fes­sors of art his­to­ry at uni­ver­si­ties. Among Baskind’s ear­li­er pub­li­ca­tions, Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Artists (2007) is a use­ful ref­er­ence tool.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions