Visu­al Arts

Jew­ish Artists and the Bible in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry America

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Call­ing these case stud­ies,” Baskind has select­ed five artists as par­a­digms for her con­sid­er­a­tion of the Bible in their paint­ings, print mak­ing, and sculp­ture: Jack Levine, George Segal, Audrey Flack, Lar­ry Rivers, and R.B. Kitaj. While dis­cussing their works in depth she ref­er­ences many oth­er Jew­ish artists, per­haps less well-known, whose works also reflect Bib­li­cal con­nec­tions. Each of the chap­ters deal­ing with the indi­vid­ual artists includes bio­graph­i­cal details about their Jew­ish back­grounds, their styles, major artis­tic influ­ences on their sub­ject mat­ter, and the author’s con­clu­sions as to why they chose the bib­li­cal images in their work. 

Most inter­est­ing is Baskind’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion— and illus­tra­tion — of clas­sic works of art which influ­ence the artists she is focus­ing on, from Rem­brandt to Rubens to Dur­er to Bosch to Car­avag­gio and oth­ers. Recur­ring fig­ures from the Hebrew Bible in indi­vid­ual artists’ iconog­raphy include Adam and Eve in the Gar­den of Eden, Abraham’s bind­ing of Isaac, Rebecca’s favoritism of Jacob over Esau, Moses lead­ing the Israelites out of Egypt and with the Ten Com­mand­ments, David and Goliath, and wise King Solomon. Baskind is care­ful to point out that the Jew­ish artists are not cre­at­ing reli­gious or sacred art but are cre­at­ing sec­u­lar works that ani­mate the Jew­ish Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence in the twen­ti­eth century. 

Cer­tain­ly Jack Levine’s long career as a social real­ist includes Bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives that are to be under­stood in the light of contempo­rary events. Lot’s wife is a par­tic­u­lar favorite of Audrey Flack, whose fem­i­nist agen­da is high­light­ed by the author. The nar­ra­tive of Lot and his fam­i­ly also attract­ed George Segal, who thought it was par­tic­u­lar­ly con­ducive to his plas­ter sculp­tures. He explained his use of Lot’s sto­ry: Most­ly because it was my back­ground.” His 1973 Sac­ri­fice of Isaac,” installed at the Tel Aviv Muse­um, was viewed as a crit­i­cism of Zion­ism which car­ries out wars in the name of ideology. 

The chap­ter enti­tled Bib­li­cal Par­o­dy: Lar­ry Rivers’s His­to­ry of Matzah: The Sto­ry of the Jews as Coun­ter­his­to­ry” dis­cuss­es the artist’s ambiva­lence toward his Judaism and expli­cates the com­plex paint­ing for the read­er. The artist’s reflec­tion on the paint­ing is illu­mi­nat­ing: I decid­ed I was enter­ing my seri­ous peri­od, that I would do some­thing for my people.” 

R. B. Kitaj is known for his writ­ings as well as his art. His por­traits of Abra­ham, Sarah, and Ruth as well as of Eliez­er, Abraham’s ser­vant, are psy­cho­log­i­cal ren­der­ings seek­ing to under­stand the char­ac­ters as por­trayed in the Bib­li­cal narrative. 

The book is filled with illus­tra­tions docu­menting the author’s thesis. 

Saman­tha Baskind, pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty, places the artists in the con­text of the art world of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. She points out that they eschewed mod­ern art trends of non-objec­tive, abstract, sur­re­al­ism, pop-art, and col­or-field and instead chose real­ism as their mode of expres­sion. Baskind seems to think she is redress­ing a wrong — that art crit­ics have not paid enough atten­tion to nor under­stood the impor­tance of the artists she includes in this study nor the impor­tance of the Bib­li­cal imag­ery in their work. The book need not con­vince but is worth­while because of the wealth of infor­ma­tion and insights about the artists and their works. Illus­tra­tions, notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index.

Relat­ed content:

Read Saman­tha Baskind’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Inter­view­ing the Artists I Write About

Find­ing Jack Levine

How I Came to Write Jew­ish Artists and the Bible in Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry America

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