Jew­ish Dimen­sions in Mod­ern Visu­al Cul­ture: Anti­semitism, Assim­i­la­tion, Affirmation

Rose-Car­ol Wash­ton Long, Matthew Baigell and Mil­ly Heyd, eds.
  • Review
By – September 8, 2011

This col­lec­tion of pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished schol­ar­ly essays ana­lyzes the art world of the late 19th and 20th cen­tu­ry regard­ing its Jew­ish dimen­sions. The sub­ti­tle is allit­er­a­tive but arch. The authors con­cern them­selves with reveal­ing the anti-Semit­ic aspects of the art, the artists, and the crit­ics of the peri­od. Since the book is part of the Tauber Insti­tute for the Study of Euro­pean Jew­ry Series, it is focused exclu­sive­ly on the Euro­pean land­scape, and, not sur­pris­ing­ly, con­cerned with the stereo­typ­i­cal depic­tion of Jews by artists (some of whom were sup­port­ed by Jew­ish patrons and deal­ers) and the prej­u­dices of the so-called cul­tur­al elite. Some of the top­ics are inter­est­ing because they deal with famil­iar artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, George Grosz, and Otto Dix or top­ics such as Dadaism or the Jew­ish Muse­um in Prague. (The Dada Man­i­festo was writ­ten by Tris­tan Tzara, a pseu­do­nym for Shmuel Rosen­stock, who along with Man Ray, reject­ed his Jew­ish roots.) What is most dis­turb­ing is the track­ing of the neg­a­tive atti­tude toward mod­ern art as being a by-prod­uct of the xeno­pho­bia devel­op­ing in Europe and its result­ing antifor­eign (read, anti-Semit­ic) attacks. It is well-known that Edgar Degas joined the vir­u­lent­ly anti-Semit­ic anti-Drey­fusards. The Jews were per­ceived as non-pro­duc­ers, liv­ing off the prod­ucts of oth­ers, depict­ed as finan­cial wiz­ards and demons, and even blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I. The dis­cus­sion of the art of the Ecole de Paris, not­ed for the large num­ber of Jew­ish, as well as oth­er for­eign- born artists work­ing in Paris between the wars who were iden­ti­fied neg­a­tive­ly by the French, is well-known in the his­to­ry of that peri­od. The essay by Romy Golan is a well-doc­u­ment­ed reiteration. 

The col­lec­tion is divid­ed into three sec­tions, pre­sum­ably relat­ing to the sub­ti­tle: Crit­i­cal Respons­es to Mod­ernism and Judaism; Cod­ed Rep­re­sen­ta­tions; and Affir­ma­tion. Includ­ed are essays on such dis­parate top­ics as Georges Sorel, Julius Meier-Graefe, or Michael Sgan-Cohen’s Hin­neni and the Yid­dish Group from Lodz in the imme­di­ate post-World War I years. The inter­sec­tion of art and Jew­ish his­to­ry in the essay on the Jew­ish Cen­tral Muse­um in Prague by Dirk Rup­now will be of inter­est to researchers of the Nazi’s dia­bol­i­cal plans for pre­serv­ing Jew­ish cul­ture, espe­cial­ly since it includes new infor­ma­tion on the plan and its after­math. Sim­i­lar­ly, those inter­est­ed in the impact of the Com­mu­nist era on Jew­ish artists, whose embrace of their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty was iron­ic since they knew almost noth­ing about Judaism, will find a lucid analy­sis in the essay by Matthew Baigell on Sovi­et Artists, Jew­ish Images.” Well-known artists, includ­ing Vitaly Komar, Mikhail Grob­man, and Ilya Kabakov were per­mit­ted in lim­it­ed fash­ion to explore folk­lore, the sto­ries of Sholom Ale­ichem being a pri­ma­ry source of sub­ject mat­ter. Post-World War II archi­tects are dis­cussed in terms of their rela­tion­ship to the Holocaust. 

Each essay con­cludes with foot­notes (more than 50 for most of them) attest­ing to the exten­sive research sup­port­ing the top­ics under dis­cus­sion. In select­ing these essays for inclu­sion in Jew­ish Dimen­sions in Mod­ern Visu­al Cul­ture the edi­tors have pro­vid­ed a nuanced exam­i­na­tion of fac­tors in visu­al art of the mod­ern era that have been influ­enced con­scious­ly or not by his­toric atti­tudes toward Jews.

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