Arts & Culture

“Speaking Jewish”

“If I say ‘Jewish Art’ to people, even to dear friends, Jewish or not, it’s like saying ‘the world is round’ in 1491. Each new painting sails off where there be monsters.” So wrote American Jewish artist R.B. Kitaj in … Read More

By / July 21, 2009

“If I say ‘Jewish Art’ to people, even to dear friends, Jewish or not, it’s like saying ‘the world is round’ in 1491. Each new painting sails off where there be monsters.”

So wrote American Jewish artist R.B. Kitaj in his 1989 book, First Diasporist Manifesto. That kind of stunned incomprehension has mellowed over the years, but it is still a mystery what Jewish art is, or where it comes from. After all, widespread Jewish participation in the visual arts is a relatively recent phenomenon, a fact often ascribed to religious antipathy towards visual representation.

In his recent book, Imagining Jewish Art, theologian and art historian Aaron Rosen contests this assumption of Jewish aniconism, asserting that the second commandment only prohibited the making of images specifically intended for idol worship. But Rosen acknowledges that the Jewish production of visual art has been historically sparse, if not for religious reasons, than because of poverty, oppression and a general lack of opportunity for would-be Jewish artists in Christian Europe.

All that changed in the twentieth century, when figures such as Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz took center stage in the pre-Second World War Paris art scene. Likewise, in post-war New York, Jewish artists such as Philip Guston and Mark Rothko led the New York School of abstract expressionist painters.

But despite the recent prevalence of Jewish artists, the question of what makes art Jewish remains open, and attempts at definition have invariably run into difficulties. Rather than try to provide his own definition of Jewish art, Rosen takes a “non definitional approach,” essentially coming at the problem in reverse. Instead of formulating a set of criteria with which to characterize Jewish art, he explores individual works in order to find out if they have anything to say about Jewish concerns; if, in essence, they “speak Jewish.”

The question remains, however, what it means to “speak Jewish.” Rosen addresses this issue somewhat counter-intuitively, by examining the work of three Jewish artists – Marc Chagall, Philip Guston, and R.B. Kitaj – through the lens of their non-Jewish influences.

Indeed, the reality is that because Jewish visual art didn’t exist in any great measure before the twentieth century, Jewish painters who wished to create Jewish art were forced to turn to non-Jewish works for their visual vocabulary, and in the process turn those elements into Jewish expressions. While the influence of their Jewish upbringing may have had a powerful effect on their painting, they had few specifically Jewish artistic precedents. This may have presented an artistic challenge, but it also provided a unique opportunity.

Chagall, often regarded as the quintessentially Jewish artist, provides the most straightforward subject for Rosen’s thesis. “As a Jew from the Pale, [Chagall] came to European history from outside that history, and for him all periods were parallel to each other, like so many rooms in the Louvre,” writes Chagall scholar Benjamin Harshav in his 2003 introduction to Marc Chagall on Art and Culture. As a consequence of this outsider perspective, Chagall was able to approach his subjects with a degree of uninhibited creativity that would not have otherwise been available.

Rosen focuses on Chagall’s crucifixion paintings, including Dedicated to Christ of 1912, White Crucifixion of1938, and the post-war Resurrection and Liberation. Like earlier works by the Russian Jewish sculptor Mark Antokosly, Chagall’s depictions of Jesus take on a provocatively Jewish flavor. His Jesus is a Jew, and is identified as such by loincloths bearing stars of David and made out of prayer shawls. Whereas in Christian thought the suffering of Christ brought about the salvation of mankind, in Chagall’s Jewish vision, it has no such saving grace. The sufferings of his crucified Jews are without redemptive merit.

Chagall’s crucifixions may not have the redemptive potential of their Christian counterparts, but they are not entirely without hope. The main source for Chagall’s crucifixion paintings, Rosen contends, is the Isenheim Altarpiece of 1512-1516, by German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. Painted for a monastery that treated sufferers of ergotism and other disfiguring diseases, the altarpiece portrays a particularly gruesome image of Christ on the cross, but also a remarkably beatific vision of the resurrection. In Resurrection and Liberation, the two crucifixion paintings done after the Holocaust, Chagall presents a similarly uplifting vision of a post-Holocaust Jewish renaissance, led by art.

Unlike Chagall’s evidently Jewish paintings, Philip Guston proves to be a more difficult case to work with. Guston was one of the first generation abstract expressionists, but he later scandalized the art world when he presented an exhibition in 1970 in which he returned to figurative work, painting ominous, cartoonish figures and objects. Rosen focuses on two of Guston’s later works, Deluge II of 1975, in which he traces references to Paolo Uccello’s The Great Flood (c. 1447), and Green Rug of 1976, in which he finds elements of Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation (c. 1455).

While Rosen does an admirable job illustrating the otherwise hard to detect influences of these earlier works, he does less well showing how Guston’s paintings ‘speak Jewish.’ As with Chagall, Rosen points to Guston’s concern with the Holocaust and its aftermath, but in this case, visual references to concrete Jewish experiences are far less obvious. For the most part, Rosen makes the connection by referring to Guston’s stated wish to “make a Golem,” which he interprets as the desire to create something new and living from the clay of older works.

“Guston’s late paintings are haunted by the breakdown of artistic tradition, by his encounter with the artistic past from the position of its inaccessibility and decay. Yet it is this very ‘mortification’…. which can be made to ‘promise a continuity’,” Rosen writes.

The metaphor of the Golem is useful in explaining Guston’s artistic project. In this case, however, it wasn’t his identity as a Jewish artist that created a problematic relationship with art history, but a general artistic problem of how to create representational art after abstractionism. While Guston uses a Jewish metaphor to address the issue, it is questionable whether Guston’s paintings actually address Jewish concerns. And even though the idea of the Golem can provide a useful template for those struggling to create a viable Jewish culture after the Holocaust, it is a stretch to say that Guston offered anything other than broad inspiration.

Kitaj provides easier material for Rosen’s book, as he himself insisted on his desire to create Jewish paintings, as a subset of his proposed diasporist movement. Rosen develops this idea, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library:  A Talk About Book Collecting.” In the absence of a fixed physical home, or homeland, Kitaj’s paintings create an abstract home out of an imaginary library of images, Rosen writes. “In a diaspora where painting ‘feels like the last days in a transit camp, with your thin mattress in a roll at the foot of the bed’, Kitaj’s library functions, like Bejnamin’s, as a conceptual landscape and refuge.”

As with Guston, Rosen focuses on two paintings, Amerika (Baseball) from 1983-84 and Los Angeles No.1 from 2000-1. While Amerika borrows from Diego Velazquez’s La Tela Real, also titled Philip IV Hunting Wild Boar (c. 1632-37), its references are less relevant than the subject of the painting itself, baseball. A native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Kitaj was a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, and saw a connection between that “tribe,” as they were affectionately known, and his own Jewish “tribe.” Though Baseball may be the American national pastime, in Kitaj’s vision it became a metaphor, after some adaptation, for Jewish experience in the Diaspora. “Remarkably for a baseball painting, in Kitaj’s ‘vast metaphoric field’ there is no home plate and – even more than that – there are no ‘bases’ whatsoever. This tribe of Jewish Indians may practice their sprints and slides, but no player can be declared ‘safe’,” Rosen remarks.

The source material for the second painting is more crucial. After Kitaj’s move to Los Angeles from London following his wife Sandra’s death in 1994, he came to identify her with the Shekhina, or female spirit of God, and painted a series of Los Angeles pictures depicting both of them as angelic beings. These paintings drew heavily on Cezanne’s late Bather paintings, particularly in their state of “unfinish.” “As Picasso said about unfinish, alive and dangerous,” Kitaj wrote.

As Rosen ties together Kitaj’s method of ‘speaking Jewish’ under the thematic rubric of ‘home,’ he also groups Guston under the heading of ‘tradition’ and Chagall under ‘family.’ These categories seem somewhat pasted on, and Rosen’s overarching thesis often seems loosely woven together. But his effort to identify and elucidate the Jewish concerns of these three very different artists is penetrating and his analysis of the works in question is consistently insightful. Though the exactly nature of Jewish art remains slippery, Rosen’s book is a worthy investigation of the ways in which the most evidently Jewish art can borrow from the least Jewish sources, and the ways in which less apparently Jewish art can have unexpected Jewish resonances.