- American Artists, Jewish Images
Matthew Baigell's American Artists, Jewish Images is an illuminating study of the work of Helène Aylon, Ben-Zion, Leonard Baskin, Wallace Berman, Hyman Bloom, Tobi Kahn, R. B. Kitaj, Jack Levine, Barnett Newman, Archie Rand, Abraham Rattner, Ben Shahn, Max Weber, and Ruth Weisberg. Each of these artists has created paintings, sculpture, performance and installation art on an array of themes. However, Baigell made this selection because these modern artists also "have created major bodies of work with Jewish subject matter." This book, avoiding the question of "Jewish art," focuses on identifying and interpreting iconography—images based on Jewish religion and culture—and conveying a sense of their change and evolution over the last century.
"[A]s a by-product of the great wave of immigration from eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920," according to Baigell, Jewish artists began to explore and record "Jewish experiences, religious practices and cultural habits" (p. 2). Initially and until about 1940, genre scenes of Old World memories and immigrant life were most popular. In time, imagery related to the Holocaust, the Bible, the Talmud, the Kabbalah, and liturgical texts began to appear. In the 1970s Jewish women artists began to employ feminist subject matter.
Baigell's examination of both works with Jewish subject matter and subjects that, for lack of a better descriptor, are "not Jewish," varies by artist. For example, Baigell does not explore the possible convergence of Weber's modernist tendencies (in particular, his cubist style and urban subject matter) with his Jewish immigrant identity in paintings prior to 1918. His focus is on Weber's turn to Jewish subject matter around that date, which he situates within then ongoing cultural debates around ethnic pluralism, a concept that would "permit individuals to maintain their Jewish heritage and at the same time [allow them] to adapt to American life" (p. 12). For Baigell, Weber's many images of Orthodox rabbis "symbolically bridged the distance between the modern American world of change and innovation and the mythically unchanging world of the shtetl. . ." (p. 14). [End Page 210]
While specifically religious practices or customs appear in the work of the older generation of artists who were exposed to them as children yet became adults who were for the most part secular, the process of identifying them or fully analyzing their meanings sometimes calls for speculation on the part of the author. Nonetheless, Baigell's interpretations are exceedingly rich and based on a deep understanding of Jewish texts and practices. His attention also makes visible the kinds of images that have been marginalized by the vicissitudes of taste and the art market. Baigell reads closely such paintings as Weber's Adoration of the Moon (1944), whose subject is the observance of the new moon (Rosh Hodesh); he infers Rothko's knowledge of Jewish burial practices in his analysis of a series of burial scenes from the early 1940s. In readings of two of Bloom's paintings, Baigell surmises that The Synagogue (ca. 1940) represents the start of the evening service of Yom Kippur and argues that The Bride (1941) was intended "to commemorate the beginning of [the Friday evening] . . . Sabbath service" (p. 37).
Baigell adds a specifically Jewish gloss to the famous statement by Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb: "We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject is valid which is tragic and timeless." In his mythical paintings in which he "correlated archaic with contemporary art," Rothko "was giving voice to an old Jewish habit of conflating present with past tragedies . . ." (p. 66) whether these were medieval or modern pogroms, the Holocaust, biblical events, or, especially, the destruction of the First Temple—an idea explored variously by Yosef Hayem Yerushalmi, David Roskies, Amos Funkenstein, and Arthur Herzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, whose writings fill in the cultural, literary, religious, and historical context of Baigell's interpretation. Elsewhere Gershom Scholem's understanding of the mysticism of Rabbi Luria informs Baigell's consideration of Newman's Onement I; Similarly, Sander Gilman's thoughts...