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Jewish Art: A Modern History by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 6, Number 2, July 2013
pp. 89-92 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0024

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What is, after all, "Jewish art"? It can't be merely art made by Jews, since for every Jewish artist who has depicted a scene from the Torah there are just as many if not more Jewish artists who have worked with subject matter and in stylistic trends indistinguishable from their non-Jewish brethren. Particularly in the early modern and modern period, talking about a Jewish artist is often as relevant as talking about a Munich artist or an Irish artist: the ethnic, religious, or geographic distinctions are, of course, important for a social history of art, but they vary in terms of whether and when they are determining factors. The great president of the Prussian Academy of Art, Max Liebermann, certainly painted portraits of Jewish members of the Wilhelmine and Weimar German social world he occupied, but these portraits are not visually or iconographically distinct from his depictions of Christian members of this same Berlin world. And yet, clearly, at times, the status of the artist, patron, or society for which a work is done as Jewish makes a difference. How, then, should a scholar discuss the conundrum of Jewish identity and art?

Such is the task that Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver take upon themselves in Jewish Art: A Modern History. On the surface, the book follows the trajectory of prominent Jewish artists and Jewish tropes in art since the French Revolution. Baskind and Silver's contribution at this level should not be underestimated, as we have needed an eminently readable overview of themes and contributions by Jewish artists in the modern period. This satisfying volume comes complete with lavish illustrations of known and not-so-familiar works, most reproduced in color. More analytically, Baskind and Silver also aim to offer a new interpretation of what constitutes Jewish art. These authors argue that the diasporic nature of the Jewish experience has made Jewish artists distinct from their dominant Christian colleagues, and that living with this and other differences has marked these artists explicitly or implicitly in ways that insist upon a separate critical analysis. (10-11) In this sense, Jewish art must be approached like feminist or African-American art as a prominent entity unto itself that at times engages seamlessly with the dominant culture, while at other times radically asserts—by intent or default—its difference. The authors don't downplay in the least the diversity of Jewish experience, instead emphasizing that the variety of experience has led to a wide field of Jewish expression in art. On the contrary, for Baskind and Silver the instability of Jewish biographies as tied to a fluctuating and unstable concept of religious and ethnic identity requires exactly such a broad view of difference as constituted through and in artistic expression.

The book is organized in chapters distinguished chronologically and geographically, with an emphasis on Europe, the United States, and Israel. While modern in focus, the authors have added a particularly useful excursus on pre-modern Jewish artists and Jewish themes in art (including by Christians, such as the prominent example of Rembrandt, one of Silver's areas of expertise). From the French revolution, they cover the "invention" of the Jewish artist in the nineteenth century, the intersection of art and Judaism in the revolutionary and political upheavals of the early twentieth century, Jewish artists in America (again, predominantly twentieth century, dovetailing with Baskind's main research focus), art and the Holocaust, and Jewish artists in Israel. Placing such weight in particular on the Holocaust and Israel is not without its political pitfalls, although the critical perspective employed by the authors strikes the right note on the whole. For this book, they limit themselves to fine arts, that is painting and prints with the occasional sculpture. Certainly, the authors could have added other geographies (such as Canada, Australia, or South America) and other media (above all, architecture and decorative arts for religious uses), but they acknowledge their focus must inevitably have limits. On the whole, they have chosen their artists and subjects well.

Indeed, the breadth of their analysis is impressive, limitations or no. The strength of the book lies in its prosopographical approach that links biographies of Jewish artists to...

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