- Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj
The question "what is Jewish art?" has preoccupied scholars over the decades, although such discussions have recently waned even if there is still a lack of consensus (including no consensus on whether a consensus is necessary). As early as the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901, Martin Buber mounted a special exhibition of Jewish art, which explicitly aimed to identify and define Jewish elements in visual art. Critics argue whether Jewish art should be limited exclusively to any art made by a Jew, independent of content, or else whether both the artist and the artwork must be identifiably Jewish, expressly engaging the Jewish experience, religious or worldly. In other words, a nineteenth-century portrait of a Gentile sitter by German artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim would be considered a "Jewish" work of art, just as much as objects with obvious Jewish content, such as a Holocaust memorial by American sculptor Louise Nevelson, a landscape scene of early twentieth-century Palestine by Israeli painter Reuven Rubin, or an eleventh-century German Chanukiah. This issue is obviously most relevant for painting and sculpture from the modern period, namely after the Haskalah, whereas ancient and medieval artwork, or even Jewish ceremonial objects, are easily accepted as Jewish art.
Intrigued by what Jewish art may or may not be, well outlined in an introduction that thoughtfully elucidates his methods, Aaron Rosen takes a different tack to this question. Rosen builds on Margaret Olin's rejection of the notion that Jewish art must be defined, and her argument that instead art can "speak 'Jewish'" (p. 1) at various times, depending on how it is read and who views it. Accordingly, in his slim volume, Rosen adopts a "non-definitional approach" (p. 5) to Jewish art, manifested by fleshing out the non-Jewish artistic influences on the work of the three artists noted in his title: Marc Chagall, Philip Guston, and R. B. Kitaj. That is to say, rather than offering an overarching theory of Jewish art comprised of Jewish characteristics—style, subject, function, or authorship, for example—Rosen looks at works individually, discerning Jewish qualities.
Although a trained theologian, Rosen shows sensitivity to visual form, not treating art as illustrations of a moment or cultural experience, as non-art historians often do. In his chapter on Marc Chagall, Rosen considers several of the [End Page 177] artist's biblical works, but especially his crucifixions, and in reference to artistic precedents, notably German painter Matthias Gruenwald's Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-15). Using the model of "family," Rosen argues that Chagall's art creates a lineage as well as a dialogue with the past and offers a way to understand how a Jewish artist connects with a decidedly Christian history of art.
The second chapter explores Philip Guston's late work, when he returned to figuration after decades of painting as an Abstract Expressionist. Rosen concentrates on two images, and ones that on the surface would not appear to be "Jewish" —Deluge II (1975) and Green Rug (1976)—examining them in conjunction, respectively, with two fifteenth-century paintings that are decidedly not Jewish: Paolo Uccello's The Great Flood (c. 1447) and Piero della Francesca's The Flagellation (c. 1455). Playing on Guston's comment that he hoped "to make a Golem" (p. 51), Rosen understands the artist as wanting to mold the clay of older art, so to speak, into something newer and of his own. Rosen's comparison of the older and newer works is a bit of a stretch, although I do admire his tenacity as he fleshes out various elements of the imagery. Certainly he proves that there are some structural similarities between the paintings, and at the same time throughout the chapter makes interesting observations about Guston's work and its relationship to Jewish issues and artistic tradition.
R. B. Kitaj's art comprises Rosen's final case study, which again describes a few carefully selected images, this time by a painter who openly...