Art with chicken soup

‘You don’t leave the shtetl to paint the shtetl,’ says the curator of an exhibition of 19th-century Jewish artists, which includes a surprising variety of subjects.

Kaufmann Isidor, ‘Two Views of a Farm.’ (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum)
Kaufmann Isidor, ‘Two Views of a Farm.’
(photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum)
Polish-born Maurycy Gottlieb left over 300 work (Courtesy Israel Museum)Polish-born Maurycy Gottlieb left over 300 work (Courtesy Israel Museum)
These days, it may be a source of pride and joy to have a successful painter or sculptor in the family, but back in the time of the shtetl, nice Jewish boys – or even girls – did not spend their working hours producing works of art. Unless, of course, the aesthetic artifact in question had a practical religious ritual use such as a hanukkia or an etrog box.
So, when one visits the new “Making an Entrance – Jewish Artists in 19th-Century Europe” exhibition, which opened at the Israel Museum on September 10 and is curated by Shlomit Steinberg, it is hard not to be surprised by the subject matter portrayed in the paintings and sculptures. The vast majority of the works do not depict Jewish-related subjects, and there are even paintings with Christian themes and – horror of horrors – a nude.
The artist lineup includes Hungarian-born Isidor Kaufmann, who was mainly active in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century and whose oeuvre includes predominantly Jewish themes. There is late 19th-century classical landscape painter IsaacIlyich Levitan, whose stirring work is entirely devoid of religious identity, and several contributions from Russian-born sculptor Mark Antokolski. Antokolski’s creations are generally highly emotive and exude a sense of psychological complexity, and he moved between Jewish and non- Jewish themes throughout his career.
One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition, and the largest of the lot, is Jesus Before his Judges, which Romantic period Polish-Jewish realist painter Maurycy Gottlieb produced shortly before he died at the age of 23, in 1879. Premature demise notwithstanding, Gottlieb was a highly prolific artist and left over 300 works.
No exhibition of works by Jewish artists of the period in question could be complete without something by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. The German-born Oppenheim, who died in 1882, is often regarded as the first Jewish painter of the modern era. His work was informed by his cultural and religious roots, at a time when many of his German Jewish contemporaries chose to convert.
According to museum director James Snyder, the swath of themes, and the manner in which they are presented in the exhibition, was not the result of a sudden zeitgeist switch in the Jewish world. “It is not as if there had not been Jewish painters in the fine arts. I suppose it is the sort of climate, the broad climate of the 19th century in Europe, that in a funny way let them come out of the closet as practitioners in the fine arts.”
The world was their oyster. “They were not limited in their subject matter, and they practiced in the fine arts as non- Jewish painters practiced at the time.”
It is an area of which Snyder and the Israel Museum have been aware for some time. “If you look at our own holdings, we are very, very strong in Moritz Oppenheim, and we are very, very strong in Isidor Kaufmann. We are probably the single deepest repository of Kaufmann’s work; I think we have something like 30 of his paintings. We have much more of Moritz Oppenheim, but I think we have a dozen paintings of his, and dozens of drawings.”
There are surprises and delightful renditions wherever you care to look in the exhibition. A brace of portraits, of Israel Jacobson and his wife, Mink Samson-Jacobson, make for interesting viewing. They also highlight Snyder’s observation about the “broad climate” that was prevalent among European Jewry from the start of the 19th century. The works were painted by Salomon Pinhas in 1808, shortly after Jacobson, the father of German Reform Judaism, and his wife arrived in Kassel, capital of the Kingdom of Westphalia that had just been created by Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the wake of the French Revolution, Westphalia’s constitution set great store by equality – and was the first German state to grant civil rights to Jews. Mr.
and Mrs. Jacobson’s cosmopolitan and secular ethos is indicated by the fact that Israel is clean-shaven and Mink is portrayed with a generous amount of cleavage showing, which would have been unthinkable in a shtetl milieu. Mink’s coiffure is also of the style that was all the rage at the time.
One of the most eye-catching visages in the show is the 1822 self-portrait by Oppenheim. “That is a wonderful picture,” notes Steinberg. “He was so attractive, and I am sure that helped him become so popular and successful.”
The secular theme is maintained in British painter Rebecca Solomon’s somewhat statuesque 1861 work The Arrest of a Deserter, while the expansive Jesus Before his Judges covers all manner of social and religious stripe. Jesus is depicted as a proud Jew being castigated by the members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body in the Land of Israel – with the well-to-do on one side of the scene, and the less socioeconomically elevated on the other. Gottlieb managed to work his own none-too-prominent likeness into the mix, as well as that of his lover. Having taken a fair bit of flak himself from the rabbis of Krakow for his career choice, Gottlieb no doubt identified with Jesus’s predicament.
The Kaufmann works should offer some respite for anyone going to the exhibition looking for some more familiar Jew-centric figures and scenes.
There is a lovely portrait of the artist’s son, from 1911, complete with tallit and headgear, and other works that portray definitively Jewish themes. The artist evidently struck an enduring chord. “Kaufmann is one of the most popular artists to this day in auctions of Judaica and suchlike,” observes Steinberg. “If you go to galleries around Israel, not the ones that stock cutting-edge art, you’ll find that most of them have a Kaufmann.”
Interestingly, following the first rush to explore blatantly taboo subjects, there was a clear tendency among some Jewish artists to “reclaim” their cultural origins and revert to traditional subject matter. “There were two interesting developments at the time,” Steinberg notes of the young Jews who broke away from the fold. “For starters, you don’t leave the shtetl in order to paint the shtetl. You want to be different [from the Jews].
You want to be like everyone, like the non-Jews. It is the Mendelssohn approach.”
The latter refers to Moses Mendelssohn, leader of the Haskala movement, which pressed for better integration of Jews in secular European society.
“So, as a Jewish artist, you go out into the world and, for 50-60 years, you paint other themes – political things, nudes and even the Bible, but you depict yourself as Christian figures, like Christ or John the Baptist.”
Then, according to Steinberg, history intervened. “The pogroms start and they remind you of your Jewishness, and that the family you left behind is in danger. Then you return to the shtetl and you are overcome by a sort of wave of nostalgia, for the smell of chicken soup and gefilte fish, and you no longer want to eat like the non-Jews.”
Art may be art but it seems that at the end of the day, the bowl of chicken soup is always a constant.
Salomon Pinhas, ‘Portrait of Israel Jacobson,’ 1808 (Courtesy Israel Museum)Salomon Pinhas, ‘Portrait of Israel Jacobson,’ 1808 (Courtesy Israel Museum)
“Making an Entrance – Jewish Artists in 19th-Century Europe” will run until June 15. For more information: (02) 670-8811 and