Beyond aesthetic expression

An exhibition dedicated to the work of German-born artist Jakob Steinhardt reflects his belief that art must convey a moral message.

‘The Meeting,’ 1927, oil on canvas 521  (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The Meeting,’ 1927, oil on canvas 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As one enters the exhibition, one cannot fail to be struck by the large painting visible at the far corner of the small hall – a group of workers are sitting at an outdoor table, their bodies taut, their faces brimming with intelligence.
For a moment, the term “socialist realism” comes to mind. The painting does seem to glorify the working class. But this painting was executed in 1927, before the Soviet Union imposed that style on its artists. It has none of that style’s bombastic, exaggerated heroics. On the contrary, the figures are very human. When you see it from afar, it does seem to reflect a certain realism, but as you draw closer the shapes become less precise, more abstract. The surfaces seem to blend into one another.
This painting, The Meeting, is one of the more striking pieces in an exhibition entitled “Jakob’s Dream: Steinhardt in Prints, Drawings and Paintings,” currently showing in the Prints and Drawings Gallery of the Israel Museum. The work was commissioned by the German-Jewish industrialist Erich Goeritz, who was Steinhardt’s patron and asked the artist to portray the workers’ committee at his factory in Chemnitz. Thus it is also evidence of the social consciousness of at least some of the wealthy German-Jewish capitalists in the early 20th century.
Although Steinhardt was perhaps best known for his prints, in which he displayed a wide versatility, mastering several printmaking techniques, the exhibition is integrative, with oil paintings, watercolors and drawings, alongside the printed works.
Full disclosure: I helped work on this exhibition, first as part of my post-graduate studies in art history at the Hebrew University and later as an Israel Museum volunteer. When I began my work as an intern, Ronit Sorek, associate curator in the department of prints and drawings and curator of the exhibition, introduced Steinhardt to me enthusiastically. She explained that the family of the artist had generously offered to donate a considerable part of his prints, thus completing the museum’s collection, as well as a number of drawings and oil paintings. The museum undertook to establish an Internet site of a selection of Steinhardt’s works in the museum.
When I started working in the department, the museum halls were in the throes of its massive renovation, which was completed this year. We had to make our way around cables and ladders, while the sound of pounding hammers echoed around us. At times we worked surrounded by bookshelves covered with plastic sheeting, while water dripped from the ceiling into washbasins.
Despite these distractions, we continued to register and catalog the items. The bequest significantly enhanced the department’s collection of prints and drawings.
JAKOB STEINHARDT had been a well-known figure in German art in the early 20th century and then in the developing art scene in Palestine and then in the State of Israel. He was born in Zerkow, a town then in eastern Germany (now in Poland), in 1887. By the time he was nine, his artistic talent had been noted, and he was sent to Berlin to further his artistic studies.
The influence of the German expressionist movement is evident in his work. However, for Steinhardt, art was more than just a form of aesthetic expression. In 1912, together with Ludwig Meidner and Richard Janthur, he founded Die Pathetiker, a movement in Berlin dedicated to the idea that art must convey a moral message. This moral perspective was to continue throughout his life.
He was also, very consciously, a Jewish artist. Although he had dealt with Jewish themes previously, he was strongly influenced when he was stationed in Lithuania during his army service in World War I. There he came in contact with the Jews of Eastern Europe. For him, these intensely religious people, often poor and miserable, represented the authentic Jews. Throughout his life, he was to return again and again to the scenes and images he had encountered there. Even some of his prints and drawings executed after he came to the Land of Israel seem to reflect these earlier images.
Steinhardt’s life in Germany came to an end in 1933 when he was interrogated by the Nazis. He was lucky in that an officer there recognized his name and had him released. However, he realized that he had no place in Germany. He was a Zionist. He had previously visited Palestine and he had already completed the documentation necessary to immigrate. Within a week, he and his family had left Germany.
In Palestine he was not only a leading artist but also a teacher, who was to become eventually the director of the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem.
Steinhardt was known for his prints and was a master of woodcuts. Indeed, among the most striking items in the exhibition are four panels, part of a woodcut that he created showing the historical development of the Hebrew alphabet, with the architecture of each period serving as a backdrop for the letters. This series won a prize at the Palestine pavilion of the New York World’s Fair of 1939.
There were other themes he returned to again and again. He portrayed the narrow alleys and tottering structures of the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe and the Jews in the streets and marketplaces and in their homes and synagogues. Later, these same streets and people seemed to be reincarnated as Jerusalem’s Old City or Mea She’arim or the Yemenite Quarter.
He also portrayed the prophets of the Bible, but he seemed especially intrigued by those who seem to have been tormented by moral dilemmas – Job, with his unwarranted suffering, and Jonah, who tried to evade his calling.
Among the most distinctive works were those that he called “grotesques,” imaginary beings, neither human nor animal, that seem to have been the products of his nightmares.
At one point he sketched such a figure while hearing a speech of Hitler on the radio.
Although he created few works that dealt directly with the Holocaust, after the war, when the full extent of its tragedy became clear, these grotesques were perhaps his way of dealing with the horrors he could not otherwise express.

The exhibition continues until March 5.