Art that’s past- and future-perfect

The works of the artist and the artifacts from his collection displayed at Haifa’s Mane-Katz Museum represent the struggle in the early 20th-century for craftsmen to remain ‘Jewish artists’ and be part of the global scene.

 Illustration from ‘La Sevivon’ 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Mane-Katz Museum)
Illustration from ‘La Sevivon’ 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Mane-Katz Museum)
Let’s start this story at the beginning. The man who later became known to the art world as Mané-Katz was born Mane Leyzerovich Kats in the Ukrainian town of Kremenchuk in 1894. His family was Orthodox, and his father – a synagogue sexton – expected him to attend yeshiva and become a rabbi. Instead, at the age of 19, Mané-Katz went to Paris to study art. There he met and became friends with Pablo Picasso, worked with several important artists of the period, and ultimately became a key figure in the group known as the Ecole de Paris. This predominantly Jewish group of painters consisted of such figures as Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani and Jules Pascin, among others. Mané-Katz built his reputation as an Expressionist, whose paintings became increasingly more vibrant and colorful as his career progressed. And, like Chagall, he became known for his depictions of East European Jewish life, with paintings of hassidic rabbis, beggars, Jewish wedding musicians, yeshiva students, and scenes of life in the shtetl. One of his paintings, At the Wailing Wall, was awarded a gold medal at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair.
Mané-Katz made his first visit to Mandate Palestine in 1928, and thereafter visited every year. He liked to say that his real home was Paris, but his spiritual home was Eretz Yisrael. He spent much of his last years in Israel, especially in Haifa. By that time, Mané-Katz had become a worldrenowned artist, whose paintings had been shown in some of the most important museums and prestigious art galleries throughout the world. In 1958, four years before his death, he decided to donate a large group of his artworks to the city of Haifa, as well as his extensive collection of Jewish ritual objects from Eastern Europe.
The mayor of Haifa gave him a picturesque old dwelling on Mount Carmel to house the artworks and the collection, which today is the Mané- Katz Museum.
The museum, hugging the mountainside along scenic Yefeh Nof Street, boasts not only the largest number of Mané-Katz artworks in the world, but also a spectacular view from its rear outdoor patio. As we sit on that patio with Mané- Katz Museum curator Svetlana Reingold, sipping Turkish coffee and enjoying the late summer breeze, we ask a question about the artist that has been bothering us for some time. Was he, as many insist, a major artist of the 20th century, or was he, as some dare to suggest, merely a “poor man’s Marc Chagall”? Reingold smiles slightly, takes a long drag from her cigarette, and finally replies, “I’ll tell you a story. A reporter came to Mané-Katz and asked him what he thought of Marc Chagall. Mané-Katz said, ‘I think that Chagall is a great artist.’ So then the same reporter went to Chagall and asked him what he thought of Mané- Katz .
And Chagall said, ‘Mané- Katz is a terrible artist!’ So the reporter went back to Mané-Katz to tell him that Chagall said he was a terrible artist. And Mané-Katz said, ‘Never mind. All artists are liars.’ That’s a true story.”
We then ask whether it is at least fair to say that Mané-Katz was essentially a creator of Jewish art.
“The answer is complicated. Everything that deals with Mané-Katz is complicated,” Reingold replies, smiling a bit more broadly this time.
“In his day, the Jewish artists wanted to be not just Jewish artists but artists in a broader, international sense. The story of ‘Jewish art’ in the first half of the 20th century is about how to be a Jewish artist, make art that will retain Jewish elements, and be of international stature at the same time. It was very difficult.
“And the question of Mané- Katz’s identity as an artist is also very difficult. Most of all, he was a French artist, present at the creation of what we now call ‘modern art.’ After that, he was a Jewish artist.”
Mané-Katz himself said in 1961, “I love the beauty of items of Judaica. Perhaps they guide me on my way without being aware of it.”
In a new exhibition called “Sanctity – Art – Aesthetics,” the Mané-Katz Museum is displaying some of the items of Judaica, from Mané-Katz’s private collection, that provided the motifs that guided him and other artists as they attempted to create a modern Jewish art. We also see some of that modern art, by Mané-Katz and his contemporaries, that tried to be both Jewish and internationally modern at the same time.
Reingold explains, “Mané- Katz’s collecting activity is related to the movement in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, when different artists became very interested in collecting traditional Jewish arts. They wanted to [use] these things for their paintings.
But they weren’t interested in just painting these Judaica objects as they appeared. They wanted to create a Jewish modern art, based on traditional Jewish motifs. This was the purpose of their collecting – to make modern art from traditional motifs.
“So they traveled around the Pale of Settlement, searching for motifs in old synagogues, on graves in Jewish cemeteries, as well as pieces of ritual art like Torah coverings, candelabra, spice boxes, and so on. For them, the seminal questions were, ‘What is Jewish art, and how can we make art that is both Jewish and modern?’” It is examples of attempts to create such art that confront us as we enter the exhibition. We see a number of interesting works by artists like Chagall, Issachar Ryback, Joseph Tchaikov, Solomon Yudovin and Eli Lissitsky, all very obviously inspired by decorative motifs from old synagogues and gravestones, ritual objects, as well as by Jewish typography from prayer books and Torah scrolls.
In addition to modernity, some of these artists were striving for something else. Says Reingold, “Many of the important artists of the time tried to search for a new Jewish national art. Their movement lasted roughly for four years, from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 to the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin in 1922. That was when the persecution of Jewish national artists began.”
We move then from these latter-day attempts to use traditional Jewish motifs in modern art to an examination of the traditional motifs themselves, as we enter the areas devoted to displaying Mané-Katz’s collection of Judaica.
“We don’t know exactly when he began to collect these things,” Reingold says. “We know that he came back to Russia from Paris in 1914. He stayed in Russia until 1921 and was a part of the Jewish art scene. We think that it was at this time that he began to collect Jewish art objects. He had very little money at the beginning, but his collecting intensified when he started to make money from his art in the 1930s.”
The exhibition now shifts its focus to magnificent Shabbat candelabra, hanukkiot, kiddush cups, spice boxes, Torah coverings and tefillin cases. Many of the pieces are lavishly ornamented with depictions of crowns, pillars from the Temple, flowers, eagles and lions. Reingold stops to point out the symbolism, which is explained in detail on the placards next to each item.
She explains, “The major difference between traditional Jewish art and modern art based on Jewish motifs is that in Jewish traditional art, each symbol is trying to make some point. Each symbol has a context and a statement about the Jewish people. They intended to make the lives of the Jews in bitter exile more beautiful and more hopeful.Because of this, most of the art is fancy, ornate and impressive. The idea is to provide Jewish hope.”
And maybe also a little bit of pride. The impoverished, powerless Jews of Eastern Europe could not possibly have missed the messages conveyed by beautiful works of Jewish religious art, adorned with crowns, breastplates and other symbols of the Temple, ancient Israel, kingship and national sovereignty.
Reingold agrees, adding, “The traditional art is not just about our past. For the Jews in Poland and Russia, it was also about our future, when we come back to Israel and become a great people once again. And it was also about feeling better in the present, here and now, in the Diaspora.”
She draws attention to several items and, sure enough, we see the emblematic eagles of the Kingdom of Poland and the Hapsburg Empire, as well as references to Jewish communities in non-Jewish lands.
“They used these motifs to feel more at home, to create a feeling of Israel in the Diaspora. [Lions] – a symbol of Jewish power, not someday in Israel, but right now in Poland. Birds – symbol of the Jewish soul. Flowers – a symbol of fertility. All to make the lives of the Jewish people more satisfying, and to distinguish the Jews from the peoples around them.”
Reingold and assistant curator Keren Reshef have made an interesting decision to display the traditional Judaica in rooms painted blue, and the modern art inspired by it in rooms painted red. This, they say, helps not only to underscore the difference between traditional and modern Jewish art, but also the difference in intent. The traditional artists and craftsmen whose works appear in the blue rooms made art that was intended to keep the Jewish people separate from the rest of the world. The modernist artists whose works are displayed in the red rooms attempted to make art that would integrate Jews with the modern world – both as modern citizens of the world, and as Jews.
“Sanctity – Art – Aesthetics” is showing until March 1 at the Mané-Katz Museum,89 Yafe Nof Street, Haifa. For opening hours and other information, visit the museum’s website : or call (04) 911- 9372.