The Jewish Artists Who Transformed Paris

Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine were just a few of the Jewish artists to find liberation in the French capital. Two new exhibitions in Paris celebrate their contribution to the École de Paris

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"Philomena" (1907), by Sonia Delaunay.
"Philomena" (1907), by Sonia Delaunay.Credit: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Pra
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

“We were a band of children and scholars from the ‘heder,’ exhausted from long years of analyzing talmudic texts. Having only just taken up pencil and brush, we immediately started dissecting not only the world around us but ourselves. Who were we? What was our place among the nations? What was our culture? And what should our art be?” declared avant-garde artist El Lissitzky in 1923, writing in the newspaper he started during his studies in Berlin.

There’s a reason why these lines appear in the catalog of the new exhibition “Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine ... Paris as a School, 1905-1940,” one of two exhibitions that have opened recently at Paris’ Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History). Both deal from different angles with the so-called École de Paris, or School of Paris (the second is discussed below).

The critic Pierre Jaccard wrote: 'Not only do Jews lack a sense of color, but also a sense of form. The Jewish race has always lacked talent for the plastic arts'

This was a nonhomogeneous school in which styles, influences and forms intermingled, and it dominated the Paris art scene from the early 20th century until the onset of World War II.

“Paris was the only place where it was possible to melt different streams … to mix a modern cocktail of Viennese psychology, African sculpture, American detective stories, neo-Catholicism, German technique, Italian nihilism. Paris was the ‘Internationale’ of culture,” wrote American critic Harold Rosenberg in 1942, in the monthly Partisan Review.

The artists of Paris came from all over Europe, the United States, Asia and Africa. They occupied the cheap studios in the La Ruche (“the Beehive”) building or on Cité Falguière, in the streets near the Boulevard Raspail and the bustling cafés of Montparnasse.

The poster of the new exhibition 'Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940' at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme. ("Portrait de Dédie" (1918), by Amedeo Modigliani.)Credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.
Paris’ Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History).Credit: Maor X

This was a cosmopolitan ferment unique in the history of art. Among those streaming to Paris, many were Jews from towns in Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire. Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva wrote in the book “Strangers to Ourselves” that for intellectuals and artists, the exit to freedom was “an eruption of repression, which was expressed in crossing a border.”

“‘Paris as a School,’” says curator Pascale Samuel in a phone interview, referring to the exhibit title, “is the way in which the artists from Eastern Europe, who aspired to social, political and religious emancipation, saw the city – those for whom the path to an artistic career had been blocked because they were Jewish, because of the ‘numerus clausus’ or because of a ban against living in the big cities. In Paris, they sought freedom to create, modernity and an exposure to new artists. Their arrival in the city was an exit from the ghetto to the varied communities of Montparnasse.”

How does this exhibition differ from many past exhibitions about the School of Paris? Right now, there’s also a small exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art called “Visiting Master: Amedeo Modigliani, Among Friends.”

“The ‘Paris as a School’ exhibition focuses only on Jews who were an integral part of the Paris school, and mainly on those born between 1880 and 1885, the generation that arrived at the beginning of the century, before 1915, and constituted the ‘first school.’ The war that erupted in 1914 changed their lives and helped their integration – mainly artists such as [Ossip] Zadkine, [Moïse] Kisling, [Louis] Marcoussis, who joined the army as part of [a Polish company in] the Foreign Legion and at the end of the war received French citizenship.”

Pascale Samuel, from the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris.Credit: DR

Yiddish in the corridors

About 200 artists, most of them foreigners, occupied La Ruche at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a legendary building in the Passage de Dantzig, built in 1902 by Gustave Eiffel, with 140 studios. “Yiddish reigned in the corridors and between the floors,” Samuel recounts. “In 1911, Marc Chagall arrived in Paris and settled there together with sculptor Zadkine and artists Michel Kikoine and Chaïm Soutine. It is said that Soutine, the native of a small village in Belarus, knew only Yiddish and it was in La Ruche that he learned a few new words in Russian.”

Chagall was born to a Hasidic family in a town near Vitebsk in the Russian Empire (today Belarus). However, because he was Jewish, he was not accepted to the Imperial Academy in Saint Petersburg but only to the drawing school of the Imperial School for the Preservation of the Arts. In Montparnasse, he became friends with writer Blaise Cendrars and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and spent his days studying in the galleries of the Louvre in front of works by Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet.

When he returned to Russia in 1914, World War I broke out, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution. He was forced to remain in Vitebsk, where he started an art school with artist Kazimir Malevich, one of the leaders of the Russian avant-garde. Only in 1922 did Chagall return to Paris, where he became a great success.

Most La Ruche artists were not preoccupied with Jewish folklore, but the artists Yosif Chaikov, Marek Szwarc and Henri Epstein – all Eastern Europeans who had moved to Paris – founded a journal with the Hebrew name “Mahmadim,” showcasing “the Jewish style in the plastic arts.”

« Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine... Paris pour école, 1905-1940 »

Are the Jewish motifs reflected in the “Mahmadim” journal also present in the School of Paris artists?

“The shtetl and the Bible are present across Chagall’s entire oeuvre. The same is true of [Emmanuel] Mané-Katz. But some who joined La Ruche, such as Pinchus Kremegne, Kikoine, Soutine and others, developed different approaches, influenced by contemporary currents such as Cubism and Fauvism, which dominated both the Salon d’Automne and Société des Artistes Indépendants. These Jewish artists came to Paris to assimilate into the international community of artists. The School of Paris was nonhomogeneous, everyone followed their own unique path and contributed their own touch. Soutine, for example, is considered the head of the Expressionist school among his friends.”

Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew from Livorno, came to Montmartre in 1906, where he worked alongside Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Kees van Dongen in the Bateau-Lavoir workshops. He joined a group that abandoned “the hill” in favor of Montparnasse on the left bank of the Seine, where renting studios was cheaper and art met everyday life in bustling establishments like Le Dôme Café, Café de la Rotonde and Le Select.

At the beginning of his career in Paris, Modigliani practiced sculpture. When he settled in Cité Falguière, he met with the “father of modern sculpture,” the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, from whom he learned the contours of abstract sculpture. Tuberculosis and alcohol forced Modigliani to give up the demanding sculptural work, so he turned to painting, focusing on portraits of his sculptor friends Jacques Lipchitz and Chana Orloff, and painter Kisling.

Montparnasse was important not only for its cafés – there were also vibrant workshops like Kisling’s, where the poet Max Jacob, writer Jean Cocteau and the painters André Derain and Gris met. In the 1920s, it was the Bulgarian-Jewish painter Jules Pascin who hosted poets, writers and artists – including Ernest Hemingway, who considered Pascin the “Prince of Montparnasse.” But despite tasting artistic success, the brilliant Pascin suffered from depression and alcoholism, and took his own life in 1930.

"Self-portrait" (1929) by Georges Kars.Credit: Collection Sandrine Pissarro ©

Picasso does Cubism

Before the arrival of the Jewish wave, the French painter Georges Braque and Picasso had invented Cubism – a revolutionary style for its time that influenced disciplines such as architecture and music. The Cubists rose to prominence with the support of the German-Jewish art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The sculptor Lipshitz was also influenced by Cubism, while the Expressionist Soutine impacted a range of Futurist, Cubist and Abstract artists. In response to the monochromaticity of Cubism, in 1912 the Ukraine-born Jewish artist Sonia Delaunay exhibited paintings emphasizing bright colors and light.

But the influx of Jewish artists into Paris, who were a kind of “enclave of the other within the other,” according to Kristeva, also provoked waves of antisemitism typical of the nationalist movements of the 1920s. The art world wasn’t spared. For example, in the July 1925 edition of Mercure de France, the critic Fritz R. Vanderpyl asked, “Is there such a thing as Jewish painting?” He called on his readers to visit all the halls of the Louvre and to witness that, “except for one painting by Pissarro – the son of a Portuguese Jew – there is no such thing as Jewish painting at all.”

The critic Pierre Jaccard wrote in the same edition: “Not only do Jews lack a sense of color, but also a sense of form. The Jewish race has always lacked talent for the plastic arts. They are the only race in the world that has left no trace of plastic artistic activity.”

"Young English Girl" (1934), by Chaïm Soutine.Credit: Musée de l’Orangerie © RMN-Grand Palais (musée de l'Orangerie) / Hervé Lewandowski

In 1924, the General Assembly of the Salon des Indépendants (the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants) decreed that “in the 1925 exhibition, the French artists will be separated from the foreign artists, and the latter will also be divided according to nationality and race.”

Claims of a lack of talent that is “typical of the Jewish race” failed to hide the envy of certain French artists, given the growing success of Jewish artists such as Soutine, Pascin and Lipshitz.

In response to the increasing antisemitism, art critic André Warnod came out in defense of the foreign artists who had been barred from the Salon des Indépendants in 1925 and wrote in an article for the journal Comoedia: “How can we consider as undesirable an artist for whom Paris is a promised land, the blessed land of artists and sculptors?”

And so, the “School of Paris” was born, in direct response to the various attacks, referring to all those foreign artists who flocked from all over the world to Paris and saw it as their school.

"L'Atelier" (1910), by Marc Chagall.Credit: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Centre Pompidou, MNAM, Dist. RMN/Grand-Palais (musée Marc Chagall) / Gérard Blot © Adagp, Paris 2021

Remembering the Montparnasse shtetl

The second exhibition at the Paris museum, “Hersh Fenster and the Lost Shtetl of Montparnasse,” is a kind of memorial to 84 Jewish artists, also members of the School of Paris, who perished in the Holocaust in France. Only a few of their works have survived.

Hersh Fenster, a Galician-born Yiddish journalist who came to Paris in 1925, worked as the secretary of the writer Sholem Asch and wrote in Yiddish magazines about the development of contemporary Jewish culture. In the late ’30s, when tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who had fled the Nazi menace arrived in France, he opened Foyer amical on Rue des Rosiers (in the heart of the Jewish Quarter), which served as a meeting place for refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, including many artists.

The humble spot operated a canteen, and a small hall was used for lectures, concerts and celebrations. At the outbreak of World War II, Fenster was arrested by the Vichy administration, sent to labor camps for two years but managed to escape and flee to Switzerland.

When he returned to Paris after the war, he discovered that an entire community had disappeared: the community of Jewish artists of Montparnasse, the people of the legendary cafés, the people of La Ruche and Cité Falguière. Montparnasse’s artistic shtetl had been erased.

"La Ruche" (1916), by Pinchus Kremegne.Credit: Collection Sandrine Pissarro ©

In the book “Undzere farpainikte Kinstler” (“Our Martyred Artists”) that Fenster self-published in Yiddish in 1951, he recalled the vanished community. For the introduction to the book, Chagall – who found refuge in the United States during the war – added an impressive poem.

After careful research, Fenster tracked down the names and works of 84 Jewish artists who perished: Not only those like Soutine and Otto Freundlich, who gained recognition, but also many whose artistry was cut short and only a small part of it is still held in private collections or select museums around the world.

In honor of this exhibition, the book by Fenster, who died in 1964, was translated from Yiddish into French. The author’s son, Ariel, who continues his father’s research, made his private archive available to the museum.

Asked if there were important artists among the 84, Samuel notes that there were important but not particularly well-known artists among them, “such as Jacob Macznik and David Brainin. Some were recognized in their countries of origin after the war. For instance, the Czech Georges Kars, or the Hungarian István Farkas. What’s so special about Fenster’s careful research is the presence of oral and written testimony about other artists they knew.”

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