Not a Pretty Picture

"Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art" edited by Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd, Rutgers University Press, 301 pages.

"Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art" edited by Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd, Rutgers University Press, 301 pages

The old question about "what is Jewish in Jewish art?" is not being asked so much today, and for good reason: Because there are no iron-clad answers. So writes Matthew Baigell of Rutgers University in "Complex Identities," a book he co-edited by Milly Heyd. Maybe so, but that doesn't keep Baigell and the other contributors to this book from offering hypotheses of their own.

The truth is, question marks have always hung over the phenomenon called "Jewish art." Particularly widespread is the notion that Jews did not create art because of the biblical injunction - the second of the Ten Commandments - "Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, even any manner of likeness."

Elisheva Revel-Nahar tries to erase some of these question marks in her article on the historiography of Jewish art. The turning point, she says, was the revolutionary discovery that figurative Jewish art existed in antiquity. Examples are the frescoes in the 3rd century synagogue in Dura Europus, which came to light in 1932; the recently discovered mosaics in the Tsipori synagogue in the Galilee; and biblical illustrations in medieval Jewish manuscripts, such as the famous Sarajevo Haggadah ("discovered" in 1898).

With such an array of artifacts, we no longer need to ask whether there is such a thing as Jewish art, or bring excuses from the Ten Commandments to show why Jewish art supposedly doesn't exist.

Moreover, Revel-Nahar argues that commentators who interpreted the Second Commandment as a ban on art simply misunderstood the text. There is no prohibition on visual art in Judaism, she says, nor any commandment that limits it to the abstract. Today the question is not whether Jewish art exists, but what defines it.

But this still doesn't solve the problem. The real question is why, after all the breathtaking discoveries, research papers, exhibits and Jewish museums, the Jews continue to be perceived as a people lacking visual art. From what I've been hearing lately, this misconception is equally widespread among Jews and non-Jews - including Israelis.

Defining Jewish art is indeed difficult, as Matthew Baigell points out. There is little continuity in the art produced by Jews over the centuries. Jewish artists lived in different places and different eras. For that reason, the search for the one common denominator, the one essential Jewish trait, depends to a large extent on what the seeker is looking for. In practice, it will be colored by the importance he or she attaches to religious or environmental factors. Although Baigell does find a certain Jewish essence, a kind of messianic aspiration to "repair the world," which he discerns in the work of several American artists, this observation applies to quite a few articles in this book.

One sees this very clearly in the case of Chaim Soutine, one of the most well-known Jewish painters of the 20th century. Soutine, who left Lithuania for France in 1913, became a central figure in the Parisian school, to which mainly immigrants belonged, especially Jewish immigrants. Unlike Marc Chagall, Soutine's subject matter was not Jewish. So how does one go about identifying the Jewishness in his work? Avigdor Posek looks for signs of hidden, repressed Jewishness, employing a psycho-iconographic approach. Soutine did not leave behind a biography, writes Posek, but his paintings tell the intimate story of his life.

Posek bases his study on four paintings that he sees as Chaim Soutine's version of Rembrandt's "Bathing Woman." At the same time, he brings in biographical anecdotes and personal speculation to back up what he believes is clear from the paintings: Soutine's shyness about sex and female nudity, and reluctance to paint female genitalia. Posek even finds signs of an Oedipus complex and a repressed desire to sleep with his mother, heightened by accidentally seeing her naked. Let it be said that Posek offers not a shred of evidence for this theory. Is it any wonder that Soutine was opposed to using biography as a key to art, regarding it as an unhealthy invasion of the artist's privacy?

While it is true that differentiating between the artist and his art is not always possible, especially when the analysis focuses on emotional and experiential aspects, Posek weaves a tapestry that is full of holes. Even if we accept the idea that Soutine had sexual complexes (along with all the other complexes and oddities attributed to him), the trouble with Posek's analysis is that it blames all this on his Jewishness. The mere fact that Soutine grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Eastern Europe (without any other particulars) is used by Posek as sufficient proof that he suffered from sexual anxieties and problematic relations with women. It is hard to believe that people are still writing such things today.

Searching for repressed Judaism is also the subject of Baigell's co-editor, Milly Heyd of Hebrew University. She concentrates on the work of the American Dada artist and Surrealist, Man Ray, who lived and worked in Paris (but far from the Soutine crowd). Unlike Soutine, Man Ray did publish an autobiography, but one which does not tell the whole truth. At any rate, not the truth that Milly Heyd is seeking, in which the artist reveals that he was born Emmanuel Rudnitsky, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, whose father was a tailor and worked in a sweatshop.

According to Heyd, Man Ray also had an Oedipus complex. But besides that, he ran away from being Jewish. In his book, he says nothing about his Jewish origins, and to make matters worse, he changed his name. Heyd goes on to show that this name-change was a rejection of his former identity, citing examples of other American Jewish artists who took new names. If Man Ray changed his name, she concludes, he must have been ashamed of being a Jew.

Heyd is clearly disapproving of this sort of behavior - which is rather surprising, coming from an Israeli researcher. After all, changing one's name used to be such a widespread phenomenon in Israel. People did it in order to shed all vestiges of the Diaspora, and often as not, out of shame, or a desire to assimilate in the new majority culture. Oddly, Heyd gives no thought to the name itself - Man Ray. As opposed to artists like Philip Gaston (formerly Goldstein), Morris Louis (formerly Bernstein) and Larry Rivers (formerly Grossberg), Man Ray's choice of name is not all-American. On the contrary, it comes across immediately as unusual and artsy. In the Oxford Dictionary of Art, "Man Ray" appears under the letter "M," as a unit, rather than a first and last name.

Man Ray invented himself as an artist and chose an invented name (using syllables that appear in his real name). When he arrived in Paris in 1921, he invented fictional stories about his past, and when he published his autobiography (at the age of 73), he began not with his birth but with his "debut" as an artist, at the age of three. If one tries hard, perhaps one could see this as an expression of shame and denial. But the question is what Man Ray was ashamed of. Is being the son of poor immigrants who reached American shores during a period of mass immigration sufficient reason for being ashamed, especially after "making good" and becoming an international star? Or is just the fact of being a Jew sufficient? Perhaps the answer seems so obvious to Heyd that she doesn't dwell on it.

The bulk of Heyd's article is an analysis of works by Man Ray that do allude to his origins and Jewish past, mainly via images from the garment trade: a sewing machine hidden in a blanket-like bundle ("The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse," 1920), an iron studded with nails ("Gift," 1921) and a series of collages, assemblages and paintings featuring needles, thread, shirts and hangers. Many are humorous, which Heyd describes as one of the artist's defense mechanisms. The analysis itself is interesting, but the psychology is laid on with heavy hand and just isn't convincing. Not to mention the fact that Heyd ignores the frequent use of "hide-and-seek," riddles and identity switches in Dada and Surrealism.

I found Haya Friedberg's article on the Israeli artist Michal Ne'eman particularly interesting. Preoccupation with Jewish symbols among native Israeli artists, especially those associated with avantgarde and conceptual art, is unusual, and stands out all the more in view of the many critical interpretations of Ne'eman's work. The attempt of Israeli art historiography to differentiate between "Jewish" and "Israeli" art is shown to be impossible.

In the 1970s, Jewish motifs in Ne'eman's work took the form of provocative verbal images ("Yahweh Colors," 1976), highlighting problems of gender in Jewish religious law, or criticism of Jewish heritage in the light of Israel's political reality ("Kid in its Mother's Milk - A Country that Devours its Inhabitants," 1974). Jewish motifs crop up again in the 1990s, especially the seven-branched candelabra, which appears in Ne'eman's "Trees of Light" series. Friedberg's article prompted me to look again at the early works of this artist, in search of elements that convey her Jewish-Israeli identity.

In their introduction, the editors write that the study of Jewish art has begun to move in new directions, with researchers now probing subjects like gender, minority culture and identity in the broader sense. In practice, I found very little of this in "Complex Identities." Only the first article, by Norman Kleeblatt, the head curator of the Jewish Museum, touches on the art of minority groups in a majority culture. Kleeblatt is also the only one who compares between 19th century European Jewish artists such as Maurycy Gottlieb and Alfred Wolmark, and black American artists of the time like Robert Duncanson and Edmonia Lewis.

If there is any mention of feminism, it is in Ganit Ankori's fascinating "The Jewish Venus," in which Ankori analyses the work of three contemporary Jewish artists - Yocheved Weinfeld (Israel), Hanna Wilke (United States) and Sylvia Gruner (Mexico) - and their response to the figure of Venus in art history.

A number of articles deal with historical and iconographic issues, such as Ziva Amishai-Meizlish's study on the portrayal of Jesus as a Jew in the work of 19th century Jewish artists, and how the Christian and Jewish public reacted to this. Most of the articles are biographical, discussing a single artist and his or her Jewish identity. Some of them are familiar to us as Jewish artists: Chaim Soutine, Ben Shahn and Kitaj. The fact that Man Ray, Morris Louis, Richard Serra and Chantal Ackerman are Jewish is less well-known.

Many different approaches are represented in "Complex Identities," but there is still a great deal of similarity in the perception of "Jewish consciousness" in modern art. The Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance are a central theme in many of the articles - even in the case of artists who predated the Holocaust. Soutine, for example, is described by Donald Kuspit as a prophesier of the Holocaust.

In writing about artists of the second half of the 20th century, the Jewish identity of all of them (apart from Michal Ne'eman) is directly related to their response to the Holocaust. Add to that the sufferings of Jesus the Jew, the hardships of emigration, illnesses of the body and soul, and the frequent references to Yom Kippur (of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar), and what emerges is a very grim picture of Jewish identity as continuous suffering.

In her article about Richard Serra, Harriet Sani observes that even though the Jews are often members of the cultural and economic elite, from a historical standpoint, and particularly in the 20th century, they constitute a paradigm of victimhood.

In this book, gone is the Jewish intellectual, the Jewish mystic, the dancing, singing Jew, the proud nationalist Jew. Even the revolutionary Jew is just a faded echo from the 1930s. In this book, the Jew is the victim. The shtetl of Eastern Europe is a miserable place; emigration is humiliating; Jewishness as a whole is a kind of disease or scar, that must be denied and hidden - or conversely, borne with pride.

For many secular Jews in the Diaspora - in the United States in particular, but also to an increasing extent in Israel - the memory of the Holocaust has become the heart of Jewish consciousness. This is what it means "to be a Jew." "Complex Identities" clearly articulates this point of view.

Dalia Manor is an art curator.