Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2008
Edward van Voolen My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish Art and Culture Munich: Prestel, 2006. 192 pp.; 200 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9783791333625)

Jewish art poses a perennial problem of definition, just like Jewish identity. Inevitably the question arises about whether an artist has to be considered Jewish, and even what that might mean: is it a matter of ethnicity or of religion? Additionally, many early Jewish contributions to visual culture lie entirely outside any identification of an artistic hand; rather, they are defined chiefly through their location and function, usually as decorations within a ritual context of religious practice, be it in a synagogue or home. Yet even in those cases, the makers of the objects need not have been Jewish themselves, which seems to be a distinct possibility in the case of some medieval manuscripts. Indeed these questions seem so intractable, the range of time over two millennia so great, and the media so diverse that any single volume, especially one this brief, hardly seems capable of addressing the subject.

Into the breach comes Edward van Voolen, long-time curator of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, where he is charged with consideration of such topics. These also include issues of representations of Jews, as demonstrated at that museum a year ago in an exhibition of “the Jewish Rembrandt.” The title of Van Voolen’s book—and a detail on its cover—stems from a 1936 painting by Frida Kahlo that foregrounds the importance of descent and family for an artist who is usually not associated with Jewish identity or themes, but who did have Jewish ancestors on her immigrant father’s side. This book is slender but not slight: its images number more examples than its total pages. Emphatically, it emphasizes modern art, the era of Jewish painters in Europe, Israel, and America; but it also takes account of earlier art forms, ranging from ancient synagogue murals and mosaics, to medieval manuscripts, to early modern buildings and decorative objects.

Van Voolen begins with a brief but authoritative introduction to the religion and culture, including holidays and life-cycle celebrations, that have given rise to visual art. He emphasizes the importance of the synagogue but also of the home to set out Jewish identity, and he sketches the importance of ritual objects and prayer books in this practice. The particular proscription of the faith against representation, traditionally associated with the Second Commandment, receives attention here as well, but also its reversal during an increasing engagement of Jewish artists with painting in the post-Enlightenment era. Within a concise sketch of Jewish history, modern institutions, such as museums and memorials, provide new settings for creativity.

History provides the armature for the various sections of the book, though the exposition proceeds in unequal parts. Essentially, the entire pre-modern period occupies one preliminary short chapter, which focuses on works expressly produced for religious purposes. In this section celebrated examples—such as the early synagogue of Dura Europos, the medieval buildings in Prague and Toledo, the Sarajevo Haggadah, or the Amsterdam synagogues (the home of van Voolen’s own museum)—provide the case studies of their periods. Nevertheless, the leaps between monuments and eras are abrupt, and one would appreciate more comparative materials, especially for mosaics and manuscripts.

The next chapter opens with Jewish Emancipation in the Enlightenment (Haskalah), which altered the very nature of the community, providing new civil rights and access to university education but also posing challenges to traditional identity. For the first time Jewish painters emerged, especially in Central and Eastern Europe: Moritz Oppenheim, painter of modern Jewish life; Maurycy Gottlieb, bold if short-lived history painter; Max Liebermann, translator of modern French imagery to Berlin; and the secular Jewish Impressionist, Camille Pissarro. Revolutionary Russians who converged at Vitebsk (Rybeck, plus Chagall and Lissitzky) are complemented by the School of Paris—Modigliani, Soutine, even Man Ray. But van Voolen’s inventory is richer and deeper than these leaders, and it includes some artists who are seldom associated with a Jewish background, notably Man Ray and Kahlo, as well as important if less familiar or celebrated figures, such as Jankel Adler in Poland, Lesser Ury in Berlin, or Reuven Reuben, already active in Palestine.

Trauma of the Holocaust shapes the third chapter, which begins with contemporary imagery produced in the camps (notably by Felix Nussbaum) as well as later memorials, featuring the defining sites completed in both Germany and Israel: Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin (1999) and Moshe Safdie’s Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (2005).

By far the largest chapter concludes the book with examination of the last half century of Jewish art around the modern world, which operates between the defining twin poles of the Holocaust and Israel. Van Voolen resists easy definitions of a “Jewish style.” Reaching back before World War II, these images provide an impressively diverse range of agendas, which also include nostalgic reactions to tradition as well as forms of Jewish mysticism, not to mention political activism and universalism. In the United States, the simultaneous careers of Ben Shahn and the Abstract Expressionists (Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, et al.) defined an era, which was followed by a responding generation of painters and sculptors with such leaders as Morris Louis, Louise Nevelson, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, and Eva Hesse. Self-consciously Jewish figuration was shaped by artists like Larry Rivers and R.B. Kitaj. Even builders—Mendelsohn and Louis Kahn—receive attention. Modern Israelis also find inclusion, as does Anish Kapoor, son of a Jewish mother, or the Russian émigré, Ilya Kabakov. Additional media now include ritual decorative objects, photographs, video, and installations.

As one must expect from a book of only two hundred pages, this volume remains a survey, not a definitive statement on the subject of Jewish identity and visual culture. There is no concluding synthesis or assessment. But the book would make a splendid primer for an introductory course, whether focused on modernist art in general or on the history of Jewish art in particular (although here one might wish for more pre-modern examples or fuller discussion of all works). One certainly could hope that Prestel will issue this handsomely produced volume in a softcover edition for classroom use.

Throughout the text, especially in the introduction, van Voolen’s own rabbinical training as well as his public education mission as a museum curator combine nicely to provide a lucid exposition of complex theology and cultural history that informs the framing conditions for many of these works. Within the narrative are many nuggets of Jewish iconography, ranging from the history of the Mogen David (Star of David), discussions of the imagery of Jerusalem, and favored biblical subjects, such as the Sacrifice of Isaac. Ritual objects and synagogue practices receive learned and necessary elucidation, as well as the vexed question of the influence on Jewish visual tradition of the second commandment forbidding “graven images” (for this issue, see especially Kalman Bland, The Artless Jew, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). If scholarly specialists will most fully appreciate this impressive distillation of existing knowledge into a lucid and effective overview, students and the general public alike are especially encouraged to examine this book for its many insights within an accessible exposition of a rich and complex subject.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania