Présences juives dans l’art du XXe siècle

13. Jewish presences in 20th-century art

The paths of Jewish painting 

El Lissitzky

« Mon père acheta une chèvre pour deux sous »

Illustration pour Had Gadya

Kiev, Ukraine, 1919

El Lissitzky

« Mon père acheta une chèvre pour deux sous »

Illustration pour Had Gadya

Kiev, Ukraine, 1919

In 1919, Issachar Ber Ryback (1897-1935) and Boris Aronson (1898-1980) published “Paths of Jewish Painting,” an article assessing Jewish artistic activity, in the Kultur-Lige’s review Oyfgang. Postulating that every people has its own art reflecting its national essence, they endeavored to define a modern Jewish art and its evolution. Stressing the specific nature of art and the elements constituting pictorial language, they side-lined Jewish artists who belonging to the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) movement and who, seeking to depict life, concentrated solely on reality, to the detriment of the formal heritage of Jewish folk art. They were just as uninterested in the Impressionist movement, due to its French origins and foreignness to specifically Jewish artistic traits. They stressed the need to absorb western experimentations tending towards pure pictorial forms before being able to forge a Jewish modern art worthy of the name. They analysed the work of Robert Falk (1886-1958), Marc Chagall and Nathan Altman (1889-1970), listing the “specifically Jewish” qualities of their work. Of the three, they thought it was Chagall who best combined painterly innovation and national tradition, expressing a truly Jewish vision of the world by drawing on the treasury of popular Jewish creation. Chagall’s example, symptomatic of the awakening of a Jewish art, led Ryback and Aronson to believe that Jewish artists with this new artistic blood in their veins would revitalise an exhausted European art.

“Jewish folk art is the best proof that the Jews have always had an organic sense of painting. But the Jews did not begin creating authentically pictorial forms until sixty years ago. The pictorial energy thus accumulated, unable to express itself in a painterly form, has been reflected only in the written forms of Jewish culture. This is why the analysis, synthesis and investigation in pictorial experimentation are such intimate parts of the modern Jewish artist. The artistic language, in which all formal conceptions are embodied, combines all these elements. Hence this is the form full of imagery of Jewish literary culture. A Jewish artist who aspires to express this national material must therefore immerse himself in the cultural values of his people that have constituted themselves down the generations.

In as much as formal aspirations have not been able to find an embodiment in painting, the forms accumulated have been transposed into the forms of life. The modern Jewish artist therefore has little inclination for non-figurative painting, because in this type of painting one does not feel the emotions of life.

Given the most extreme realizations of western painting which are already its absolute effusion, and which very often reach the limits of pure technical experimentation, it is the Jewish artist, with his freshness and evident, passionate, naive gift of perception, who, by embodying his living, quivering pictorial sense by means of the national material, is destined to find the path of accomplishment of modern painting. 

The exhausted West, which has already used all the tricks of the formal trade, and in its name has sacrificed all the ecstatic emotions of life, now calls on still completely fresh painters, Jewish painters, in their Asian manner intoxicated with form.

The Jewish form is here, it is awakening, it is coming alive again!”

Issachar ber Ryback and Boris Aronson
Oyfgang, Kiev, Kultur-Lige, 1919
Translated from yiddish by Batia Baum

The School of Paris

Marc Chagall,
Les Amoureux en gris
Union soviétique, 1916-1917

Marc Chagall,
Les Amoureux en gris
Union soviétique, 1916-1917

Strictly speaking, the term “School of Paris” does not denote an artistic movement but the historic movement that at the turn of the 19th century propelled artists of all nationalities, most of them Jewish, to Paris. Unable to freely practice their artistic disciplines in their home countries, they shared the same dream, to at last embrace modernity and become free, fully-fledged artists.

They were Russian like Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Michel Kikoïne (1892-1968), Pinchus Krémègne (1890-1981), Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), Chaïm Soutine (1893 or 1894-1943) and Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), Polish like Moïse Kisling (1891-1953), Morice Lipsi (1898-1986) and Louis Marcoussis (1878-1941), Italian like Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Bulgarian like Jules Pascin (1885-1930). Contrary to popular belief, they did not all come from the miserable Jewish towns of Central and Eastern Europe (shtetlekh), but usually from the cities. Most of them settled in Montparnasse, joining the cosmopolitan, bohemian art scene that gravitated around two brasseries, La Rotonde and Le Dôme, in the district’s mythical heyday.

This sudden influx of Jewish artists into a world where Jewish critics and art dealers were already established, led to the idea that there was a Jewish school.

Yet only very rarely are there identifiable Jewish subjects in their works. It is even difficult to identify a common vocabulary or language. They had come to Paris to paint, sculpt and absorb. Many, like Lipchitz, Zadkine, Henri Hayden (1883-1970), Marcoussis, Alice Halicka (1894-1975) and Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) adopted Cubism quite soon after their arrival; others, such as Chana Orloff (1888-1968), used Cubism to achieve greater stylisation and simplification.

Soutine, Kikoïne, Krémègne, Modigliani and Pascin have been cited as examples of a Jewish form of expressionism, of an art combining both past influences (Rembrandt, Courbet, Chardin, Cézanne and Van Gogh) and the melancholy, inner conflict and existential anxiety specific to the Jewish world. In this respect, Chagall occupies a special place, appropriating the pictorial cultures of the period and forging his own painterly universe with an autobiography and iconography both Russian and Jewish. 

The diversity of these personal artistic paths marked the transition towards a new Jewish identity, no longer exclusively religious and constituted by a language, a culture and an experience.

As well as the same need to free themselves from the framework of Jewish life, develop artistically and make a name for themselves in Paris, once the effervescence of the early years had waned all these artists shared the same visceral rejection of systems and formalisms and the will to forge the singular paths that their status as independent creators could at last give them.