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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jewish Art

Probably all of us remember from elementary school science classes how much fun it was to play with a magnet and some iron filings. Whether you made them jump from the table to the magnet or played with them on a piece of cardboard with the magnet below, it was fun to make them "come alive," stand up, and seem to "dance around" as if by magic.

The Fiddler, 1912, Marc Chagall, as in
Fiddler on the Roof.
Artists in Europe during the first forty years of the 20th century were very much like the iron filings in our fondly remembered science labs. They were strewn across the multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-national map of Europe from Iberia to Hibernia to Siberia. And given the political unrest before, during, and after World War I, they were all dancing around uncomfortably like the proverbial "cat on a hot tin roof." Europe was a live, vibrant, exciting place for an artist to create, but also socially hyperactive, unsettling, often uncomfortable, and even dangerous place to stir up the kind of artistic unrest that marked this era. Imagine then, if you will, the end of a bar magnet placed beneath the map of Europe, in the middle of France, specifically beneath the city of Paris. The artists of Europe were attracted to this overpopulated, wide spot on the Seine very much like there was a magic magnet hidden beneath its streets among its famous sewers.

The Visit, 1919, Max Weber, not born
but raised in the USA.
 Portrait of Chaim Soutine, 1916,
Amedeo Modigliani 

The names include notables such as Marc Chagall, Max Weber, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, and Amedeo Modigliani. Jewish artists led the exodus from all over Europe to Paris, then in many cases fled to New York when Nazism invaded their French refuge too.  Their Jewishness is evident in their work, though to varying degrees. Chagall imprints it into nearly everything he does. Modigliani, perhaps due to his Italian birth and upbringing, displays it hardly at all. He's the only one of the above group not born in Eastern Europe. Yet, it is there, in the faces of his highly simplified portraits, brooding, restless, expressive, not just of a way of life but of a particular manner of thinking.

The Village, 1923,
Chaim Soutine

Their works are not cold, collectible, art objects worth millions, but have intimate meaning, often ringing up memories of years lived in Europe during their owners' childhood, or what it was like to be an immigrant from Europe arriving and living in New York almost 100 years ago.  Their work is not just the usual "museum" art. They are more than beautiful works of art, more than national, ethnic, or religious treasures. Many are beloved family heirlooms, seldom shared with the rest of us.
One Portrait of One Woman, 1920, Jacques Lipchitz,
though primarily a sculptor, the Jewish "flavor" in his
work is most prominant in his painting.

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