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Art & artists

Holding on to the thread of history

— December 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Cover of Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America by Samantha Baskind

How did Jewish immigrant artists explore the bible in their work in the early 20th century?

Jewish Artists and The Bible in Twentieth-Century America by Samantha Baskind

In this beautifully written and well-illustrated work, Samantha Baskind focuses on an area previously unexplored, in the art of five American Jewish artists, all children of the ‘new immigration’ of 1880 to 1920. She asks: cut off from your European roots by being children of immigrants and thus without distinct memories of a Jewish homeland as an anchor, how have you managed to avoid breaking the thread of history by growing up as a Jew in America? The answer is surprising.

Jack Levine (1915–2010) was born in Boston’s South End, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. His parents both recognized his innate artistic talent and encouraged his youthful expression, the kitchen becoming the place where his mother cooked as he experimented with paper, crayons and pencils. His evolving skill eventually settled into representational history painting, and today he is known for his acerbic representations and prints of social conscience.

George Segal was born in 1924 in the Bronx to Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, a kosher butcher, was the only one of seven brothers who emigrated to America and thus the only one to survive the Holocaust. Today he is known for his intense sculptures focusing on alienation in modern life.

Audrey Flack was born in New York City in 1931 to parents who fled from their homes on the Austrian-Polish border, each emigrating separately during their childhood. Flack was taught Hebrew by a neighbour and studied Jewish ritual and history at Jewish summer camps. In her 40s she developed what she is principally   known for today, her unremittingly feminist photorealist canvases.

Larry Rivers (1923–2002) was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine who settled in the Bronx. His initial impact was as a jazz saxophonist, since his parents valued music highly, and he studied music theory and composition at the Juilliard School of Music. Later he began to paint, and eventually found the style for which he is known today,his shocking Pop art statements.

R. B. Kitaj   (1932–2007) was born Ronald Brooks in Cleveland to an American–born atheist mother, the daughter of Russian immigrants. He later took the surname of his stepfather, a Holocaust refugee who married Kitaj’s mother when Kitaj was nine years old. Today he is known for his figuration.

All five artists established themselves in the American art world. Yet one area of their collective work has been little understood and indeed mostly ignored, to wit, their biblical art. This is an overlooked, rarely examined and little known area within studies of American art, but one that has now been admirably, succinctly, and satisfyingly revealed by Baskind in the writing of this book.

A homeland for memories was not something that was part of these artists’ experience, so they reached backwards in time to a homeland that was common to them all – the Hebrew Bible. In so doing, each artist used his or her art as a midrash or living commentary by which to navigate the complexity of their contemporary lives. For them, scripture served as a ‘pilgrimage to the past that helped make better sense of the present’.

For example, as a homage to his recently deceased father, Levine took an event from an explicitly Jewish biblical past, King Solomon’s discussion with the architect King Hiram of Tyre about plans for a temple in Jerusalem, and transformed it to comment on his own time in his painting Planning King Solomon’s Temple (1940). Processing the discovery of her daughter’s autism, Flack created a series of images of the weeping Virgin, Macarena of Miracles (1971) and Macarena Esperanza (1971), describing Mary as ‘a woman of sorrow for my sorrows’. Rivers’ aim was to correct the perspective that negated Jews in Christian imagery; for instance, in his King David after MB (2005) he gives the Biblical figure of David a ‘Jewish’ nose and a circumcision.

The book is laid out in five chapters as qualitative interviews, some completed in person and others taken from biographical texts. Baskind also employed ‘a plurality of methodological tools – social history, psychobiography, formal analysis, iconology, post colonial theory, Jewish studies perspectives, and poststructuralism’.

The book not onlysets each artwork in its cultural perspective,but also offers lively insights with each analysis, revealing the intensive processes behind each artist’s moulding of their biblical responses into art. Baskind’s writing flows easily from the page and the narratives are told in an engaging way. Whilst each essay in this book can be read separately, reading them as a whole offers a richer understanding of the perspective she is exploring.

In summary, this book is a meticulous examination of a marginalized aspect of the work of five respected American Jewish artists and it opens the way for a re-examination of 20th-century biblical art and what Baskind has revealed as ‘the catalytic role of the Bible on art from the previous century’. The book succeeds, I believe, in inviting us to rethink and re-examine 20th-century American art.

Jewish Artists and The Bible in Twentieth-Century America  by Samantha Baskind  is published by The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. 260 pp., 43 colour photographs, 78 mono illus. ISBN  978-0-271-05983-9


Darrelyn Gunzburg
University of Bristol and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David
Art historian

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