Jewish Art and the Fear of the Image:
The Escape from an Age-Old Inhibition
In addition to scholarship and enthusiasm, Herbert Howarth brings to the study of the long-obscured problem of the relation of the Jewish spirit to pictorial art the perhaps useful personal detachment of a non-Jew.
When interpreted by Gentiles, the commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image. . . .” is usually attributed to the Israelites’ hatred of the idolatry of neighboring nations, and is construed as “make unto thee no graven image for purposes of worship.” But it has been understood by the Jewish people themselves as a prohibition against representation irrespective of its purpose—a kind of general exclusion of delight in art. As a result, in the field of the visual arts Jewish genius suffered a thwarting that was self-imposed, and hence all the more damaging.
In Judaism, no less than in Islam, which imposes a corresponding veto on the image, the strictness of its imposition has varied in various ages. It has depended, to quote Sir Thomas Arnold, “on the influence of the theologians upon the habits and tastes of society at any one particular time.” It has equally depended on the surge and ebb of conservative and liberal opinion among theologians. Thus, for example, Rostovtzeff, describing the trend that eventually led to the murals in the synagogues at Dura-Europos in the third century CE, notes: “Some time in the course of the first century AD a group of rabbis tried to substitute a more liberal interpretation of the passage [in the Decalogue], which would permit the adorning of synagogues with pictures illustrating the sacred books of Judaism.”
But all in all, the essence of the prohibition was observed in most Jewish communities at most times; and where and when individuals freed themselves of it, they lost touch with their people, worked for aliens, and were left with a rootless art of no real importance. Professor Cecil Roth’s delightful Jewish Contributions to Civilization names Jewish artists who accepted commissions from other faiths and worked in the fashions of other people, and their number and achievement are not inconsiderable. Yet, when everything has been said, they remain little known and of little significance either for their own people or for the others. For by and large only artists significant for their own people become so for others.
What is the explanation of the Jewish fear of the image, this fear that was strong enough to inhibit Jewish artists for centuries?
Among the modern rationalizations of the commandment and its power, one or two characteristic examples may be quoted. Adolph Lods in Israel, from its Beginnings to the Middle of the 8th Century (London, 1932), argues that the early Jewish refusal to make images was due to inherent conservatism. Priests and public chose to remain loyal to the habits of a period when sculpture was unknown. At a later stage in Palestinian history, Lods remarks, images became permissible, provided they were not costly ones. The foreign innovation of images in precious metals was resisted, but simple figures in wood and stone were acceptable.
The fundamental argument here turns on conservatism. It may well be that the conservatism that has been so strong a feature of Jewish life for a long period of history was due to exile and dispersion. Conservatism in habits grew out of the need to preserve identity in widely different places. To ding to old ways became a sign of the national longing and a guarantee of its ultimate fulfillment.
Delitzsch, Benzinger,1 and others argued—in the period when climatic and physiological conditions were conceived as the dominant factors in forming national character—that a “defective sense of color” on the part of the Jews accounted for their abstinence from painting and for the commandment against images. This point of view appealed to the great Jewish theorist, Martin Buber. In his Jüdische Künstler, which is a relatively early work, published in Berlin in 1903, he argues, with perhaps too much enthusiasm and German abstraction: “The Jew of antiquity was more of an aural than a visual man and felt more in terms of time than of space. . . . The most vivid descriptions in ancient Jewish writing are acoustic in nature.”
Dr. Buber did not assume that this alleged deficiency of visual sense was innate, but supposed it to have been induced by geographical and social conditions. First, nomad life was hostile to visual images because visual art is set in static things, and because the nomad’s feelings were too bold and his way led too far—“sein Gefühl war zu wild und der Weg zu weit.” Second, even in the more settled life led in ancient Palestine, says Buber, the anti-chromatic effects of the strong Syriac sun opposed itself to the impulses of visual art. Harsh light, doubled by reflection from sand and stone, he suggests, deprives objects of their color and reduces them to drab remote outlines: “. . . the few colors appear in glaring, abrupt isolation. All this is under the power of a sun that makes things seem remote, devours roundness, and permits no harmonious modulation of colors. This sun gives one visions, but not sight.”
Buber was young when he wrote this, and had not yet lived in Palestine. He reasoned from what he thought to be the character of the Palestine landscape. The refutation of his hypothesis lies in modern Palestinian painting with its striking colors—striking, even though a thousand years of poor agricultural methods, bad administration, and goats have stripped the land of the trees and verdure that may have clothed part of it in Biblical days; striking, even though many Palestinian artists think their canvases not yet bold enough to do justice to the land’s profounder colors. So a surrealist painter, Wolf Hildesheimer, pleaded movingly in an article written in 1945, in which he spoke of the unrecorded purples of the mountains and craters between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
And in any case, if the Jewish vision was as decidedly non-figurative as Dr. Buber assumed, why was it necessary to bind it with a stringent rule? You do not need to proscribe that to which your subject is not tempted. It is significant that another theorist and one who, if non-Jewish, was nevertheless fascinated by the Jewish mind, theorized to precisely the opposite conclusion from Dr. Buber’s. In his Origin of Language (1848) Renan states that there are no psychological terms in Hebrew and that consequently the language takes recourse to physical suggestions when mental states must be presented; and he goes on to label the Semitic peoples voyants (seers): “. . . idioms depicting all objects by their sensuous qualities . . . were to be eminently suitable to the violent declamations of the Seers. . . . For the Semites, eloquence is chiefly an animated succession of turns of speech and daring images.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Buber’s argument continues formidable. We find another German Jewish thinker accepting it and reaffirming it. Thus Hans Kohn in his Prophets and Peoples (New York, 1946) writes: “The Jew lives within time. He does not see as clearly as he hears. His senses are less aware of the contours than the inner flowing of the world. . . . Thus to this folk did God become a voice. Again and again sounds the command ‘Hear!’ When Elijah becomes aware of God he hears only a still small voice. Therefore the Jew never made himself an image of his God. It is the word, the logos, which to the Jew is the mediator between the infinite and the individual, and the word carries more of infinity within itself than the sharp form of the frozen image.”
One difficulty in considering the nature of the Jewish interdict against images is the absence of material other than that presented by Scripture itself. Some light may be shed on the problem if, with the help of Sir Thomas Arnold’s standard summary, Painting in Islam (Oxford, 1928), we glance at the analogous ban in Moslem theory and practice.
Among the Arabs the ban led to the blocking of image-painting until the last decades, but also to the development of calligraphic art and the arabesque. The relevant verse in the fifth sura of the Koran (one of the legislating suras) orders believers to avoid images as “an abomination of Satan’s work.” And the traditions of the Prophet add vivid and memorable elaborations. Bukhari tells how the Prophet said that painters are those who will be most severely punished by God on the Day of Judgment. They will be bidden to breathe life into the forms they have fashioned yet they will be unable to do so and it will become apparent that they have vainly presumed to usurp the function of the Creator and “to assimilate themselves to God.” Abu Hurayrah heard Mohammed say: “Who is more wicked than a man who sets to work to imitate the creative activity of God? Let them try to create a grain of wheat or create an ant.” It is also written that angels will not enter a house in which there is a picture or a dog.
During the first generations of Islam, rulers and theologians—for some time one and the same thing—were tolerant. But by the second century of Islam the traditions began to crystallize, and the compilations of laws were final and authoritative by the third century. Then “no further doubt was possible for the faithful as to the illegality of painting and sculpture, and the same condemnation was embodied in the accepted textbooks of Muslim law.” Though, just as liberal interpretations intersperse the history of the Jewish ban, so in the case of Islam a legislator like Nawawi could suggest that only living things were protected by the ordinance against image-making, but not inanimate objects such as, he specified, a camel-saddle, of which the artist could paint a picture without imitating God’s activity as a creator.
Our major concern is with the origin of the attitude. One theory Sir Thomas Arnold considers particularly plausible is that Jewish converts to Islam encouraged the canonization of the Prophet’s remarks against pictorial art. A second possible reason adduced by Arnold is “a reaction against the naturalism and verisimilitude of Hellenic art, which had been manifesting itself in the Nearer East for some time before the rise of Islam.” A third, the hatred of idolatry, common to Islam and Judaism, which saw a danger in images because they put their makers in the sacrilegious position of a partner of God.
If the Jewish and Moslem approaches are examined together, the dislike of idolatry stands out as the principal common feature. The philosophical achievement of Judaism had been the removal of God from the visible to the invisible world; the Jews had not quite spiritualized their God into a complex of moral requirements, but at least they had unified him and represented him in a system of similes and metaphors that were attached to earthly things but were not materially palpable. Islam, a force making for the economic unification of the Arabs, was to conquer by a view of God that was equally abstract.
Abstractness—or sheerness—was the feature of the Semitic mind that most impressed T. E. Lawrence, it will be remembered: “Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach bareness, renunciation, poverty; and the atmosphere of this invention stifled the minds of the desert pitilessly.” “. . . no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath. God was to them not anthropomorphic, not tangible, not moral nor ethical, not concerned with the world or with him, not natural: but the being achromatos, achrematistos, anaphes, thus qualified not by divestiture but by investiture, a comprehending Being, the egg of all activity, with nature and matter just a glass reflecting Him.” “. . . petty incarnate Semites who attained height and depths beyond our reach, though not beyond our sight. They realized our absolute in their unrestrained capacity for good and evil.”
There is, however, another important feature common to the Middle Eastern peoples among whom Judaism and Islam first flourished. Sir Thomas Arnold thinks of it as facilitating the acceptance of, rather than motivating, the ban on images. In his own words: “This theological prohibition found a ready acceptance in minds obsessed by the superstition common in the East, that an image is not something apart from the person represented, but is a kind of double.” So very old—and more universal than Sir Thomas thinks—is this anxious identification of an image with its original that one wonders whether it was not the original reason for the religious prohibition on images, anterior even to the horror of idolatry which, based by its very nature on intangibles, presupposes a philosophical sophistication that could have come only at a relatively late date.
Whether we put the horror of idolatry or the superstitious motive of image-fear first, both together operated to keep the Orthodox Jew and Moslem hostile to figurative art. The idols, portraits, or statues of other faiths seemed to be inextricably linked with the forbidden pleasures enjoyed by the peoples who practiced these faiths. These pleasures were sometimes attractive to the faithful and threatened to draw them away from righteousness; old Palestine knew the magnetism of the hedonist Gadarenes, the Astarte-lovers, the Greeks. Jewish puritanism was a defense-mechanism against infiltration by these heathen cultures. From the one extreme of ascetic obedience the Semitic mind could, it was felt, too easily rebound to the other extreme of carnality; a little sin, a golden mean of pleasure did not exist for it. On this point too, T. E. Lawrence gives evidence from 20-century experience: “Had the circumstances of their [the Arabs’] lives given them opportunity they would have been sheer sensualists. . . . If forced into civilized life they would have succumbed like any savage race to its diseases . . . and like savages, they would have suffered them exaggeratedly for lack of inoculation.”
If the Jews do not altogether resemble the Semites of the Arabian desert in this point, it is because mere opportunity has not been enough to win them over to a life of pleasure. Fearing the extreme of carnality and the sensual vehemence that awaited them there, they had, with the help of the Law, proved themselves capable of resisting opportunity. Only once in a while did a Solomon come along—and afterwards become the subject of infinite apologies to prove that his sensual self-indulgence was unworldly, the mystic’s ravished intuition of God. And once the disruption of the Jewish nation scattered it over the world, the consequent stiffening of Jewish conservative impulses, the need to insist on identity, aided the Law; and so did the social conditions that rendered every Jew an object of suspicion and envy to the Gentile majorities around him, so that no Jew dared relax in pleasure, least of all in visible pleasure, lest he attract violence on himself and all his community.
One more parallel of the many that might be adduced between Judaism and Islam: The prophet Mohammed, we are told, hated the bath, the public bath, where one person might be excited by the presence of another, as a plague spot of evil. His hyperaesthesia operated in the field of every sensation, including the sexual, and he recoiled. There was a comparable rabbinical suspicion of the bath in old Palestine, especially in those periods when the influence of the voluptuous Gentiles was the strongest. Although in some aspects the Jewish attitude to sex was sane—it was free, for example, from the monastic emphasis on mortification of the flesh—the Jewish fear of displayed nakedness was considerable. The ultimate effects of this fear on Jewish painting have been curious, but not illogical.
However, even the Moslems have had intermittences of pictorial art—see the staff of Moses, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, and the raven of Noah as pictured in fresco in the Great Mosque of Cordova in Spain. But the synagogue at Dura-Europos is a more significant exception for Judaism. Jewish historians of the 20th century have again and again pointed to the wall paintings in this synagogue as proof that the Jewish consciousness had liberated itself from the law against the image at least as early as seventeen hundred years ago.
While it is clear from the excavation s at Dura that there were murals in the Jewish chapel, it is by no means certain that their presence represents a great victory over the prohibition against images. Rostovtzeff himself writes: “What happened in the synagogues was exactly what happened in the temples of Dura, except that the character of the pictures in the former naturally accorded with the general character of the Jewish religion.” He means that there was no distinctive new temper or manner visible in the synagogue work; the only difference from earlier and contemporary Gentile art in that region was the fact that the subject matter was taken from the Old Testament. The images were Jewish in name rather than in form and thought.
With all due deference, and subject to correction, I would suggest that the murals at Dura are to be classed with other visual art done by Jews in forms alien to them: with the illuminations of the medieval Darmstadt Haggadah, which used the methods of the Christian illuminated manuscripts; with the Farhi Manuscripts and their Islamic decoration; with the Gothic dome of the Prague synagogue. The Jewish artists who executed this work had become masters of a craft; but in carrying out that craft they renounced their Jewishness. They adopted the sensibility and temperament of the peoples among whom they worked. It was the beginning of assimilation.
“Show me a Jewish painting,” someone may say to you today. You can show him Chagall, expressive of Eastern European Jewry, or a canvas by a modern Palestinian. The picture will reveal a Jewish personality, a Jewish distinctiveness with all that may be odd, reprehensible, beautiful, and sad about it.
But before 1900 you would have found nothing of the sort. True, you can take certain works by Jews or half-Jews of the 19th century and point out signs or reminiscences of Jewish character; you can find paintings of Jews by Rembrandt and pictures of Jewish things by religious painters that sometimes reveal a splendid or profound observation of Jews. But in all these examples the Jewish element will be passive. A Jewish art that can be called active, positive, and of international interest because of national vitality, is the result only of the last half-century.
The 19th century was nevertheless a time of preparation. The emancipation movement that began in Europe with the French Revolution caused the Gentile world to relax some of the measures of exclusion it practiced against Jews. A few decades later Jews began to appear among the leaders of European intellectual movements, and among the celebrities of the arts as well.
The first Jews to arrive in West European art were those who explicitly rejected their Jewishness. Most of them were the children of fathers who had had them baptized, and they lived in Germany, where Jewry was embarking on its most complete, and therefore most conspicuously unsuccessful, experiment in assimilation and self-oblivion. The names are familiar: Felix Mendelssohn in music, Karl Marx in philosophy and economics, and many others. In England at the same date there is Francis Palgrave (originally Cohen), who produced the most popular of all anthologies of English poetry in the Golden Treasury; and we also have the Disraelis, the elder a littérateur and the younger a novelist who later turned politician.
If, as is undoubtedly often the case, the mixing of strains produces valuable effects, then it might be argued that a mixture of Jewish with non-Jewish culture should be exceptionally fertile. But in the arts the achievements of assimilating Jews in the 19th century were untypical, unstable, and less fruitful than those that might have been had Jews been emancipated into an independence of their own instead of into dépaysement. The achievements of assimilated Jews involved excesses: excess of propriety in Palgrave or of patriotism in Disraeli and James Elroy Flecker; excess of religious fervor and damnation-melancholy in Mahler; excess of German rectitude in the great painter Liebermann.
Liebermann is perhaps the foremost instance of the assimilated 19th-century painter. The poet Richard Dehmel could write satirically of a perfect Junker:
Er ist mir doch zu gottvoll zum Hasse:
Ein so urdeutscher Menschheitstyrann,
Dass nur der Vollblutjüde Liebermann
Ihn malen könnte: so schön voll Rasse.
(He is too godly for me to hate
Such an old-German tyrant of humanity
That only a thoroughbred Jew like Lieber-
Could paint him; so beautiful in his blue-
The Germany of the Hohenzollerns came to recognize Liebermann, as his long life proceeded, as her most characteristic contemporary painter. On the recent occasion of his centenary Leo Koenig wrote of him in New Life: “He belonged to that generation of German Jews who believed in emancipation and assimilation while not denying their origin . . . and Liebermann, the pantheist in art as in religion, had no special interest in Jewish cultural problems.”
Liebermann is scarcely less a miracle of assimilation in German painting than is Mendelssohn, who rediscovered the St. Matthew Passim and thus led to the revival of Bach, in German music.
In a similar way in Russia, Professor Roth tells us, Isaac Levitan was praised by the Novoye Vremya, because “this full-blooded Jew knew, as no other man, how to make us realize and love our plain and homely country scenes.” Of course, this is praise, as Professor Roth esteems it. But it involves a loss, too. It points a loss of Jewish in the gain of Russian consciousness. The Jewish soul would have gone undisplayed and less understood than ever if all Jewish painters had followed Liebermann or Levitan.
More widely known today than Liebermann is his contemporary in France, Camille Pissarro. Here again the environment produced almost all, Jewish origin and culture but little. But Pissarro’s letters reveal that at certain moments this most bucolic of all French painters saw his own canvases with bewilderment, with an obscure atavistic apprehension of an occult presence in them. “I who made them,” he writes to his son, Lucien, “often find them horrible. I understand them only at rare moments, when I have forgotten all about them.” He found a “savage” melancholy in his work, and he resented it. To try to fix its character, he said: “Remember that I have the temperament of a peasant.” His passion for nature was the recoil of a soul that had been divorced from it. Pissarro did not think much about Jewish things; like Liebermann, he had made himself a pantheist and rationalist.
One element, however, of the Jewish make-up was rarely lost by the most completely assimilated of the people. That was the Messianic element. The belief that amid conflict and the stalking terror of Og, Gog, and Magog, the Messiah shall come to lead the poor and the oppressed into their proper bliss was the greatest support of the popular imagination during many centuries of persecution. It is fundamental to the Marxist social solution, and helps to explain the attraction of Marxism for many Jews who have rejected their religion. This remark is not made derisively. In its social, as apart from its religious intention, the Messianic myth only dramatizes humanity’s need and hope.2 The hope in which Camille Pissarro lived and brought up his artist sons was likewise revolutionary. His letters are sprinkled with warnings against the “sentimental,” the “Christian,” even the “Greek.” Ideas stamped in such moulds, he says, are the antithesis of those “which belong to you, anarchist and lover of nature, to the Lucien who reserves the great ideal for a better time, when man, having achieved another mode of life, will understand the beautiful differently.” (July 8, 1891.)
A problem of the Jewish artist who ceased to be Jewish was, I have suggested, a tendency to exaggerate certain traits of the Gentile environment. One instance of this is the way in which certain of these assimilated Jewish artists canalized the residual Messianic impulses into caricature. Caricature is by its nature an art of exclusion on the one hand and excess on the other. It eliminates most of those heterogeneous emotions that are associated in the greater forms of art, and focusses intensely on the one or two it retains. It makes its selected statements with piercing exaggeration. It delights and revolts by a logical but grotesque magnification of some one feature that the ordinary eye sees as small amid many compensating or cancelling features.
Since 1900, and especially since 1918, a number of artists of Jewish origin have applied their gifts to caricature with superlative effect. Their Messianic impulses are brought to bear in so far as the aim of caricature is almost always subversive. They begin to destroy, as if still sure that when the world tumbles into ruins mild and irresistible peace will come with the giants.
In an article in COMMENTARY (‘The World of Saul Steinberg,” October 1947), the poet Heinz Politzer, himself one of the ultimate products of the Central European assimilationist experiment, and one who in mourning the end of his era has also profoundly analyzed it, examined the work of one such artist, the cartoonist and draftsman Saul Steinberg. He does not speak of destruction in it, he sees it this way:
“Steinberg renders the isolation of modern man, his boredom, spleen, and inanity. As comedy followed tragedy on the Attic stage, so Steinberg comes after the great documents of modern isolation: Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka have given birth to this ludicrous postlude. By becoming comedy it becomes palatable to the masses.” And he adds, “Like Kafka, Steinberg has no need to insist on his Jewishness as something special. He has identified himself with the temper of the age, just as the progressive elements of our age—those able to smile at their own foibles—have identified themselves with his vision.” It should also be remembered, that Pascin—a half-Jewish artist born of a Sephardic father and a Serb-Italian mother, and educated in Bulgaria—was introduced to the world of art through his caricatures in the famous Simplicissimus, “torchbearer of liberal thought in Germany.”
Lack of inspiration is not the problem of assimilant Jewish painting. Nor lack of vitality. But excessive exaggeration is—that excess which, even when it takes astringent forms, is always liable to degenerate into sentimentalism—that very sentimentalism Pissarro shunned, but which is present even in him in his total surrender to nature; for the nature he looked on as objective reality was seen through longing eyes. Excess can be lovely; excess can be art; but can it be the best of art?
Before turning from assimilationist to independent Jewish painting, I would like to consider the problem of excess in one more set of instances, linked with the ancient fear of the excitement of the bath, the temptations of the nude. The ban on the representation of nakedness even up to this very moment, when the struggle for the image has been practically won, is sustained in many Jewish communities. At the Bezalel School in Jerusalem modeling of the nude is forbidden; nor is it easy to get nude models in some Jewish areas. Yet from a number of modern Jewish painters nudes have received the most sensuous treatment since Rubens.
Pascin is a case in point. “Pascin could paint flesh!” say his biographers. “His nudes are plastic, and they exhale a sensuousness from amid opalescent tints, tones of mother-of-pearl, faded rainbows, the sheen of lilies and the subleties of faded roses.” Yet at the same time there is something spectral about his evocation of the young girls that were his favorite models. They are young in order that they may not be quite real. They are not quite real because the severe self-denial of the artist’s paternal lineage forbids them. All the more does he long for the flesh, all the more does it become appetizing and apocalyptic to him; but all the more it is unmerited, unobtainable; and when he most possesses it, even wallows in it, Pascin is least sure that he has it. The extremes of luxury and deprivation are present together.
Then again, Modigliani, an Italian Jew who died early from a life of debauchery, and of certain of whose surviving canvases Picasso can say in hushed admiration, “I own a genuine Modigliani”—Modigliani is marked by a provocative sensuality. A sensuality at the opposite end of the scale to the ban on the nude. His art is a statement of protest against centuries of discretion, an individual essay on the theme of the sheerness of the first fall into hedonism. Nostalgia for the flesh was his dominant mood. He extracted it from all things. When he came home drunk to his Montparnasse attic one night and made a lot of noise, his landlady got out of bed and went upstairs to stop him. With drunken good humor he laid her across his knees to spank her—but when he lifted her nightdress his hand stopped in mid-air, and he burst out in spontaneous admiration: “Que les fesses sont épatantes!—What marvelous buttocks!” And so he found a new model. To live by the orgiastic cult of flesh and die in its practice—that is one possible destiny for those who lose all of Jewish heritage but its starved passion.
That the Gentile world has in the end relaxed its restrictions on the activities of Jews means that there is now an invitation, and a temptation, to Jews to paint. But it does not explain why Jews themselves broke down their long-standing internal prohibition of the pictorial.
Many of the assimilated mentioned above had in their leap away from Judaism gone from one extreme to another—thus some of the Mendelssohns, or, a century later. Max Jacob in France, became ardent Roman Catholics. But their leap at least took them, from the very start, out of the whole sphere of Jewish Law—whose very function was in part separatist.
The more interesting question, though the answer is not completely different, is how it happened that Jews whose families did not renounce their faith came to participate in image-making. If Martin Buber is not wholly helpful on the origins of the law against images, he is intensely helpful on this point. As the exponent to the Western world of the values of Hasidism, he indicates in his Jüdische Künstler how the “birth of the new Jewishness” brought “the perception of a unity with God.” Pantheistic in trend, Hasidism suggested that the virtues of God, which could be manifested in the perfect saint, could through the latter’s influence and the contagion of his presence spread into all persons and all matter. If all things participated in the divine, it could be piety to show as well as see them. That an image possessed some of the character of the object it imaged now became a reason for encouraging its portrayal, to catch its virtues and contribute towards their diffusion.
If a private note may be interposed: when first thinking about the Jewish ban on the image, I was puzzled to remember the portraits of revered rabbis I had seen in very Orthodox houses; but Dr. Buber’s explanation of the modifications in the Jewish consciousness produced by Hasidism, and the thought that these modifications would operate the “double” superstition in reverse, made it logical. Everything that belongs to a wonder-rabbi is holy. Vilem Haas, who knew a wonder-rabbi in Eastern Poland in the First World War, told me how disciples and visitors waited in front of his table while he ate, and from time to time he tossed morsels to them, and whoever caught these ate with the conviction that a spark of the miracle was passing into him.
In his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Professor Scholem says that the innovating features of Hasidism were “the primitive enthusiasm with which it was expounded and the truly pantheistic exhilaration evoked by the belief that God ‘surrounds everything and pervades everything.’” In this new sense of the good as endowing the world with loveliness lay the new sanction within the stream of Jewish life for the active making of pictorial art.
And perhaps there was also a contributory factor in heretical Sabbatianism, which Professor Scholem believes to have persisted more strongly than either Orthodox or rationalist Jewish historians previously allowed; it may have led to the acceptance of reforms that filled in the emptiness left by the breakdown of Messianic hopes; and, by its embrace of the belief that evil must be traversed on the way towards ultimate good, it may have affected its adherents’ attitude to matter, worldly rule, and sin.
Thus an inner alteration of horizon, working rather less quickly than apostasy but working more potently, succeeded, towards the last quarter of the 19th century, in enabling growing Jewish children to think of becoming Jewish artists.
There are two Jews whom any art lover in the world would immediately cite, if asked to name prototypes of this process. One is Epstein, the other is Chagall. They are the examples, the earliest in time and most outstanding in quality, of how Jewish artists give their best by being explicitly and predominantly Jewish. The power and dynamic of certain of Epstein’s images are conceived, albeit unconsciously, in terms of old Jewish history. Brought up in a wholly “Hebrew” atmosphere, he becomes creative when the memories of childhood, and the collective memories of which they were a continuation, are touched. So it recently happened, for example, that he heard the old Hebrew folksongs of the Yemenite singer Bracha Zefira; and they so stirred these profound reactions that he resolved to model her; and she agreed and has been sitting for him.
Chagall’s painting is a Jewish, or more strictly a Yiddish, epic that has caught and recorded the ghetto epos of Eastern Europe just before its destruction.
The European provinces of Russia: Poland, and those Baltic countries which together with some Russian territory contained the so-called “Lithuanian” Jewry, nourished a third of the world’s Jewish population, the third whose character was uneven with all the richness of ghetto unevenness. The profuse mingling of beauty and poverty, spiritual imprisonment and spiritual soaring, oppressed helplessness and domestic intensity—this is Chagall’s subject matter, which is objectivized in material images and communicated in marvels of color and vital diversity of form. He remembers—in sophisticated Paris he still remembers—how the child’s eye saw his father and family and neighbors in the Russian village. People and houses jig in fantastic disorder. The perversion of the proper harmony of society, implicit in Jewish subjugation, is represented in the distorted objects that dazzle the child’s vision.
Several Jewish artists have begun to work in Chagall’s vein. Even in Palestine today there are one or two of them, like Castel, whose images are formulated in the dizzy Yiddish tradition; just as Palestine, despite its preference for Hebrew, still has one or two great Yiddish poets like Papiernikov. But it is doubtful whether there can now be any long sustaining of this subject and its manner. For the civilization that begot it has been obliterated, and there is hardly any possibility of a re-emergence of the Yiddish community. With its melancholy, its malformations, its incredible touches of beauty, its tenacious achievement, it has perished. Those whom it bred, the painter Chagall and poets like Malkah Locker, will complete their work in its name, but probably the story wall end with them. Meanwhile a new chapter is being written in Palestine.
1 F. Delitzsch, Iris, Farbenstudien und Blumenstücke (Leipzig, 1888) and Immanuel Benzinger, Hebräische Archäologie (Freiburg and Leipzig).
2 Junius Frey, who died on the guillotine with Danton, was a disciple of the pseudo-Messiah, Jacob Frank.