Jewish Art: a Modern History

Jewish Art: a Modern History
Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver
Reaktion Books, 256pp, £19.95

It is hard to be a Jewish artist. The Second Commandment forbids graven images, a prohibition often generalised to exclude much representational art. And western art has not been especially hospitable to artists of a Jewish sensibility. This is not a matter of any active resistance, of course. It has instead something to do with the immense importance of the doctrine of the incarnation in art history. Not only did the drama of Christ's life and death provide topics for artists, the very conception of God being made flesh gave a theological weight to art-making. Art works became a
witness to the truth of Christianity; and in turn, they received something akin to a sacred sanction.

Following his election to the Royal Academy in 1840, Solomon Alexander Hart (1806-81) was introduced thus: "This is Mr Hart whom we have just elected academician. Mr Hart is a Jew, and the Jews crucified our saviour, but he is a very good man for all that, and we shall make something more of him now." This has more than anecdotal weight. The crucifixion is at the centre of the art canon. It was paradoxical, therefore, for a Jew to be elected to membership of the Royal Academy, a custodian of that canon. In western culture the paradigmatic image, indeed the very idea of the "image," is Jesus, the incarnation of God. This is the culture with which the Jewish artist, perforce,
has to engage.

The authors of this historical survey of Jewish art analyse well the many iterations of this engagement. They are not overly troubled by questions of definition. They accept that no definition of Jewish art has universal validity. Rather than engage in "border policing", separating Jewish art works (or artists?) from the rather greater number of non-Jewish ones, they prefer to identify the "Jewish elements" in artistic identity. This way they seek to avoid "reductive classifications or essentialism". They conclude:

Jews are not just members of a faith, not just members of a community, nor are they even primarily identifiable with a single modern nation state. But their Jewish identity, however determined in all its fluidity and variability, often impresses itself on their actions, including creative participation in the modern art world.

This understanding of Jewishness as a matter of Jewish self-understanding (so to speak) might be thought limitingly personal and neglectful of larger cultural and intellectual - including theological - determinants. But it is perhaps as good a delimiting stratagem as any other and it yields a rich, diverse list of artists for Baskind and Silver to write about.

They begin their history in the 18th century and take it through to our own times, with the work of the South African artist William Kentridge. They pay special attention to the engagement of recent Jewish art with the Holocaust; describing, without assessing, the work of Shimon Attie, R B Kitaj, Audrey Flack, Hyman Bloom and others. This is a useful primer, without much intellectual ambition to speak of, but thorough, balanced and sympathetic in approach.

Anthony Julius's latest book is "Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England" (Oxford University Press, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral