The Human Figure and Jewish Culture by Eliane StrosbergThe Human Figure and Jewish Culture by Eliane Strosberg

The Human Figure and Jewish Culture

byEliane Strosberg

Paperback | January 4, 2011

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This wide-ranging, intellectually provocative study argues that artists of Jewish descent have been especially devoted to the human figure, and resistant to abstraction, on account of their cultural heritage. Abundantly illustrated in full color.

In the twentieth century, the avant-garde movements promoted abstraction and formal experimentation in the visual arts, often dispensing with the human form altogether. Yet many artists of Jewish descent resisted this trend and continued to depict the human figure with sympathy and understanding. Few of them portrayed overtly Jewish themes, but—as Eliane Strosberg argues in this thought-provoking volume—their persistent devotion to the human figure was itself a reflection of their Jewishness. Though their individual styles were diverse, they all used the human figure as a means of communicating, in secular terms, aspects of their Jewish intellectual heritage, such as their humanistic values, passion for social justice, and opposition to the nihilism that underlay so much of modern culture. For this reason, their work may be said to constitute an ethical, if not an aesthetic, art movement, which Strosberg aptly dubs “Human Expressionism.”

Strosberg begins her highly readable text with an overview of Jewish tradition that illuminates the mindset of many Jewish artists. She also provides a concise history of Jewish art from Genesis to the Enlightenment, in which she demonstrates that figurative art has actually had a place in Judaism for thousands of years, despite the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images. However, Strosberg devotes the greater part of her study to a comparative analysis of those artists who fall under the rubric of Human Expressionism. Though her scope is impressively broad, ranging from Camille Pissarro to George Segal, she pays particular attention to the immigrant painters of the École de Paris, like Soutine and Modigliani; the American social realists, like Ben Shahn and Raphael Soyer; and the masters of the postwar School of London, like Lucian Freud and R. B. Kitaj.

Illustrated with more than one hundred full-color reproductions of works by the artists under discussion, The Human Figure and Jewish Culture is an essential addition to any library of art history or Judaica.
Eliane Strosberg, who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. from the Free University of Brussels, enjoyed a successful career as an international management consultant. She was also a research fellow at Harvard and has worked in the research laboratory of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Strosberg was cofounder of the cultural organization Rencont...
Title:The Human Figure and Jewish CultureFormat:PaperbackDimensions:208 pages, 11 × 9.63 × 0.68 inPublished:January 4, 2011Publisher:Abbeville Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0789210568

ISBN - 13:9780789210562

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Read from the Book

Excerpt from The Human Figure and Jewish Culture:PrefaceBecause the history of art is studied in terms of nation-states, the strength of Jewish art, which is not bound by borders, has been overlooked. The artistic representation of the human figure is already mentioned in the Bible, and Jewish art can be found throughout antiquity in the Middle Ages, although little is known about its creators, I may or may not have been Jewish themselves.In modern times, numerous Jewish artists have sought to reconcile their traditions with the social and artistic utopias presented by society at large. This book focuses on how the Jewish background of these artists has fed into their creation of works centered on the human figure. It does not discuss the aesthetic aspects of their art, which have been dealt with and other studies.The majority of the artists considered here stayed away from, or only participated in, radical art movements such as Cubism or Surrealism. In fact, the term “École de Paris” was invented to describe the multinational community of artists in that city who did not subscribe to the avant-gardes. Their work, which often revealed expressionistic tendencies, has been described as “independent art, without the convenient repetitions of a school, [which] must recreate everything for itself…It is led into making a much closer contact with the past.” Similar comments have been made about the artists of the School of London and the American Social Realists.But what, beyond this independence, did Jewish artists in Paris, London, and New York have in common? They were immigrants who shared more with one another, initially, than they did with their host culture. As their deep-seated loyalties were gradually transferred, Talmudic erudition was transformed into humanistic concerns. A further perspective is provided by the artist Saul Raskin, who wrote in Yiddish in 1911, “It is very difficult to find a common core, and to predict the main road which Jewish artists will take. They are too diverse in their technique…and in the expression of their artistic ago. It seems that to answer our question we do not need to look at ‘how’ but at ‘what themes’ they paint, and, even better, the themes they avoid.” Here it is interesting to note that the artists discussed in this book rarely employed Jewish motifs, if at all.The first part of our study is a summary of the Jewish experience, describing the artists’ mind-set, and the second is an overview of Jewish art before the Enlightenment. The third and fourth parts survey the treatment of the human figure by modern Jewish artists, beginning with Camille Pissarro, who for a long time believed in making only “a disinterested art of sensation” but was forced to confront “a matter of race” in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair (plate 10). Some major artists we will discuss only in passing, in order to devote more attention to several figurative painters who were successful in their own time but werel later pushed aside by modernism: David Bomberg and Mark Gertler in the United Kingdom, Max Liebermann in Germany, Jules Pascin and Moise Kisling in France, and Raphael Soyer in the United States. Recent monographs have shed light on these artists, while many others still await recognition.The artists discussed herein rarely explained the part that the Jewish experience played in their multilayered creativity. However, philosophers, critics, and other cultural figures provide essential clues in their descriptions of the context in which these artists worked, which was mostly anti-Semitic. To properly interpret their writings, we must keep in mind that there are two ways of looking at the history of the Jews. Viewed from an external perspective—that is, as a record of how they fared over time—their history is certainly marked by its share of grief. But from an intrinsic perspective it appears quite different, even joyful at times. This is because the true home of the Jews is the timeless system of values designed to make their exile meaningful, animated by the belief that one has been elected by God (or by one's mother).Education and the social solidarity ensured the survival of the community, and family bonds were strong, with the mother being the matrix of life and the child symbolizing hope. In nearly every biography of a Jewish artist, at least one parent is shown to have supported his or her child's wish to study art, despite difficult circumstances.The Jewish tradition of education also produced a deep sense of responsibility towards fellow artists: Pissarro and Modigliani in Paris or Frank Auerbach and R.B. Kitaj in London behaved as role models, treating their colleagues like members of the family.Surely the passion for social justice shared by many Jewish artists relates directly to the lessons of the Bible, just as the cult of freedom expressed in the Sabbath, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover rituals played a role in their independent artistic choices. But can their distance from modern art movements be linked to their heritage of exile and alienation? Does their passion for books explain why they could never abandon narrative in their art? Does the fact that they had only recently gained access to classical literature relate to their preference for classical painting? Each of these questions deserves a study of its own.As if to capture the unpredictability of their surroundings, many of these artists established a routine of drawing. In a century in which art did away with the human figure altogether, they painted from live models as a way to hold on to humanity. This book explores how Jewish artists used the human figure to express love, hope, grief, alienation, and, above all, an aversion to the nihilism favored by most avant-gardes.Their initial attraction to figurative art may have been a reaction against its prohibition in the shtetl. At the same time, the urge to paint their mothers, children, friends, and social milieu, or to endlessly explore human nature through self-portraits, stems mostly from their Jewish experience and values. Furthermore, family members were cheap models, and portraiture was not under gallery contract. (But then, who would buy such sad and unflattering portraits?)The fascination that Jewish artists displayed for their host city, whether it was Paris, London, or New York, complemented their attachment to the human figure as a means of self-expression: the city was where they built their new identity.Although their frequent conjunction among the Jewish artists of the last century is noteworthy, obviously none of the traits mentioned above were restricted to Jews alone. Nor were the lessons of the Hebrew scriptures exclusive to Jewish artists, whose heroes, like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Giacometti, though not Jewish themselves, had also been raised on the Bible.A first version of the study was published in France in 2008, accompanying the exhibition Human Expressionism at the Musée Tavet-Delacour and Pontoise. The exhibition was curated by Christophe Duvivier, director of the Musées de Pontoise.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Julia Weiner
1. The Jewish Experience
2. The Human Figure Before the Enlightenment
3. Human Expressionism in the Early Twentieth Century
4. The Human Figure after the Holocaust
General Bibliography
Artist Biographies and Bibliographies
Photo Credits
Maps of the Pale of Settlement

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Human Figure and Jewish Culture:"This ambitious book succeeds on several levels…it fills a void in an important area of Jewish cultural studies…through prescient analysis and beautiful reproductions, this volume offers a historical overview of a dazzling array of well- and lesser-known Jewish artists. Highly recommended." — Library Journal"The author's breadth of knowledge, her easy-to-read style, and the magnificent illustrations make this book a treasure to own or give as a gift." — Florida Jewish Journal"A rich and exciting display of Jewish art…a delightful read…Highly recommended for libraries collecting in the areas of Jewish art and identity." — Association of Jewish Libraries NewsletterPraise for the first edition:“This is a valuable and informative work…and one looks forward to a possibly extended second edition.” — The Jewish Chronicle, London“Eliane Strosberg…has produced a fascinating work in which she examines the works of the greatest [Jewish artists] and unearths many neglected figures as well.” — Beaux Arts Magazine, Paris“Eliane Strosberg has created a magisterial synthesis…She invites us on a splendid voyage through Jewish culture, with its constants and its changes in modes of life and thought through the centuries…” — Cahiers de Bernard Lazare, Paris