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Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj, by Aaron Rosen.  London: Legenda, 2009.  128 pp.  $89.50.


The question “what is Jewish art?” has preoccupied scholars over the decades, although such discussions have recently waned even if there is still a lack of consensus (including no consensus on whether a consensus is necessary). As early as the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901, Martin Buber mounted a special exhibition of Jewish art, which explicitly aimed to identify and define Jewish elements in visual art. Critics argue whether Jewish art should be limited exclusively to any art made by a Jew, independent of content, or else whether both the artist and the artwork must be identifiably Jewish, expressly engaging the Jewish experience, religious or worldly. In other words, a nineteenth-century portrait of a Gentile sitter by German artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim would be considered a “Jewish” work of art, just as much as objects with obvious Jewish content, such as a Holocaust memorial by American sculptor Louise Nevelson, a landscape scene of early twentieth-century Palestine by Israeli painter Reuven Rubin, or an eleventh-century German Chanukiah. This issue is obviously most relevant for painting and sculpture from the modern period, namely after the Haskalah, whereas ancient and medieval artwork, or even Jewish ceremonial objects, are easily accepted as Jewish art.

Intrigued by what Jewish art may or may not be, well outlined in an introduction that thoughtfully elucidates his methods, Aaron Rosen takes a different tack to this question. Rosen builds on Margaret Olin’s rejection of the notion that Jewish art must be defined, and her argument that instead art can “speak ‘Jewish’” (p. 1) at various times, depending on how it is read and who views it. Accordingly, in his slim volume, Rosen adopts a “non-definitional approach” (p. 5) to Jewish art, manifested by fleshing out the non-Jewish artistic influences on the work of the three artists noted in his title: Marc Chagall, Philip Guston, and R. B. Kitaj. That is to say, rather than offering an overarching theory of Jewish art comprised of Jewish characteristics—style, subject, function, or authorship, for example—Rosen looks at works individually, discerning Jewish qualities.

Although a trained theologian, Rosen shows sensitivity to visual form, not treating art as illustrations of a moment or cultural experience, as non-art historians often do. In his chapter on Marc Chagall, Rosen considers several of the artist’s biblical works, but especially his crucifixions, and in reference to artistic precedents, notably German painter Matthias Gruenwald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1510–15). Using the model of “family,” Rosen argues that Chagall’s art creates a lineage as well as a dialogue with the past and offers a way to understand how a Jewish artist connects with a decidedly Christian history of art.

The second chapter explores Philip Guston’s late work, when he returned to figuration after decades of painting as an Abstract Expressionist. Rosen concentrates on two images, and ones that on the surface would not appear to be “Jewish” —Deluge II (1975) and Green Rug (1976)—examining them in conjunction, respectively, with two fifteenth-century paintings that are decidedly not Jewish: Paolo Uccello’s The Great Flood (c. 1447) and Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation (c. 1455). Playing on Guston’s comment that he hoped “to make a Golem” (p. 51), Rosen understands the artist as wanting to mold the clay of older art, so to speak, into something newer and of his own. Rosen’s comparison of the older and newer works is a bit of a stretch, although I do admire his tenacity as he fleshes out various elements of the imagery. Certainly he proves that there are some structural similarities between the paintings, and at the same time throughout the chapter makes interesting observations about Guston’s work and its relationship to Jewish issues and artistic tradition.

R.B. Kitaj’s art comprises Rosen’s final case study, which again describes a few carefully selected images, this time by a painter who openly declared the Jewishness of his art. Here Rosen relies on Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on book collecting, asserting that Kitaj collects iconography and ideas from the history of art the way Benjamin collected books. Pointing especially to artistic models by Diego Velásquez and Paul Cézanne, Rosen elucidates how for Kitaj, a self-proclaimed Diasporist painter, his art became his metaphorical home.

I found this book to be satisfying from a cross-disciplinary point of view; Rosen adeptly maneuvers the fields of art history as well as Jewish studies and theology and creatively weaves together his arguments. At the same time, I wish Rosen had explored his thesis in further depth. I see two ways this might have been accomplished: Rosen could have provided additional examples of how Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj reread their predecessors’ art to indicate the complexity and pervasiveness of this practice. For instance, Rosen focuses on a canvas from Kitaj’s Los Angeles paintings in relationship to one of Paul Cézanne’s canonical Bathers. Yet Rosen also notes that other Los Angeles paintings refer, even if sometimes briefly, to Titian, Rembrandt, and more masters. How I would have enjoyed hearing about these artists’ connection to Kitaj’s art and seeing the images! It would also have been desirable to wrestle with other modern Jewish artists who were influenced by the visual past; one example would be to include a chapter on the provocative Biblical photographs by Adi Nes, whom Rosen introduces in the conclusion.

Two final issues mar Rosen’s thought-provoking book: a trio of puzzling appendices following the text’s conclusion and the image reproductions (or rather lack thereof). A one-page discussion of Chagall’s art and three alternate panels of the Isenheim altarpiece constitutes the first appendix, which simply dangles at the end of the book and could have enhanced the chapter’s argument. The second appendix offers two paragraphs on three paintings by Kitaj, only one reproduced, and abruptly introduces but does not follow up on the influence of film on Kitaj’s art. A third short appendix describing baseball and Jewish American identity—which relates to Kitaj’s art but does not mention him—appears last. This excerpt, as well as the previous two, feels like a passage removed from Rosen’s dissertation, on which this book is based, and when the material could not be seamlessly incorporated into the manuscript it was thrown in at the end. Finally, the lack of color images is a crucial lacuna, as is the unfortunate omission of images; only fifteen artworks are reproduced whereas over two dozen more are discussed. Considering that art history deals with the visual, readers blindly grope in the dark without the material of study to engage with. Despite these reservations, Rosen’s book offers a probing and accessible interdisciplinary contribution to the field of modern Jewish art.

Samantha Baskind

Cleveland State University