Review: Human Expressionism: the Human Figure and the Jewish experience

New survey demonstrates how Jewish artists have long shed (or perhaps never had) inhibitions about human subjects

By Julia Weiner, January 14, 2009
Human focus: Portrait of Hanka Zborowska by Amadeo Modigliani

Human focus: Portrait of Hanka Zborowska by Amadeo Modigliani

By Eliane Strosberg
Somogy Art, £29

For years, it was believed that the injunction against “graven images” contained in the Second Commandment prohibited Jews from producing figurative art. However, recent research has shown that this taboo was not as strong as previously thought and difficulties in accessing training was a more likely cause for the lack of Jews working as artists.

Now, of course, it is not difficult to compile a highly respectable list of figurative works by Jewish artists and Eliane Strosberg here shows how, during the 20th century, when artists were abandoning figurative art for abstraction, Jewish artists celebrated the human figure in their work.

Among the reasons Strosberg offers for this are a strong sense of family (they often painted family members); a feeling for social justice — resulting in paintings highlighting the plight of the poor; and an interest in the cult of freedom, which produced independent artistic choices.

Lavishly illustrated with more than 120 reproductions of works by artists discussed, the book’s own canvas is enormous. Although Strosberg focuses on the 20th century, she provides introductory chapters examining the Jewish experience and its perception in art, as well as an overview of images of Jews in art before 1900. Her style is simple and direct, her tone enthusiastic.

The best parts of the book are those that discuss specific artists and movements in detail. Strosberg is particularly knowledgeable about the Ecole de Paris and is interesting on both prominent artists such as Modigliani and Chagall and their lesser-known contemporaries.

She evokes an art world in which Jews were visible and active as dealers, critics and collectors and explains why France was considered a haven of freedom, giving rise to the artists’ phrase, “Azoy gliklich wi a yid in Paris” — “As happy as a Jew in Paris”.

There is an intriguing section on New York, where Jewish artists were especially conscious of art’s significant role in the promotion of social justice. But there, too, like their Parisian counterparts, artists endured the diatribes of critics concerned about the influx of so many immigrant practitioners. One critic characterised these as “types not yet fitted for their first papers in aesthetic naturalisation — the makers of true Ellis Island art”.

Strosberg writes at length about the work of the Jewish artists of the School of London, including Lucian Freud, Kossoff and Kitaj (strangely giving their contemporary and friend Frank Auerbach only a passing mention).

This is a valuable and informative work and my only criticism is that, particularly at the close, Strosberg tries to squeeze in too many artists at the expense of adequate, detailed discussion. These references whet the appetite and one looks forward to a possibly extended second edition.

Julia Weiner is the JC’s art critic. Eliane Strosberg will be one of a panel of speakers discussing Jewish artists and figurative art at Jewish Book Week 2009 on 22 February at 5pm

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011