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The Jewish artists who pushed the boundaries

Questions of gender and sexuality in the work of Jewish artists emerge in two major art exhibitions.

    Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
    Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon

    The poster image for a new exhibition at Tate Britain which marks the 50th anniversary of the partial de-criminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Art of 1967 is a self-portrait by the artist who preferred to be known as Gluck. With her trademark cropped hair, her head tilted upwards, the artist meets the gaze of viewers, who might have questioned her appearance, with defiance.

    Born Hannah Gluckstein, she was the only daughter of Joseph Gluckstein, one of the founders of the British restaurant chain J. Lyons and Co. In 1915, shortly after a painting trip to Cornwall, she had cut her hair and begun wearing men’s clothing and, from then on, she insisted on being known only as Gluck. Indeed, when the Fine Art Society once referred to her as Miss Gluck, she was furious and threatened to resign and after her exhibition there in 1926, she was angry that critical attention focused more on her looks than on her paintings. Exhibition Curator Clare Barlow feels that her strength of character is evident in the self-portrait on our facing page — which is one reason why it has been chosen to grace the cover of the catalogue. “She appears so defiant. There is something about that jutting chin. It seems to represent her tempestuous life and the way she went to war over so many issues.” As well as the portrait, Gluck will be represented by one of her celebrated flower paintings, inspired by her relationship with the cookery and flower expert Constance Spry.

    Another Jewish artist featured at the Tate is Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), an artist closely linked to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Solomon was born into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family and initially had a very successful career. He became well known for his paintings of Jewish subjects — the JC described him as “an artist of strong Jewish feeling.” However, his career came to a halt when he was arrested in a public urinal off Oxford Street, in London, and charged with attempting to commit sodomy with a stableman. He was fined £100 but was arrested again a year later in Paris, when he was sentenced to spend three months in prison. Following this, he was no longer received in polite society though continued to work and seems to have received support from his family.

    Clare Barlow considers Solomon possibly the most significant of the artists to feature in the 19th-century section of the exhibition, pointing out that “he was working at the very heart of the art establishment, exhibiting at the Royal Academy and attracting criticism for the effeminacy and decadence of his work and for his particular style which featured androgynous, sensual figures.”

    A number of his works are on show, including a painting of the Greek poets Sappho and Erinna embracing, which Barlow explains “clearly shows same-sex desire and was not publicly exhibited. It really pushes out the boundaries.” While this work was produced early in Solomon’s career, Barlow stresses, “it was really important to me to include work from before and after his downfall” and highlights a drawing of Medusa never exhibited before, in which the Gorgon, here male, shows signs of great suffering.

    The final Jewish artist included is Claude Cahun, who is also the focus of a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery where her work is shown alongside that of the Turner Prize-winning contemporary artist Gillian Wearing. Cahun’s self-portraits contrast with Wearing’s large-scale works because of their small size. This was because Cahun’s works were private and not made for public display. It was not until the 1990s, many decades after her death in 1954 that this collection of work began to be published.

    Cahun is now well known for these self-portraits in which she alters her appearance to raise questions about gender and identity. She was an early proponent of the idea of a third gender, commenting “Masculine? Feminine? But it depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” However, this exhibition also reveals that she also explored her Jewish identity. She was born Lucy Schwob, into an eminent Jewish intellectual family that included a great uncle, Leon Cahun who was an Orientalist travel writer.

    At the age of 15, she met Suzanne Malherbe, who became her partner for life. Fortunately for them, they became step-sisters in 1917 when Cahun’s father married Malherbe’s mother which rendered their close relationship acceptable. In around 1919, they chose pseudonyms under which they worked, both selecting gender neutral first names. Lucy Schwob swapped one very Jewish sounding surname for another, choosing her paternal grandmother’s name, a French variant of Cohen. Her interest in her exotic background is revealed in this exhibition in a series of photographs in which she sits in Orientalist settings, no doubt referencing the work of her famous uncle. One early image that shows her dressed as a man is very similar to a portrait photo of her father, suggesting a close interest in her ancestry.

    The women were involved in the Surrealist movement, whose leader, André Breton described Cahun as a “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” Where many Surrealists explored the female figure for its eroticism, Cahun’s best-known self-portraits show her dressed as a man or as an androgynous figure. Like Wearing, she often uses masks in these works to suggest the many alternative personae she inhabited.

    In 1937, Malherbe (now known as Marcel Moore) and Cahun moved to Jersey, where, during the war, they were involved in fighting Fascism. They were arrested and sentenced to death in 1944. After Liberation and their release from prison, Moore photographed Cahun defiantly gripping a Nazi eagle insignia, which her jailers had given her, between her teeth. Cahun’s Jewish identity is clearly acknowledged on her grave in Jersey, which is marked with a Star of David, an image of which appears in the exhibition in a photograph showing Wearing posing above it with her face masked by her hair.

    It is gratifying to note from this photograph that stones have been placed on the grave, suggesting it is still being visited today.

     

    ‘Queer British Art’ is at Tate Modern from 5 April to 1 October 2017

    ‘Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun: Behind the mask, another mask’ is at the National Portrait Gallery until 29 May 2017.

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