Ben Judah

Jewish artists are needed more than ever in this weird age of AI

Much of modern culture is an illusion but great work is being made that makes you think, see and feel things somewhere deep

April 14, 2023 10:01

Right, interesting. That’s the reaction I usually get when I tell people that I really love Jewish art. As if I’m an antiquarian, who’s about to bore them in a corner by droning on about something that fizzled out with Marc Chagall.

Then, I’m usually asked this: which century? Like it can’t possibly be the one we’re in. As if the very idea of a Jewish artist belongs in black-and-white pictures.

It leaves me feeling so flat that even when it comes to Jews who live for Jewish culture, most would struggle to name a single Jewish artist under the age of 40.

For the truth is, the Jewish art scene is alive and well. Right now, London alone is producing great millennial artists, whose work we need to know about.

A few decades ago, in the city of Lucian Freud — where artists, not influencers, were culturally central — you would already have heard of Jake Garfield and Liorah Tchiprout, the London-born millennial Jewish artists whose work flows with and responds to the Jewish story.

They produce work that, almost involuntarily, makes you think, see and feel things somewhere deep. Things like ourselves.

I felt this power, the power of art, when that I stood in front of the monumental panels of Garfield’s three-metre-wide woodcut Man Wrestling An Angel.

Bespectacled, in boxing gloves, a naively-drawn man — is he wearing a hipster or Trotsky beard? — is thrusting his arm a little comically round an eerie, androgynous being.

I couldn’t stop looking at it. Like all great works of art, it became a novel for me. The patterns, figures and gold hue made me think of the Vienna Secession but also the silk banner of the London Jewish Bakers’ Union, which once paraded down Brick Lane.

The intellectual, the awkward male, the eternal klutz up against the fire in history, it spoke to me as a monumental self-portrait of our community: its past, its polemics and its endless wrestling with ideology.

It’s the intimacy of art that I felt seeing the oil painting You Have Become A Celestial Being Whose Motivations I Don’t Understand by Tchiprout.

Drawn from puppets crafted by the artist herself, inspired by Yiddish theatre, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman cradles a slumped, sick man.

You are sucked into their world, to a place that is both of the Warsaw Yiddish Writers Union and very much our own. I was floored by the piece. You feel present in a couple’s intimacy and the agony that comes when one of them slips into depression.

It spoke to me as one of the truest expressions of what love can be. It elicited the feelings I had when I first saw a Lucian Freud.

I also see this closer kind of self-portrait of British Jews in Tchiprout’s prints. The eyes in works like You Don’t Need A Lover You Need A Friend unnerved me, as if they had sort of some hypnotic, psychoanalytic power.

Until I suddenly realised what it was. I was looking at Jews as I actually know them: not as a nation, not as a concept, but as friends, lovers, teachers, family, the people who know my secrets and can read my soul. It’s us. But portrayed as who we are to each other.

It’s interesting to me that both Garfield and Tchiprout are printmakers. It’s almost as if there is something in the most arduous, labour- intensive, handmade methods — the print appearing like magic between paint, wood cut and pressed paper — that gains in power and intensity in a world of effortless DALL-E and Midjourney AI.

It’s deeply moving that their work is informed by their Jewish stories. For Garfield, the grandson of German Jewish refugees, taking up woodcutting, like Albrecht Dürer, has connected him to that heritage.

His Man Wrestling An Angel is both touched by his own experiences of antisemitism and a response to Jacob Epstein’s monumental Jacob And The Angel, for which the sculptor was ridiculed by a dog-whistling press.

For Tchiprout, who first began drawing in the upstairs of her family’s Orthodox shul, her love of print is filled with her East End heritage, with its radical pamphlets and the posters stuck on synagogue walls.

As a painter, she is inspired by London Jewish painters such as RB Kitaj and Leon Kossoff — who reinvented the city’s figurative art — and is taking it further. Returning again and again to the same scenes and images like the weekly parsha.

British Jews need to know about their talents. But it’s not just the community’s fault that our artists seem distant at the moment. The oligarchification of the market and algorithmisation of everything has trapped us in endless feedback loops.

Cannibalised by AI, artists are, with the exception of a few viral stars, more siloed than ever before. We see culture on broken apps, which fragment us and serve us: personalised clickbait. It’s all an illusion. The artists who can help us really see, who will help us know ourselves, are right here.

April 14, 2023 10:01

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive