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Art That Spans the Pogroms and the Avant-Garde

Museum: A New York exhibition on 19th century Jewish artists reveals their struggles with identity.

November 30, 2001|NATASHA GURAL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Twenty meticulous portraits--including three of the artist at different ages--make up the detailed, classical painting of the synagogue in the Polish town where artist Maurycy Gottlieb was born.

Next to it hangs another work by Gottlieb, a giant oil on canvas. The work depicts Jesus in a synagogue surrounded by Polish Jews.

The paintings are among some 70 works by 21 artists on display at the Jewish Museum through March 17 in an exhibition titled "The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe."

"Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur," on loan from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and "Christ Preaching at Capernaum," from the Polish national gallery in Warsaw are being displayed together in public for the first time.

Susan Goodman, senior curator-at-large for the Jewish Museum, said reuniting the two works "speaks to the condition of 20th century Jewry."

Gottlieb, she said, "very much functions as a Polish nationalist and a Jew."

The exhibition features artists who struggled to reconcile their spiritual, cultural and national identities during a time of great change, both in Jewish life and in European society. The artists' works illustrate the dual identity, both in subject matter (some mixed Jewish and Christian images) and style.

Gottlieb and his 10 siblings, born into a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family in Galicia, were among the few Jewish students to attend German-language public schools during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their father wanted to prepare them for modern life, which required interaction with non-Jews.

The enormous Gottlieb painting from Tel Aviv--it measures 1067/8 inches by 821/4 inches--was completed a year before the artist's death at age 23 in 1879.

A panel affixed to the Torah offers an ominous Hebrew inscription: "Donated in memory of the late honored teacher and rabbi Moshe Gottlieb of blessed memory, 1878." It foreshadows his untimely death, the cause of which remains shrouded in mystery. It was rumored that his fiancee, pictured in the painting, was engaged to another man two weeks before his death, Goodman said.

The other painting--also large and employing the same careful, classical style--was not finished before Gottlieb died. The outlines of several portrait sketches are revealed on an otherwise polished composition aping the style of Dutch master Rembrandt.

Both paintings are typical of Gottlieb's skilled technical work, done on a large scale with an elaborate cast of characters enveloped in period costumes and lavish settings.

In an adjacent, smaller room, two oil-on-canvas paintings by Samuel Hirszenberg are hung on opposite walls.

"The Black Banner" (1905) depicts Hassidic men carrying a casket draped in a black banner, with an open book strapped to one side. The horrified faces of the fleeing masses--including young boys and elderly, bearded men--are gaunt and pale. The sky above is stormy and flows along with the dark-clad procession.

"The Jewish Cemetery" (1892) shows three women in a graveyard overgrown with dark grass. The sky is mostly blue, yet still stormy. One woman appears to be grabbing at the headstones, some felled or partly uprooted. Another woman covers her eyes with her hands as her head bends back, while the third woman covers her ears as she bends over at the waist.

"Banner" and "Cemetery" make strong political statements against the pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that prompted many Jews to flee to America.

As social conditions for Jews improved, the artwork focused more on the emerging styles--abstract, impressionist, avant-garde--that marked a more liberated, cosmopolitan Europe.

In "Sitting (Marietta)," Broncia Koller-Pinnel uses Vienna's fin de siecle style to depict a nude woman, her legs extended as she sits with her head turned toward the viewer against a flat background of squares. Her red hair and a gilded square framing her head mimic the style of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, known for his burst of color patterns. The oil on canvas from 1907 was among the first nudes painted by Jews.

Koller-Pinnel and Tina Blau, whose works are also part of the exhibition, were well-known at the beginning of the century in Austria before falling into obscurity. Both women converted to Christianity in the late 19th century, a possible reason for their exclusion from earlier Jewish art exhibitions.

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