Major Project: A Look at Three 20th Century Jewish Artists and Their Work (2018)

By October 1, 2018 February 18th, 2019 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish art was written by Benjamin Casper, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

For my major project, I chose to research Jewish art. I came to this choice after first trying to research Jewish video games, and getting only anti-Semitic and alt-right mobile games for search results. I have always had an interest in art, and many people in my family are artists, including both of my parents as well as my aunt Sharon and my grandmother Patricia. My dad used to be (and still is sometimes) a performer, photographer, and a dancer. My mom was an actress, and used to paint much more often than she does now, and her sister Sharon is a textile artist who specializes in Judaica [2 – Sharon], and who is starting to explore stained glass! My grandma is a full-on artist and gardener. Lately she’s been creating digital art [3 – Patricia] using Photoshop to enhance images she starts either by drawing or taking photos.
I personally have had an interest in many different kinds of art including graffiti, manga, and optical illusions. However, I don’t have the motivation at the moment to actually bring myself to sit down and make art (video games tend to take precedence). As a result, it was not a surprise when Rabbi Peter picked up on my interest in art, and even lent me a wonderful book filled with influential Jewish art from the twentieth century. [4 – Book cover] In fact, all of the artists I am going to discuss with you today are from that very book. Doing this project has opened my eyes to new types of people as well as art, and I have really enjoyed learning more about their backgrounds throughout the process. This “process” has taught me more about being Jewish and, although I wasn’t aware of it in the moments it happened, it has allowed me to better understand myself as a Jewish person. I also feel that all three works of art have significance in my personal life, which made it all the more interesting to work on.
There are two possible criteria for Jewish art. First, it could just be Jewish art because the person who made it was Jewish. Second, it could be the art itself that portrays an image or says something about Jewish culture. It says in the Ten Commandments [5 – Tablets] that you aren’t allowed as a Jew to create any sort of “graven image” or representation of God in any way. This was because God didn’t want the people to think of him/her as a physical being, rather a spiritual presence. As a result, through much of our history we have been focused on crafts and decorative art, [6 – Ancient Jewish decorative art] and avoided portraiture and other fine art. In modern society, Jews are clearly allowed to create art freely. So, this shows how much we have transformed as a people over the years. I find myself more attracted to art that actually gives a “Jewish” message, rather than just the artist being Jewish. This is because for me, it provides a deeper and more personal feeling to which I can relate more easily. I enjoy finding the hidden meanings within art, and looking at Jewish art has proved to be a great way to do this for me.
The first piece that caught my eye was by Marc Chagall. [7 – Chagall photo] When someone brings up Jewish art, the first name that pops into many people’s mind is Chagall. His work brings out the light and dark in everything he paints. When looking at one of his paintings, the meaning appears to be virtually hidden in the magical landscapes that he evokes. [8 – Village] Many of the figures in Chagall’s work seem misplaced or disfigured, but they also seem complete and whole at the same time. Chagall had countless achievements during his career. Beyond the many famous images that evoke Jewish life in Eastern Europe, he also made etchings of the entire bible, [9 – etching] illustrations for Dead Souls, by the Russian writer Gogol, and even a number of theatre pieces in which he designed the sets, costumes and makeup for the entire play. And there are the huge pieces he was commissioned to do for the lobby of Lincoln Center [10 – Lincoln Center] as well as the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. [11-Hadassah] This hospital has a huge plaza with stained glass windows, each window tells the story of a different biblical character.
Chagall’s work changed throughout his life based on what he was feeling at the time, and this changed the impact of his paintings on the people that viewed them. This was especially true in terms of his relationship with Bella [show 12- bella], his beloved wife, to whom he was married for 29 years. She was a major influence on his paintings and supported him at all times, no matter what. Chagall was very grateful to Bella, since she kept his spirits up even in the darkest of times. To me, this shows how committed they both were to each other, and it warms my heart to hear about how close they were.
Marc Chagall was born in a small Hasidic community on the outskirts of Vitebsk, Russia, on July 7, 1887. [SHOW 13 – Vitebsk] His father, Zahar Chagall, was a fishmonger, and his mother ran a small sundries shop in the village. One day during class, he noticed one of the students drawing a copy of a portrait, and he thought he might try it just to see what it was like. Suddenly, Chagall found himself in the library all the time drawing pictures of people’s faces from books he found. He had developed a new passion. Young Chagall began to hang his drawings on his wall, and one day when his friend came over and saw what he had done, he exclaimed, “Say, you’re a real artist!” This was the beginning of Chagall’s artistic career.
When Chagall first told his mother about wanting to become an artist, she was horrified. Her son, a poor Jewish boy, wanted to become an artist? You see, being an artist at that time, and even today, is not a lucrative job, especially for a family as poor as Chagall’s. However, his mother agreed to take him to see the artist Pen, a man in Vitebsk who taught art lessons. Chagall made sure to bring all of his drawings with him, and Pen’s reaction was a very slow and contemplative, “He does seem to have some talent.” This was all Chagall was hoping for at the time. Those few words were enough not only to allow him to have lessons with Pen, but they also allowed him to pursue art as his career.
At 25, Chagall made the decision to go to Paris [14 – Paris] even after being told he shouldn’t because he “wouldn’t survive.” He decided he would go anyway because the art scene in Paris was “where it was at,” and it became his second home. Chagall’s will to persevere is one of my favorite qualities of his. I admire this strong-willed nature because it is something that I strive to have in my life as well.
In Paris, Cubism was changing the way artists looked at the world, and Chagall did try some cubist paintings, such as Calvary, the piece that I am going to talk about today. However, he found that it didn’t really suit him, and swore never to join any movements from that point on in order to maintain his own artistic integrity.
As I mentioned, the work that I have chosen from Marc Chagall’s paintings is called Calvary, [15 – Calvary] which he painted in 1912 as a 25 year old man. It portrays Jesus on the cross, with his parents watching. I just want to point out that we are talking about Jesus being crucified at my Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish occasion! Chagall had been interested in the image of Christ from a young age. Growing up in Vitebsk, he was surrounded by the image of Christ in Russian churches. Something about Christ fascinated Chagall; he returned to the crucifixion theme over and over again. Many feel this painting is an excellent example of Chagall’s courage and his desire for taking major risks as an artist, and as a Jew. I admire his courage and his unusual way of seeing the world.
I find that I am still attracted to this piece even though there is so much violence in it because it draws me in with all of the complex shapes and images that surround Jesus himself. When I first looked at this painting, I thought that Jesus was an angel because I didn’t notice the cross. It looked as though this figure was floating in a majestic sort of way, giving it the impression of an angelic being. It wasn’t until my dad actually explained to me that it was Jesus on the cross that I was aware of it. It’s interesting that I thought it was an angel at first, because when Chagall painted this, he wrote that he intended for Jesus to look like an innocent child. Angels are pure and innocent beings, so there is certainly a connection there.
In this particular painting, Jesus is being crucified, so it is somewhat strange and dark. It is very unsettling for me that Jesus’ parents are watching as he is crucified, especially as he is being portrayed as a young child. In notes that he wrote to accompany the first exhibition of this painting, Chagall wrote that he intended the couple to be “My own parents, everyone’s parents.” Since these are Chagall’s very own parents, Jesus may be Chagall himself. Many have come to appreciate these scenes as a reflection of the persecution of the Jews before and during the world wars. Maybe by using this quintessential Christian image, Chagall is trying to prove that we are all the same in terms of the fact that we are all human, regardless of religion.
The second piece of art that jumped out at me was by Samuel Bak. [16 – Bak photo] He typically painted still lifes of surreal scenes, such as a pear being destroyed, or a jug that is broken. Many of his paintings reflect his experience during the Holocaust, [17 – Boy] and this is why they can be so disturbing and powerful.
Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna, Poland, [18 – Vilna] which is the present day capital of Lithuania. In his early childhood, he lived in a nice building and had a pleasant life in general. That was, until the Nazis came in 1940 when Bak was just seven years old. He and his family were thrown into a ghetto. Bak’s first exhibit was at nine years of age, [19 – Ghetto art] and it took place inside the ghetto! Tragically, two days before the ghetto’s liberation, in 1944, his father was shot and killed. Out of seventy thousand people, only two hundred remained.
Throughout these difficult years, Bak’s mother made sure that he got the supplies and the time necessary to continue doing his art. After surviving the war, he and his mother immigrated to Israel in secret. His paintings as a young boy depicted things like dying trees and lonely rivers, [20 – Tree] and this could speak to how lonely and disconnected he felt from the world.
Bak went to school in Paris, and like Chagall, it became his second home. Bak took his work to a more hyper realistic level when he became a professional artist in the early 1950’s, when he was in his early twenties, and began to paint things like The Family [21 – Family]. It depicts many soldiers still in uniform, with bandages wrapped around their heads, as well as elderly people who had suffered from the Holocaust. Each of Bak’s works has a specific message or meaning. For example, he did a series of paintings that incorporated the pear in them, symbolizing the fruit of knowledge from the Garden of Eden [22 – Pear]. This painting shows a large pear falling apart, while many smaller pears reveal themselves from within. He says that this represents how the world is losing the “larger knowledge,” referring to culture. And as a result, Bak feels that people are becoming more and more “specialized,” and losing a greater understanding of the world.
The painting that I chose to discuss today is called Emerald [23 – Emerald], and it shows an emerald jug on a bench that is broken into pieces by falling rocks. However, the pieces of the jug are floating in place. The bench seems to be on top of a mountain, and there is a stunning view of serene nature that sits behind the jug. It initially caught my eye because the color of the jug is one of my favorites. But as I began to sit with the painting, I realized this piece is a very important one in terms of my personal life right now. For me, things seem to be falling apart all around me, and just not getting fixed. For example, I have been struggling to find something to stick with. What I mean by this is that with my ADHD, it is more difficult to focus and commit to one thing at a time. I have battled with this issue my entire life. This is like the stationary broken pieces of the jug because I’m not making any progress with my “issue.” This is one way I interpreted the floating broken pieces of the jug: that things are eternally broken. However, the other way that these pieces could be related to the world, and to my life, is that there are problems all over the world that aren’t getting fixed, but maybe the unsolved version is the better one. So, in terms of my “issue,” maybe I don’t need to try so hard to find something to stick with, but instead let the thing come to me.
Another feature of the painting that struck me is that the jug, which is man-made, is broken while all the natural things in the painting are whole. This could represent that we as human beings are falling apart and ruining our planet while the earth itself has the right idea of how to keep itself going. Humans are similar to the jug in this piece because we are very fragile creatures.
The final artist who caught my eye is Erich Brauer. [24 – Brauer] He is still alive, and has also been a stage designer, poet, dancer, architect, printmaker, and singer. The songs that he wrote and the sets he designed [25 – TV] were goofy, weird, and interesting, very similar to his art. Most of his songs are funny and engaging to listen to, even though they are in German. Brauer was one of the founders of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, and he used surrealism in his work in a way that brought him international attention. Some of the words that come to mind for me when looking at his work: [26 – Pipe face] crazy, weird, alien, vibrant, electric, magical, mythical, and those are just a few.
He was born on January 4, 1929 in Vienna, Austria. At age 13, Brauer was sent to a Nazi labor camp. We can only imagine how disturbing this experience must have been for a thirteen-year-old. However, according to “Jewish Art from the Twentieth Century”, Brauer managed to overcome these traumatizing years and “balanced” the memories of that time with pleasant childhood ones. In 1982, he had breakthrough solo shows in the United States.
When we look at his work, we can see how Brauer’s time at the camp has influenced his life in general. Many of his works have dark or disturbing images and meanings that relate to the traumatic experiences he went through. [27 – image] Brauer’s work is very powerful and surreal, [28 – white anemone] and he uses vibrant colors that have a captivating effect on me.
The painting that I chose of Brauer’s work is called The Rainmaker of Carmel, [29 – Rainmaker] painted in 1964. I think this painting is more vibrant and livelier than the other paintings I talked about today. It depicts a figure that seems as though it might be a holy being of some sort. This being is wearing a very ragged old robe that surprisingly looks somewhat majestic on him or her. For me, the landscape is the most captivating and magical aspect of this piece. It looks as though this figure is “sprouting” life as he passes over an area. We can see many small vibrantly colored insects and plants that are close to the foreground of the painting, which is where the figure “stands” in this piece. Behind the being, we can see a dark sky that is filled with a lot of interesting shapes and angles. Among these is an object that looks as though it might be a half moon. On the other side of the sky, there is an object that appears to resemble the sun, and it has tentacles that stretch out from it. In my eyes, the sun is a live creature, which ties back into the title of the painting, Rainmaker. Everything in this painting seems to be alive to me, and that is the main reason why I like it so much.
I loved interpreting this painting because there are so many parts to it that bring up questions in my mind. Maybe the being is really Brauer’s image of God and might symbolize the idea that good things can sprout from nothing, or maybe the tentacles on the sun symbolize the concept that there is life in everything. For me, God is a very confusing topic, and I am not quite clear how I feel about him/her. I don’t feel that God is in everything, or that he/she is always “watching over you.” Rather, I believe that God only “shows himself” when he needs to. So, I can typically feel God’s presence when I am looking out on a particularly scenic view, or experiencing an unusually beautiful moment. And this is why I feel that the being portrayed by Brauer in the painting could have some similarities to God, creating this beautiful moment for us to see. We can also see that behind this being, everything is colored a darker green, and it almost becomes monotone. This creates the effect that only the area where the being is has life being born. The being is also larger than the mountains and trees, adding to the “holy” effect.
So how does any of this relate to life? Well, I feel that this idea of bringing life to a certain area could have to do with setting things right in life. There is a dead tree in the painting that is very close to the being. Maybe it is being used to sprout new life. So this idea of bringing things to life is a big theme from what I can tell in this piece. If we think about the title of this painting, Rainmaker of Carmel, we can see how the term “rainmaker” might suggest something to do with a creator of some sort. This ties back into the being as some sort of godly creature, if not God itself, as God has control over all life and weather, from some points of view. For me in terms of my life, this expression of power is an important concept for me to begin to grasp. It reminds me of how powerful I can be and the effect I might have on people. It also reminds me that I can use this power to bring good to other people, rather than using it to anger them, whether purposefully or not.
In conclusion, Jewish art and artists have changed and inspired many people over the past century. My research has opened the door to new kinds of art and people for me. There are two values that stand out for me when I think about these artists- compassion and courage. In terms of Chagall, he was always there for his family and friends, no matter what. This demonstrates compassion, a value that is frequently seen throughout my family. Courage can be seen in these artists’ lives as they all went through extremely traumatic experiences at young ages and by the way they transformed these experiences into magnificent pieces of art that have touched the world.
One thing I discovered about myself while doing this research project is that when I’m really honest about what I’m seeing and feeling as I look at these paintings, I can move through the mystery of the painting, and connect with some part of what the artist is looking to express. Although there were certainly ups and downs as I researched and wrote this paper, overall, I realized I really enjoyed looking at a new kind of art. Coincidentally, all of the artists that I chose went through an experience with the Holocaust. This relates to my life, too, as many members of my family have suffered traumatic experiences related to the Holocaust, just like the artists I’ve chosen.
Art is a transformative experience and I was transformed by these three amazing artists. I hope you were too and felt as inspired as I did by their life and work. Thank you so much!