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Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art
Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art
Samantha Baskind
The University of North Carolina Press, 2004
280 pp., $58.95

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Mark Packer

What Is Jewish Art?

Collective memory personalized.

Jewish-born artists flourished in the United States throughout the 20th century. A survey of their work reveals a rich and diverse range of styles and attitudes toward Jewish themes, from unconscious identifications with, to explicit dissociations from, Judaism and Jewish culture. This has engendered an intriguing puzzle that has haunted art historians for close to a hundred years: Is there such a thing as "Jewish art"? If so, what are its defining characteristics?

By midcentury, the number of Jewish-born artists attracting market and critical attention had proliferated. Some were figurative painters. Others made their reputations as abstract expressionists. A few warmly avowed their Jewish heritage, while many feared rejection if they did so too explicitly. To complicate matters further, by century's end a new generation of Jewish-born painters had come to maturity meditating on the Holocaust. In comparison with their immediate predecessors, their work reflects far less anxiety about reconciling Judaism with the demands of a secular society, and more with making sense of a mechanized world where murder can instantly reach epic proportions.

It would seem, then, that with each new generation and every new movement and style, any hope of resolving the enigma about Jewish art grows fainter. Yet, the scholarly mission to define Jewish art continues. Several new books address these questions with a freshness of presentation that merits close attention.

Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century, by Ori Z. Soltes, is fairly brief but beautifully illustrated with color plates that trace the full scope of Jewish painting throughout the 20th century, especially in New York. The sweep of Soltes' study is nothing less than epic. Beginning with 19th-century Europe, he examines paintings by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim and Camille Pisarro before turning his attention to 20th-century New York. Soltes presents a lavish series of plates that includes work by artists ...

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