Growing up, I remember that if I ever inquired into what is showing at the Jewish Museum in NY, there was a 95% chance the answer would be Chagall. I remember Yeshiva requirements that popped up requiring us to make the trek into Manhattan. The Museum offered the bright colors of Chagall downstairs, and pretty Menorahs upstairs. Though I did not know much of art back then, art aficionados must have thought of the museum as not worthy of the name or the premium space on Museum Mile.
Now, I look forward to the Museum’s avant-garde selections from Chaim Soutine to the most recent, Amadeo Modigliani and even Frida Kahlo. This involved a distinct change in core beliefs of what constitutes Jewish art. Does Jewish Art always involve Jewish Subjects? (Certainly, the pretty menorahs do hold a permanent spot at the Museum). Should the artist be Jewish and identify as Jewish? (Chagall will always be the quintessential Jewish artist, with his focus on shtetl life and biblical scenes and his devotion to the Jewish nation). Or has Hitler made the choices for us? (Frida Kahlo’s father is Jewish and yet the threat that lineage would have posed loomed large in her life).
To see an artist usually exhibited in the Met or MOMA, such as Modigliani, exhibited in these more cozy corners draws a large crowd – large enough to form lines around the block all day every day. It draws a crowd enthusiastic enough to not utter a single whimper at having to pay a $4 surcharge above the normal $10 admission fee. It feels like a discovery of something new, or more accurately, a discovery of a new facet in an old love. Modigliani did not lead a Jewish life but did not hide his identity either. He loved French women and idealized their forms in the Mannerist tradition. The curators had to stretch a bit to make these paintings, that Modigliani modeled on Byzantine statues, Jewish. In the end, they came up with a lot of Christ analogies and general feelings of “otherness” but basically, nothing that would make them Jewish beyond a shadow of a doubt, without the Jewish motherhood to fall back on.
Will the Jewish Museum continue to stretch these connections? Probably, considering the potential earnings. Where does that leave assuredly Jewish artists? Without a mystique or name recognition, is there no room for them at the Jewish Museum? That’s like asking if they will ever serve chulent at La Marais. I do hope the Museum will take chances on Israeli artists. Israeli artists, as a whole, tend to offer bold, fresh perspectives on biblical stories, holidays and Jewish history and thought. But, the only way to get them is to go to Israel or to become informed in the downtown art scene where the emphasis is on buying, not looking. In the meantime, the other Jewish Museums and Jewish bookstores continue to feature Judaica, an art form all its own, rather than art.
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