Ahasuerus at the Easel

Jewish Art and Jewish Artists in Central and Eastern European Modernism at the Turn of the Last Century

by Tom Sandqvist (Author)
©2014 Monographs 542 Pages


This survey asks a seemingly simple question: Is there an affinity between the emergence of modern art and various Avant-Garde movements such as Russian Suprematism and Polish or Hungarian Constructivism around about the turn of the last century and the process of Jewish assimilation in the Habsburg empire and Russian tsardom respectively? What about the possible connection between «Hebraism», Jewish Messianism, Talmudic philosophy, and Kabbalistic speculations and the most radical, Utopian Avant-Garde movements of the region? Was Russian Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, Productivism, Polish and Hungarian Constructivism actually fostered by ideas and practices articulated in Eastern Jewry? And what was the impact of Anti-Semitism on how the artists related to stylistic purity and their own cultural identity in the region already prior to the emergence of Avant-Gardism? And how did the supposed biblical ban on «graven images» influence the approach of the Jewish artists?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • I. Introduction
  • The Narrow Horizon
  • State of the Art and Methodological Reflections
  • Assimilation and Integration
  • II. Attaching
  • Ahasuerus Tries to Conform
  • “The Jewish Century” and the “Ordeal of Civil-ity”
  • III. Jewish art
  • Jewish Art – Is There Any at All?
  • Art Historical Orientalization, the Second Commandment, and the Haskalah
  • Oriental “Savages”, Folk Art and Emerging Jewish Renaissance
  • IV. The Russian Context
  • Revolutionary Development
  • Restrictions, Settlements, and Financial Contributions, After All
  • Mark Antokolski
  • Isaac Levitan
  • Jewish Patrons and Russian-Jewish Popular Art in the Avant-Garde
  • Jewish Renaissance
  • Jehuda Pen in Vitebsk
  • Renaissance and Revolution
  • Marc Chagall
  • The Jewish Kazimir Malevich
  • The New Theater and Natan Altman
  • Naum Gabo and El Lissitzky
  • V. Poland – The Partioned Country
  • Łódź, the “Jewish” Industrial City
  • Difficult to Conform to Polish Society
  • Galicia and Jewish Self-Hatred
  • Maurycy Gottlieb
  • The School in Kraków, Samuel Hirszenberg, Maurycy Minkowski, and Enrico Glicenstein
  • Jung Jidysz
  • Futurists and Constructivists
  • Jewish Art Life in Kraków, Marcel Słodki and Bruno Schulz
  • VI. In Bohemia and Moravia
  • The Letter to His Father
  • A Cultural, Social, and Linguistic Ghetto
  • Alexandr Brandeis and Adolf Wiesner
  • From Jewish Prague to Far East: Emil Orlik
  • VII. Jews and Magyars
  • Michael Lieb Becomes Mihály von Munkácsy
  • Jewish Counts and Barons – the Hungarian Situation
  • Cognitive Dissonance, the City, and the Arts
  • István Farkas and Hungarian Art Progress
  • Nyolcak – Six Jewish Artists of a Total of Eight
  • Anna Lesznai
  • Lászlo Moholy-Nagy
  • VIII. Paris – Point of Impact
  • A “Barbarian Horde” in Montparnasse
  • Sonia Delaunay
  • Chaïm Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz
  • Poles in Paris
  • IX. Art, Assimilation, and Jewish Modernity
  • Intellectual and Artistic “Nomadism”
  • Golem and the Biblical Ban on Images
  • Non-Figurative Image and Typographical Experiments
  • Jewish Conception of Time, Messianism, Revolutionary Art, and Martin Buber’s Hasidism
  • Shtetl Culture, the Book, and Polyphonic Language
  • “Democratic” Everyday Objects, Pantheism, and Arthur Segal’s “Gleichwertigkeit”
  • Eclecticism
  • A “Postmodern” Sound Box
  • X. Sources and Bibliography
  • Unpublished Material
  • Internet
  • Literature
  • XI. Illustrations

I. Introduction

The Narrow Horizon

Rooted in German Jewry and undoubtedly most well-known for his extensive monograph on Sigmund Freud published in 1988, the American historian Peter Gay has replied to the widespread conception of the exceptionally large Jewish participation in Modernist art, literature and ground-breaking sciences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Already ten years before his biography, Gay pointed in his study Freud, Jews and Other Germans at how modernity itself, within German anti-Semitic imagination at the beginning of the 20th century, was conceived as an ever growing threat against the arts, literature, philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences in explicit regard to the Jews and their supposed power. It became almost a ritual incantation to evoke the magic names of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein when paying attention to the Jews’ disproportional share and dramatic influence. Less sparkling names like the artist Max Liebermann, the director Max Reinhardt, or the philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel only rounded off the picture of the Jews as being great innovators – and revolutionaries. Regarded as the emblem of modern man the Jews were considered the archetypal Modernists in art as well.1

However, according to Gay, this was not a correct way to interpret Modernism, since this gave the Jews more publicity than they actually deserved, having its good points and bad points. There were many Modernists not being Jews as well as there were many Jews not being Modernists. Many Jews were indeed Modernists, but not because they were Jewish. Similarly, according to Gay, the conception of the Jews’ rootlessness is in many respects a myth as well as their supposed hunger for innovations and experiments, a myth partly cherished by the Jews themselves. Indeed, there were Jews working within, for instance, the German Avant-Garde, but they stayed in the back troops as well as in the forefront of the battle. Far less of the cultural revolutionaries and far more of the cultural conservatives were Jewish than the historians have been inclined to admit. The German Jews, for instance, were moving along with the cultural mainstream as much as they were allowed ← 9 | 10 → to do this. There was hardly nothing in the Jewish cultural heritage as there was hardly nothing either in their social situation which automatically would have transformed them into revolutionaries or Modernists by definition, Gay claims quoting Max Liebermann: “I am only a painter and what has painting to do with being a Jew?” It is true, Peter Gay pays proper attention to the process of Jewish assimilation or integration2 during the 19th century and claims that this – at least in Germany – seemed logical and permanent round about the turn of the century, since this “emancipation” seemed to be part of the general human emancipation, that is, included in the general process of modernization focused on more freedom and more options. But then he does not link this process to how he himself in broad outlines defines Modernism as a highly complex phenomenon effective in all fields of human activity. According to Gay, we may summarize the dominating interpretation by defining Modernism as a confluence of anti-rational, experimental occurrences linked to alienation and the feeling of being an outsider. Indeed, but wasn’t the process of Jewish assimilation itself defined by precisely this feeling of alienation and being existentially an outsider, at the same time this experience fostered by anti-Semitism guaranteed that the assimilated and assimilating Jews didn’t feel being tied to academic rules and regulations. but free to try other, more explicitly “modern” solutions? Furthermore, cannot the Jewish heritage as such be defined as “anti-rational” in the sense of being outside the Western conception of the world characterized by Cartesian rationality?

Peter Gay’s failure to problemize the Jewish process of integration and its specific characteristics in relation to Modernism or modernity seems to be – at least indirectly – caused by a circumstance that he shares with most of his colleagues and which may have contributed to his animosity against a broader horizon. Indeed, he may have his points, but like so many other historians he seems to be guilty of a cardinal error when not paying attention to other cultural contexts than only the Western European one. For instance, only the assimilation as such was much younger in Central and Eastern Europe than in the West, at the same time large parts of explicitly East Jewish culture stayed more or less intact well into the 20th century and at the same time as surprisingly many Jewish artists and other intellectuals participated actively in the process of modernization, artists ← 10 | 11 → who – moreover – to a great extent left their mark on Western European Modernist currents as well.

Among others, in his large survey Centraleuropas historia published in 19973 about the history of Central Europe, the Swedish historian Kristian Gerner has explicitly pointed at both the structural, basically anti-Semitic process of expulsion and at the same time at his own blindness as historian when it comes to the Jewish participation in those cultural, social, and political mechanisms once shaping Central and Eastern Europe. Historiography of the 19th century permeated by anti-Semitism and focused on the different peoples defined by their territorial and linguistic belongings excluded the Jews as an integrated part of European civilization and culture. The Holocaust did not only almost completely erase the Yiddish culture of Central and Eastern Europe, Stalin’s anti-Semitic politics after the war completed the destruction. Along with the Jewish environments and the Jewish names the Jews altogether disappeared from European imagination in other capacities than only victims of anti-Semitism. According to Gerner, where Jews are mentioned in the surveys, they constitute either a differing minority within the majority cultures or their history is described as an isolated phenomenon with only superficial points of contact with society as a whole: in other words, the discrimination or the blindness is not an expression of personal prejudices, but a result of specific processes of socialization within the research disciplines in question. The blindness is purely structural.

State of the Art and Methodological Reflections

Trying to avoid the pincers observed by Gerner and at the same time trying to establish at least a bit of respect for the Jewish participation in the different cultural contexts we have to pay in regard to, among other things, those statistical calculations reporting that only in Vienna, for instance, during the decades around the turn of the last century the number of Jewish artists, writers, and journalists was proportionally three times higher than the number of non-Jewish intellectuals working within the same fields, at the same time we must notice the fact that, for instance, more than 500 artists of Jewish birth were active only in the Polish art life during the interwar period.4 ← 11 | 12 →

Without any ambitions whatsoever to cover this vast field, mainly focusing on the visual arts in the Habsburg and the Russian empires respectively during the period between around the 1880’s and the 1920’s, Ahasuerus at the Easel aims – in its particular way – at contributing to the efforts to lessen precisely that blindness at which Gerner points by trying to shed light upon and at the same time analytically discuss the Jewish participation in the historical and cultural formations of the regions respectively. In relation to Gerner’s striking observation it is hardly surprising either how meagre the available literature is in fact. With the exception of, for instance, Fredric Bedoire’s The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture originally published in Swedish in 1998 about the emergence of modern architecture in Europe during 1830–1930, Susan Tumarkin-Goodman’s survey The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe published in 2001 and her Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Changes (1995), Catherine Soussloff’s Jewish Identity in Modern Art History (1999), Avram Kampf’s Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century published in 1984, and perhaps also Kalman P. Bland’s The Artless Jew published in 2000 together with stray studies dealing with Jewish Modernists in Paris during the 1910’s and the 1920’s beside surprisingly few more qualified studies and monographs, neither national nor international research have paid any special attention to the importance of Central or Eastern European Jewry in regard to Modernist art in general. This seems to be the case even though – when it comes to Hungary – William O. McCagg published his widely discussed Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary already more than forty years ago dealing with the massive Jewish participation in Hungarian political, economical, and cultural life round about the turn of the last century, a study which ought to have had a special relevance also when studying the region’s visual arts, but which apparently has not left any specifically permanent traces in the historiographical discourse regarding the visual arts of the regions respectively. In 2008, the Polish society for Oriental art, Polskie Stowarzyszenie Sztuki Orientum, arranged a big conference in Kazimierz in Kraków resulting two years later in a publication edited by Jerzy Malinowski, Renata Piatkowska, and Tamara Sztyma-Knasiecka and entitled Jewish Artists and Central-Eastern Europe: Art Centers – Identity – Heritage from the 19th Century to the Second World War despite the fact that most of the contributions were only about Polish Jewry and Polish Jewish artists. In the case of Russia there is a rare exception: Mirjam Rajner’s Russian Jewish Art, 1862–1912 (1990).

And precisely this – the flagrant exclusion of the Jewish contributions taken together in the region – seems to be brought to the fore even more often than on the national level respectively at that precise moment when the art historians ← 12 | 13 → focus explicitly on Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. Significant enough is, for instance, the ambitious catalog central european avant-gardes: exchange and transformation, 1910–1930 edited by Timothy O. Benson and published in connection with a big exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002, an exhibition totally concentrating on the different vanguard currents of the region during the first decades of the 20th century which also was presented later in both Munich and Hamburg. Of the total of 440 pages of text “Jewish art” is discussed only on nine pages, at the same time Steven A. Mansbach, for instance, refers to the Jewish contributions on only a few dozen of totally more than 300 pages in his magisterial Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans published in 1999; only one and a half page is dedicated to the Polish, explicitly Jewish artists’ group Jung Jidysz, which is, moreover, connected directly to German Expressionism. My own research too has touched upon these questions as they are discussed in my previous studies such as Dada East (2006), originally published in Swedish in 2005, and The Sacred Cause (2013), orginally published in Swedish in 2009, with thoughts on Central and Eastern European Modernism. Published only in Swedish in 2010 the study Det andra könet i öst was a kind of a follow-up focusing on the surprising number of women artists contributing to Central and Eastern European Modernism, precisely that part of European art and culture that our textbooks have “forgotten”. The question was put like this: how significant was the fact that so many of these artists were born and grew up in Eastern European Jewish culture? What part did the continuous process of the Jewish integration play in this context? Additionally, special attention was also paid to Susan A. Handelman’s epoch-making The Slayers of Moses published in 1982 as well as Shari Benstock’s equally pioneering essay “Expatriate Modernism: Writing on the Cultural Rim” published in 1989 in the study Women’s Writing in Exile edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram. The interdisciplinary, methodologically transgressing approach of these studies has also inspired this book.

In his essay “Methodology and Meaning in the Modern Art of Eastern Europe” published in 2002,5 Steven A. Mansbach has indirectly noticed an interesting methodological problem when it comes to the relationship between Western European Modernism and contemporary Modernist discourses in East-Central Europe round about the turn of the last century, a problem also discussed in both The Sacred Cause and Det andra könet i öst. Mansbach’s point of departure is the more or less unambiguous fact that most scholars in the West have presented ← 13 | 14 → the European 20th century culture as almost totally and exclusively shaped and defined in terms of a successive progression of styles in Paris, Munich, New York, or Berlin, and that this has been made possible by art historians simply asserting the formalist style as the normative standard without observing other aspects than what Mansbach calls “the universality of Modernism”. This is a concept revealing the “imperialist” grip of Western ethnocentrism on other parts of Europe, parts that are labeled as peripheral. By looking at classical modern art from a broader perspective than by defining its development only as a progressive series of aesthetically autonomous styles and at the same time by adopting a more modulated or nuanced method one is, according to Mansbach, not only able to better understand those unique forms of creativity which took place on Europe’s periphery but also able to reclaim the rich foundation of modern art in general. And doesn’t Mansbach also claim that, undeniably, much of Modernism was born on the Eastern margins of industrial Europe, Dadaism in royal Romania, Constructivism in the tsarist empire, and uniquely creative forms of Cubo-Expressionism in Habsburg Bohemia? The prevailing paradigm must simply be set aside; those few exceptions in the Western discourse when it comes to the demand for stylistic coherence, such as Picasso or Picabia, cannot justify the seemingly unshakable attachments of hitherto normative historiography. If, for instance, the classical Avant-Garde in the West recommended and fought for aesthetic uniformity aimed to transcend national borders and historical references, the Avant-Gardists of the East, on the contrary, embraced the multiplicity of progressive styles at the same time they, so to speak, gave shelter to exactly those literary, political, and historical connotations which their colleagues in France, Germany, and elsewhere in the West despised and repudiated as obsolete, non-universalistic, and out of date.

Simultaneously, Mansbach maintains, and this is worth while repeating once again,6 the artists in the East chose “national individuality” instead of universality and enrolled more or less in full force in the national fight, whose fighters, still according to Manbach, urged the artists to redefine visually and verbally the neo-Romantic references into Modernist idioms. The references to historical myths, national heroes and stories, legends and artistic idioms passed down among the peasants became as common in the Eastern European Avant-Garde as they were uncommon in progressive Western European art. Consequently, the artists of the East also moved freely between and among Constructivist abstractions and folkloric patterns or between Cubist still lifes and glorified figures of national mythology. By this “reconciliation” of literary references and pure abstractions, between ← 14 | 15 → narration and non-figurative styles, Eastern European art once and for all departed from that “absolutist” purity which was embraced and urged in the West. Using the possibilities offered by Cubism, Futurism, and Constructivism as well as other abstract idioms alluding to indigenous themes and contemporary topical issues the artists were, according to Mansbach, able to create a considerable synthesis of local and universal, traditional and progressive. According to the Hungarian art historian Katalin Keserü, exactly this unification of the functional genres, grand art and minor arts, or fine art and applied arts, was the most characteristic phenomenon of Central European art of the turn of the century, a fact which can be applied to how literature inspired visual arts as well.7 The artists had a “double vision”, both inwards and outwards simultaneously, and exactly this is one of the reasons for our need of new ways and new methods of interpretation, Mansbach says, however, at the same time as he seems to play about with exactly those dichotomies he himself claims to be fighting against. In this context, Kazimir Malevich seems to be a first-rate example of the simultaneous presence of different artistic idioms within one and the same art production, because he was only following regional conventions by pursuing both Suprematism and figuration; and his constant shifts between abstraction and figuration, often criticized in the West as a “retreat”, should therefore not be judged by Western expectations of consistency. Like legions of his contemporaries in Central and Eastern Europe, Malevich saw no contradiction in taking seriously primitive or native folk imagery and geometrical abstraction, as each addressed essential issues for which style served less as an index of universal meaning than it functioned as a strategy to signify locally and communicate internationally. In principle this seems to be the case in the entire region, especially when it comes to, for instance, the Czech Modernists and Avant-Gardists. Czech Cubism or rather Cubo-Expressionism has also been described as an amalgamation of Bohemian Baroque, El Greco’s Spanish Baroque, Alfons Mucha’s Art Nouveau, French Cubism, Edvard Munch’s Expressionism, the German Die Brücke, Italian Futurism, French Symbolism, and indigenous folkloric Naivism.8 The stylistic common features or affinities between art in the West and that of Central and Eastern Europe must therefore, according to Mansbach, not lead one to an assumption of parallel meaning or analogous reception. Moreover, these affinities should therefore not function as a methodological basis for understanding the latter. We need other kinds of methods, other kinds of analytic tools, ← 15 | 16 → and first of all more knowledge of the “local” historical and political conditions and prerequisites.

The Sacred Cause raised the question whether the patchwork quilt of nationalisms and imaginations concerning the nation and national belonging, including Jewish Zionism, whether this patchwork of definitions, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identities didn’t prevent that the dominating artistic attitude in Central and Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century became what might be called a kind of syntheticism or “integralism”, from a Western point of view defined as eclecticism, where the competing ethnonationalisms respectively shaped the most important condition. Here the additional question was also raised whether this basic unit corresponded with the internal contradictions and paradoxes of the cultural field as a whole, a fact expressed by, for instance, what Timothy O. Benson defines as “the melancholic ambivalence” of most of the intellectuals in Central Europe by this time.9

The ethnonationalistic, both nostalgic and at the same time Messianic attitude towards the past was expressed as a more or less general distrust of progression and also modernity as such, at the same time as, for instance, the Polish Avant-Gardists doing everything possible to bridge the gap in regard to the modern West encountered the contemporary Western European Avant-Garde currents characterized by precisely the revolt against the past. The Polish art historian Andrzej Turowski10 has pointed at the biography of the Central and Eastern European artist as a disintegrated one transcending more or less every available category regarding both space and time. Here Turowski refers to artists such as Malevich, Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, János Mattis-Teutsch, and Ljubomir Micić. Malevich was born in Kiev in Ukraine into a Polish family from Lithuania who had moved to Polesia, an area ethnically belonging to Belarus but nevertheless part of the Polish cultural sphere; according to Turowski, Malevich was also of Jewish descent.11 Strzemiński in turn was born in Minsk in Belarus, trained to become an officer in the Russian army and working as a Russian artist in Smolensk, while Kobro was the daughter of German immigrants in Riga who moved to Moscow; both Strzemiński and Kobro became eventually prominent figures of Polish Constructivism in spite of the fact that none of them reached a proper command of Polish. Being one of the leading figures of the Activist group in Budapest ← 16 | 17 → but also one of the most well-known artists in the Romanian Avant-Garde circles in Bucharest, Mattis-Teutsch was born in Hungarian Transylvania, speaking and writing in both German, Hungarian and Romanian, educated in Munich and active in Berlin, while Micić was a Croatian born in Zagreb who became the leading Avant-Gardist in Serbian Belgrade. At the same time there were artists such as Marc Chagall, Victor Brauner, Jankiel Adler, El Lissitzky, and Henryk Berlewi having supreme command of Yiddish and several other languages who were born and grew up in today’s Ukraine, Romania, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland respectively. The examples are legion when it comes to literary transgressions and simultaneous national and cultural identities within a gigantic patchwork of paradoxes and deviations in all possible directions.

The contradictions were not conceived as binary oppositions, but more as a kind of diagonal cuts or parallelisms making it difficult, for instance, to separate conservative artistic or political attitudes from Modernist idioms at the same time one could embrace both social progression and disastrous potentialities. Simultaneously the towns and cities along the chain from Gdansk or Danzig in the North to Trieste in the South were characterized by their exceptionally miscellaneous multilingualism, their religious multiplicity together with their national and cultural variations in a way corresponding to their literary topographies defined by their winding alleys and suddenly appearing small squares or broad boulevards at which modern “skyscrapers” grew up like mushrooms at the same time as big industrial plants and endless tenements were scattered around the old downtowns. These cities or towns became also a kind of points of focus for both those who embraced urbanization and urban building in their capacities of being a promising signs of modern utopia as well as for those who considered urbanization as the most impending threat against traditional values and the feeling of belonging to an ethnically homogeneous peasant society. Thus, the Central European Avant-Garde as well was characterized by its nihilistic attitude, an attitude not unambiguously referring to some specific political opinion but freely combining Expressionist pacifism and Dadaist anarchism with Futurist and Constructivist critique of civilization. The Central European topography was a topography of diffusion and dispersion.

Seven years after Mansbach having launched his credo regarding the importance of approaching Central and Eastern European art and especially its disloyal attitude towards the demands for stylistic coherence in a new way he was accompanied by the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski publishing his already classical essay “How to Write A History of Central East-European Art?” Like Mansbach Piotrowski as well emphasizes the difficulties of Western historiography to ← 17 | 18 → understand the multiple meanings of the arts in the Central and Eastern European countries, in which the different artistic idioms emerged within the local networks conditioned by particular “ideological pieces of state apparatus”, a concept borrowed from Louis Althusser, instead of being conditioned by an universal ideological perspective like in the West. The classical concept of ideology did not play any prominent role in the local political contexts and therefore Eastern European art history must be considered much more heterogeneous than the Western one. Eastern European art has in fact never reflected the successive “chronological” order of styles so common in the West, instead the history of Modernism defined in terms of styles has always been translated into heterogeneous mutations both at the beginning of the 20th century and later. If the mainstreams of Western art have always emerged with references to canonical works of some kind, then the history of Central and Eastern European art must repudiate this canonical system of values, since it does not reflect the real historically anchored local values and meanings. Within analytical practice it simply seems to be more fruitful to emphasize the tensions between the local experiences and the canonical system than to mechanically take for granted those canonical frameworks found in the textbooks and thus enlist Eastern European art in the Western canon instead of trying to deconstruct both of them. In other words, we should focus on how this canon was used and exploited instead of pointing at the influences only. At the same time one must observe the fact that the arts in the countries concerned showed a much more obvious heterogeneity when it comes to the narrative dimensions too than the arts in the West: the multiplicity of different stories is typical of Central and Eastern European art characterized by its pluralistic and polycentric idioms.

Assimilation and Integration

As mentioned in both The Sacred Cause and Det andra könet i öst the Jews had already at the end of the 19th century become an important part of the “Bildungsbürgertum” in most of the countries concerned playing a decisive role within this particular social class in promoting different modern movements and currents. In the background there were regularly Jewish intellectual and economical resources. The level of education among the Central and Eastern European Jews was also definitely higher than the average, which also must have been one of the most prominent social and “technical” preconditions of precisely that intellectual energy which marked the sociological framework for the process of assimilation and modernization getting more and more rapid towards the end of the century. ← 18 | 19 →

The assimilation – or rather, as mentioned, the integration as such – signified a kind of an endless and “forced” quotation of the surrounding model, according to the Hungarian social historian Victor Karády,12 a complex creative act already on the individual level. The feeling of existential homelessness too must have contributed to the intellectual curiosity giving birth to new art and literature – born in Kalischt in Bohemia, today’s Kaliště, spending his childhood in Iglau in Moravia, today’s Jihlava, the composer Gustav Mahler declared himself a threefold homeless: a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew among all other nations.13

Thus, the Hungarian-Jewish writer, librettist and film critic Béla Balázs too did everything possible to find a place in the Hungarian cultural context, since he, according to himself, thought that there was a big community waiting for him – “But this feeling was lost rapidly”. And thus it was surely no coincidence either that he evidently alluded to the conception of the endlessly “wandering Jew” when entitling his first collection of poems in 1911 A vándor énekel14 as well as he about ten years later declared that there is something one cannot experience without going away: homesickness, “the most deepest and most tender of all feelings.”

One had to acquire the language of the majority as well as, among other things, its cuisine, clothing, way of life, and education in terms of a process offering a kind of double belonging, an experience by no means weakened by surrounding anti-Semitism or by the distancing gaze of “the other”. This doubleness unfaithful to the “stylistic” standard model contained a decisive intellectual element conditioned by, among other things, bi- or multilingualism, an element also characterized by the need for “keeping the door open” back to one’s own Jewish origin, that is to somehow preserve one’s contact with the past identity as part of the current one. In turn, this offered a specific competence and a system of values promoting multilingualism as well as a multicultural approach. And as the assimilated identity comprised important cultural elements in the anthropological sense coming from that environment which was seen as exemplary, in many cases even as superior, then this identity was constituted according to a model characterized by being much more “modern” than the “officially” recognized social model.

Here – at the core of the process of assimilation or integration – European artistic and literary Modernism was born and spread out. It was no coincidence that such many of those who eventually carried off the Czech, Hungarian and ← 19 | 20 → Polish Avant-Gardes grew up in more or less acculturated Jewish families. A less observed fact is that many of their gentile precursors too were in close touch with the assimilated Jewish intelligentsia and thus contributed by bringing with them important elements of the Jewish culture into Modernism. In other words, we have to ask ourselves whether precisely this double identity of dwelling both inside and at the same time outside the majority cultures respectively, to which so many assimilated Jews testified, among them Franz Kafka, might have contributed to the specific Central and Eastern European mixture of styles in both the arts, architecture, as well as literature, at least to a certain extent.

Of course, in such a book as this one it’s impossible to give a fully exhaustive answer to the question above already due to the degree of complexity in regard to the precisely equally complicated as manifold cultural contexts which constituted the Central and Eastern European political and cultural reality round about the turn of the last century. Nevetheless, this doesn’t prevent us discussing the Jewish participation in the art development of the countries and regions concerned in relation to this “sound box” in its capacity of being the ultimate prerequisite of the more or less all-embracing artistic syntheticism. Simultaneously there doesn’t seem to be any good reasons not to repeat certain ideas, thoughts, formulations, and in some cases even certain passages already presented in The Sacred Cause and Det andra könet i öst, since these will here be put into other contexts as well as in relation to more comprehensive issues, therefore also getting another kind of relevance than in the previous studies.

Like in the case of both The Sacred Cause and Det andra könet i öst, my deepest gratitude goes to the librarians at the city library of Nyköping, Sweden, for their enthusiastic collaboration. Many thanks also to Eszter Losonczi for her assisting contributions in Budapest as well as to Tania Goryushina in Kiev for her collaborative curiosity regarding Kazimir Malevich and his possible Jewish lineage. Moreover, there had been no book without the translators Tomas Håkanson, Tove Isaksson, and Rikard Wennerholm, neither without the discussions with, among others, Krisztina Passuth in Budapest and Ziva Amishai-Maisels in Jerusalem.

The book had been impossible to finish without fundings from the Grönqvist Foundation in Helsinki through Jan von Bonsdorff at the Uppsala University. The author is, moreover, especially grateful to Wyn Matthews for his kind proofreading and corrections of my English.

The book is dedicated to Ann for everything she gives me. ← 20 | 21 →


      1   Gay 1978, p. 21.

      2   In this book both of these concept are being used interwoven into each other. David Sorkin, for instance, wants to use the concept of “integration” or “culturalization” instead of “assimilation”. Sorkin 1990, p. 17–33. Most of the researchers referred to in this study prefer the latter concept.

      3   Gerner 1997.

      4   See for instance Jacobs 1891, p. 29 and Brakoniecki 1987, p. 100–114.

      5   S. A. Mansbach.: “Methodology and Meaning in the Modern Art of Eastern Europe”. Benson 2002, p. 289–306.

      6   Sandqvist 2013.

      7   Katalin Keserü: “Changing Values in Central European Art at the Turn of the Century”. Baranowa 2001, p. 25–28.

      8   See for instance Vlcek 1990, p. 28–32.

      9   Benson 2002, p. 50.

    10   Andrzej Turowski: “The Phenomenon of Blurring”. Benson 2002, p. 362–373.

    11   Turowski 2004, p. 35 and Turowski 2010, but in a letter to Tom Sandqvist he is unclear regarding Malevich and his possible Jewish lineage. Turowski 2012, unpubl.

    12   Karády 2004, p. 2004.

    13   Hanák 1998, p. 175.

    14   The Wanderer Sings.


II. Attaching

Ahasuerus Tries to Conform

In his widely discussed essay about “a hijacked West” published in 1983 the Czech writer Milan Kundera15 tries to define the concept of “Central Europa” as being connected to the historical Habsburg monarchy, the multinational empire in the very heart of the continent of Europe which existed almost uninterruptedly from the beginning of the 16th century up until the breakdown during the Great War. Despite its weakness, Central Europe became a great cultural center at the beginning of the 20th century, Kundera states. According to him, the originality which characterized the capital of the empire was unthinkable without the background of the other countries beyond Austria and Vienna, as these substantially contributed with their own creativity to Central European culture as a whole. If Arnold Schönberg developed the dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone” compositional method, then it was the Hungarian Béla Bartók who found the last authentic possibility for a music based on the tonal principle. With the works of Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek Prague created a great counterpart in literature to the works of the Viennese Robert Musil and Hermann Broch. The cultural dynamics of the non-German countries was additionally intensified during the decades following 1918 as Prague contributed with its linguistic circle and structuralist theories.

Could this great creative bursting have been a mere geographical coincidence? Kundera asks himself joining those who refuse to nail down the geographical boundaries of Central European culture on the ground that Central Europe is not a state but a culture or rather a condition defined by every specific historical situation. Then, is there a common denominator when it comes to all these cultural differences, discourses, and transgressions throughout the centuries? Indeed, Kunderas says. Sigmund Freud’s parents came from Poland, but it was in Moravia he spent his childhood, like also Edmund Husserl and Gustav Mahler. The Viennese ← 21 | 22 → writer Joseph Roth too was rooted in Poland, while, for instance, the poet Julius Zeyer was born in Prague into a German-speaking family, although he himself chose to write in Czech. Inversely Hermann Kafka’s mother tongue was Czech, while his son Franz Kafka turned to German. Likewise, Milan Kunderas might have pointed at such writers and artists as Franz Werfel, Rainer Maria Rilke, György Lukács, and László Moholy-Nagy when exclaiming: what a confusion of national conditions and destinations with the most representative personalities? Indeed, what tied these prominent figures together was their common anchorage to Jewish culture – No part of the world has ever been as deeply characterized by precisely the “Jewish genius” as Central Europe, by these strangers everywhere equally at home as anywhere else, raised above national struggles the most important cosmopolitan and integrating element of Central Europe, a “condensation of its spirit”, “creator of its spiritual unity”. In the Jews the destiny of Central Europe seems to be concentrated, finding its symbolical image in them. Thus, Kundera defines the Jews as the constant trait of the Central European intellectual landscape up until the disaster of the World War II, at the same time its most obvious and most integrative element. The history of Central Europe cannot be understood without references to the Jewish experience.

Trying to avoid repeating the surveys of The Sacred Cause and Det andra könet i öst when it comes to describing the Jewish participation in the overall socio-political and cultural discourses of Central and Eastern Europe we may, in all essentials, turn to the hitherto perhaps most updated socio-historial summary, that is, the Hungarian historian Victor Karady’s The Jews of Europe in the Modern Era published in 2004, together with the Russian-American historian Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century (2004), particularly the latter when we consider the Russian context. When looking at the Jews in the countries concerned and their contributions to the process of modernization throughout the 19th century it’s hardly a coincidence that Karady so explicitly emphasizes the profoundly “democratic” character of the traditional Jewish society, a trait supposed to be transported into the Jewish attitude towards modernity’s inherent non-hierarchical multiplicity and possibilities. There was no nobility nor gentry in this society and therefore no special normative culture of nobility either of the kind characterizing the political and cultural establishment of the entire region, nor any institutionalized, hierarchically structurized clergy, since the clerical functions in principle were accessible for whoever having acquired the trust of the community together with necessary book-learning. There was no real peasantry either subordinated to feudal lords or landowners, instead there were small entrepreneurs of different kinds, shopkeepers, artisans, leaseholders, innkeepers, distillers, and creditors; topping the ← 22 | 23 → economical hierarchy there were private bankers, wholesalers, factory owners, and internationally active stockbrokers,16 all these professions characterized by Slezkine as “Mercurian” after the name of the Roman patron god of financial gain and commerce, a precondition of the emergence of modern society.

The first emancipatory act of modern times in Europe was the so-called Toleranzpatent of Joseph II issued in 1781 and followed by a succession of decrees, all of them presumably inspired by the German philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment Christian Wilhelm von Dohm and his book Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung des Juden published in the same year and written on the initiative of Moses Mendelsohn in Berlin, the prominent figure of the Haskalah, “Hasskole”, the Jewish Enlightenment which came victoriously out of the struggle between “maskilim” and “mitgnadim”, that is, between those who fought for a reformed Jewishness and those who clung to old traditions and rituals. Like the Protestants and Orthodox Christians the Jews were now admitted freedom of religion at the same time they were released from the compulsion of wearing specific attributes. One of the purposes of the famous and extremely “Mercurian” edict of tolerance was to make the Jews more “useful” for the state giving them the right to devote themselves to trading, craftsmanship, and agriculture, which also had the desired effect as trade and economical life as such were opened for them at the same time as they were encouraged by the state to establish factories and actively participate in the craft trades and agriculture, though they were not allowed to own the ground which they were cultivating themselves. Simultaneously, the universities and other kinds of higher education were opened, which had an immense cultural impact in connection with the fact that the authorities – in spite of their extensive participation in, for instance, the revolutions of 1846–1849 – considered the Jews true pillars of society, at the same time as the Jews themselves perceived the multinational Habsburg state as their best protector against right-wing nationalist and anti-Semitic movements.

With Victor Karady one may – without any fundamental reservations – claim that the general cultural integration among the Jews in the Habsburg empire had their faces always turned to the governing political and cultural elite, at the same time as at least big parts of the assimilated Jewish layers of the population in Russia, Jewish doctors, lawyers, journalists, actors, writers, and artists, expressed their loyalty to dominating Russian culture, even to the extent that their embrace soon became a part of the “Jewish problem” in the Russian tsardom. They loved Pushkin far too much, and, for instance, in Odessa during the decades before the ← 23 | 24 → Great War, the assimilated Jews discovered that they were the only ones propagating Russian culture in their efforts to preserve and promote “the spiritual possessions of the nation” at the same time they themselves, through harassments and pogroms, were called in question regarding their aptitude for this achievement.17 Where the different ethnical groups in Habsburg fought each other, the Jews mostly allied themselves with that elite which was conceived as “more modern”, that is, open towards the West. The assimilation was never complete nor total, but the ethnic and cultural origin could generations after generations be revealed by, for instance, the way of speaking, the body language, and eating habits, as well as by multilingualism, which, of course, was no obstacle to the Jews’ intermediate role, a fact also strongly contributing to the process of social and cultural modernization in the culturally backward countries respectively.

In many respects characterized by German high culture with its almost irresistible attraction simultaneously as the need to attach to the majority culture was made itself more and more felt through an incessant intensification of an expressly nationalistic atmosphere throughout the 19th century the Hungarian Jews between the East and the West seem undoubtedly to be the emblematic example of how the process of integration could look like after the Toleranzpatent. Hungary got its most significant Jewish addition through the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, and, according to Karady, this population, immigrated mostly from Galicia but also from Bohemia and Moravia, seems to have belonged to the most dynamic ones of Habsburg Jewry, a fact that made them easier to adopt to local circumstances. Thanks to an extensive network of German-language schools already at the end of the 18th century the assimilation took part within a mostly German cultural context here also, something which was not in the least made easier by the fact that most of the Jews concerned spoke the Western variant of Yiddish and therefore were able to melt into the German-language environment. Eventually most of them constituted the core of Hungarian “Neologism”, the movement which in close touch with the German Haskalah tried to reach a fundamental renewal of the region’s Jewish life. In the light of the experiences hereditary from the age of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, which got its final shape at the end of the 16th century and which finally collapsed through the Polish partitions, and in reference to factual conditions in Galicia, the Jews maintained tights contacts with the landowning gentry based on mutual interests. These were contacts which during the so-called reform period of the mid-19th century later were transformed into what Karady prefers to define as an assimilatory social contract, a symbolical ← 24 | 25 → but also an economical alliance between the nobility’s most liberal segments and the rapidly emerging Jewish middle class.18

Therefore it’s hardly a coincidence either that the Jews appeared to be loyal to to that part of the nobility too – both the aristocracy and the gentry as well – which sought to build the Hungarian nation and which in return offered them protection against growing anti-Semitism, a fact which in turn resulted in that a tolerant, secular, modern constitutional order emerged with its great possibilities of professional mobility for the Jews, furthermore a fact contributing to the Jewish assimilation or integration “en masse” in Hungary particularly. Thus, round about the turn of the last century all of the Jewish elementary schools were Magyarized at the same time as the sermons were held in Hungarian in almost 90 percent of the Neologist synagogues as well as in 13 percent of the synagogues labeled as Orthodox. The “nationalization” of the Jews in the Hungarian “core” regions was equally total as in any Western European country, which also was reflected by the fact that the Jews got complete civil rights in connection with the “Ausgleich”, the big compromise of 1867 by which the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was created.

In Jewish Eastern Europe, that is, in the Russian-Jewish Pale of Settlement, which was established at the end of the 18th century in great parts of today’s Eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and “true” Russia, along with parts of the Habsburg province of Galicia, the traditional communities characterized by both rabbinical piety and Hasidic “expressionism” responded to the demands of the Haskalah for integration by trying to consolidate the already frail group cohesiveness by rigid control and further efforts to additionally strengthen their own definition of Jewish identity as such. Jewish Orthodoxy locked itself behind the bastions of tradition and refused for a long time to tolerate whatsoever compromises to modern life, even though this stubborn refusal often resulted in obvious political and economical disadvantages. But in general the Jewish identity, through the Haskalah, was no longer something which was passed over from generation to generation, but became throughout the entire 19th century subjected to both individual choices and choices adjusted to the group. In Hungary, one was able to choose between a rabbinical, Western oriented Orthodoxy, a Galician Orthodoxy, a Hasidic alignment, or a status quo ante traditionalism; here, traditional and reformed communities lived side by side especially in the big towns, and could even compete with each other.19 ← 25 | 26 →

The alternative options regarding identity seemed endlessly many and became, as the century advanced, more and more individual simultaneously as the anti-Semitic sentiments survived as a sort of an ominous sound box throughout the entire period and in every possible context. It was of little use to convert into the Christian faith, to “nationalize” one’s family name, as we shall see a very common act among the artists, or to simply stop paying attention to one’s religious affiliation, to stop going to the synagogue, to stop celebrating the Jewish holidays, despite all this one was constantly and everywhere conceived and defined as “of Jewish lineage”, “of Jewish blood”, “a Jew in one’s hearth”, or even “Jewish in one’s thought”. Victor Karady uses the expression “assimilatory rapprochement” and points at the process of assimilation always being incomplete or uncompleted: the assimilated Jew is never transformed into an Hungarian bourgeois or burgher, a French clerk, an Italian intellectual, or a German nobleman, since nobody is really able to get rid of his or her otherness. This process is never homogeneous or uniform either: even among those seemingly fully assimilated one discovers more often than only occasionally reminiscences of traditional thought patterns or ways of how to behave, at times grounded down and repressed, in other cases acknowledged and even cultivated, often combined with heavily over-emphasized imitating traits in relation to the majority cultures respectively, like in the case of those Hungarian Jews, counts and barons, doing everything in their power to appear as Hungarian as possible. Simultaneously one must not overexert oneself when it comes to winning necessary social positions, sinche then one could be accused of being a “nouveau riche”, a parvenu, an intruder, “one who doesn’t know his or her proper place”, at the same time one must not do too little either, since then one could be accused of not doing enough. Consequently, the Jews were not able to follow other than specific patterns of behavior, in general the “most modern” ones, which in turn resulted in that the assimilated Jews conquered a more advanced phase of modernity than most of the majority population when it came to, for instance, middle class way of life and economical efficiency according to Western models.20

The Central and Eastern European Jews differed from the Western ones in that fundamental respect that an overwhelming majority of them retained their multilingualism, while most of, for instance, the French, British, and German Jews adopted to the majority’s “national” monolingualism, at the same time multilingual assimilation in for instance Hungary, Galicia, and Bohemia was unified with being loyal to the Orthodox traditions, since it simply was useful to be able to ← 26 | 27 → maintain the contacts with the Orthodox communities as well. And, of course, this multilingualism did not put any obstacles in the way for those who, more than the majority population, participated in the process of modernization, a process which in many cases also resulted in conversions, in strong Catholic countries such as Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia, but also in Hungary, interesting enough to Protestantism, although Catholicism here could have offered many more advantages. In other words, it was hardly any coincidence that, for instance, László Moholy-Nagy turned to Calvinism when converting in 1918.21 One explanation when it comes to the choice of Protestantism might be that the Protestants were in minority exactly like the Jews themselves and that the converted Jews thus nevertheless were situated within the “Christian norm”, at the same time the ritual practice of Protestantism was closer to the Jewish one than the Catholic.22

“The Jewish Century” and the “Ordeal of Civility”

By putting the stress on modernity and entrepreneurship the “Mercurian” 19th century was a thoroughly “Jewish century”, if we are to believe in Yuri Slezkine. At a time of “earning nomadism” the Jews became the chosen people by making an example of a model of modernity as such, while, at the same time, the emerging middle class was to made of an ever increasing number of “Jews”, that is, urban, mobile, educated, and professionally flexible entrepreneurs and business owners, industrialists and manufacturers, who, exactly like Max Weber’s Protestants demanded extortionists despite being as pious as always, that is, all those who acquired prestige with the help of their wealth but who also – like the Jews – tried to find redemption in direct contact with God, without mediation by the clergy, all those who read the Scriptures, behaved correctly, and followed the rules. In this way the churches were transformed into schools, that is, synagogues, while the priests became those who taught the new paragons of virtue like any rabbi. Indeed, the nation itself became “tribal” like the Jewish community, that is, excluding: every people became a chosen people, every country a Promised Land, every capital a Jerusalem. The national languages were sacralized, at the same time the artists, the writers, the intellectuals were canonized as modern prophets simultaneously as the Jews stepped out of their legal, ritual and social exclusion. Segregated ← 27 | 28 → societies occupied in professions previously considered “unclean” lost their raison d’être as the Jews joined a world created in their own image. In a society of more and more strangers domiciled in places everywhere the eternal strangers felt like being at home.23


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
Modernism Hebraism Moderne (kunst) Avantgarde Russian Suprematism Konstruktivismus jüdische Philosophie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 542 pp., 64 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Tom Sandqvist (Author)

Tom Sandqvist is Professor and Docent in Theory of Art and Art History based in Stockholm. Ahasuerus at the Easel continues the discussion in the author’s previous book The Sacred Cause (Peter Lang 2013) on Central and Eastern European Modernism.


Title: Ahasuerus at the Easel
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544 pages