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Ahasuerus at the Easel

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

Tom Sandqvist

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?
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I. Introduction


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...

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