Problems in the Historiography of Russian Jewish Art

Alina Orlov, University of Southern California

In 1922 Chagall wrote in a Yiddish magazine: "If I were not Jewish (in the sense that I understand this), I would not be an artist, or I would be a totally different kind of artist." This often-quoted phrase implies an equivalence between Chagall's Jewishness and his art. But the way his sentence is constructed leaves the core of the issue unexplained. After all, Chagall's phrase is built on negative logic ("If I were not..., I would not be..."), conjecture ("If"), subjectivity ("in the sense that I understand this"), and ambiguity ("a different kind of artist"). As such, it tells us nothing about-and deliberately leaves open-precisely what Chagall meant by "Jewish." The endless cycle he has invited art historians to enter--where they consider his Jewishness through his art and vice versa-seems like yet another of his "Jewish in-jokes." Chagall, of course, does nothing more than exercise the right offered by modernism to define Jewishness in one's own terms. This resistance to definition, one that both intrigues and frustrates the critic, encapsulates the problem "Jewish art" has posed to twentieth-century art historiography in Russia.

The first three decades of the last century present a unique case for positing the category of Jewish national art. Among the numerous Jewish Russian and Eastern European artists who emerged during this cultural renaissance, many took the challenge of defining a national aesthetic quite seriously. Such was the goal, for example, of the school E. Lilien founded in Palestine in 1906 and of the Jewish Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (1915-1919) centered in Petrograd, whose membership included about two hundred artists. The "Culture League" and an array of associated organizations in Ukraine also worked to create a Jewish national style. While in "La Ruche," the Parisian haven for Jewish artists like Jacques Lipchitz, Chaim Soutine, and Osip Zadkine, the need for a self-consciously "Jewish art" was actively questioned, the work of Chagall, Natan Al'tman and Solomon Iudovin heralded its arrival.

On the whole, Russian art criticism was reticent to react to this phenomenon. Literature on Russian-Jewish artists of previous generations like Mark Antokol'skij and Isaak Levitan broached the topic quite gingerly. Established art historians like N. Punin and A. Benois also paid it little attention. But several beginning scholars considered the possibility of advancing "Jewish art" as an art historical category. Nikolaj Lavrskij, for example, examined the question in his monograph Art and Jews of 1915, and Maksim Syrkin, Rachel Bernshtein-Vishnicer, and Isaak Brodksij gave several lectures on the topic in the late 1910s. Abram Efros and Jakob Tugenxol'd promoted various Jewish artists as such in their publications. But even these critics, who were invested in the idea of a national art, struggled to define "Jewishness" in aesthetic terms. Lavrskij, for example, while declaring the Jews "a talented people" in the plastic arts found it impossible to imagine their aesthetic contribution as something "national." Nonetheless, he saw a political significance in the entry of an unprecedented numbers of Jews into the creative professions, writing: "now the Jews have transformed themselves from being objects of observation and study into a creative factor that the art historian and critic must account for."

My paper will consider attempts such as this to specify the Jew's relationship to the visual arts, paying particular attention to the conflict that I see between the political and aesthetic meanings ascribed to Jewish "object of observation." This paper is part of a larger project on national identity in the art of Natan Al'tman.