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Not Marc Chagall

"The Quartet," 1930s.

In the annals of modernist art, three European Jewish names stand out: Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani. A fourth should be added. This is Emmanuel Mané Katz. Born in 1894 to a traditional Jewish family in the Ukraine, he moved to Paris at the age of nineteen to pursue a career as a painter, and there joined the three more fabled artists named above. Together, they have been loosely called "the School of Paris."

Relevant Links
ManĂ© Katz  Angela Levine, Midnight East. In its renovated state, a historic house on Mount Carmel, deeded by the artist to the city of Haifa over a half-century ago, is not only going strong but is set to expand its activities.
Out of Focus  Alana Newhouse, Tablet. Are American Jews ready to give up their shtetl nostalgia, epitomized, for example, in the carefully doctored photographs of Roman Vishniac, for something more real?

Among the four, only two, Chagall and Mané Katz, explicitly treated Jewish subjects and themes in their paintings. While Chagall's dream-like invocations of his childhood shtetl are the more famous works, Mané Katz also produced a remarkable series of expressionistic images culled from traditional Eastern European Jewish life. They contemplate scholars, lone fiddlers, musicians at a wedding, innocent yeshiva students holding up Torah scrolls and, in one imaginative reconciliation of the old and the new, blessing the city of Paris.

Mané Katz's connection to the Jewish world was based on more than nostalgia for a vanished past. He first visited the land of Israel in 1928, and returned often even while spending most of his adult life in Paris. During Israel's 1948-49 war of independence, he arrived with sixty of his paintings for an exhibition at the Tel Aviv museum; he was the fourth tourist formally to enter the newborn country.

His love affair with Israel was officially consummated in 1958 when the city of Haifa offered him a modest villa perched on Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, with the understanding that his works would be stored there after he passed away. He died suddenly four years later, in 1962. Today, the site is home to the Mané Katz museum, which on April 9 re-opened after two years of renovations.

The inaugural exhibition is titled, appropriately, Mané Katz: The Jewish Heritage. In the museum's four variously shaped interior spaces hang paintings and drawings depicting the shtetl, scenes from the Holocaust, and Jewish life in the land of Israel. Throughout, though, the dominant motif is images of traditional Jews.

Of these, one particularly intriguing example is the painting Three Rabbis, dated 1955. Two rabbis with sidelocks and delicate snow-white beards stand side by side against a solid black background. Wearing red, purple, earth-orange, and gold Oriental-hasidic robes, they are engaged in conversation while the third rabbi, similarly attired, looks on. As if to emphasize the intimacy of the dialogue between the two rabbis, the artist has joined them physically: a broad purplish brushstroke connects the edges of their two jackets and a quivering gray and earth-colored line runs along the bottom of their dress. Beneath the fine robes, only three feet are visible; the middle foot is shared in common.

                                                                   Three Rabbis, 1955.

This sense of a world held together by bonds of intellect, inner illumination, and refinement was shared by Mané Katz himself. But that is not to say that he was incapable of critical distance. A 1938 painting, Am Yisrael Hai ("The Nation of Israel Lives"), presents a divided canvas: hasidic Jews on the left, Zionist pioneers on the right. Again three rabbis appear, but their backs are emphatically turned on the band of young, joyful, marching pioneers at whose head strides a girl in a white tunic, her bared breasts vying for attention with another fertility symbol: a basketful of oranges raised on a worker's shoulder in the center of the picture field. Here, a highly idealized if consciously over-the-top portrayal of the pioneering type appears to mock the prudishness of traditional Jews.

                                                  Am Yisrael Hai ("The Nation of Israel Lives"), 1938.

This painting, something of an exception among Mané Katz's largely sympathetic depictions of traditional Jewish life, reminds us how variously that life has been imagined by later writers and artists. In recent years it has become modish among academics and others to debunk the sentimental projections familiar from Fiddler on the Roof and other such works: stereotyped visions that falsify the complex reality of East European Jewish society. The aim of academic studies like The Shtetl: Myth and Reality and The Shtetl: New Evaluations is to offer a more sophisticated and nuanced account.

The problem, however, is that the sophisticated reconsiderations of Eastern European Jewish life almost always fail to do justice to one of its most salient qualities. This was the internal compass that enabled Jews, whether in the shtetl or in the ghetto, to say "no" to the outside world. In the modern period, many so-called emancipated Jews, in the process of assimilating into non-Jewish society, lost that "ghetto pride" and inner freedom, having exchanged it for a mode of being that the critic Ahad Ha'am referred to as "external freedom and internal slavery."

As the political philosopher Leo Strauss wrote, this same old "ghetto mentality" continues to be despised by many Jews uncritically committed to the terms of modern liberal society. Such Jews also tend to despise their haredi (ultra-Orthodox) cousins, who more than any others have maintained to an impressive—and discomfiting—degree their old-school inner compass. What else would inure them to the insults so often hurled in their direction as, among their other peculiarities, they insist on wearing fur hats in the middle of summer?

Is this "ghetto pride," this capacity for dissent, merely a product of millennia of exile? To the contrary: sustaining the Jewish people in exile, this radically independent spirit goes all the way back to the Bible—where the people Israel is characterized as "a nation that dwells alone"—and is part of the spiritual DNA passed on by the patriarch Abraham. According to the talmudic rabbis, Abraham was called Ivri, the Hebrew, from a root meaning one who passes over, precisely because he stood stubbornly and proudly on one side of the divide, while the entire world stood on the other.

That inner pride and freedom are among the dominant characteristics of the traditional Jews depicted in the art of Mané Katz, including the rabbis turning their backs on the rejoicing pioneers. They are the qualities that set them apart from the fey, whimsical, or suffering Jews painted by his contemporary Marc Chagall and that, along with Mané Katz's aesthetic appeal, make them worthy of special contemplation today. 

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Eytan Mirsky on April 21, 2011 at 10:47 am (Reply)
The bare-breasted woman is clearly reminiscent of "Liberty Leading the People" by Delacroix.

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