Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art

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Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art, by Samantha Baskind. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 260 pp. Plates + figures. $39.95.

Samantha Baskind is an art historian. Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) was an artist. Baskind's monograph includes nine colored plates and 61 black-and-white figures. All of the plates and 25 of the figures reproduce images made by Soyer. By themselves, the plates and figures warrant purchase or perusal of the book. Soyer's artworks are sensitive, beguiling, and never flamboyant. They are a pleasure to behold.

The title of the monograph is ambiguous. Who conducted the search? Baskind or Soyer? Assuming that it was Soyer, the artist, who systematically articulated a theory and practice of modern Jewish art, readers might reasonably expect that Baskind, the art historian, assembles and interprets Soyer's comments regarding the topic. In fact, Baskind does not cite this rare but readily accessible passage in Soyer's abundant writings: "Of the four artists whose work Irving Howe reproduced in his [World of Our Fathers], Max Weber, Ben Shahn, Abraham Walkowitz and myself . . . I was the least involved with Jewish content in art. . . . I can mention only three paintings of mine that have Jewish content of some sort: The "Dancing Lesson," in which my immigrant mother is holding a Yiddish newspaper; a painting of a Lower East Side street with a Yiddish sign advertising rooms for rent; and a portrait of my father shortly before he died holding his own book called Dor Holaykh, (The Passing Generation)" [Raphael Soyer, Diary of an Artist, p. 290].

Neither does the monograph mention other facets of Soyer's biography that might harbor clues to the relationship between his brand of Judaism and his artwork: the life-long practice of painting nude women; the self-acknowledged lack of skill in sculpture; the ambivalence toward technology; the lament over the alienation or superannuation of the artist's personality and skill by other media; the excruciating sensitivity to historical change; the awareness in life or art of the "trait" or "strain of Jewish lacrimosity, deep-seated . . . teichen-treren-rivers of tears"; the portraits of S. Y. Agnon or Golda Meir he made during visits to Israel after 1967; and the autobiographical description he wrote of his visit to Dachau in 1966.

That these lacunae are intentional rather than inadvertent is made clear in the Introduction. Baskind declares that her "study does not discuss aspects of [Soyer's] work that, while interesting, are not as relevant to a consideration of his work as Jewish art. Rather, different aspects of the artist's work are read thematically, keeping his identity as a Jewish immigrant in mind throughout" (p. 10, emphasis added). Baskind is fixated on the sociology of immigration. She would have us believe that, once deciphered, Raphael Soyer's images illustrate the psychological stresses of being an alienated Jew in twentieth-century New York. …