Art Patronage and Philistinism in Argentina: Maurycy Minkowski in Buenos Aires, 1930

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Art Patronage and Philistinism in Argentina: Maurycy Minkowski in Buenos Aires, 1930(1)

In August 1930 the Polish-Jewish painter Maurycy Minkowski arrived in Buenos Aires for a well-publicized but commercially unsuccessful exhibition of his artworks. Minkowski's exhibition coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, a military uprising, and a roundup of Jewish procurers associated with the Sociedad Zwi Migdal. Both before and after his accidental death (and "celebrity funeral") in November 1930, his patrons -- who included the ambassador from Poland and prominent Jewish cultural figures -- denounced what they regarded as the philistinism of Jewish parvenus in Argentina. As memory of the artist lapsed into obscurity, his supporters established the Museo Minkowski, housing it in the Argentine Jewish community building (AMIA). The salvage of this collection from the ruins of the AMIA, following the July 1994 terrorist bombing, has set the stage for the rehabilitation of this neglected artist's reputation.

The AMIA Bombing and Jewish Cultural Treasures in Buenos Aires

Six years have passed since a terrorist bomb destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (or AMIA) building in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, killing 86 individuals and wounding another 300. This horrendous crime -- perhaps the bloodiest attack against a Jewish target in the Diaspora since World War II -- has yet to be solved and its perpetrators tracked down and punished. The Argentine Jewish community will be feeling the aftereffects of the bombing for years to come.

Among the Jewish organizations that for almost 50 years were housed in the AMIA was the Instituto Científico Judéo -- IWO -- which (like New York's YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) traces its origins to the Vilna-based Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut. Located on the building's third and fourth floors, IWO's Central Library and Archives was the most extensive collection of printed Judaica in Latin America. IWO also possessed the world's largest collection of artworks by the Polish Jewish painter Maurycy Minkowski, and its exhibit gallery was named after him.(2)

A Polish Jewish Artist Arrives in Argentina

Born in Warsaw in 1881, Minkowski was a medal-winning graduate of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. In his art he documented in a naturalistic manner the impact of pogroms, war, and persecution on the Jews of Eastern Europe; he portrayed the grinding poverty and displacement of everyday Jewish life; and he depicted the splendors of Jewish religious traditions -- especially the woman's role in Judaism. Minkowski had lost his hearing as a result of a childhood illness, and the impact of his deafness upon his art was frequently discussed by his contemporaries.

After a decade of increasingly successful touring exhibitions throughout Western Europe and Poland, Maurycy Minkowski embarked on his final voyage in August of 1930, when -- accompanied by his wife Rachel (née Marshak) and his brother Feliks -- he arrived in Buenos Aires, together with over 200 of his artworks. He was greeted as the first Jewish artist of international stature to visit Argentina. Buenos Aires was intended to be the first leg of a circuit of exhibitions by Minkowski; originally, he planned to continue on to Brazil, the United States, and Canada, then return to Poland and proceed from there to Palestine. In 1931, a large-scale retrospective in Warsaw, in honor of the artist's 50th birthday, was projected.(3)

Minkowski came to Argentina at a pivotal juncture in that country's history. On September 6th, just a few weeks after his arrival, a right-wing military revolt overthrew the elected government led by the aging President Hipó1ito Yrigoyen. Argentina then embarked upon a long and depressing cycle of military intervention into civilian affairs, which ended only with the country's humiliating defeat in the Malvinas (Falklands) War of 1982. Minkowski was an eyewitness to the 1930 Revolution, and sketches depicting that event were found in his atelier after his death. …