Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust, by Matthew Baigell

By M, Patricia | Shofar, October 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust, by Matthew Baigell


M, Patricia, Shofar


Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust, by Matthew Baigell

Relatively short (117 pages of text), small enough to be read comfortably on the subway, and modest in presentation (only 44 small black-and-white illustrations), this slim volume is the very antithesis of the coffee-table book. It resists the temptation to aestheticize the tragic, thus summing up in its physical form one of the ethical principles of art production the author introduces in his book.

Matthew Baigell is one of the leading historians of American art. A prolific author, he has written a biographical dictionary of American artists, a major textbook, monographs on such important artists as Thomas Benton, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt, and dozens of articles. He has also written and lectured on Jewish art, as in a key catalog essay for the exhibition Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900-1945 (Jewish Museum, 1991). On the basis of such achievement, one comes to Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust with high expectations. It does not disappoint.

It should be noted at the outset, however, that this is not a standard art historical study. Baigell invests a large amount of personal capital in the book -- inserting himself in the story in various places, taking on difficult issues, making critical judgments that are sometimes quite harsh. A risky enterprise, but it works: his strong feelings and moral passion give important ballast to a scholarly project. They dictate in fact the very way the book is organized, a free play of chronology and the topical: "I allowed the flow of the text to proceed as the material seemed to warrant" (Preface, p. x).

Although Baigell's intention is to concentrate on the art of the last twenty years, he offers a short survey at the beginning. In the first chapter, he tells us which Jewish artists grappled in the 1930s with the issue of Nazi actions against the Jews -- Ben Shahn and Max Weber, for example -- what they did with the information they had, and if and how it entered their art. He also takes the opportunity to excoriate the Jewish Left for its divided loyalties. Subsequently, he treats the "denial" on the part of many Jews of the war and early postwar period gently for the most part (except for a searing critique of modernist art critic Clement Greenberg). One of Baigell's notable strengths as an art historian is his willingness to incorporate social history into the discourse. In this book, his close study of the literature on Holocaust studies enables him to provide a fitting context for the art he discusses.

In the remaining chapters, which constitute the heart of the book, Baigell is clearly more sympathetic with the ensuing decades that have produced a resurgence of interest in Jewish themes among Jewish-American artists. …

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