"Pole, Jew, Artist: Identity and Avant-Garde": MUZEUM SZTUKI

By Bartelik, Marek | Artforum International, February 2010 | Go to article overview

"Pole, Jew, Artist: Identity and Avant-Garde": MUZEUM SZTUKI


Bartelik, Marek, Artforum International


Summing up the experience of the Jewish pioneers of modernism, the artist Henryk Gotlib observed in 1932: "It is not important what Jews became for painting but what painting became for the Jews." Without claiming to be a survey of art produced by Jewish artists in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Lvov, and Vilna during the interwar period, this fascinating exhibition focused on a number of individuals who defined modernism in the local context, while situating their works in relation to a broader international art scene. Stressing the avant-garde aspects of pieces in various media, the show--superbly curated by Jaroslaw Suchan and the late Joanna Ritt--avoided presenting the artists either as exotic or eccentric, or labeling them solely on the basis of ethnicity.

The Young Yiddish group--a loose fraternity of Expressionist writers and artists from Lodz named after an art review published in Yiddish in 1919--programmatically defined Jewish identity in art and literature after World War I as a new and distinct phenomenon, with its language and its aesthetics belonging to Eastern European Jewry. The works produced by the group reflected their complex perspective on what constituted "Jewish art" and its representation in the early twentieth century. For example, Marek Szware's Crucifixion, 1917, recalls a primitive religious sculpture, yet focuses on its own artifice instead of realistically depicting an event that for the Jews was often associated with pogroms and martyrdom rather than with Christian dogma. Similarly, Jankiel Adler's painting My Parents, 1921, portrays his mother and father as religious subjects whose union is signified in a Cubist manner by a piece of parchment with a ksyba (a traditional marriage certificate) hanging on the canvas from a wooden support.

In Warsaw, Henryk Berlewi pioneered abstraction and Teresa Zarnower worked as a Constructivist, but Berlewi continued to make art with specific Jewish themes, while Zarnower sometimes presented hers in Jewish publications. …

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