The Magnes Museum, the “Jewish Museum of the West,” is currently exhibiting a fine collection of paintings, photographs, works on paper and sculpture from the Jewish Museum in New York. Many of the paintings are by artists of social conscience, such as Ben Shahn, Raphael and Moses Soyer, Peter Blume, Ben Zion, William Gropper and Philip Evergood.
The earliest entries are drawings by Jacob Epstein, who drew people in the Lower East Side, such as Revolutionaries (1900)—intense young radicals, sitting, discussing, planning, plotting. Epstein soon emigrated to England, where, as Sir Jacob Epstein, he became a renowned sculptor. There is also the famous photograph The Steerage (1907) by Alfred Stieglitz, a beautifully composed picture of the huddled masses, below a white drawbridge, who were made to return to steerage, having been refused entry to land.
A relatively unknown artist, Theresa Bernstein, who was greatly influenced by the Armory Show which brought modern art to America in 1913, painted a striking Self Portrait (1914) with vigorous Expressionist brushwork and the bright color contrasts which she saw in Matisse’s paintings. Max Weber, born in Russia, and an early American modernist, turned to Jewish subjects after the War, as seen in his Sabbath (1919). At that time Weber wrote “to see an art work casually or en passant is a very pleasant experience: but to come in touch with the vision, the spirit of its maker, is seeing in participation and then it is not a gratification but an exultation.”
Many artists at the time, disillusioned with the injustice inherent in the capitalist system and affected directly by the Great Depression, produced radical political art. William Gropper, one of the most militant among American Social Realists, is represented with drawings which reveal the Nazi propaganda in the United States as late as 1942, as well as with one of his paintings of Senators, a canvas done in 1950. It depicts lawmakers thrashing the air and reminds the viewer of the punch in Daumier’s paintings of French legislators.
Perhaps the most eloquent painting in the show is Phil Evergood’s The Hundredth Psalm. The satirical reference is to the psalm which praises the Lord for his mercy. What we see in this deeply moving small painting is a black man, hanging from a tree with flames below his body, while clansmen hold their folded hand in pious prayer and play the fiddle. We are clearly reminded of Billie Holiday, plaintively singing “Strange Fruit” at the same time in a New York night club.
The abstract Expressionists are well represented with early work. There is Mark Rothko’s portrait of his first wife, Edith Sachar, done in 1932—long before he moved into his iconic abstractions. This small picture of a comely young woman, done with expressive brushstrokes recalling Soutine, indicates great talent by this painter, still in his twenties.
The thrust of American painting changed greatly after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, the destruction of World War II, the devastation of the atom bomb, and the Holocaust. Many artists such as Rothko felt that art was not able to solve social and political problems. They found personal contact with the European modernist tradition of Surrealism and abstraction and developed a new form of painting. Adolph Gottleib is represented with a splendid painting, The Return of the Mariner, which uses the genre of pictographs with images of a profile head, arrows, an eye and a sail as totemic forms of mythic content. There is also a semi-abstract painting, Jacob’s Ladder and Menorah (1951) by Robert Motherwell, which was a study the artist made for a synagogue in Milburn, New Jersey, and two fine early paintings by Morris Louis, done prior to his well known color fields. Charred Journal Firewritten V (1951) is part of a series of canvases which referred to the Nazi book burning. Louis started as a Social Realist in Baltimore, but felt that the Nazi horror was so great that only abstraction could deal with it in art. This work and the accompanying Marcella and Joe Went Walking (1950) are among the finest paintings in the exhibition, which traces the development of American painting from realism, often dealing with Jewish identity and with sociopolitical concerns to a more inner-directed abstraction.
The Magnes Museum and its chief curator Alla Efimova all deserve to be commended on a series of innovative exhibitions called “Revisions.” The current installment, “The First Intergalactic Art Exhibition” by Jonathan Keats, however, is more shadow than substance.
MY AMERICA: ART FROM THE JEWISH MUSEUM COLLECTION, 1900-1955
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m.-8p.m. Thursday. $4-$6.
Judah L. Magnes Museum,
2911 Russell St. 549-6950.
Image Courtesy William and Theresa Bernstein Meyerowitz Foundation
Self Portrait (1914), by Theresa Bernstein, oil on canvas.