Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.

Art Reflects Our Identity

On my desk is a photograph of a self-portrait of my great-grandfather, dated 1931. I've propped it up next to my screen so that when I take a break from typing and look over at it, he's looking back at me. When I look at him, I imagine him asking, "What are you doing?"  It's a question I frequently ask myself; the answer sometimes eludes me.
Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), my great-grandfather, was an artist who painted scenes of the Polish Jewish community in the interwar years. He had a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm and life of synagogue, labor, and leisure. His work is made rarer anb2ap3_thumbnail_chess-players.png d more precious by documenting the nuances of a way of life and a place that were irrevocably torn asunder by the Nazi invasion, occupation, and the resulting Holocaust. Although I never knew my great-grandfather, since he died in a concentration camp more than 25 years before I was born, I feel as if I've come to know a great deal about him through his art. And as I've gotten older, I've become more and more invested in learning about my family's heritage and legacy. A major part of that endeavor is the search for my great-grandfather's lost and missing artwork. (See her blog at

Part of my effort to find the artwork springs from a personal yearning to, at least in a virtual sense, make my great-grandfather's collection whole - to see the entire span of his work. I am, however, compelled by a larger obligation as well - to contextualize his life and work within the larger sweep of Jewish culture, history, and art.

Moshe's dual identity as a Jew and as a member of the growing middle class in the more secular setting of Warsaw, allowed him to intimately paint aspects of Jewish life and tradition and yet to position himself as an outside observer, an ethnographer of the community.  Where Moshe's life ended and where many of his paintings still reside, the abrupt disjunction and ultimate b2ap3_thumbnail_gyc_kpark.png
destruction of his community, the evolution of his work, and how his brushstrokes create and enhance these tensions, these are the complex and compelling storylines that Jewish studies and art history can illuminate. 

Searching for my great-grandfather's paintings cannot be just about physically rescuing lost works or even recovering memory or understanding of those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The lesson taught by the art itself is larger than that. Art reflects our individuality as well as the nature of our community and our times.  It helps to both shape our identity and reflect upon it. Art transcends our differences and speaks to us across time and borders. It is a language we all can understand and is fundamental to the human spirit, and in that sense the lesson is universal. That was, after all, Moshe's goal in the first place. As his son, George, wrote in his memoir about his father's urge to paint, he said, "God gave me talent and I truly don't believe in breaking that natural trend. I simply have to do it. If He wouldn't want me to paint, I wouldn't have that tremendous urge and desire to immortalize on paper or canvas what I see. I simply am a writer of sorts; instead of words, I leave my message in pictures."

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Kaleidoscopic Auschwitz Art

Just a month ago, the Jewish people marked Yom haShoah, the day that we remember the Holocaust. The Dutch-Jewish visual artist Maarten van der Heijden (1947) focuses his modern artworks on his visceral reaction to the Holocaust, following a personal journey in which he embraced his Jewish roots after a visit to Auschwitz.

He uses photographs that Allied forces took at the liberation of the Nazi concentration-camps in 1945 as a base for his artworks. At first sight, his work is a beautiful kaleidoscope of color, but as you gaze into the work, you are slowly confronted with the horrors of the Nazi regime. It is simultaneously pleasing and disturbing.

These works almost made me angry. I felt that I had been "taken in" by such an underlying brutal image. But it leaves an impact and there's no question about its Jewish sensibility. Can we move past the Holocaust into a brigher world? Yes, we must, but not without remembering what happened.

He describes for us how he came to embrace this visual expression:

Image from Holocaust made into visual art"Growing up in an assimilated family, I always knew that I was Jewish, but that fact had hardly any meaning for me. About Judaism and about the war, we did not talk in our family. And in terms of faith, we were 'nothing'. I became a Baroque musician and played the Double Bass in orchestras with Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Br├╝ggen and others, and I studied Clinical Child Psychology. In 1993 I wrote a doctoral dissertation and I graduated in Educational Psychology.

When I was 48 years, I hit a midlife crisis: job gone, wife gone, everything into question. I needed support, love and hope. And then I thought: I can go to the Baghwan, but I'm Jewish, so why not explore what Judaism has to offer me?

My search for my Jewish roots began with a course in Jewish Spirituality and ended, by the way of double-bass playing in a klezmer group and attending various Jewish rabbinical courses, with a second-generation support group on the impact of the Holocaust. Finally I made a trip to Auschwitz with the Auschwitz Committee.

Holocaust photo made into visual artI was speechless and I was quite perplexed: The history of Judaism was both outrageously beautiful (the Jewish mystical and Talmudic traditions) and at the same time unimaginably terrible (the horror of the Holocaust). This was almost unbearable for my tiny shoulders. And I asked myself: what can I do with these vehement and contradictory feelings? My answer was: the only possibility is to express these feelings in VISUAL ART.

I studied from 2005 on at Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy Amsterdam, where I graduated in 2010 with works that reflect my Jewish second-generation identity. In my artworks I use the photographs the allied forces took at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945.

I consider communication and dialogue on (the backgrounds of) my works very important. So recently I am combining my second generation life history and my artworks with psychological studies of obedience (Milgram) and group behavior (Zimbardo) in order to give Holocaust-, genocide- and human rights education to students and audiences of different ages.

Recently I gave two workshops for secondary vocational education students (age 16-20) at the ROC Amsterdam. The students were very much interested in how to make something meaningful out of the horror of the Holocaust; and it was their first acquaintance with conceptual art. Inspiring!"

Van der Heijden's art can be viewed on his website at has shown his works in The Netherlands (Borne Synagogue and Amsterdam), in Germany (Berlin), and in the USA (New York). Since his Holocaust work, he has Photo of Maaten van der Heitjden
moved into a number of other visual areas that are presented on his website.

Larger versions of these images are viewable here

Photo by Rene Bosch

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