Life of Jewish Art

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

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 Brüggen 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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What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of L...

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short answer is that there is no real answer-or perhaps, many answers. The problem begins with the definition of "Jewish"-which is both a historical and a conceptual problem. Abraham was called a Hebrew and Moses and David were Israelites-the words "Jew" and "Jewish" didn't exist yet. When exactly does Judaism begin? What is Judaism: a religion? An ethnicity? A nation? A culture? A body of customs and traditions? A civilization? If we apply the adjective "Jewish" to the noun "art" the problem expands. Are we referring to symbols, subject, content, style, intent, purpose as these elements are part of the work of art? Are we talking about the artist's identity? What of a convert into or out of Judaism: does his/her art suddenly become or cease to be Jewish?

What of an 18th-century Eastern European spice box for Havdalah, almost certainly made by a Christian artisan (due to guild restrictions and inhibitions), contrived in the late Baroque style known as rococo and offering a strong visual relationship to Catholic monstrances?  Our criterion in this case must be its purpose. Moritz Oppenheim's ca 1850 painting, "Sabbath Afternoon," will be labeled Jewish art due to the identity of the artist and his subject, but an Impressionist landscape by Pissarro a generation later will be defined as Jewish strictly in terms of the artist-secular but known by everyone as a Jew.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (...

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What of Mark Rothko's canonical works of a century later? His chromatic Abstract Expressionism would at first glance offer nothing particularly Jewish about it-until one realizes that Rothko is trying to put the world back together again (tikkun olam) after Auschwitz and Hiroshima on his large, frameless paintings that glow from within with light (that ultimate ordering element, in Genesis I) and which push the viewer's eye toward a unifying center.

The criteria are likely change, depending on the time and place. When we recognize that the First Temple was built for an Israelite king (Solomon) by Tyrians (Phoenicians) and that the second Temple was built by Judaeans, we might well shy away from referring to them as examples of "Jewish" architecture. But we still need to ask what the basis is for defining, say, the mosaics on the Bet Alpha synagogue floor (ca 525 CE) as Jewish. They served a Jewish community; part of their subject and symbols are distinctly Jewish-the image of the akeda and that of the Holy of Holies flanked by two Temple menorot-but the central area offers a zodiac with Helios, God of the sun, riding his chariot. So are the mosaics part Jewish and part not-or are they all Jewish in being part of a synagogue?

Many are the contemporary Jewish artists who wrestle with this question: depending upon the particulars of a work of art and its maker, the criteria cannot be boxed into a simple frame. But then asking questions without easy answers is the consummate Jewish art-ask the rabbis who made the Talmud!

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