Ahasuerus at the Easel: Jewish Art and Jewish Artists in Central and Eastern European Modernism at the Turn of the Last Century, written by Tom Sandqvist

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  • 1 Fashion Institute of Technology, New York

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Tom Sandqvist, Ahasuerus at the Easel: Jewish Art and Jewish Artists in Central and Eastern European Modernism at the Turn of the Last Century. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 542 pp., 64 pls., $121.95.

One of the great attractions of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Central Europe for the art historian is its enormous diversity. It was divided among three empires—German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian—and sheltered populations with a wide range of religious beliefs. Included in the mix were: adherents of Catholicism, including some of the most profoundly Catholic of the region; a number of different Protestant sects, some well-known internationally and others limited almost solely to the region; Jews ascribing to every level of religious observation and belief; and Muslims. Adding to this assortment of imperial affiliations and religious differences were some fifteen different languages, some, such as the Slavic languages, somewhat mutually comprehensible, and others, such as Hungarian, which were linguistically isolated.

This cultural, linguistic and religious diversity complicates studying and writing about this region in those days. Administrative archives for cities that are now in a single country sometimes can be found in two different and now distant foreign countries, reflecting a history of redrawing of borders and separation. The multiplicity of languages further complicates research. Imperial politics were conducted in one language and nationalist politics in another. The different and varied pasts of the region also inflect visions of history: what one group might see as liberation, another understands as a continuation of occupation, though with a different occupier.

Tom Sandqvist’s work focuses on this region and its complex history. To his two relevant English-language works: Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire (Cambrdige, MA: MIT Press, 2006) and The Sacred Cause: The Europe That Was Lost: Thoughts on Central and Eastern European Modernism (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), he has now added a third: Ahasuerus at the Easel: Jewish Art and Jewish Artists in Central and Eastern European Modernism at the Turn of the Last Century (New York: Peter Lang, 2015). The book seeks to address the relationship that Sandqvist sees between the emergence of artistic modernism, particularly in painting, and Judaism, especially Lurianic Kabbalah.

The book is clearly and straightforwardly organized. Following an introduction, with an overview of the state of the question and two chapters that consider the relationship between Jews and art, Sandqvist continues with a series of chapters arranged geographically, which focus on Central (and East) European states, including Russia, Poland, Bohemia, among others. Within each of these chapters is a series of loosely chronologically organized monographic treatments of individual Jewish artists. The book’s focus then moves westward, with a chapter on Paris and its influence. It concludes with a consideration of Jews, art, and modernity.

The book’s tone is set in the introduction, where Sandqvist reviews several general books on Central European Modern Art and finds them lacking, referring to the “flagrant exclusion of the Jewish contribution taken together in the region” in the works he mentions (12). For example, he criticizes Steven Mansbach’s Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans because only a few dozen of the more than 300 pages refer to the Jewish contribution and only a page and half is devoted to Jung Jidysz.

The scope of Sandqvist’s book is boldly wide-reaching. In an early subchapter “Jewish Art—Is There Any at All?” he begins his discussion by considering the mentions of art and artists in the Bible. But that argument is, at best, strained and certainly not clearly related to the (purported) subject of his book.

That Jews and Judaism had a significant influence on the development, promulgation, and acceptance of modernism is well accepted and well documented. The role of Jewish patrons in fin-de-siècle Vienna is discussed in Gemma Blackshaw ed., Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (London: National Gallery, 2013); and questions of Jewishness and anti-Semitism are considered in Rose-Carol Washton Long et al., eds., Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture: Antisemitism, Assimilation, Affirmation (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2009).

Sandqvist, however, takes a different approach. He seeks the origins of modernism within Judaism itself, understanding artistic modernity as a way for Jews to both deny their religious heritage and assimilate, but also to incorporate elements of that heritage into their works. He essentially retells the same story in each of the smaller monographic chapters: a Jewish artist, usually from modest circumstances, begins in a religious school and then goes on to reject that religious background, studies with a master or at an art academy, and then achieves renown or at least local fame with a version of modern art that incorporates kabbalistic elements. A closer consideration of these artists’ origins and development, accurately and clearly documenting their lives, would have been most welcome.

But Sandqvist’s argument, however interesting it might be, is undercut by a number of flaws: flaws in his conception of Jewish life in Central Europe, and flaws in his understanding of Jewish religious education and cultural practices. He analyzes the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but the three had very different approaches to the treatment of Jews and Judaism, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a single unified narrative of Jewish life. One unifying element among these three groups is the use of Yiddish, but Sandqvist, insultingly, though perhaps unintentionally, refers to it as Jewish “double Dutch,” (92) as if that language, which evolved over centuries, was intentionally designed by Jews not as way of communicating with other Jews but, as in the children’s game to which he makes reference, as a way of hiding what they are saying from outsiders. In his consideration of the history of Yiddish, Sandqvist is fixated upon the multilingual origins of Yiddish:

Yiddish also internalized and schematized the characteristics usually attributed to the Talmudic technique of argumentation and its way of putting the one counter-question after another, a kind of semantic pattern of behavior built into the language itself. Thus, Yiddish has, for instance only one word for “flower” but no less than three words for “question,” “frage” from German, “kashe” from Aramaic, and “shayle” from Hebrew. Every possibility is possible as everything must be called into question (461).

Sandqvist’s understanding of Jewish education is also unique. He describes students going to “cheder school,” an odd bit of nomenclature, as it is usually simply referred to as cheder. He seems to imagine that at cheder, and at yeshiva, if one went on to higher education, Kabbalah was among the subjects that were taught. Although there are no rules concerning the study of Kabbalah, it is widely said that one should not study it until one has mastered the other works of Judaism, reached the age of 40, and married (and also understands Aramaic). The students at cheder and yeshiva might have heard of Kabbalah, or known of aspects of it teachings, but it is highly unlikely that they had any mastery of its intricacies, and those who were motivated enough to pursue it probably did not leave to become artists.

These flaws and the many others in the book are further exacerbated by the text itself. The book was originally written in Swedish, Sandqvist’s native tongue, and subsequently translated into English. However, throughout the text, the occasional Swedish word, och or av can still be found, and the English itself sometimes reads as an almost word-for-word translation, for example, Jugendstil is repeatedly translated as Jugend style. Foreign and English spellings are mixed, as when Sandqvist refers to Franz Josephsplatz. Although the book has ostensibly been translated into British English, which would account for reversal of “e” and “r” and the occasional extra “u” to be found, a number of idiomatic expressions seem to have been translated literally, rendering them meaningless. Tenses are used inappropriately and sentences often run on and on and on, with two or three seemingly different sentences simply spliced together, such as:

Born Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport in the shtetl of Chashniki not far from Vitebsk in today’s Belarus, this crossroad of everything from rabbinical ideas and doctrines formulated in Vilnius up to the Belarusian variation of Hasidism, Ansky and his contributions would be most decisive in regard to the Jewish participation in the Avant-Garde not only because of the expeditions, but also thanks to, for instance, his for the Jewish theater in Moscow so important play The Dybbuk, performed for the first time at the Elyseum Theater in Warsaw in 1920 and one year later at the Habima Theater in Moscow, when Natan Altman was responsible for the pioneering Avant-Gardist set design as well as the equally sensational costumes (89).

Perhaps the most disturbing (and irritating) flaw in the book is the sloppiness of the copyediting and the proofreading. There are quotes that have been transcribed incorrectly and the author fails to indicate quotations adequately, neither short ones through quotation marks nor longer ones through extraction, making others’ words appear to be his own. Sometimes there are superfluous quotation marks, such as when Schönberg’s duo-decaphonic system is described as, “ ‘twelve-tone.’ ” Even the title page has a different capitalization than the book’s cover.

Further, there are clearly mistakes—failures to do adequate research. When writing of the education of El Lissitzky:

[H]e anyhow made it for Germany, where he was accepted to study architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt in 1909, then nineteen years old. Here, in Darmstadt, at this time an abutment of the Central European Jugend style, he probably attended lectures of Joseph Maria Olbricht (sic), the architect responsible for the world-famous secession hall in Vienna (165).

Olbrich died in 1908.

Copious spelling errors plague the text. In this day and age of computerized spell-checking, there is no excuse for words being misspelled. The misspelling is not limited to the English text nor to the transcriptions. German, Polish, Czech, and Hungarian words are misspelled, missing accents, or written with the wrong accent. In the bibliography, in adjacent entries, Péter Hanák’s name is spelled two different ways.

Art history is, at its base, about works of art: painting, sculpture, even architecture. Moreover, whereas verbal descriptions can aid the viewer, there is no real substitute for an illustration. Here, too, Sandqvist’s book falls short. Sixty-four black and white images are appended to the text but there is no indication within the text itself as to which of the images that the author is discussing are illustrated and which are not. Further, given the importance the author places on certain depictions, perhaps fewer, but larger and clearer images would have been desirable. There are, additionally, several illustrations whose relationship to the text or the argument is not at all clear; they seem to have been simply reproduced.

In Ahasuerus at the Easel: Jewish Art and Jewish Artists in Central and Eastern European Modernism at the Turn of the Last Century, Sandqvist set an immense task for himself, but it is one that he does not fulfill. The subject is certainly an interesting one and worthwhile, and one can only hope that a book that addresses it adequately, accurately, and coherently will be written soon.

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