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Nathan Rapoport: A Jewish Artist, written by Batia Donner

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Batia Donner, Nathan Rapoport: A Jewish Artist. Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi and Givat Haviva: Yad Yaari, 2014. Hebrew, 448pp., $58.90.

The park near the intersection of Zamenhofa and Anielewicza in downtown Warsaw has become a focal point for tourists.1 At the heart of a major world capital, the streets bordering the park are named, somewhat ironically, after two Polish Jews whose lives represented the extremes of twentieth-century Jewish existence: one a universalist and the other the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.2 In this park, the new Jewish museum of Warsaw, POLIN, the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, opened its doors in 2013. The site was chosen in no small part because Nathan Rapoport’s Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1948, was already in place there.3 Rapoport (1911–1987), like Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, had a moment of grace in the choice of the location for his work—in this case locating his memorial near the ruins of the uprising’s bunker, now the park. Photographs from the period reveal a large rubble-filled plain, with no buildings or visible landmarks in sight.4 This iconic figurative sculpture, based on both the art of Rodin and the style of the Baroque period, serves as the backdrop for many Holocaust commemoration ceremonies, held by both Jewish and non-Jewish groups. The copy of the work at Yad Vashem, dedicated in 1976, frames the annual Yom HaShoah ceremony broadcast live on Israeli television.

A book on Rapoport has been a desideratum for many years. Best known for the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, Rapoport’s sculptural legacy has left its mark on Israel’s landscape, with the Negba Monument (fig. 1), and The Scroll of Fire (fig. 2), and his last work, Liberation, has particular significance in the United States. In the book, Nathan Rapoport: A Jewish Artist, Batia Donner has committed herself to the service of wading through Rapoport’s papers in his archives in the Yad Yaari Research and Documentation Center of Kibbutz Givat Haviva and HaShomer HaTzair. Donner also uses Nina Rapoport’s, the artists’s daughter, collection to piece these documents together into a readable narrative. Apart from the archival material in Israel, Poland, and France, she also consulted books and articles in Polish, Hebrew, and English. This thorough research enabled her to tell Rapoport’s remarkable story in great detail. Moreover, the text brings together not only photographs of his works that have survived, but archival images of nearly all of the lost works as well.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Nathan Rapoport, Negba Memorial (detail), dedicated 1953, Kibbutz Negba, Israel, bronze. Photograph by Susan Nashman Fraiman.

Citation: IMAGES 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/18718000-12340068

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Nathan Rapoport, The Scroll of Fire (detail), dedicated 1972, Kisalon Forest, Israel, bronze. Photograph by Susan Nashman Fraiman.

Citation: IMAGES 10, 1 (2017) ; 10.1163/18718000-12340068

Nathan Rapoport’s personal history made him especially suited to the role he later took on as the commemorator of heroism on a monumental scale. The eldest son in a traditional and very poor Jewish family in Warsaw, he left school at age 12 to help support the family. As a teenager he joined HaShomer HaTzair. In 1930, he was awarded a scholarship to the Warsaw Academy of Art and earned various prizes along the way. One of them was for a work named the Tennis Player, made for an exhibit entitled “Wystawa Sport w Sztuce,” (Sport in Art) 1936 (46–47). When the Polish government wanted to send the sculpture to the 1936 Munich Olympics, Rapoport refused. His strong ideological bent was already apparent. After September 1, 1939, Rapoport answered the call to join the struggling Polish army in the East, leaving his wife and daughter in Warsaw, but his wish to serve was thwarted by the invading Russians. He got as far as Bialystok in the Soviet-occupied area, where a group of artists was working under Soviet protection to promulgate a communist agenda (56). There, Rapoport was singled out and sent to Minsk to sculpt. This fortuitous event led him to meet Mikhail Kulagin, head of the Minsk art committee and second secretary of the Central Communist Party. Kulagin liked Rapoport’s work and helped him (58). Rapoport’s style suited the Soviets—larger than life figures that were always muscular and styled to convey a feeling of strength and determination. The demise of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact led to Rapoport’s family’s flight to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan and his ultimate incarceration in a forced labor camp in Siberia. As luck would have it, Kulagin was also there and immediately arranged for Rapoport’s release from forced labor and provided him with a studio where he was to work portraying Soviet war heroes (59–60). Representing heroic figures during the war trained and enabled him to eventually conceive of the Warsaw Ghetto masterpiece, which would not be created until after the war.

Donner’s book is the first in-depth account of the artist and his works. The author recounts in painstaking detail the circumstances of the commissioning and making of the works, including new information garnered from previously unpublished sources, and incorporates original visual and theoretical analyses that cite Freud, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Jabès, and Nora, to name a few. Her major innovation is her detailed exposition of Rapoport’s life and the historical and political circumstances surrounding his various commissions. This material not only highlights the artist’s initiative and creative drive, but also underlines the desire of Jews in post-war Poland to participate in the rebuilding of Warsaw and the organization they created in order to do so. Donner reveals that the credit for the choice of the location for the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial was taken not only by Rapoport, but by at least three other figures as well (87).

Donner’s book has unfortunate problems. It opens with a defensive introduction about Rapoport’s art in general, which perhaps could have been saved for the conclusion. The defensive stance here is also emblematic of why Rapoport has never really been written about in Israel: his dedication to figurative art in the post-war climate of abstract expressionism in the United States and New Horizons in Israel made him a pariah on the local Israeli art scene.5 Rapoport divided his time between Israel and Paris during the 1950s, but moved to the United States in 1959, where he was able to create more freely in the more open, freewheeling American milieu, as opposed to the doctrinaire artistic climate that characterized Israel in the 1950s and 1960s.

Certain significant biographical facts are missing: Rapoport saw himself as a witness, as emphasized by Donner, but in no place does she tell us exactly which of his family members perished in the Holocaust. Further, Rapoport’s wife, Sima, who supposedly served as his model for the woman in the Warsaw memorial, and daughter, Nina, appear only sporadically in the narrative and in the 100 plus pages describing this specific memorial.

The book lacks editing. The narrative jumps around chronologically and thematically. Just one example is in the chapter on the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, where the author discusses the opening ceremony twice, separated by fourteen pages. The lack of organization is also apparent in the interspersing of sociological and theoretical analyses of the works with the factual narrative. Such excursions, which are often redundant, would have been better placed at the end when talking about Rapoport’s overall oeuvre and his place in both art history and Zionist history. There are no figure numbers to the images, and the lack of a time line and a catalogue raisonné of Rapoport’s works are gross oversights. Donner did the research, and it would have been very simple for her to add such lists at the back of the book.

There are some errors in the text. One of the most egregious is in the discussion about Rapoport’s sculpture of Job and of Job as an early Holocaust archetype in art. There Donner attributed a wall mural and a drawing of Job done in Warsaw to Felix Nussbaum (1904–1944) (273), an important artist who spent the war in hiding in Belgium until his ultimate betrayal and deportation to Auschwitz, when, in fact, the drawing cited was done by a Shloyme Nussboym.6 Important texts are missing from the bibliography, including Rapoport’s own recounting of the making of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, which appeared in 1994, and analyses by Mooli Brog and Natasha Goldman.7

Another anomaly is that there are two systems of footnotes: some references are cited in the text in social science style, whereas others are in endnotes at the back of the book, and it is not at all clear if there is any logic to this. In general, as mentioned above, the book suffers from a lack of organization and unity that a good copy editor could have remedied.

The design of the book is also problematic. Multiple fonts are used; the bibliographies and footnotes are not arranged with any visual clarity. All the photographs are in black and white, even nonarchival images such as the aerial view of the new museum opposite the monument in Warsaw, which is unfortunate and gives the book a depressing feel. There are plenty of extant works by Rapoport that could be photographed in color today. Likewise, the gray cover with the even grayer image of Rapoport’s statue of Anielewicz at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai is extremely uninviting. Should this book ever be translated into English (or Polish) it should be re-edited. Moreover, information the author takes for granted as known to an Israeli audience, such as the history of the battle for Kibbutz Negba in the War of Independence, should be added.

Rapoport continues to be of interest to scholars and art historians.8 His works remain significant settings for ceremonies in both Poland and Israel. No doubt the debate about his artistic legacy will continue. The fact is, Rapoport managed to strike a chord in Israeli and Jewish art that still resonates today, and Batia Donner’s book returns him to the place that is rightfully his.

1

Batia Donner, Nathan Rapoport: A Jewish Artist, (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi and Givat Haviva: Yad Yaari, 2014), 79. All references to Donner are in the book being reviewed.

Pre-war Gęsia street was renamed in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz (1919–1943) in 1946.

2

Ludwik Lazar Zamenhof (1859–1917) was the creator of Esperanto. He is buried in Warsaw. Encyclopedia Judaica, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), vol. 16, cols. 925–926.

Anielewicz was the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: ibid., vol. 2, cols. 2–3; “Anielewicz, Mordecai [sic]” Yad Vashem, accessed February 2, 2016, http://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft%20Word%20-%205739.pdf.

3

Proposals for the new museum had to take this work into account, (165–166).

4

For more on Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, see E. Benezit, Dictionnnaire critique et documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs (Paris: Librairie Gründ, 1966), Vol. I, 428; Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler (Leipzig: E.A. Seeman, 1908), Vol II, 549–550; Saur, Allgemeines Künstler Lexikon (Munchen: Saur, 1993) Vol 7, 236–238.

5

A monograph was published in 1958: Zvi Zohar, ed., Nathan Rapoport: Monuments and Sculptures (Merhavia: Sifirat Poalim, 1958) (Hebrew). There was a photographic exhibit in 1991 in the Eretz Yisrael Museum, which is not listed in Donner’s bibliography: Shulamith Shaked, Nathan Rapoport (1911–1987) Exhibit of Works (Tel Aviv: Eretz Yisrael Museum, 1991) (Hebrew). It is only in the last two decades that scholars have related to Rapoport’s works, generally from a sociological point of view. See note 8 below.

6

Details on Felix Nussbaum were sourced from “Felix Nussbaum,” accessed January 27, 2016, http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/nussbaum/about_nussbaum.asp.

Donner notes that there was a huge wall mural of Job in the Judenrat, but it is not clear that there was such a mural: Shloyme Nussboym is mentioned in Ziva Amishai-Maisels Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1993), 164. There does seem to have been a painting of Job by Maksymillian Eljowicz (1890–1942) in the Judenrat building, Jewish Historical Institute: The Museum of the Jewish Historical Institute: Arts and Crafts (Warsaw: Auriga, Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1995), 124. Czerniakow in his diaries recounted that he commissioned stained glass windows of Bible stories from the artist Jozef Sliwniak (1899–1942), see The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow: Prelude to Doom, eds. Raul Hilberg, Stanislaw Staron, and Josef Kermisz, (New York: Stein and Day, 1979), entry for February 4, 1942, 322.

7

Nathan Rapoport, “Memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto Monument,” in James Young, ed., The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History (Munich, Prestel, 1994), 103–107; Mooli Brog, “Victims and Victors: Holocaust and Military Commemoration in Israel Collective Memory,” Israel Studies 8.3.1 (2003): 65–99; Natasha Goldman, “Israeli Holocaust Memorial Strategies at Yad Vashem: From Silence to Recognition,” Art Journal 65.2 (2006), 103–118.

8

For instance, see a recent article by Natasha Goldman, “ ‘Never Bow Your Head, Be Helpful, and Fight for Justice and Righteousness:’ Nathan Rapoport and Philadelphia’s Holocaust Memorial (1964),” Journal of Jewish Identities 9,2 (2016), 159–192.

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