Artistes Juifs de l’École de Paris 1905–1939, written by Nadine Nieszawer, with Claude Lanzmann (pref.), and Deborah Princ, Arthur Princ, Boris Princ, Marie Boyé Taillan, and Paul Fogel

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  • 1 The Institute of Fine Arts at New York University

Nadine Nieszawer, with Claude Lanzmann (pref.), and Deborah Princ, Arthur Princ, Boris Princ, Marie Boyé Taillan, and Paul Fogel, Artistes Juifs de l’École de Paris 1905–1939. Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2015. 568 pp., 103 ill., 49€.

From the turn of the twentieth century until the German invasion in 1940, Paris was the epicenter for the European artistic avant-garde, the place where modern art, as we know it, officially began. This critical period and the artists associated with it (best known as “the School of Paris”) have, understandably, received a great deal of attention within art historical scholarship. Yet the plethora of academic studies and exhibitions devoted to the School of Paris has only scratched the surface in describing the extent of the contribution of Eastern European Jewish artists.

Nadine Nieszawer’s Artistes Juifs de l’École de Paris 1905–1939, first published in 2000 (Paris: Denoël) and most recently in 2015 (Paris: Somogy Éditions d’Art), has in large part remedied this situation, restoring much of the legacy that had been lost, and strengthening what was formerly underappreciated. Although the first edition was quite large, this second edition is even bigger, having been expanded by the addition of both English and Russian translations of all the textual material and an updated bibliography on the subject. Other than these changes it remains very much the same as the original work: an encyclopedic treatment of all of the Jewish artists affiliated with the School of Paris.

Nieszawer’s approach is comprehensive, offering an all-inclusive registry of all the Jewish artists associated with the School of Paris. She is careful not to distinguish between those individuals who managed to achieve headline status, long considered part of the mainstream canon of modern art (Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall, and Jacques Lipchitz, to name only a few), and those who made a far smaller splash, known only to true aficionados of the subject. Included are those who were born in France (their parents new arrivals from the East) as well as the large majority that arrived from Russia, Poland, and various other countries throughout Eastern Europe in one of the primary waves of immigration that began in 1905—individuals fleeing anti-Semitic persecution, pogroms, and impossible restrictions on both their lives and their creativity.

The sheer number of the artists included in Nieszawer’s work is staggering: 178 in the latest edition. Gathering information about these many lives and careers is no mean accomplishment. Moreover, the task was complicated by the fact that most of the individuals involved eventually disappeared off the Parisian radar, scattered throughout Europe at the time of the German invasion whether through exile, relocation (to work camps), or transport (to concentration camps)—never to return. The vast body of artwork they left behind was, for the most part, lost: either looted or destroyed. In many cases, even the slightest traces of their artistic contributions, their raisons d’être, were obliterated.

Nieszawer’s work opens with a preface by Claude Lanzmann that describes both the heartbreaking human loss, as so many of these artists perished, and the staggering cultural one, because their creative legacy was virtually erased. This section is extremely emotional in nature, emphasizing the volume’s role as a memorial to these losses and acknowledging Nieszawer’s extraordinary achievement in bringing material hidden in the shadows of the past into the light and restoring it to its proper place in the history of modern art.

Her thorough excavation provides the basic content of the book: those 178 individual entries, each offering relevant biographical details, a personal exhibition history, an illustration of either the artist or one of his/her works, and pertinent bibliographical citations. The resultant encyclopedia offers the reader a solid understanding of both the life and career of each artist, documenting who they were, where they came from, how and when they got to Paris, how they established themselves after they arrived, and the success of their entry into the Parisian art world as understood from their personal exhibition histories. It takes us one big step forward in our understanding of the undeniable and massive role of displaced, immigrant Jewish artists in the illustrious School of Paris. Although in many cases the information provided and amassed is not new, having been previously documented within earlier art historical publications, its presentation within the context of a comprehensive tome is significant. In particular, Nieszawer’s introduction of certain artists who had been relatively overlooked or even entirely unknown is noteworthy and commendable.

Less explored within this massive work is the distinct artistic contribution of each of these many individuals. Thanks to Nieszawer, we know that these artists were there, actively creating and exploring new subject matter and novel modes of painting, and we have enough information to begin to track the visual legacy they left behind. Yet their unique contribution and even why it is unique, save the obvious feature of its common immigrant heritage, remains relatively unexplored. Accordingly, while offering the reader so much, this work stops short of answering questions that continue to tantalize. Nieszawer takes a stab in this direction in her introductory text, where she outlines the general shape of the lives of these immigrant artists. She describes the various waves of immigration, the cafés they most usually frequented, the section of Paris (Montparnasse) where most congregated, and La Ruche, an artist’s residence on the southern edge of Montparnasse near the old Vaugirard slaughterhouses, where many set up their studios.

However, as with the individual entries that follow, most of the material in this introductory text has been previously documented. In fact, for the most part, it repeats that first presented in conjunction with “The Circle of Montparnasse” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1985. That Nieszawer was familiar with this exhibition is apparent from her adoption of its format for the artists’ entries, and it is quite obvious that the text she offers was inspired by material culled from the various essays in the 1985 exhibition catalogue. This is no surprise as that source is still considered one of the best on the period. Yet the similarities between the two end there. Nieszawer makes no effort to explore the communalities within the works of these artists, nor address the obvious questions regarding whether and how their Jewish heritage affected their oeuvres, issues that were explored in the context of that exhibition. In his catalogue essay, Arthur A. Cohen could not help but ask: “What is the nature and dimension of Jewish art? Indeed, does it exist at all?,” but Nieszawer barely broaches the subject.

In the shadow of this now decades old, but still considerable contribution to our knowledge of the School of Paris, Nieszawer’s introductory text fades in significance, offering very little enlightenment. Even the brief descriptions of some of the dealers who supported these artists, a subject no doubt near and dear to her own interests, seems thin and insubstantial. Perhaps, having completed the gargantuan task of collecting data (to reiterate, a significant effort), she will now have time to devote a study to the specific experience of these dealers when confronted with this new influx of artistic oeuvre from immigrant sources. There is no question that she has a wealth of information at her fingertips and could, in this way, provide yet one more crucial piece of what still remains a puzzle.

Although the bibliography of sources in this second edition is extensive and updated, including the spate of recent exhibitions on the subject in such far-ranging places as Budapest, Paris, Pontoise, Moscow, Belarus, Haifa, London, and New York, it is presented in a rather confusing way as an addendum, separated from the bibliographies attached to the individual artists’ entries. Further frustrating its utility is the awkward manner in which the listings in this addendum are grouped by artist, causing repetitive citations (as the same sources are relevant for many of them), and the occasional misattribution. These formal issues are compounded by a more substantive one. As in the case of the introductory text and the artist entries, this extensive bibliography does not delve into the wealth of recent research devoted to comprehending the artistic contributions of these figures. Significant sources are missing, including, Rose-Carol Washton Long, Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd, eds., Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture: Antisemitism, Assimilation, Affirmation (Brandeis Waltham, Mass.: University Press, 2010), and Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd, eds., Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001). Without substantive sources such as these, this book does not succeed in guiding the reader toward further, in-depth, study.

Nieszawer’s expertise on the subject of early-twentieth-century Jewish art was officially recognized by the Experts French Union (UFE) in 2001; at present, she is an active art dealer in Paris and the specialist in Jewish art of the School of Paris for the Parisian art auction house Artcurial. Her son, third-generation art dealer Boris Princ, was intimately involved in the preparation of this second edition, and his wife, Deborah, translated all the texts originally included in the first edition into English. Despite the drawbacks noted above, Artistes Juifs de l’École de Paris 1905–1939, truly a family affair, is an impressive and important addition to the literature on the subject, and academics owe a debt of gratitude to Nadine Nieszawer for her part in reawakening our awareness of the significant contribution of Jewish artists to the School of Paris. The future application of an academic analysis to this valuable source material, one assessing the contribution of Jewish immigrants to modern art, will no doubt secure its place as an essential resource on the subject.

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