Great Expectations

What do we ask of an art book? On the most basic level, you might expect to gain a certain amount of aesthetic pleasure from perusing such a volume, the chance to leisurely dwell over works you might never actually see in your lifetime, very often lovingly reproduced on heavy stock paper that brings out all the hues and tonal subtleties employed by great artists. The book might be an object of beauty in itself, well-produced and bound, and that, too, might give a book-lover a considerable measure of sensory delight. These days, art books, being the works of enlightened academics, may also provide intellectual stimulation through a series of wide-ranging essays that accompany what is often a bountiful sampling of art of all types.

My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish Art and Culture by Edward van Voolen, recently issued by one of my favorite publishers, Prestel, accomplishes all these things, but it's like no other art book I know of in that it goes far beyond even these considerable accomplishments. The title is of note. It refers to the Frida Kahlo work, reproduced on the cover. Completed in 1936, this painting is also known as "Family Tree," and with its depiction of roots and connections between and among people neatly sums up many of the modern preoccupations examined in this considerable project.

Voolen's book wishes to look at how Jews have expressed themselves in the visual arts — both in a religious and secular sense — for more than 2,000 years. This alone is a daunting project since it's well known that biblical injunctions long forbid Jews from creating graven images of any sorts. A history of modern secular Jewish contributions to the arts — painting, sculpture, architecture — would be easy to pull off since the advent of modernity saw a great surge of such Jewish-inspired expression.

But Voolen begins much farther back, with descriptions of the Second Temple, and of Torah scrolls and their calligraphy, and what these objects say about the Jews. The author's introductory chapter, titled "Jewish Art and Jewish People Between Israel and Diaspora," begins with a brief, general overview of Judaism's basic tenets, then looks at each of the major periods in history, considering liturgical books, Jewish ceremonial objects, the role of the synagogue and the holidays in Jewish life, and continues on through the crucible of modernity, ending with a discussion of the construction of museums and memorials in the wake of the Holocaust. An extensive timeline follows, providing another angle on Jewish history.

But the real body of the book is Voolen's chronological discussion of individual works that summon up decisive moments in Jewish history, from wall paintings found in a synagogue dating from 244-45 C.E. through to some of the most controversial pieces of art created by Jews in the new millennium.

The high points — and there are many — include Jozef Israëls' 1889 despairing painting Son of the Ancient People; Camille Pissarro's La Place du Théatre Français, dating from the year before; Israeli artist Dani Karavan's installation, titled Passages, Homage to Walter Benjamin, which marks the spot where the German Jewish writer and critic committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis; and drawings from Life? Or Theatre?, an illustrated "autobiography" by Charlotte Salomon, yet another extraordinarily gifted artist murdered in the Shoah, whose work did not surface until the 1980s.

The sections on Holocaust museums and memorials are particularly solid, as is the survey of modern art. The reproductions, whether in black-and-white or color are of the highest order.

I know of few art books that cover so many bases, and that with such ease tell the story of an entire people — other than textbooks, of course, which are hardly ever as entertaining and stimulating as My Grandparents, My Parents and I. 



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