Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Remembering Italian Jewish Artist Amedeo Modigliani (1886-1920)

Helsinki, Finland. Large sign for Modigliani exhibit at Helsinki airport. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber November, 2016.

Remembering Italian Jewish Artist Amedeo Modigliani (1886-1920)
by Samuel D. Gruber
Today is the anniversary of the death of  Italian Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani, who died young of tuberculosis in the heyday of the School of Paris, and whose popularity continues to grow decade by decade.  Born in a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, he spent his artistic career in Paris. Even so, worldwide, he may the best known Italian painter of the 20th century, surpassing Balla, Boccioni, de Chirico, Morandi, Burri and so many more. His story and his star rival Van Gogh's in art-celebrity annals (2 movies have been made of his life). 

More than the cubists, Modigliani was able to take some precepts of modernism and apply them to traditional - and still recognizable genres.  Though all his many portraits are stylized and unmistakably his, the subjects are recognizable.  He was a very social artist and his portraits of his many artist and writers friends and patrons help us to populate one of the most fertile periods of European art.

Modigliani was also a Jewish artist.  Though in upbringing., language, and religious identity he was quite different from the many Yiddish speaking East European artists in Paris, he was exceptional close friends with many of them, especially Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz, as well as the American Jewish artist Jacob Epstein. His own Sephardi roots in Livorno and elsewhere were deep and though he was not known to be religious, he overtly and often defiantly identified himself as Jewish, sometimes introducing himself "as an artist and a Jew."
Amedeo Modigliani. Caryatide Head, drawing, 1911
Amedeo Modigliani. Portrait of Jean Cocteau, 1916. Perlman Foundation on long-term loan to Princeton University Art Museum
Amedeo Modigliani. Portrait of Moise Kisling, 1915
Amedeo Modigliani. Portrait of Juan Gris, 1915. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And then there are the nudes. Few artists have been as unashamedly in love with the female body, presenting nudes with a bold confidence hardly seen since the Rubens. There is no rosy soft-focus of Renoir, or the statuesque perfection of Bouguereau and other soft-porn academic painters of the previous generation. Modigliani's nudes are real women - or at least real bodies - of flesh and blood and taste and smell.  God knows, when I was a teenager I was certainly mesmerized!  These works--which now fetch some of the world's highest prices for art--were commissioned by Modigliani's friend and dealer Léopold Zborowski, who provided  his apartment,  models, and painting materials. This was beneficial to both--Modigliani needed money (he was alcoholic and drug-addicted) and Zborowski  paid him fifteen to twenty francs each day for his work.  

When exhibited, the nudes caused a great sensation--positive and negative--the show was cited for obscenity. So the nudes in many ways stand alone. Though Modigliani had seriously studied the nude since a teenage art student, these works were unlike his thousands of drawings often created in a passionate frenzy, or his portraits of friends, done as much for friendship as cash. The nudes were conceived of as a commercial venture. And brilliantly so.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Women at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (As Seen in the 1929 Mural Cycle by Hugo Ballin)

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Four Matriarchs on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017. A better picture is here.
Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Sarah on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

Women at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (As Seen in the 1929 Mural Cycle by Hugo Ballin)
by Samuel D. Gruber

The Warner Memorial Murals by American Jewish artist Hugo Ballin are among the most spectacular works of synagogue art of the 20th century.  Ballin (1879-1956) was a classically trained painter who came of age in New York in the era of the American Renaissance (at the turn of the 20th century he was painting in the Donatello Studios in Florence, now used by Syracuse University).  In 1913 he gained fame for his extensive mural program at the Wisconsin State Capitol, but a few years later he began work as a designer for silent films, and soon moved to Hollywood and developed a successful career as art director, writer, and director of many silent films - often starring his wife Mabel Ballin. After the advent of talkies in 1927 he stopped making his own films and returned to fine art to become one of the country's leading muralists. In 1929, he was head of art at Warner Brothers and was hired to the task of decorating the new Wilshire Boulevard Temple. His  extensive historical, allegorical, and symbolic representation of Jewish history was financed by three of the Warner Brothers in memory of their siblings and parents, and was planned together with Rabbi Edgar Magnin. .  

I first saw and wrote about the murals for my 2003 book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community.  They hhave recently been meticulously conserved and restored by Aneta Zebala Paintings Conservation company as part of the larger restoration of the entire Temple, led by Brenda Levin, and the ongoing expansion of Wilshire Boulevard Temple facilities. The transformation is impressive and the murals are spectacular ... a unreeling saga in technicolor when films were still only in black and white.

Earlier this month, however, I was fortunate to have a morning to look at the murals in detail. Even more time is needed; the paintings are packed with historical vignettes, scenes, and symbols. They exhibit a wide range of design and painterly approaches and flourishes. The mural is brash and bold and executed with brio. The expressive, dramatic, and cinematic nature of the unreeling narrative was already remarked upon in 1929, and again most recently by Mackenzie Stevens, who sees the highlighting of the scenes as similar to the lighting techniques of the silent film era. New photos by Tom Bonner, published in the book Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Warner Murals: Celebrating 150 Years by Tom Teicholz (ORO Editions, 2013, allow attention to detail that is not even possible on site where visibility of the high lunettes is still hampered by original (and inadequate) lighting. Caroline Luce also explores some aspects of the mural in her informative website about Ballin's extensive mural work in the LA area.

I look forward to writing more about the murals and other aspects of Ballin's career elsewhere, but right now I want to draw attention to just one aspect of the mural which is rarely mentioned, and that is the inclusion of many images of women in the narrative. This includes a prominent depiction of the Four Matriarchs of Judaism, shown seated as a group on the sanctuary south wall opposite the Ark and bimah, and set beneath the balcony and over the main door through which one passes on existing the sanctuary.  To my knowledge this is the first such representation of the four Matriarchs anywhere in the history of art.

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Rebecca on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Rachel  and Leah on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Today, among egalitarian Jewish congregations, the most widely accepted and popular  addition to traditional liturgy is the includion of the names of the  Matriarchs in birkat avot (the blessing of the ancestors), which opens the Amidah: "Praised are You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah], great, mighty, awesome, exalted God who bestows lovingkindness, Creator of all. You remember the pious deeds of our ancestors and will send a redeemer to their children's children because of Your loving nature."  But in 1929, I think this inclusion of the matriarchs in such a prominent prayer would have imaginable to only the most progressive Jews (perhaps one of my readers - more familiar with the history of Jewish feminism would know more about the early advocacy for this change).

The four women strike poses familiar from classical and Renaissance art.  Based on form alone, they could be Greek or Roman matrons, or even goddesses, muses, allegorical virtues, or sybils - as painted  by Ballin earlier in his career. There is nothing quite like this in Jewish art since Edward Bendemann painted The Mourning Jews in Babylonian Exile a century earlier in 1832 and now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which depicts too mourning Jewish women seated next to a chained Jewish man.

Edward Bendemann, The Mourning Jews in Babylonian Exile, oil on canvas, 1832. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.
Hugo Ballin, The Sibylla Europa Prophesying the Massacre of the Innocents, 1906. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Hugo Ballin, Window in Tomb, Brooklyn, NY. Architectural League Exhibition Catalogue, 1907.

Rabbi Magnin, who had much to say about many of the Patriarchs and Prophets, said nothing about the women. But Dr. Luce speculates about their significance and also finds Mabel Ballin's presence here:
Like the female figures in his early paintings, Ballin placed the Matriarchs in a pastoral setting, removed from the realities of everyday life.  Nevertheless, their positions and poses suggest aspects of their characters and experiences as "Mothers" of the nation Israel.  On the left, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, looks down, perhaps disconsolate over her long period of childlessness or over the near loss of her only child, Isaac, at the hand of his father. Rebecca, wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau, holds a pitcher representing her hospitality at the well.  Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob, opens her arms in an embracing manner.  On the right, Leah appears disconsolate as well, perhaps because she is the unloved wife of Jacob. 

Confounding any interpretation of symbolism of the women is the fact that each of the women also resembles Ballin's wife, Mabel, suggesting that this portion of the mural is in some ways an expression of his love and admiration for his wife. Indeed, soon after his marriage, some observers noted that “traces of certain singularly attractive feminine features [were] asserting themselves more and more in his canvasses,” guessing that it might be because he, “unconsciously reproduces her [Mabel's] features in his work."1 Ballin likely felt that Mabel embodied the qualities of each of these mothers and may have aimed to honor her contributions to his household by including the "Four Mothers" in his mural.
Mabel Ballin in Motion Picture Magazine (1920 or 1921)
Mabel Ballin in Judge (Dec 11, 1920)
Full human figures were not often represented in Jewish art, but there are many more examples than usually assumed. Images of women, however, are scarce. Before the turn of the 20th century we find representations of Judith on Hanukah lamps, but few other examples. This began to change when social artists such as Maurycy Minkowski, Abel Pann and others frequently included images of women (often holding children) in scenes of refugees from pogroms. 

Maurycy Minkowski, Po pogromie (After the Pogrom), 1905. Oil on canvas. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
At the same time, the first generation of Zionist artists more frequently included images of Biblical women, including Judith, often in heroic poses.  Boris Schatz created a number of relief sculptures with women subjects, and around 1908 Lesser Ury painted a striking representation of Rebecca at the Well (see illustration) which bears comparison to Ballin's Rebecca at Wilshire Boulevard Temple .

Boris Schatz, A Hebrew Mother, 1904, terracotta relief, 80x50cm. From Boris Schatz Father of Israeli Art

Boris Schatz, Judith, 1905, plaster relief.  From Boris Schatz Father of Israeli Art

Lesser Ury (German, 1861-1931), Rebecca at the Well, c. 1908, oil on canvas, Stiftung Jüdisches Museum, Berlin.

Teicholz notes that prominent placement of the matriarchs reflected attitudes within the congregation, where mixed seating of men and women was first adopted in the 1860s. Women were later counted in the minyan and before the 23rd amendment granted women the vote in American governmental election, women at Wilshire were made full members with an equal vote on synagogues matters.

These four are not the only women represented in the mural - there are several other generic women shown as wives and mothers.  Women are also represented in "The Messianic Age" in the western lunette.  In the spandrels over the east arches, there are scenes representing the sacred books, and the Book of Proverbs is shown with female figures, one weaving and the other giving drink to the thirsty, representing the passage about "A Woman of Valor." The Song of Songs is interpreted as a sensual love poem rather than an allegorical one, and it is represented by a beautiful and somewhat exotic woman seen in profile at the western end of the arches. With her feather headress, bangles, and chic loose outfit dropping in vertical folds to the ground, she might have felt as at home in a 1920s Paris nightclub as on the wall of synagogue.

Likewise, the image of Beruriah, the ancient Talmud-scholar wife of Rabbi Meir, is shown as a young and comely woman, looking over her husband's shoulder - either commenting upon or guiding his work. The large full-length image of Maimonides is shown before a supplicating woman and child.

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Bururiah and Rabbi Meir. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
In the spandrels over the west arches are scenes of Jewish festivals and women are shown at both the seder celebration and lighting the Sabbath lamp. There is a decidedly pre-modern feel to these. The hanging lamp is one of the German Judenstern type, widely recognized as a Sabbath standard by it frequent appearance in the scenes by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim in the 19th century.

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of seder scene. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Sabbath lamp lighting. . Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.