5 Chapters
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2 Modern Artist, Modern Jew: Bruno Schulz’s Diasporas

Carol Zemel Indiana University Press ePub

Until a recent custody battle over his murals, Bruno Schulz was best known as a Polish Jewish writer of phantasmagoric and mythic tales. The stories collected in Cinnamon Shops (1934) and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937) are crafted in ornate embellished prose, and they spin out a wonder-filled vision of bourgeois life in a provincial Galician city much like Drohobycz, where Schulz lived all his life, and where he was murdered by a Nazi officer in 1942.1 (Map 2.1, figure 2.1.) Schulz is renowned in Poland; his work is widely read, and since the late 1960s, through the restorative efforts of Jerzy Ficowski, there have been regular exhibitions of his drawings and prints.2 But beyond those borders little close attention has been paid to Schulz’s visual art, and in some ways, it is easy to see why. Even though he exhibited in Lodz, Warsaw, Cracow, and Lvov, and at times in Jewish exhibition venues,3 his stories certainly reached the public more readily than his art. Many drawings were meant to accompany chapters of Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, and their status as anything other than text illustrations may not be clear. And there is also the explicit sexual content of Schulz’s The Booke [sic] of Idolatry (1920–22), a collection of twenty-six prints that center on themes of masochism, with the artist’s self-image as the primary figure of idolatrous behavior and self-abasement. For scholars and critics today, eager to celebrate Jewish art and artists, this is a far cry from the grandeur of biblical imagery or the shtetl culture pictured by Chagall.

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3 Z’chor! Roman Vishniac’s Photo-Eulogy of Eastern European Jews

Carol Zemel Indiana University Press ePub

If Bruno Schulz and his images constitute a variety of diasporic tensions, Roman Vishniac and his pictures deliver a diasporic eulogy. Vishniac’s photographs of Eastern European Jews were taken in the mid to late 1930s and published several times in book form: as Polish Jews (1947), A Vanished World (1983) (figure 3.1), and To Give Them Light (1992). Framed by Vishniac’s camera, the images give pictorial form to a society almost destroyed in the Holocaust; for Jews and non-Jews, they have become tokens of memory, emblems of a culture once thriving, now gone. The photographs have been widely acclaimed both in their published forms and in exhibitions. Jewish audiences in particular embrace them as memorial, and cued by A Vanished World’s title, claim nostalgic connection to the society pictured here. But the photographs are also valued as historical markers, and their combination of portrait and documentary picturing heightens their status as social evidence and archive. At the same time, even as documentary, the pictures bear a stylistic signature. The high-contrast lighting, the dark spaces and illuminated details, the dramatically framed compositions that offer special, privileged views of the past, the faces seen in stark and close-up intimacy: these features are hallmarks of Roman Vishniac’s photographic style and seal the pictures’ status as works of art.1

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1 Beyond the Ghetto Walls: Shtetl to Nation in Photography by Alter Kacyzne and Moshe Vorobeichic

Carol Zemel Indiana University Press ePub

I begin with the Jewish culture of Ashkenaz, the vast region that stretched from modern Lithuania through Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, where Jews lived in great number from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. In 1797, with much of the region under Russian control, the Russian Empire declared the area a “Pale of Settlement” (map 1.1), intended to confine the Jewish population, as well as to serve as a buffer zone between the Russians and Poles. For Jewish inhabitants, however, the Pale became a supranational territory, which was a space of diasporic culture and consciousness that transcended shifting frontiers, and whose landmarks were synagogues, study centers, and rabbinical courts. Within the Pale, Ashkenazi Jews developed an extensive shtetl (small town) culture, by which is generally meant a Yiddish-speaking, provincial society, orthodox in its religious practice and traditional Jewish way of life.1 By the 1920s, however, this shtetl culture had been transformed by half a century of modernization, secularization, and emigration to cities in Europe and America. For many Jews, this was an ambivalent undertaking: an escape from ethnic and economic oppression, but also an escape from “self” or home, and a flight from the shtetl’s fixed traditions and orthodoxy.

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5 Diasporic Values in Contemporary Art: R. B. Kitaj, Ben Katchor, Vera Frenkel

Carol Zemel Indiana University Press ePub

The Diasporist feels uneasy, alert to his new freedom, groundless, even foreign—until or unless he feels very much at home.

—R. B. Kitaj, First Diasporist Manifesto

Exile is always the beginning of narrative—and Diaspora is the place where people talk.

—Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage

I begin this chapter and conclude this book with a challenge posed in these epigraphs on Jewish life and art in diaspora. In his First Diasporist Manifesto (1989), the painter R. B. Kitaj declares diaspora’s fundamental ambivalence. It encompasses both the exhilaration and anxiety of being unfettered—free of convention and proscriptive ties—as well as uneasiness in that “groundless” state. The discomfort passes, Kitaj suggests, when the Diasporist recognizes that this state can also be “home.” Aphoristic in style, the Manifesto proclaims displacement as a central condition of modernity and modern art. “Diasporist painting, which I just made up,” Kitaj wrote, “is enacted under peculiar historical and personal freedoms, stresses, dislocation, rupture and momentum. The Diasporist lives and paints in two or more societies at once.”1 Diasporism, then, is deemed a characteristic of modern artists generally. “In my time,” he states, “half the painters of the great schools of Paris, New York and London were not born in their host countries.”2 Kitaj saw a real advantage to this condition for the artist. “As a painter, I’ve come to detect something like moral power or destiny, living in more than one society, wrapped about in art, in its histories and antitheses.”3 But however broad the Manifesto’s claims, and however eager the artist was to see it as a modern condition, Kitaj’s Diasporism is clearly Jewish. “Diasporic painting,” he wrote, “is unfolding commentary on its life-source, the contemplation of a transience, a Midrash . . . in paint. . . . These circumstantial allusions form themselves into secular Responsa or reactions to one’s transient restlessness, un-at-homeness, groundlessness.”4

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4 Difference in Diaspora: The Yiddishe Mama, the Jewish Mother, the Jewish Princess, and Their Men

Carol Zemel Indiana University Press ePub

The Yiddishe Mama and her younger sister the Jewish Mother are beloved and derided stereotypes in America, and the shift in character from one configuration to the other, from Mama to Mother, tells a diaspora history.1 With this chapter, attention turns from Jewish visual culture in Eastern Europe, home to the world’s largest Jewish population before 1939, to North America, where the greatest number of world Jewry currently resides. Jewish immigrants to the United States arrived in waves, mainly between the late 1880s and 1924, when strict entry quotas were imposed. The immigrants’ goal was to “be American,” to leave behind the Old World and its traditions, and to find a place in a nation that promised well-being and social possibility.

In the early twentieth century, another Jewish diaspora framed its identity. Aided by the Yiddish American press and the cultural forms of popular music, photography, radio, and film, America’s Jews produced their own stereotypes, which embodied their progress and achievement in the new world. This chapter thus has a double focus. I begin with visual formulations of Jewish men and women in the first half of the twentieth century, not simply to campaign against stereotype, but rather to track the vicissitudes of self-made Jewish identity. From this perspective, the Yiddishe Mama and members of her family not only reveal the terms of assimilationist desire, they also demonstrate how the deployment of self-stereotype in popular culture effectively maps and manages the terms of diaspora success.2 The discussion then moves to contemporary imagery, noting the place of modern Jewish art in American high culture, and the varied deployment of Jewish gender stereotypes as cultural critique.

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