In 1985, Kenneth Silver curated an exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum, sending him “down many paths of interest” and introducing the public to previously little known Jewish artists.
“A lot of books, most in French, had been written about Montparnasse, but not about Jewish [artists],” said Silver, professor of modern art at New York University.
On May 16, the noted curator and speaker will address this subject at Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom, which hosts annual lectures sponsored by the Alfred and Rose Buchman Endowment for the Fine Arts. Previous speakers have included art historians Mark Godfrey and Joachim Pissarro and architect Daniel Libeskind.
Silver – whose lecture is titled “Rediscovering the Circle of Montparnasse: Jewish Artists in Paris, 1905-l945″ – said he “had to construct a history that had not been written.”
While many people are familiar with the artists Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, and Amedeo Modigliani, he said, “That’s only the tip of the iceberg. There were scores of Jewish artists in Paris and they did wonderful work.”
Some of these artists became permanent residents of Paris, while others, like Max Weber, “came and went.” Some, like sculptor Chana Orloff, were almost unknown to the general public until his exhibit, he said, adding, “I did guess that once people saw [her art] they would become interested.”
Today, he said, she is quite an established figure, and her home in Montparnasse, which he visited with her family in the 1980s, is now a museum.
Silver said the story of Jewish artists in Paris – before the Nazis and their sympathizers “dragged them away” – is generally a positive one.
“Being Jewish didn’t hinder them a great deal,” he said. “In some cases it gave them a group identity and people who could help connect them to the art world…. That’s probably why we see so many Jewish artists,” he said. “Maybe for the first time ever, it was not a liability to be a Jew.”
Indeed, said Silver, “Many people found them interesting. Someone like Chagall, who fetishized Jewishness, was considered an interesting outsider.”
While individual artists may have encountered some prejudice, he said, their being Jewish generally did not enter into criticisms of their work.
“You’re really seeing a moment of so many Jews with so much success,” he said. “It’s a great story until they’re dragged away and murdered under orders from the Nazis.”
In his presentation, Silver – who received his doctorate from Yale University and has taught at Columbia, Vassar, and Yale – will set out to show how the influx of Jewish artists from Poland, Russia, Italy, and other countries enriched the Paris art scene and influenced developments in modern art. The curator stressed that while some of them, like Chagall, did make “Jewish” art, most made “Parisian” art, including everything from belle peinture – which emphasizes painting technique rather than subject matter – to cubism.
Many of the Montparnasse artists, like Soutine, exerted influence not only on French art but on post-war American art, as well. Using Modigliani as an example, Silver said the artist “offered a middle road between high modern and traditional representations, an example of how one combines extremes of radicalism and conservatism.”
Silver’s lecture, which will take place at the synagogue at 7:45 p.m., is free and open to the public. For information, call (201) 833-2620 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.