Liebermann’s insertion of Jewish themes into his work though not overt, was still visible. His most striking image is his 1879 interpretation of biblical history, The Disputation in the Temple (Hamburg, Kunsthalle), where he shows the moment where the twelve-year-old Jesus precociously stands before a group of bearded and learned rabbis in theological discussion. With his already characteristic naturalism and lively brushwork, Liebermann knowledgeably showed tallitot as well as the contemporary dark dress with fur hats of Ashkenazic orthodox Jews surrounding the boyish figure of Jesus. However, this painting stirred up a maelstrom of hostile response. Anti-Semitic criticism of this painting as Ablasphemous” and by a Apainter, who, as is well known, is not of the Christian confession,” evoked a local scandal among self-professed “devout Christians.” In consequence, for the remainder of his career Liebermann avoided religious subjects.
Today scholars conclude that the initial sympathetic orientation of Liebermann towards Holland’s genre traditions as well as to its contemporary figures of orphans and peasants soon became tempered by anti-Semitism. Specifically Dutch culture and freedom (through the figure of Rembrandt) became incorporated into a fanatically nationalist pan-German and anti-Semitic polemic by Julius Langbehn, whose popular Rembrandt als Erzieher (Rembrandt as Educator) was published in 1890 (and often republished). Extending this chauvinistic link towards a religiously pure imperial German, Christian culture, Henry Thode, professor of art history in Heidelberg and son-in-law of Richard Wagner, attacked the Secession and its internationalism through disparaging lectures (1905) on the seemingly pro-Jewish art critic Julius Meier-Graefe. By implication, the internationalist art orientation of Liebermann, Meier-Graefe, and the Berlin Secession represented to Thode a dangerous betrayal of religious and patriotic German art and culture by “foreigners.” Taking up this cue, poet Ernst Schnur in a pamphlet Der Fall Meier-Graefe characterized the Secession as an “art movement of specifically Jewish character.” Liebermann, in turn, forthrightly replied to Thode in a letter in the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, accusing him of insinuations and the use of “other by now fairly rusty weapons from the armory of anti-Semitism,” only to be accused in turn of being “un-German.” Thus the battle-lines of this turn-of-the-century “culture war” in Berlin pitted what Fritz Stern called the German search for a “revolution against modernity” against internationalist, cosmopolitan modernism, exemplified by Max Liebermann, the Berlin Secession, and its supporters.
Perhaps in tandem with this foreclosure of his affinity for laboring peasants and for Dutch traditions, begun by Langbehn and preempted by Thode and his circle, Liebermann’s art shifted around the turn of the new century towards more upscale images of bourgeois leisure: “equestrians riding on the beach, elegant families strolling through zoos, tennis players, and open-air restaurants and beer gardens.” In one such work, Man and Woman Riding on the Beach (1903; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum), the elegant thoroughbred horses are expertly ridden (the woman rides sidesaddle) by properly attired, fashionably costumed figures. Once more this scene derives from the artist’s frequent visits to Holland, but in this case to record the beaches (and casinos) of high society rather than the humbler sites of peasants and fishermen. In similar fashion, Liebermann’s Avenue of Parrots (second version, 1902; Bremen, Kunsthalle), follows from the model of Parisian art, where weekend strolls in public parks (like this one in the Amsterdam Zoo) were captured in terms of both their light-filled vividness and their well-coiffed couture by artists from Manet and Monet through Seurat. Whereas formerly Liebermann would have featured a harvest scene with rural peasants, he now offers an image of bourgeois leisure, whose popularity among Berlin collectors builds upon the techniques and topics of thoroughly modern French models.
Moreover, after 1900 Liebermann’s portrait commissions increased, often of important Berlin cultural figures, many of them also Jewish (Professor Hermann Cohen, 1913), as well as self-portraits, inevitably well-dressed and aware of his own eminence even when he wields the tools of his profession (e.g. 1913). This was the actual world of Max Liebermann: an urbane and liberal cultural elite, which included prosperous and prominent Jews, who had successfully acculturated into a liberal society without abandoning their religious beliefs. Liebermann himself is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin.
However, in a series of pictures painted in the first decade of the twentieth century, Liebermann still made a point of returning to the Judengasse (“Jewish street”) in Amsterdam for a series of paintings and drawings (1905-09; Judengasse, 1905, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum), where he emphasized the crowds and bustle of the busy site. In essence, these pictures are not charged with any religious overtones; rather, they offer the same combination of daily life scenes, chiefly markets, which ultimately derive from both Dutch traditions and nineteenth-century urban naturalism. Basically they offer a cozy and much humbler counterpart to the new series of grand urban vistas of Paris produced at the same time by Camille Pissarro (albeit from a higher viewpoint rather than Liebermann’s near eye-level).
This relatively personal form of artistic neutrality in representing contemporary, if picturesque sites of figures in space shows how Max Liebermann accommodated himself to the demands of his contemporary Berlin artworld and its connection to the larger currents defined by models and taste emanating from Paris. But as the backlash of conservative religious and nationalist German critics reveals, both Liebermann’s Jewish identity and his internationalism remained visible and potentially controversial, despite his visible successes. Itemizing those successes shows how much he attained the pinnacle of the Berlin artistic community: member (1898; later president 1920) of the Prussian Academy of Arts, founder and first president of the Berlin Secession a year later, paintings in all major museum collections in Germany, an honorary doctorate from the University of Berlin (1912), Order of the Red Eagle from the Kaiser during World War I (1917), honorary citizenship in Berlin, and finally major retrospectives in the Prussian Academy on the occasion of his 70th and 80th birthdays (1917, 1927). No other Jewish artist before Liebermann enjoyed such a notable career.
Conclusions: Ethics or Ethnics?
Our snapshot portrait of the end of the nineteenth century reveals a broad spectrum of responses to the novel situation of trying to be a Jewish artist. On the one hand, we see one European extreme, where an artist might be fully assimilated into the artworld culture of his own day, taking on the principal themes and pictorial techniques that prevailed and placing his career as the source of his personal identity, with no visible trace of his Jewish heritage in his art. The paradigm of this standpoint is Pissarro in France, whose universalist and modernist outlook, heavily flavored with political anarchism, underlies his depiction of rural settings and laboring peasants. It could also be argued that Pissarro remained perennially conscious of his outsider status, including his Jewish identity, and that his political activism (often in the form of socialism in the nineteenth century) is itself a traditional Jewish cultural outlook, particularly towards the remedying the conditions of oppression. Of course, critics and opponents of Jewish artists have never been slow to point out their ethnic origins, even (or especially) for so assimilated and successful an artist as Max Liebermann in Secession Berlin.
The availability of Jewish figures and activities as pictorial subjects varied enormously by country and period. Certainly the last third of the nineteenth century in Western Europe brought about a basic elimination of the biblical and mythic or historical themes that had been the hallmarks of serious art under the earlier dominant paradigm of academic salons and art training. These were for the most part replaced by picturesque genre subjects, often of exotic flavor, which permitted artists to include Jewish costumes and customs amidst other “oriental” groups from colonies in the distant Levant or closer to home (peasants, gypsies). Late in the century, Jozef Israëls specialized in genre scenes of humble peasant life, yet only in his latter years did he explicitly include distinctly Jewish figures and activities.
Some hint of the controversy that could erupt from the depiction in a realist, nineteenth-century idiom, when applied later to traditional biblical subjects, surrounded Liebermann’s 1879 Disputation in the Temple and led that artist to abandon biblical subjects for most of the remainder of his career. The longevity of his career also led to a belated reaction by even the older, more acculturated Jewish artist, Liebermann, who lived on to see similar oppression gathering in the twentieth century. Moreover, after the turn of the century all Jewish artists, who could now display their works together and openly, were faced with the new choices posed by Zionism.
In the case of Max Liebermann, his death in 1935 (again remember that he was born back in 1847!), extended two years into the regime of Adolf Hitler in Berlin. Liebermann had expressed his opinions several times in print on the issue of what constituted “Jewish art.” In 1901, the same year as his essay in praise of international artists at the Secession exhibition, Liebermann had written an essay that praised Jozef Israëls in terms of his “race”:
With the great interiority of his nation and race Israëls immerses himself in Nature, where the expressions of a compassionate life are shown at their most naive: in the life of the poor and suffering...Israëls paints effort and work like the psalmist, who calls life precious if it comprised effort and work. Out of Israëls speaks atonement, something of the serene peace of of the philosopher, who renounces everything because he understands everything.
Besides this personal utterance, Liebermann was also given fictive words in 1909 by the author Richard Dehmel (whose portrait he would go on to paint in 1909; Hamburg, Kunsthalle) in the dialogue “Culture and Race” (Kultur und Rasse), where a fictional “painter” and “poet” converse. Whereas the German poet (Dehmel) defends cultural borrowings and mixtures as indispensable components of an artistic golden age of something generally human (allgemein Menschlichen), or universal, the fictional painter, clearly to be identified with Liebermann, seems to advocate a racial dimension to artistic creativity, even as a quality or accomplishment that can be judged (almost like the anti-Jewish arguments by his detractors in real life). At least to one of his close contemporaries, Liebermann appeared to espouse notions of the Jewish people as distinctive, with their own contributions to make to the larger modern culture.
Events caught up with the elderly Liebermann in his latter years. His works were associated with “degenerate art” (Entartete Kunst) in the famous Nazi exhibitions of disgraced modern German art (though not in the famous 1937 Munich exhibition, recently reconstructed in Los Angeles), and he left the Academy a mere three months before Nazi laws would have compelled him to do so. When the Director of the Tel Aviv Museum issued him an invitation to emigrate to Palestine, he revealed his acquired sympathy for Zionism but also the barrier to such views posed by his advanced age as well as his long identification with his German homeland:
I always stood far from Zionism. Today I think otherwise. I have awakened from my dream, which I dreamed for my entire life. Next month I will be 86 years old, and since I am unfortunately such an old tree, it is impossible to transplant me.
Well after the turn of the twentieth century, with all its promise, dilemmas remained for the Jewish artists, even for those who seemed most acculturated.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Defining Jewish Painters in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Larry Silver