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Diaspora and Identity: The Modern Jewish Painter by Larry Silver (Part 2 of 2)


Yet eventually Rothko would strive to distance himself from specific references of any kind, even towards myth and story through the symbolic characters of the picto-graphs.  In the late 1940s he moved towards an overall abstraction, where entire canvases were composed of what came to be known as color fields.  At the same moment, Chagall was moving towards shared biblical content and poetry as his own transcendent vision.


If the Russian (or, more specifically Latvian)-Jewish immigrant Rothko can be seen as emerging out of a diaspora condition, an exile adjusting as an outsider with minority status to his new culture, then his solution to the dilemma of becoming a creative artist remained a personal struggle.  His dilemma was to develop a personal visual syntax, at once fundamental yet transcendent, ultimately independent of both European modernism or local American models.  His hovering rectangles of color provide a paradox: intensely personal and as distinctive as a signature (everyone can summon up an image of “a Rothko”), they simultaneously employ abstract form to sug-gest what early critics quickly perceived as a spiritual sublime.  Large-scale works, explored repeatedly over a decade-and-a-half, Rothko’s great rectangles of shimmering color across the full spectral range, invite contemplation—at once numinous yet present, evoking a dialogue at life-size with the lone vertical figure of the viewer.


In this process, Rothko’s canvases also activate a strong sense of place.  On a few occasions he deliberately clustered a group of them together to create and animate a space, first for a mural cycle (withdrawn) for the exclusive restaurant, the Four Seasons, in New York’s Seagram Building, then (1964-67) for the non-denominational “Rothko Chapel,” in Houston, designed by arch-modernist architect Philip Johnson.  Even in gallery exhibitions Rothko would insist on control of how his works were hung, especially in relation to each other, and he increasingly declined to take part in group shows.


The artist identified his paintings variously, as “spiritual emanations, material things, portraits of the soul, facades.”  But the one point he inevitable insisted upon was that he was not a mere formalist, that his paintings were not decorations, but were in fact filled with subject-matter, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. You have nothing—but content.”  He claimed to depict “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” and he insisted that his pictures truly communicated, making viewers cry out of those same basic emotions. 


Although he claimed to have renounced all formal religion as a boy in protest against orthodoxy, Rothko still held that his paintings were “religious experiences. Yet unlike Chagall, who traded for decades upon his Russian-Jewish heritage, then later on the Hebrew Bible as a common wellspring of Western civilization, Rothko’s art remains at once more personal and more universal.  His biographer, James Breslin, concludes that “Rothko’s creations—stories or paintings—cannot be severed from his Jewishness . . . In Rothko’s paintings, too his Jewishness was always there in the background—as a given.  Abstracting from the particulars of his experience, Rothko sought to represent that exper-ience, in an impersonal art of tragic dignity, not pathos.”  Painting out of an acute, often angry, consciousness of personal isolation, Mark Rothko used paintings to produce a dramatic encounter with “universal” human values, including intimations of mortality.


Ben Shahn


Mark Rothko never expressly engaged with politics, despite the model of his own immigrant father, and he certainly never made reference to political issues in his art.  By contrast, Ben Shahn (1898-1969) made political activism the central beacon of his life as well as his art over the span of a career of more than four decades.  His life spanned the period from the Depression to the middle of the Cold War and the era of the United Nations.  Like both Chagall and Rothko, Shahn too was born in the Russian Pale of Settlement, in the Lithuanian city of Kovno.  His family moved to a smaller town, Vilkomir, closer to Chagall’s imagined villages, where he lived until the age of eight.  Like Rothko, Shahn was the son of a socialist intellectual, and as a child he joined his father in dangerous demonstrations against the czar.  Shahn’s father first emigrated to South Africa, before sending for the family and bringing young Ben to America at age eight (1906).


Shahn claimed that his own diaspora situation and his sense of cruel injustices in Russia fused with his avid youthful study of the Hebrew bible, so his experiences overlap with aspects common to both Chagall and Rothko.  Yet unlike either of these other two artists, Ben Shahn followed the example of his own father and worked to build a new, Jewish culture for the new century.  His twin foundations consisted of traditional religious ethical values combined with modernizing, often Marxist or socialist political principles.  When his family settled in Brooklyn, Shahn was immersed within a larger, more ethnically Jewish immigrant community.  His own training as a lithographer with his uncle was a counterpart to his father’s craftsman trade as a woodcarver and carpenter.  From his traditional apprenticeship, the young artist learned to prize precision and line as well as the decorative beauty of text alongside images.  His forceful imagery often included complementary graphic slogans, and it remains closely linked to an unusual positive outlook towards good commercial design.  Shahn studied art in college and at the National Academy of Design, but he consciously rejected the path of modernist art that so enticed both Chagall in Paris and Rothko in New York.


Shahn’s consistent interest in both craftsmanship and representational art might have been reinforced by his formative friendship with hard-edge, sharp-focus photographer Walker Evans.  With the advent of the Depression, his sense of social dis-location and injustice crystallized around depicting one event from a decade earlier: the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists, arrested in 1921 for robbery and murder and executed in 1927.  Shahn focused on the political persecution of fellow-immigrants as a symbol of persecution in general, just as Chagall had utilized Christ’s crucifixion in order to convey the persecution of the Jews to all humanity.  Shahn actually displayed his series of images (1932) of Sacco and Vanzetti with the title “The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti.”


In those images the presentation of both the principals and their antagonists were rendered in emphatically linear, almost cartoon-like simplicity.  Shan’s main painting, later made into a print, also included their defiant final words by Vanzetti as a visual graphic manifesto.  Through his simple means and careful social documentation, Shahn showed his solidarity with the victims of society and produced an art capable of political advocacy on behalf of justice and human rights.


His political imagery led Shahn to be invited to collaborate with Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, on the Rockefeller Center fresco, Man at the Crossroads, a notorious work that was destroyed (1933) because it included a favorable portrait of Lenin amidst its complex presentation of modernity and technology.  Shahn went on to make a number of his own mural projects.  The Jersey Homestead Mural (1937-38; the town was later renamed Roosevelt) was made for a planned garment workers’ community center.  Its images recounted the Jewish immigrant experience that the artist shared with his audience.  Later murals in the Bronx and Jamaica, New York, represented urban occupa-tions, and a final effort at Washington’s Social Security Building (1940-42) celebrated political changes under the New Deal, as it responded to problems of unemployment, child labor, and old age.


Shahn also utilized photography under the sponsorship of the Farm Security Administration (1935-38) to record rural hardship in the Dust Bowl era drought, along with his friend Walker Evans and other masters, such as Dorothea Lange.  This medium well suited his social commitments as well as his aesthetic preferences: “[We] had only one purpose—a moral one I suppose.”  These pictures, in turn, formed the basis of subse-quent paintings of working men and women in coal or cotton country as well as in urban New York City.  Shahn’s focus on individuals or small groups of ordinary figures replaced his more overtly political commentary on injustice in the earlier works, but still used the same simplified outline forms in the service of both labor and social reform.


During World War II Shahn served as a poster designer in the Office of War Information.  To get out a clear message, he used significant figures as allegories of larger conditions: “I wanted to tap some sort of universal experience, to create symbols that would have some such universal quality.”  As a result, his own response to the horrors of the Holocaust,  what Shahn described as “the sense of emptiness and waste that the war gave me,” is indirect and symbolic (Liberation, 1945; New York, Museum of Modern Art).  But in the late 1940s the Cold War and the “Red Scare” quickly aroused and engaged Shahn, whose overt political sympathies made him a ready target of politi-cal censors.  He was blacklisted in the early 1950s, even after attaining the coveted dis-play of a 1947 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (Rothko achieved this honor only in 1961).


Yet paradoxically Shahn’s harshest criticisms were not explicitly political, but aesthetic.  Within the emerging New York School, of which Rothko was a leader, Shahn was considered too “literary” or too “political” in his imagery, in contrast to the abstrac-tion that was promoted by leading critics, especially Clement Greenberg.  Shahn had to defend himself in the art work for producing what he called “humanistic art.”  In part, his self-defense too on verbal form (another contrast to the reticent Rothko):


Of our fine art there are two main sreams, one humanistic, necessarily asking

the questions ‘to what end?’, greatly concerned with the implications of man’s

way of life, the other, the abstract and non-objective, absorbed in its own plastic problems and not involved with the human prospect.


. . . As for the humanistic form of art, that art that necessarily evaluates things

according to their human ends, its exists today in a somewhat inhospitable

atmosphere, one complicated by the general fear of Communism.  At first

what was called ‘social content’, and more recently, just content at all, have

come under curiously bitter attack, as having some subversive connotation.

yet if either art or society is to survive the coming half-century, it will be

necessary for us to reassess our values . . . If it falls to the lot of artists and

poets to ask these questions, then the more honorable their role.  It is not the

survival or art alone that is at issue, but the survival of the free individual and

a civilized society.


Shahn’s final two decades of artistic activity became increasingly devoted to political ideals, using his own increasingly abstract linear style in the service of allegory on topics ranging from racial prejudice to nuclear testing.  His positive imagery often centered around music, especially jazz, which he associated with American values of freedom.


A series of three paintings, each titled Allegory (1948, 1953, 1955) show Shahn experimenting with a process that he called “palimpsest,” recording his pictorial changes over time and suggesting the creative process itself, perhaps in echo of the value placed by the New York School on “action painting,” an ideology of heroic artistry, exemplified by Jackson Pollock.  In Third Allegory (1955, Rome, Vatican Museums; their initial purchase of American modern art), Shahn presents an ominous, lion-like chimera as well as a Jewish figure, blowing a shofar and wearing a prayer shawl (tallit) while standing beside the Ten Commandments tablets.  Frances Pohl has interpreted this scene as a generalized representation of carrying the ark to the Temple (Samuel II 6: 1-15), an event compared by Moses (Numbers 10:35) to the scattering of enemies.  Shahn may have been expressly suggesting the importance of Israel’s own national defense and/or else some more general idealized image of the Temple and the golden towers of Jerusalem in the background, a suggestion of a messianic age, announced, according to tradition, by the sound of the shofar sounded by the returning prophet Elijah.  Allegorical imagery is too ambiguous to specify; however, it is notable how at the same moment both Shahn and Chagall were evoking poetic imagery connected to Jerusalem to suggest a prophetic vision.


Like Chagall, Shahn turned increasingly in his later years to Jewish imagery.  In particular he made frequent use of the Hebrew alphabet, which employed his general love of lettering and his training as a lithographer.  Ironically, however, when asked whether he considered himself a “Jewish artist,” Shahn also demurred: “I am a human artist. I don’t like categorization in groups.”  His personal credo stemmed from the famous quotation by Rabbi Hillel (first century C.E.), which he rendered at large scale in a late work, Identity (1968): “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"




This essay has emphasized diaspora effects on Jewish artists of the twentieth century and their contrasting responses to issues of acculturation in a modern artworld and majority Christian or secular culture.  Despite their amazingly similar Russian-Jewish origins and birth dates, Chagall, Rothko, and Shahn followed extremely diverse paths of artistic formation after their personal migrations and adaptations to new homelands.


Chagall emphasized his Jewish origins, even exaggerating his shtetl roots in a fantasy version of rural village life.  To this stock-in-gtrade he added the brilliant colors, cubist facets, and dream worlds of both Symbolism and Orphic Cubism in order to realize his own distinctly personal visions to early acclaim in modern Paris.  His relocation to Paris was voluntary and ambitious, even though he began within an émigré community; however, in spite of his overtly Jewish subjects and atavistic nostalgia for a vanished world, he was never able to return to Russia, even after the revolution.  There could be no true home for the diasporic exile.


Rothko came late to art after his own wrenching, involuntary exile to America.  His career was slow to find its distinctive personal stamp, built first around Surrealist techniques and themes, then later upon a new American version of abstraction.  Like Chagall, he found support from his contemporaries and peers, particularly from like-minded Jewish-American colleagues (Gottlieb, Newman), and abetted by Jewish art critics, particularly Greenberg.  Like Chagall, Rothko first utilized European modernist models and eventually moved towards claims of artistic independence, with a distinct internal vision as the basis of his signature forms.  In contrast to Chagall, however, his modernism strove to employ abstraction for a universal means of communication of ultimate, spiritual truths.


Ben Shahn also had an involuntary migration to America, but he brought along the same intellectual aspirations and political commitments as his father.  Those commit-ments led him to espouse art in the cause of justice and social improvement.  Shahn advo-cated for the concerns of working men and women as well as practical considerations of life, including the immigrant experience.  Shahn struck a balance between the representa-tion of particular events and specific persons together with his personal vision, tending towards the abstract and universal but still fundamentally representational.  His causes remained social betterment and world peace.


One important, possibly unexpected secondary effect emerges when we compare our case studies.  Each of these artists found the experience of World War II, especially in his native homeland of Eastern Europe, to be traumatic, and it fundamentally altered the values and the art of each man. 


For Chagall, the war definitively reinforced his ultimate dislocation, evoking painful memories of both pogroms and revolution during the period of Nazi atrocities.  This European artist, after waiting out the harshest conflicts of the war in New York City, found himself increasingly drawn not to an imaged natal village, but rather to a vision of Jerusalem, founded on direct experience but also prophetic and messianic.  Moreover, his visions turned increasingly towards the Hebrew Bible with all its connections to a wider, shared religious culture, climaxing in his crea-tion of a Chagall National Museum of the Biblical Message.  At the same time, the truly global outreach of Chagall extended to his collaborative works, particularly for adorn-ment of Israel’s public buildings.  If anything, Chagall’s postwar output becomes less ethnic and provincial over time, increasingly the output of a citizen of he world, sharing his accumulated repertoire of visions.


For Rothko, too, the war awakened an entirely new artistic phase, beginning with personal contact with Surrealism’s emgiré community in New York, reinforcing the disruption of American cultural isolationism.  This new participation in a more global, more ambitious artistic engagement with modernity was led by Gottlieb in images and Newman in words.  Newman argued against “isolationist art,” indeed against any art “founded on politics,” while advocating a connection between the new global, political responsibility and a universalizing art about the consequences of modern conditions.  In this spirit the manifesto letter of Newman, Rothko, and Gottlieb in 1943 was captioned “the New Globalism.”  Artists were altered as world citizens and had their sense of the tragic renewed, to form the basis of their new subject-matter.  From such post-War con-cerns sprang the mature abstractions of the New York School, particularly the color field experiments and aspirations to ultimate meaning produced by both Newman and Rothko.


Shahn’s latter career, too, shifted in its politics, prompted by the war and its after-math.  It might have been easy during the Depression era (and in today’s textbook accounts of American art) to dismiss Shahn as a “Social Realist” with a political agenda, like Rivera and the Mexican muralists.  But Shahn moved into a more generalized set of themes and a more “universalizing” mode of his own, without in any way abandoning his perennial commitment to larger, international issues of peace and nuclear safety as well as individual freedom (this at a time when the artist himself was under McCarthyite poli- tical suspicion for his own leftist politics).  Shahn was just as conscious as Barnett New-man that Americans could generate a new kind of moral terror with nuclear bombs, even towards innocent victims.  His own message increasingly took the form of allegory or generalized imagery, often with attached text.  Indeed, for Shahn the book replaced the mural as his essential medium of communication.


Yet at the same time, much in the manner of the late Chagall, the postwar Shahn also came to find new meaning in his own Jewish heritage.  He simultaneously used Hebrew inscriptions and subjects (Job, Hillel, Maimonides) as well as an increasing use of biblical themes.  Just as Rothko’s ultimate spiritual work was produced for the context of a modernist, ecumenical Houston chapel, both Shahn and Chagall, paradoxically, seemed most to draw upon their Jewish roots while working simultaneously for the betterment of all humanity.



Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.

Marc Chagall

Sabbath (Cologne, Ludwig Museum) - Click Here

Rabbi of Vitebsk (1914; replica of 1923, Chicago Art Institute). - Click Here 

Birth (1911; Chicago Art Institute - Click Here 

I and the Village, (New York, Museum of Modern Art). - Click Here 

Solitude (Tel Aviv; donated by the artist himself in 1951 - Click Here

White Crucifixion (Chicago Art Institute) - Click Here

Yellow Crucifixion, Paris, Pompi-dou Center, which features an open Torah at the end of the cross) - Click Here 

Mark Rothko

Antigone (ca. 1941; Washington, National Gallery) - Click Here

Rothko Chapel in Houston - Click Here (Full Interior - Click Here)

Ben Shahn

(1932) of Sacco and Vanzetti with the title “The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti.” - Click Here

The Jersey Homestead Mural (1937-38 Study for the Mural) - Click Here

The Jersey Homesteads Mural - Click Here

Allegory (1948, 1953, 1955 Third Allegory 1955, Rome, Vatican Museums) - Click Here