Why Jewish Artists Continue To Be Inspired by The Bible

Jack Levine, R.B. Kitaj, Larry Rivers and Others Incorporated Religious Themes into Their Work

Responding to Scripture: R.B. Kitaj was known to include Jewish content in his paintings.
Getty Images
Responding to Scripture: R.B. Kitaj was known to include Jewish content in his paintings.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 12, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Art historian Samantha Baskind, author of, among others, “Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art” and the Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists, now tackles thorny problems of identity and representation in her latest book. “Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America” asks why several modern American Jewish artists were inspired by biblical themes when their goyish contemporaries dismissed such imagery as “outmoded.” Their use of such imagery could involve complex, multilayered metaphors, and even included humor, yet always expressed a highly serious inner essence.

Baskind notes that even artists noted for irony and satire, such as Jack Levine and Larry Rivers (born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg), produced ardent visual interpretations of the Tanakh. The former artist set out to paint a tribute to his late father in “Planning Solomon’s Temple,” depicting his father as Shlomo and himself as Hiram, both labeled with Hebrew inscriptions above their figures. Unlike Levine’s usual oozingly curvaceous figure drawing, a style suited to his oft-decadent subject matter, the two figures are depicted on a single plane, in an archaic visual statement echoing Christian-inspired works by the fauvist painter Georges Rouault. Whereas Levine’s Hiram is generally seen as the royal architect and king of Tyre, who sent building materials and laborers to construct the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, Baskind plausibly argues that Levine may have painted himself as a different biblical Hiram, an artist who was the son of a Tyrian who cast bronze and made decorations for Solomon’s Temple.

Levine followed this iconographical nicety with many other Tanakh illustrations as a complement to more celebrated canvases such as “The Feast of Pure Reason,” a spoof of political corruption in Boston, or “Gangster Funeral.” “Moses on Mount Sinai II” shows the lawgiver as rotund and voluminous, like a figure by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Moses’ girth and wry smile suggest a kind of Santa Claus clutching the Decalogue.

This whimsical rereading of tradition conformed to Levine’s secular view of Judaism as a patriarchal transferal of tradition, rather than a sober belief system. As a boy, Levine’s outlook was so secular that he refused to be bar mitzvahed. In an interview quoted in “Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America,” Levine told Baskind, “I’m a Jew. I’m a patriarch. I don’t give a hoot about the religion, but my parents are what mattered. The fifth commandment [Honor thy father and thy mother]… that one is okay with me.”

No less idiosyncratic and surprising is the Jewish-themed art of Larry Rivers, who changed his name while working as a jazz saxophonist in Manhattan in the 1940s. In his so-called “unauthorized autobiography” written decades later, Rivers admitted that abandoning the name Grossberg “somewhere not too down deep… was shameful.” In the 1980s, as if making amends, Rivers created the monumental triptych, “History of Matzah.” Commissioned by art dealer Jeffrey Loria (also the owner of the Miami Marlins) who admired his earlier ironic historical works, Rivers painted vignettes of praying hasidim, Baruch Spinoza, Theodor Herzl and Yehudi Menuhin against a background of matzah. The bright pink palette of the vast, peopled canvases lends a vaudevillian’s exuberance to the paintings’ serious themes, akin to Mel Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I.”

Yet Rivers was as ambiguous in his statements on Judaism as he was about most things in his life (despite fathering several children with a succession of wives and female companions, he also had gay relationships with the poet Frank O’Hara and others). The meaning of an earlier Rivers work, “Bar Mitzvah Photograph Painting,” likewise remains difficult to define. It affectionately shows a bar mitzvah boy flanked by his little sister and parents, with the stamped word “REJECTED” in block letters over them, as if in a photographer’s proof. Rivers later claimed that the word “rejected” does not bear the “psychological undertones you might think,” implying that it was not the Jewish family being rejected, but rather the image of them. Baskind suggests that the “rejected” stamp may be an affirmation of Rivers’s otherness as a Jew, but the artist himself clearly preferred a multi-faceted reading.

Even “Larry Rivers as Felix Nussbaum,” an apparently literal transposition of his own face onto the 1943 composition “Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card” by the German Jewish Holocaust martyr Nussbaum, leaves many questions open. Rivers gave himself a paler, more ghostly face than Nussbaum’s flesh-colored original, and a sharper-featured, more East European look than Nussbaum’s more delicately drawn visage. Was Rivers possibly presenting himself, with Jewish ID in hand and yellow star embroidered on his overcoat, as the quintessential East European Jew?

Nor was the American artist Ronald Brooks Kitaj more definitive in “The Jewish Rider,” an alluringly enigmatic portrait of his friend, the British art historian Michael Podro, who was the son of Jewish refugees from central Europe. Podro is seated in a fauvist-colored railway carriage in the pose of Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider,” although less athletically than that famous cavalier. Kitaj wrote:

“My Rider, I believe, is on his way to visit the sites of the Death Camps in Poland, many years after the war. I was inspired by a report someone wrote, who rode a train from Budapest to Auschwitz to see what the doomed souls might have seen… Along the right is the red carpeted corridor, and at its top is The Gentile Conductor (as a power of darkness). Jews were often made to buy tickets on the trains which would carry them to their murder.” From this, Baskind extrapolates that Podro is an “uncomfortable traveller who sits awkwardly in his seat,” whereas the Rembrandtesque pose may just be an affectionate jest about heroic aspirations of sedentary Jewish friends, juxtaposed with the goyish equestrian. Such multifaceted artworks support varied interpretations, although Baskind notes that the substantial corpus of Bible-themed art has been little discussed by critics and art historians: “Jewish content, ultimately viewed as controversial or even unseemly, is excluded… [I]n America the unmarked norm is taken as Christian, and Jewish subjects consequently stand out as marked and therefore as culturally alien and strange.” She cites the hostile comments of American Jewish critic Hilton Kramer on a 1955 art exhibit in which one painter’s works were “too stylish to be palatable… [like] finding gefilte fish at a cocktail party.”

“Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America” sets such hifalutin exclusionary criteria aside to better investigate many fascinating artworks, and even one or two pieces of artistic gefilte fish.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.