One Man’s Collection of Jewish Art Finds New Home

By Vanessa Silberman

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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Shortly after graduating from Williams College, Sigmund Balka moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Kennedy administration and decided to collect art. While his collecting interests ranged from modernist prints to Inuit art, Balka was especially drawn to the work of Jewish artists. Even at this young age, Balka perceived the collection of works by Jewish artists as a way to chronicle Jewish life and history.

Five decades later, Balka, who became a prominent New York attorney, has donated his impressive collection of 200 works to Manhattan’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as part of The Eye of the Collector: The Jewish Vision of Sigmund R. Balka, an exhibit on view through January 30, 2007. The exhibit features paintings, drawings, prints and photographs by more than 100 artists, including Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Leon Golub and Max Beckmann. From nostalgic scenes of 19th-century Eastern European shtetls to Depression-era social realist paintings to contemporary abstract responses to the Holocaust, the subject matter of these works varies widely. Taken together, the exhibit not only celebrates the contributions of Jewish artists but also forms a compelling visual record of the immense social transformations that have taken place in Jewish life during the past 100 years and their impact on Jewish identity.

It also represents the first time that Balka’s collection is being displayed together (even in Balka’s home, the collection was physically scattered throughout his house). In the first gallery, a group of secular portraits by such artists as Isaac Friedlander, Jerome Myers and David Burliuk dating from the 1920s and ’30s are on view. These works contain no overtly Jewish imagery; instead, they reveal how Jewish artists during this period attempted to break free of the strictures of traditional Jewish life. For centuries, Jewish artistic expression had been stifled due to persecution, economic restrictions and religious doctrine (the Second Commandment) prohibiting the depiction of the Divine. Not until the mid-to-late 19th century, as Jews became more assimilated into society, were Jewish artists able to express themselves more freely. Friedlander’s self-portrait from 1932, depicting the artist as a confident young man in Western dress smoking a pipe, openly flouts the tradition-barring image creation (much less an image of oneself). The exhibit also reflects the increasing involvement of Jewish artists in the avant-garde, a world in which they had been traditionally excluded.

While some Jewish artists broke free of Jewish tradition, the exhibit includes many works by artists who remained attached to their Jewish heritage and religious identity. Images of rabbis worshiping, men studying the Torah and women lighting the Sabbath candles abound in the works of Irving Amen, Razel Kapustin, Joseph Margulies and Saul Raskin, among others. Jewish life on streets and in villages and neighborhoods on both sides of the Atlantic is another recurring theme. Some of these works have a nostalgic feel, as in the wistful depiction “Blessing of the Moon” (1922) by an Austrian-born American artist, Lionel Reiss, which idealizes the Eastern European shtetls and folk customs that were vanishing in the years following World War I. Others celebrate the urban environment, as in “Orchard Street” by Ruth Leaf, a humorous woodcut depicting the vibrant characters populating New York City’s Lower East Side. Still others are more poignant, as in the affecting series of photographs taken by Laurence Salzmann during the mid-1970s of the last remaining Jews in the small town of Radauti, Romania.

A number of artists on view address social and political causes in their art, whether the subject is immigrants, the treatment of workers, civil rights or democratic/socialist ideology. Curator Laura Kruger suggests that the seeds for social protest and political activism in these artists’ works were inspired by the horrors of persecution in the Old World. The concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” also resonated with these artists, encouraging them to advocate on behalf of human rights. Leon Bibel’s black-and-white lithograph, “Unemployed Marchers,” for example, illustrates the economic hardships of the Great Depression and its grim toll on workers, while George Grosz’s “Im Schatten” (“In the Shadow”) bestows humanity upon the “undesirable” and “degenerate” street people of 1920s Berlin. Perhaps the most familiar political artist in the exhibit is Ben Shahn, whose government-produced lithograph “We French Workers Warn You… Defeat Means Slavery, Starvation, Death” (1942) was a persuasive piece of social realist propaganda when it was created during World War II and remains resonant in today’s political climate.

But even Shahn’s prophetic work lacks the visceral edge of the last gallery, which examines the emotional state of Jews during the late 20th century. Here, artistic responses to the Holocaust are on view, comprising some of the most powerful and somber works in the entire exhibition. A number of these pieces are eerily prescient; “It Can’t Happen Here,” a 1934 linocut by Werner Drewes (a German-born non-Jew), for example, is an arresting abstraction featuring an innocuous form mutating into a menacing swastika. And Lipchitz’s allegorical lithograph “Rape of Europa” is based on a sculpture he created in 1938 about the mounting threat of Nazism. Even contemporary works display a preoccupation with the global danger posed by the Nazis. “Neu-York” (2000) by New York-based Melissa Gould is a chilling re-imagining of the Manhattan cityscape had the Nazis succeeded in 1945 and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In this work, the name of every Manhattan street, park, plaza and bridge has been changed to the Berlin equivalent, casting New York in a disturbingly familiar light.

Several artists are relatives of Holocaust survivors or survivors themselves, which lends their work an added emotional weight and psychological dimension. “Eyewitness” (1998) by Israeli-born Natan Nuchi is a haunting composition of a survivor with eyes closed. The artist’s emotional turmoil is tangible in his scratchlike technique, which resembles the barbed wire fences of concentration camps. Tamar Hirschl’s abstract painting “Broken Dreams” (2002), meanwhile, recalls the confusion, destruction and brutality of her traumatic past.

In all, the exhibit takes viewers on an artistic journey through the major themes of Jewish life during the past 100 years. As such, there are some uplifting pieces, including works relating to the creation of the State of Israel. While that portion of Jewish history has not been without its share of conflict and struggle, it does leave one with a sense of hope that brighter days lie ahead.

Vanessa Silberman is a New York-based freelance arts writer.

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