From about 1907 to shortly after World War I, these Jewish painters and sculptors, predominantly from Eastern Europe, experimented with the stylistic innovations of the avant-garde and the Post-Impressionists while working in Paris.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, Jewish artists, predominantly from Eastern Europe, were among the many foreigners attracted to Paris to pursue careers as professional artists. They have since been called the “Circle of Montparnasse,” referring to the new neighborhood of cafés and wide boulevards in which they settled. Some of the best known of this group are presented in this exhibition. From about 1907 to shortly after World War I, these painters and sculptors experimented with the stylistic innovations of the key avant-garde figures of the period, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. They were also influenced by the Post-Impressionists—Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne—whose works were widely exhibited in Paris at the time.
The works in this exhibition are from private collections, supplemented with examples from the Jewish Museum’s collection. The collectors of these works share both an admiration for their beauty and an abiding curiosity about the lives of these artists. The artists in this exhibition include Marc Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Elie Nadelman, Jules Pascin, Max Weber, Moïse Kisling, Jacques Lipchitz, Louis Marcoussis, Chana Orloff, and Chaim Soutine.
In the first section of the exhibition are works by Marc Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Elie Nadelman, Jules Pascin, and Max Weber, all of whom arrived in Paris by 1910. During World War I many of the Jewish artists left Paris, including Nadelman, who settled in New York. Both Mané-Katz, who had arrived in 1913, and Chagall went to Russia, their homeland, but were back in Paris by the 1920s. Others in this exhibition, like Moïse Kisling, served in the French Army. Those who returned found Paris a place of prosperity, but also discovered an increasingly conservative political, social, and artistic atmosphere. Nevertheless, over the course of the decade, a network of dealers, collectors, and critics would advance the popularity and commercial success of many of these artists, including, in the last two galleries, Kisling, Jacques Lipchitz, Louis Marcoussis, Chana Orloff, and Chaim Soutine. Despite their foreignness, the painterly, coloristic works and expressionistic styles that many of this group developed soon came to define French modernist painting between the wars.
The Jewish artists of the School of Paris came from various backgrounds, rich and poor, orthodox and liberal. They varied in artistic style, and, with the exception of Marc Chagall and Mané-Katz, didn’t paint Jewish themes. But modernist influences did not negate their personal heritage. Most thought of themselves as both artists and Jews. They met at cafés and in studios. A great camaraderie grew among these artists and the vibrant group of poets, critics, dealers, and collectors who converged in Montparnasse.
Chagall explained why he came to Paris:
I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away: this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colors, which spontaneously and astutely merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines. That could not be seen in my town. The sun of Art then shone only on Paris.
In addition to Marc Chagall and Sonia Delaunay, several other Jewish artists working in Montparnasse were early exponents of Cubism, a style characterized by simplified geometric forms, shifting viewpoints, flattened areas of color, and broken contours, where objects and space seem to merge together. Louis Marcoussis, for example, took part in the 1912 Section D’Or, one of the earliest Cubist exhibitions in Paris. Jacques Lipchitz was a pioneer of Cubist sculpture; in addition to the simplified forms of archaic and non-European art, he often used geometric shapes to reinforce a sense of order and clarity in his depictions of acrobats and circus performers. Moïse Kisling also explored this new pictorial language in still life paintings.
Jewish artists achieved increasing success in the 1920s and were frequently exhibited. Yet many, like Jules Pascin and Amedeo Modigliani, in particular, continued to move between bohemia and the world of wealth and privilege. While the mainstream Parisian art world accepted them, critics also drew attention to their Jewishness, often linking their painting style to their religious or ethnic heritage. Their reception was inextricably linked with increasing nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitic backlash. As Jews they remained outsiders. As artists, they also shied away from the avant-garde movements that surfaced in Paris in the wake of World War I, in particular, Dada and Surrealism.
In the Paris of the 1920s, glamour reigned, moderated by pathos. This is as evident in Chana Orloff’s sculptures of the Parisian elite as in Jules Pascin’s paintings of its prostitutes. Moïse Kisling portrayed the artist and model, Kiki, as the sexy, urbane Queen of Montparnasse in paintings at once somber and mysterious. The expressionistic painting style of Chaim Soutine, the most controversial and romanticized figure of the Circle of Montparnasse, was referred to pejoratively as “schmiermalerei”—a foreign word meant to emphasize his otherness. Despite the success Soutine achieved, his pictures were criticized as ugly and deformed.
By 1931, the French economy had collapsed in response to worldwide depressions following the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash. In 1933, Hitler was elected Chancellor in Germany. That same year, a French art critic, Roger Brielle, responded to rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the art world by authoring an article on Jewish painters for L’amour de l’art. Brielle sought to fold the seemingly foreign, mostly expressionist style of the Jewish painters into the rubric of national traditions in French art, dubbing it an offshoot of Fauvism. As art historian Romy Golan has written in the exhibition catalogue, Brielle sought to “remove the stigmas of race and nation from Jewish artists, dealers, and collectors, and instead [to] see their contribution to a community of spirit.” In 1937 the Nazis organized the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, which included works by Marc Chagall and other modern artists, both Jews and non-Jews. In 1938, Jacques Lipchitz’s monumental sculpture, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture, commissioned for the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, was destroyed in protest. Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, and other artists fled to the French provinces in 1939 and later left the country. Mané-Katz was drafted by the French and then imprisoned by the Germans. The 1940 German Occupation forbid foreign artists from exhibiting in Paris. Hiding from the Nazis, both Soutine and Louis Marcoussis fell ill and died. Ironically, after World War II, the vitality and passion of the expressionist style pioneered by the Jewish artists of the Circle of Montparnasse was irrevocably assimilated into the French national style.