Friday, December 10, 2004

Third Candle

[BTW, I also forgot Nuno at Rua da Judiaria: Happy Chanukah!]

I bought Rembrandt's Jews by Steven Nadler last year ... and put it aside. For some reason, I regretted the purchase and thought that the basic concept behind the book was facile (in fact, the reason that I bought the book was because I wanted something about Jews in the Netherlands). I picked it up recently (probably due to the holiday season), and I must admit that the book is more sophisticated than I expected. More than just a study of the image of "the Jews" Dutch painting, the book looks at the art as a product of the social lives of the Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam in the early 17th century.

Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue
in Amsterdam by Emmanuel de Witte

Nadler uses Rembrandt as a hook into a larger problem of Dutch art: were Jews portrayed sympathetically in painting? Were those portrayals a reflection of acceptance, tolerance, or a philosemitic facade with the intention of converting Jews. The answers lie in a complex of changes: merchant capitalism, accumulation of wealth, immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe as well as Portugal, the desire of the Reform Church to get to the root meanings of the scriptures, the place of Jews as voracious consumers of art in the Dutch market, etc.

One of the most interesting changes involves shifts in representativeness in art. In previous posts I have written about how Dutch landscapes tried to achieve a matter-of-factness, taking in the entirety of a landscape without privileging specific features or narratives (such is especially the case of the work of Jan van Goyen, one of my favorites, whose canvases were dominated by large skies). The same values applied to depictions of social life: some sort of broad verisimilitude that presented as much information as possible about the scenario rather than idealizing it (relatively speaking).
Clothing and badges are marks of moral differences. They single out the wearer as evil or mendacious, a murderer or unbeliever. The demonization of the Jew, however, went much deeper than this. The portrayals of Jews tend toward physical caricature, sometimes of a particularly nasty nature. The physiognomic exaggerations and deformities that generally characterize them in medieval and Renaissance art are all part of a worldview in which the Jew is not merely morally degenerated [note: I find this word is applied anachronistically], but of a sinisterly different nature altogether. The bulging, heavy-lidded eyes, hooked nose, dark skin, large open mouth, and think, fleshy lips of Jews in paintings and graphic arts make them look like cartoon characters rather than natural human beings. ...

And then we come to seventeenth-century Dutch art, where we find ... nothing. Utter plainness. There is a uniformity in the depiction of all walks of life. Ugliness and deformity are there, but they represent the common sins and foibles of all humankind. ... there is no special iconography reserved for the Jew. The depiction of Jews and their activities are generically no different from those of wealthy regents, middle-class merchants, and indigent laborers. The naturalistic renderings, the settings of everyday life, and the easy integration in their dress, architecture, and habits into Dutch culture make the Jews in the art of Holland's golden age perfectly normal.

On top of that, the signs that identified Jews dropped away: the physical and sartorial markers became meaningless. This is especially problematic because the religious/ethnic identities of subjects in paintings is less certain: the critic must work harder to understand whether or not a particular work must be understand as somehow related to Jewish life. In fact, many critics have made the errors in identifying these subjects: either they look for non-Nordic features or they dismiss the Jewish character of the subject because there is no positive proof. Rembrandt employed many Jews as subjects simply because he associated with them more closely when he lived in Amsterdam.

Finally, the academic trends show increasing knowledge about practice and belief from Jewish sources. Biblical themes could be portrayed in ways that were theologically familiar to potential Jewish customers.


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