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Full text of "Otto Schneid Papers--Correspondence before and after 1939--Mnkes, Sigmund (Box 9, Folder 19)"

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Chalet dans la montagne. 


Paysage avec chevaux. 


Le jardin. 

La récolte. 


Paysage romantique. 


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Le message. 


Le berger 


Musicien de village, 


Père et fils. 


Les bergers. 


Les comédiens. 


Paysan avec sa vache. 


Danseuse orientale. 


Nature morte à la palette. 


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JUNE 29, 1956 


ish about the Rubin of the twenties. True, 
all the "Jewish" subject matter is there, in 
canvases like Adoration of the Torah or 
Sabbath in the Colony, in portraits of 
Jewish leaders, in vistas of Holy Cities. 

Freedom from 

Yet the morbidness of the galut is not 
anywhere. Unlike Rubin, Chaim Soutine 
never painted any hasidim, in fact, in his 
large output there is not a single canvas 
with a "Jewish motif." Like Rubin, and 
in the same year, he came to France as a 
young man, but he stayed there to his end. 
Soutine wanted to be considered a French 
artist, yet to the Gentile critics he repre- 
sented the typical Jew, even more than 
Chagall with all his folk-lore, more than 
Mané-Katz with his sad-eyed, twisted 
Ukrainian figures. There was the modern 
Job, lamenting his fate and cursing the 
day he was born. There was the gloomy, 
temperamental Ostjude, attacking his can- 
vas with orgiastic impasto colors, the un- 
ruly neurotic with a pillar of fire for a 
soul, whose landscapes whirl as if uprooted 
by an earthquake, and whose portraits 
exude "ugliness." 

By comparison, Rubin seems static, 
serene, free of conflicts. At his first Paris- 
ian show in 1925, which was introduced 
by no less a figure than the writer Ed- 
mond Fleg, the public was flabbergasted 
to meet a Jew's work that emanated joy 
and gaiety. "What an unhappy, tortured 
life!" Soutine's canvases shout at the be- 
holder, while Rubin's oeuvre seems to say, 
in a soft, but deeply masculine voice, 
"Life is good!" The hullabaloo, the more 
than American activity and speed intro- 
duced into Israel with the mass immigra- 
tion of the thirties, is yet absent here, and 
there is, instead, the quiet grandeur of a 
still world. The Girl with Pomegranates 
looks at us from large almond-shaped eyes 
with the proud serenity of a Mexican 
painted by Diego Rivera, or one of the 
Egyptians, whose mummy portraits were 
made in the Fayom province, with their 

disproportionate emphasis on the eyes as 
the mirrors of the soul. In My Family 
(Tel Aviv Museum) Rubin and his rela- 
tives pose stiffly without moving a muscle 
as if for an old-fashioned photographer 
in a provincial town, the intensity being 
mitigated by gentleness. In The Proces- 
sion with the Torah, the worshipers are 
dignified, quiet men, not the bedraggled 
ecstatic Poles and Russians on École Juive 
pictures; yet the procession hardly seems 
to move from the spot. 

A baffling monumentality is often 
achieved by a quite legitimate trick, 
namely, by putting tiny figures in the 
background, thus making the objects in 
the foreground extremely big, such as is 
done in Flowers on My Window (Tel 
Aviv Museum ) , where the vase with flow- 
ers appears overwhelmingly large as con- 
trasted with the tiny silhouette of a man 
leading three camels along the Mediter- 
rean shore. The same effect is produced 
by The Artist and His Bride (1929, ex- 
hibited at the Venice Biennale of 1950) 
where the thoughtful couple and the 
ubiquitous lamb dominate the foreground, 
while, way back, vessels off the coast of 
Jaffa, and an airplane above them, ride 
like children's toys. 

The early Rubin is characterized by a 
disarming honesty, by a love of the new 
country still fresh and green, and free of 
the repetitiousness to which a long tiring 
practice is bound to lead. There is some- 
thing good and solid about this stable, 
lyrical world, and the critics were rather 
quick to appreciate it. Soon the mail 
brought favorable comments by experts in 
Paris, Bucharest, London, New York and 
Vienna. But the artist seems to treasure 
most a 1926 foreword to an exhibition 
catalogue written by the greatest of mod- 
ern Hebrew poets, Hayim Nahman Bialik : 

"It is Eretz Yisrael in its totality that 
one sees in the pictures of Rubin: Eretz 
Yisrael with its mountains and cities, its 
orchards and valleys, its old men, its wo- 
men, both Jewish and Arab, its donkevs 

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and goats, its stones and its flowers. . . . 
This earth, these fields and mountains, as 
they sparkle before us in their pious purity 
in the works of Rubin, are meant to be 
trodden only by the feet of the purest 
among the pure — the Sabbath and the 

holiday Jews, dressed in white, with silken 
socks and light sandals. . . . Whoever 
wants to see Eretz Yisrael, the land and 
what comes with it, in its supreme purity 
— let him turn to the artistic work of 

Siegmund Menkes 


L 1 

ET us examine a work of 
art as the product of the 
mind. Let us see colors not as paint 
which one buys in a store but as a liv- 
ing substance of the senses and the spirit, 
as a substance which can be projected 
from the inside into the world of objects. 
Let us conceive of color as the composer 
and musician conceives of sound — and we 
may be able to grasp the very essence of 
the work of Siegmund Menkes. 

"Who," I asked Menkes once, "has 
influenced you most among the con- 
temporary artists?" 

He thought for awhile and then the 
tall, lean, white-haired painter answered 

"You know, I don't want to be inv 
modest, but they used to say that I was 
an influence on others." 

Early Life 

Menkes was born in 1896 in the Polish 
city of Lwow into a family of religious 
Jews. The Haskalah movement had al- 
ready made large inroads into that city 
and Menkes, who remembers that he 
studied Humash and Rashi in the heder, 
recalls his father as a "Daitsch," an en- 
lightened Jew. Menkes drew and painted 
from childhood, and no one seemed to 
stop him or to know what to do with 
his kind of talent. It was clear that he 
would not become a lawyer or doctor, so 
they took pride in the decision of their 

AVRAM KAMPF is an artist and teacher. This 
article is a chapter in a book he is writing 
on the School of Paris. 

son to become "a Kinstler who paints 
Menshen and Bilder." 

He went to the art academy of Cracow 
which gave technical training in the res- 
toration of churches, and a good aca- 
demic background. The atmosphere in 
Poland was then favorable to art. Young 
Menkes even heard about Cézanne and 
had seen reproductions of this French 
master whose fame was spreading. But 
this work seemed, at that time, less spec- 
tacular to him than that of Rubens and 
Rembrandt, on which he grew up. 

"I had a big exhibition," he tells us, 
"and I almost believed that I was a 
great painter." 

But once the Jewish painter Yankel 
Adler appeared in the gallery and, after 
looking around for a while, went straight 
to Menkes and said to him: "This is not 
art. If you want to see what painting is, 
go to Duesseldorf or Paris." 

Menkes made his way to Paris via 
Berlin. He said of Paris: "The great 
thing about Paris was that, if anybody 
knew what was in store for him there, 
he wouldn't go. But young people have 
illusions and follow their dreams. You go 
there by instinct. Many came there after 
World War I, but once there, they 
became everything but painters, they had 
to eat." 

There were many disappointments in 
Paris. The bag of devaluated paper money 
which he had taken with him was quick- 
ly spent in Berlin. It was not what an 
artist from Poland hoped it would be; 
but still there were some compensations, 
the real beauty of the city which one 

JUNE 29, 1956 

could enjoy instead of the food of which 
one had too little. "You go over a bridge 
land you feel happy." 

The job lasted one day only. They found 
out that he did not understand French, 
and fired him immediately. He found 
some work painting ladies' handbags, 
which he did at his home. 

Influence of 
French Art 

The pattern is familiar. We have al- 
ready discussed it in our articles on 
Chagall, Soutine and Lipchitz. These art- 
ists belong to an older generation of Jew- 
ish painters who settled in Paris before 
World War I. When Menkes and others 
arrived from the East in the early twen- 
ties, some of them had already made 
names for themselves. 

Paris had struck a light in the heart 
of many a lost soul which had detached 
itself from the community in the East. 
In Paris one could paint. One could com- 
mit oneself to the life of the spirit, to a 
road the end of which did not matter. 
There was this wild broad current of 
conflicting ideas about life and art which 
forced the painter to take a stand some- 
where, to ask himself where he belonged, 
what he stood for in the clash of mean- 

Menkes encountered many things he 
liked and felt close to, but might never 
do. He sensed some attraction in Cub- 
ism, but took mainly a theoretical inter- 
est in it. He liked the certain "intellec- 
tual control it exercised over the emo- 
tions." But on the whole his response to it 
was negative. 

Intensity of feeling was one of the gen- 
eral traits the Jewish painters brought 
with them from their homes in the East: 
a supercharged emotionality which took 
from Paris a sense of control and mod- 
eration. The world of that city seemed 
classic and orderly; it forced and de- 
manded an artistic reorientation. This 
fact emerges as the central problem in 
the work of all the Jewish painters from 
the East. But while the problem was com- 
mon to all, its solution was of neces- 
sity a personal one, arrived at by inti- 

mate involvement as a highly strained 
relation between the self and the world. 
In examining how the various painters 
reacted to this problem, one can better 
assess the place of Menkes. Chagall took 
the externals of Cubism and superim- 
posed them on his world of phantasy. 
When he dropped the fetters of Cubism, 
he still remained tied to his past world, 
the world of the small Russian Jewish 
town, the village, the folk tale, the goat, 
the herring and the old home. Soutine 
never even flirted with Cubism, with 
control or with order. He bent the out- 
side world to his internal vision and need; 
he did not borrow, he did not match, 
he forced his own self on top of all the 
artistic problems, he forged a style, vio- 
lent, personal and unique. 

Menkes, perhaps because of the fact 
that he came from a home already ex- 
posed to Western impact, and because 
he went through the severe formal train- 
ing of the Cracow Academy, found it 
easier and more natural to establish 
a rapport between Jewish tradition 
and sentiment and the prevailing main 
currents of Western art. With him one 
never feels a forced solution, never the 
violent self-mutilating struggle of the ego 
trying to force its perception upon others. 
There is a more relaxed harmony be- 
tween the man and his surroundings. One 
breathes more easily, more lightly, one 
can live and enjoy life. 

This blend of basically Jewish senti- 
ments was felt by perceptive critics as 
early as 1924, when Segal pointed it out 
in the Parisian Aurora. Later, the well 
known writer and art critic E. Teraide, 
called Menkes in L'Intransigeant, one of 
the best representatives of northern 
painting and "if there is such a thing as 
Jewish painting, one of its youngest and 
most vigorous supporters." Similar sen- 
timents were expressed in Germany in 
1930 by Osborn and Donath, and Ameri- 
can reviewers who first saw his work in 
1936 were struck by this dual quality of 
form definition plus austerity, which could 



volved. The work of art in our century 
is often the result and silent witness of 
the problem, the struggle and the solu- 
tion. Menkes has achieved in his art a 
balance and harmony of basic conflict- 
ing, culture-conditioned tendencies of 
highest complexity. More than any 
other of the Jewish painters of the School 
of Paris, he unites in his canvases the 
romantic and the classic, the world of 
flight and imagination with the work of 
order and intellect. Perhaps it is only as 
an extension of this tendency that he 
paints so many still-lifes seen against 
a window background. The still-life is the 
private domain of intimate objects with 
which one is in touch daily, in a deep 
sense an extension of the self; and the 
window is the domain of the outer world. 
The interplay of these two domains is 
constantly searched for in their rela- 
tionship as optimal esthetic and existen- 
tial conditions. 

Still-life themes enjoy a specific the- 
matic preference in Menkes' work. One 
could maintain that they are but bear- 
ers of the play of colors, convenient 
models, did we not know more today 
about the symbolic nature of man, and 
the significance which the seemingly ac- 
cidental and unconscious or trivial choices 
have as significant carriers of preferred 
attitudes. Thus the still-life itself, the 
modes of its arrangement, the choice of 
the objects, will project basic features and 
problems with which the artist is con- 
cerned. There appears in his works an 
abundance of flowers near the window, 
books, red tulips, yellow, ripe bananas, 
various, shapes of musical instruments, 
the hard, crusty, glowing reddish pine- 
apple, rich tapestry and vessels or bowls 
containing wine or fruit: hardness and 
tenderness, the life of the mind and the 
life of the senses, the sweetness of wine, 
the scent of flowers, the harmony of 
sound and simple products of handicraft 
and labor. 

Similar tendencies toward the joyous, 
the life-affirming, the opulent, we find 

in the other themes he dealt with. His 
landscapes are easily accessible. There 
are no physical or psychological barriers 
to entering them. Houses are not turned 
upside down, nor do they come rolling 
down on you. A path usually invites you 
to step further into the woods, or leads 
you over a soft rolling hill to a house. 
Trees frame the road majestically, but 
lean backward in order to give way to 
the man-made path. There are fine con- 
trasts between the cool green foliage 
and the warm red earth with its intri- 
cately built surface (emanating a kind of 
benign brilliance, such as one may know 
on a lovely day when one feels lovely 
inside) . 

His figures are, on the whole, restful 
and not tormented, nor do they fly 
through the air. They are rather shyly 
bound to the ground, they sit there re- 
laxed in a natural pose in an environ- 
ment which is easily discerned and well 
structured. They sit in a garden sur- 
rounded by trees, they play the flute. 
Women sit in well lighted rooms and 
fix their hats, arrange their hair in front 
of a mirror, or sing near a piano. Boys 
play the harmonica, or release birds from 
a cage in a sweeping upward movement. 
His figures have about them a benign 
look, somewhat innocent yet always real. 

The self-portraits reveal the man con- 
tent with the role he has taken upon 
himself early in his life, namely to be an 
artist, an active searching observer, sen- 
sitive to the world around him. He pic- 
tures himself in different but not con- 
tradicting forms. He appears as the artist 
swinging his brush while bending to the 
side of the canvas so as to observe better. 
He appears reading a book, playing a 
guitar, carrying a harmonica. In one of 
his earlier portraits he places a monkey 
on his shoulders in a Bohemian-like fash- 
ion. There is an identification with the 
roles he paints of acrobats, clowns, actors 
and all the people of the circus. In one 
portrait, the palette of the painter ob- 

JUNE 29, 1956 


viously appears to be a shield. He pro- defiant, piercing; his shield, the palette, 

tects himself with and by his art, and ready to repel any attack, 
hides his real self behind the many mani- One large self portrait, called The 

festations of his work. The look is sharp, Troubadour, perhaps reveals best his at- 

Boy with Doves 

by Sieg.mund Menkes 



titude towards the world and himself. 
The artist, dressed in an informal attire, 
stands relaxed among the easel, the 
guitar, one of his landscapes and some 
canvases turned toward the wall. This is 
his natural environment, these are his 
chief possessions. He feels like one of the 
wandering singers, unattached, a stranger, 
a poet, a comedian, a conqueror (he 
wears a Napoleonic hat), a spirit. 

The Jewishness 
of Menkes 

Indicative of the person, his love for 
order, or of coming to grips with the 
world, was a statement Menkes made 
when I geared a conversation toward his 
Jewish themes: "All I had to say about 
my Jewishness I said in the canvas called 
The Torah. About 1927, I decided to 
take stock of myself, of my youth, of my 
family, of my race and the way I was 
brought up. I did The Torah, which was 
shown the following year in Berlin, and. 
aroused an enormous response. This was 
a kind of confession on :ny part, an 
homage to my people. They even made 
large color reproductions of it. The can- 
vas is more than seven feet high. I worked 
at it for five or six weeks. It seems to 
me I did not leave my studio, nor did I 
eat, drink or sleep." 

The Torah was indeed enthusiastically 
received in Berlin, and Max Osborn 
called it "the major work of art which 
the Jewish sentiment has produced in 
this country." Its originality, vehemence, 
conviction, the intense devotion it por- 
trays were commented on very often. 
Perhaps because it was a work of con- 
fession, so personal in nature, coming 
from the very center of the artist's self, 
it strikes us as somewhat different from 
his other statements. 

The Torah scroll is lifted and unrolled. 
An almost primitive tribal feeling ema- 
nates from the canvas, the devotion of a 
group to their most sacred object, the 
Book of Books, their tribal lore. There 
is manifest a genuine, unconditioned, 


spontaneous devotion. The centrality of 
the Torah is underlined by the circular 
composition, the figures revolving around 
the scroll, which guards the people as 
the people guard the scroll. The concept 
of the b'rith, the tie between God and 
his chosen people, the divine origin and 
content of the Book, of the word of God as 
spoker through Moses, is expressed as an 
intimate experience, with a grasp of the 
historic dimensions in this relationship. 

Formalistic arrangements are avoided 
in favor of reality and the strong im- 
mediacy of expression. The brush work 
is rough, and the possibility of some im- 
pact of German expressionism, particu- 
larly of Nolde, whose work Menkes may 
have seen while passing through Berlin, 
is not excluded. Details are sacrificed to 
vivid expression. Hands, eyes and fore- 
heads are especially accentuated. There 
is a general movement and commotion 
in the desire to touch the scroll, to come 
close to it. There is no hierarchy or dis- 
tinction between priests and laymen. All 
are simple, suffering, yearning people 
pressing into the light of the Torah. Only 
the Torah itself is crowned with a golden 
crown. It reigns supreme and is accessible 
to all who relate to it. 

The boy in the foreground (bearing 
some distinct resemblance to the artist 
himself) stretching his hand in amaze- 
ment, compiletes the cycle around the 
Torah and introduces a feature of con- 
trast to the bearded faces of the men, 
thereby conveying a sense of historic con- 
tinuity. It also represents a plain matter- 
of-fact statement of identity. 

While The Torah was a major effort 
and statement of identity, a personal 
coming to grips with oneself, there ap- 
pears about the same time another work 
of Jewish content, Les Talmudistes. 
This painting is again a more balanced 
statement, in which the faculties of rea- 
son and emotion produce a work of deep 
psychological expressiveness with remark- 
able classic restraint. 

The work shows a group of children 

JUNE 29, 1956 

with their teacher and a large open book. 
There is no table; three of the children 
are holding the book. Their round faces, 
with wide open eyes, their big heads, are 
in marked contrast to their weak bodies 
and the big bright open pages of the 
heavy book. There is an element of 
melancholy and sadness in the faces 
of the children. The book is felt in its 
whole weight, a tiresome burden, a dep- 
rivation, which opposes the natural free- 
wheeling sense apparatus of children. 
There surely is no eagerness to study. 
The wide-open children's eyes glance into 
the distance, and the burdensome book 
works almost as a chain which keeps 
them in place. The inner experience as 
seen from the child's point of view, the 
lure of the world outside, the world of 
play and games, the lure of the rolling 
ball and the flying arrow, is mirrored in 
their eyes. 

The composition possesses a marked 
classical quality. A big triangular shape, 
the apex of which is the head of the fig- 
ure of the towering teacher who stands 
quietly in the background, hardly felt. 
His role as a teacher is not apparent. 
He is shown rather as a guardian, a 
mother or nurse, his function is not to 
teach but to transmit the tribal lore from 
generation to generation. He, from one 
side, and the open book from the other, 
encompass the tightly knit group. There 
is serenity about the scene in the forms 
which move in quiet rhythm from the 
base to the top. The absence of any 
gestures, any built up environment lifts 
the subject into the world of ideas. Hands 
are almost concealed, the accent is en- 
tirely on the cohesiveness of the group, 
its physical, psychic and spiritual unity. 

Striking also is the absence of icono- 
graphie symbols. The book is only weight, 
no letters can be seen. This austerity con- 
tributes to the rich and many-sided con- 
ception of the theme. While the chil- 
dren's plight and attitude are quite ob- 
vious, there is no sentimentality in their 
representation nor any subjective evalua- 


tion which could be hinged to the scene. 
Quite the contrary is true; it is an amaz- 
ingly detached, objective, though not in- 
different statement which Menkes makes. 
The supporting and sheltering figure of 
the teacher counteracts any sense of pity 
the onlooker might feel. The situation 
seems fatefully predetermined. 

Realism and romanticism, objectivity 
and empathy blend again in this work. 
There is a genuine feeling for the throb- 
bing pulse of being, for the world and 
desires of children, the intuitive aware- 
ness of the total situation, its complexity 
and inherent lawfulness. The painter's 
work is not to judge nor to evaluate, but 
to observe, to understand and to paint. 

Menkes as 

"The good thing about Paris was that 
there one could take as well as give; with- 
out Paris, I would not have been able to 
know myself." At the beginning of this 
paper we quoted the painter as modestly 
maintaining that he had an influence 
on others among his contemporaries, ra- 
ther than others on him. His debt to 
the coloristic conception of art which 
started with the Venetians and entered 
the modern period with Delacroix, the 
impressionists, post-impressionists and 
fauves — this debt is self-evident. It is a 
debt all of us owe to those who came 
before us. They had expanded the use of 
color and made it a bearer of artistic 
intention, a statement of feeling and re- 
sponse to the world in which we live. 

This heritage is acknowledged, used 
and expanded in terms of the specific 
personal experiences, nuances, the ups 
and downs which enter the painter's cre- 
ative life. The coloristic tradition of West- 
ern painting is strongly felt in the can- 
vases of Menkes. He employs brush and 
the palette knife, and his canvases look 
worked through, scored and overscored, 
until there emerges, as from a battle- 
ground, a sure and secure image exu- 
berant, controlled, vigorous, an unfail- 



ing product of strong vitality. He has no 
working theories. "One feels when a cer- 
tain thing is wrong, and it bothers you 
until you set it right." The artist strug- 
gles for an order, a sense of organized 
vision. In some of his less idealized self- 
portraits the painter appears as a working 
man. He stands before his paint box, 
tired, his heavy hands folded for a mo- 
ment, the working jacket open, his high 
forehead and folded arms giving the 
impression that he has, for a moment, 
emerged from the other-worldliness, from 
the strain demanded by the constant pre- 
occupation with painting, the world and 
the self. 

Menkes in America 

An interesting stylistic development can 
be observed in the works of Menkes 
after he settled in the United States in 
1936. Formal elements are stressed much 
more than before. The pragmatic and 
experimental quality of present day 
American painting had some effect on 
his work.. Formal problems which were 
previously hidden and well concealed 
within the fabric of the whole, suddenly 
detach themselves and become inde- 
pedent. One may detect a conscious 
search for new formal possibilities, some- 
times at the expense of the poetic and 
immediate. Some of the canvases have a 
tendency toward flatness and the two- 
dimensionality which marks so much of 
modern art. The seams of the problem, 
begin to show. The environment leads 
toward increased abstraction (so does the 
market), but still the object is retained 
at all costs. 

The search for meaning, for orientation 
within the world of reality does not cease. 
There is now a pronounced accent on 
line; the geometrical structure of ob- 
jects and bodies is underscored, but sig- 
nificant meaning (as distinct from signi- 
ficant form) is still searched for. The 
point of departure is an experience, a 
sensation, an emotion. The geometrical 
and abstract forms are made to serve 

the expressive element while still being 
able to stand alone, on their own, as 
pure design. Objects and figures are dis- 
torted and their natural proportions re- 
versed so as to underline a definite feel- 
ing. He puts into the large space of the 
canvas the heavily outlined body of a 
painter, puts him before a narrow elon- 
gated easel and gives him a tiny round 
head. By this kind of selective propor- 
tioning, the reversal of the laws of per- 
spective, a metaphysical quality is created 
which impresses itself heavily on the 
mind. The presence of the large power- 
ful body is strongly felt, but the head, 
the seat of the intellect and creative 
imagination, seems to be far away al- 
though it is attached to the body. The 
actual remoteness of the artist from daily 
events and involvements is underlined. 
As a social being, the painter shares with 
others the common physical body-features, 
but his perceptive vision and interests 
are far removed. 

There is a series of works in which a 
boy releases birds in a strong upward 
movement. The spectator's point of vision 
is from below the canvas and his eye is 
forced to follow the sweeping upward 
movement of the body, as it stretches 
itself into the sky. Again, the perspective 
is reversed. The body growing out of the 
small feet gets taller and taller. The heavy 
lines leading from the feet through the 
body into the hands fan out and partic- 
ipate in the strong upward motion 
which pulls the beholder also. The low 
horizon adds a feeling of immense spa- 
ciousness. "There comes a time," says 
Menkes, who is now past his sixties, 
"there comes a time, when you ask your- 
self if you really have done what you 
wanted to do. I remember, when we were 
children, we used to catch birds and re- 
lease them from the yard behind our 
house. ..." 

The theme is here to stay with him, 
so is the urge toward liberation from 
pressures of whatever source. Environ- 

JUNE 29, 1956 


ment may influence and modify his style, 
yet his way of painting and his figures 
remain shyly bound to the ground, the 
roots of their attachment stemming from 
the need for the real and the tangible, 

from the search after an environment 
with a definite structure, on a basis upon 
which the foot and the mind may rest 
secure, then take off soaring to the sky 
and return. 

ftook flûtes 


A Historic Tour of American Synagogue 

Wischnitzer, Jewish Publication So- 
ciety, Philadelphia, 1955. 204 pages. 

"HE appearance of Rachel 
Wischnitzer's book on 
Synagogue Architecture in the United 
States, as well as of two others on this 
subject previously published (Bennett & 
Blake), certainly is an expression of the 
preoccupation of our fiscally potent 
parnassim in dotting the suburban land- 
scape with sleek, sparkling new buildings 
throughout the country. Our beaverish 
baale-batim have devoted themselves to 
this activity with energy and dedication. 
What city, be it large or small, does not 
boast of a new Orthodox, Conservative 
and Reform Synagogue, a new Com- 
munity Center building and a Country 

Mrs. Wischnitzer, in her preface, men- 
tions the fact that this is "the first com- 
prehensive attempt at explaining Amer- 
ican synagogue architecture in terms of 
form and function against the back- 
ground of the history of ideas." 

She discusses major trends, and traces 
evidences of stylistic changes. Starting 
with the oldest known synagogue in the 
western hemisphere, Mikve Israel in 
Willemstad, Curacao, she makes the trek 
of synagogue buildings to those that were 
built in our day. The tour takes us 

through the chaste colonial period — the 
carefully detailed classical period, the age 
of elegance — through the flamboyant 
oriental period — the re-emergence of the 
simplified new classicism — down to the 
contemporary period. Her comments in 
describing these periods reveal that this 
is the history of the American Jew, his 
social and economic development, from 
the early period of insecurity and de- 
pendency on European progenitors, down 
to the present middle income groups, 
who have rooted themselves in suburbia, 
and have found that group activity and 
affiliation is essential to themselves and 
their children. 

To expand somewhat on the con- 
temporary period, of greater interest to 
us today, Mrs. Wischnitzer informs us, 
under the caption of Surburbanism, that 
"the impetus to building was given main- 
ly by a decentralization trend rather than 
a marked growth of the Jewish popula- 
tion. If, in the nineteenth century, syna- 
gogue building was greatly stimulated by 
the drive of the membership to locate in 
better residential neighborhoods, the 
boom in synagogue building after World 
War II was likewise due ... to the 
flight from congested neighborhoods : 
this time from the city to outlying areas. 
. . . Churches and synagogues were a 
ware of this new element, and starte 
planting new congregations on the out 
skirts, equipped with educational, socL 
and recreational facilities. 

tc The new design of the suburban buil 
ings was bound to affect religious arch 



tecture everywhere." At this time, the 
flexible and expandible synagogue (due 
to High Holy Day attendance out of all 
proportion to normal attendance) was 
born. This imposed esthetic principles on 
the design such as the abandonment of 
the monumental entrance and turning 
the access to the sanctuary toward the 
interior of the building. Through the re- 
organized plan and the use of materials, 
a certain organic and humanizing ele- 
ment was introduced to architecture, and 
a relaxation of the rigid rules of mod- 
ern functionalism. The scale was no long- 
er imposingly monumental. The congre- 
gational program of activities began to 
take on a Jewish Community Center 
quality. Hence, greater ingenuity was in- 
cumbent on the architect to introduce 
color and visual stimulation by means of 
the arts — symbolic sculpture, mosaics, 
murals, metal craftsmanship as focal 
points of accent. The architect had to in- 
corporate the school, the social hall, the 
kitchen, the prayer room into an inte- 
grated total design. 

Mrs. Wischnitzer writes with scholarly 
cogency, authority, and penetration, and 
has produced a volume that is excellent- 
ly well organized, unusually well illus- 
trated and handsome in format. This 
book is worthy of the most important 
institution in American Jewish life. For 
her prodigious task of research in ascer- 
taining the names of all the architects (ns 
a profession they are not overburdened 
with a passion for anonymity) who de- 
signed the buildings illustrated, one 
should be everlastingly grateful. Her 
illuminating comments accompanying the 
illustrations are most informative, and 
show careful selection and relation to 
the main theme. She develops the evolu- 
tion of the design, analyzes the plan, and 
the emergence of the architectural form 
out of the changing social relationships. 

In her conclusion, Mrs. Wischnitzer re- 
fers to the basic criteria for the contem- 
porary synagogue buildings — emphasis on 

volume rather than mass, regularity] ra-* 
ther than axial symmetry, and elimina- 
tion of applied decoration. After apply- ) 
ing these criteria, she concludes that the 
cumulative effect has been the emergence 
of a recognizable esthetic quality which 
may be called a distinctive style. These 
new synagogues have brought comfort 
and convenience to the members of the 
congregations. They offer to "the young 
generation much greater stimulation for 
physical and spiritual growth." 

In her organization of the material, by 
the process of inclusion, the evaluation 
of the designs may oe implicit. To the 
sympathetic eye of the historian, all the 
buildings during the periods included, 
have significance. However, some of our 
major synagogue buildings erected re- 
cently indicate a tendency toward exhibi- 
tionism and dramatic solutions, virtuos- 
ity on the part of the architects. It is 
questionable whether these designs are 
conducive to the serenity and harmony 
so desirable in a place of worship. It may 
be contended that these deviate from 
the "form follows function" theory, and, 
as has been mentioned so frequently, may 
constitute a form of edifice worship. 

The synagogue building is not a golden 
calf to be worshiped, but a golden gate 
to be entered to reach the rich spiritual 
treasures stored within. 


SIGMUND BRAVERMAN is a member of the 
architectural firm of Braverman and Hal- 


We regret that the name of Dr. 
Robert Gordis was inadvertently 
omitted as a co-editor with Rabbi 
Theodor Friedman of the book, 
Jewish Life in America, which was 
reviewed in our last issue. We ex- 
tend our sincere apologies. 

— Editor