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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important book on Soyer and Jewish art
Samantha Baskind's Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art describes the life and work of Raphael Soyer, a Russian immigrant who arrived in America in 1912 at the age of thirteen. The oldest of six children, Soyer, his twin brother Moses, and their younger brother Isaac became artists. All three of these talented siblings sit on the periphery of American art,...
Published on April 5, 2004 by artlover1009

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17 of 26 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a critical review
"Raphael Soyer did not want to be known as a Jewish artist." So begins the only book-length study of him and his work, a serious book dedicated to undoing that wish. Samantha Baskind, a professor of art history and Judaic studies, sees Soyer as a Jewish immigrant, steeped in Jewish culture and sensibility, whose work willy-nilly reflects that Jewishness. Soyer tried to...
Published on March 25, 2004 by Arnold Lieber


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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important book on Soyer and Jewish art, April 5, 2004
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
Samantha Baskind's Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art describes the life and work of Raphael Soyer, a Russian immigrant who arrived in America in 1912 at the age of thirteen. The oldest of six children, Soyer, his twin brother Moses, and their younger brother Isaac became artists. All three of these talented siblings sit on the periphery of American art, and in this well-researched book Baskind shows why Soyer deserves more attention than he has previously received. Along with describing how Soyer's art was influenced by his Jewish identity, Baskind also critically examines "the assumptions and methodologies scholars employ when discussing Jewish art" (4). Her lucid prose, even when dealing with challenging thinkers (Freud, Simmel, and Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, among others), makes Soyer and his Jewishness accessible.
Baskind begins her book by stating that Soyer "did not want to be known as a Jewish artist" (1), and then proceeds in the following five chapters to look closely at a single work or a group of related works by Soyer. She explains how Soyer was never a parochial painter - she does not connect his work to the religious elements of Judaism - but that the religiocultural dimensions of Judaism influenced his art. The first chapter, for example, examines a self-portrait from 1927. She tenaciously digs at the meanings in this portrait, and her attention to details, both visual and socio-political, is impressive as she shows how Soyer negotiated the challenges of being Jewish in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Baskind's discussion of past analyses of Soyer's well-known painting Dancing Lesson illustrates her accomplishment. This painting has been previously understood as Jewish, but, as Baskind explains, a close look at the work's iconography has never been performed. Baskind does this with panache and insight. Baskind carefully examines the painting, pulling out the "Jewish signs" (64) in Dancing Lesson, finally providing a paradigm for why this painting has fascinated so many as an example of Jewish art.
This book may be the impetus for others to take Soyer more seriously as an artist. Importantly, Baskind never attempts to claim Soyer. She only offers possible meanings - she mindfully phrases her interpretations with words like "seems," "may," and "perhaps," and states in her conclusion that "If this discussion of Soyer's professional self-definition opens up new perspectives on Soyer's art and incites scholars to reevaluate Soyer, then I have done my job" (196). She wants others to write and comment on Soyer; she does not pretend to be all-knowing and understands the limits of scholarship. Baskind also acknowledges that "Soyer cannot be understood adequately as [solely] a Jewish artist or an American artist" (196), thus opening up a hopefully new field of Soyer studies to interpretations from various perspectives.
The book culminates with Baskind's discussion of Soyer's book illustrations for Isaac Bashevis Singer. Her attention to Soyer's artistic precedents, especially the illustrations' uncanny resemblances to Marc Chagall's art and that of Jacob Epstein, is art history as it should be done. Beautifully written with an astonishing depth of understanding of twentieth-century American art and culture, Baskind's exceptional scholarship has enriched our understanding of Soyer and Jewish art.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating on several levels, April 8, 2004
By 
smeyer (Ft. Lauderdale) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
I found this book fascinating, and I'm just as fascinated by the reactions to it, especially the angry diatribe.
The value of this book is that Soyer has been known as a Jewish artist, but no one has talked about him as such in real depth. I recommend this book for its:
1. Attention to biography. The author quotes and analyzes Soyer's 4 autobiographies, his personal papers, and oral interviews. She's probed these sources and found interesting material there.
2. Multidimensional use of history. One reviewer states that the author doesn't tell us anything about the historical context of Soyer's art. I disagree. She tells us much, it's just that it's not the same old American stuff wrapped around him. She provides an alternate historical perspective: the Jewish one alongside the national and artistic ones. I especially like her use of literary works, such as Elias Tobenkin and Abraham Cahan, to help explain the mindset of the time.
3. Attention to visual details. Her interpretations of the art, especially Soyer's illustrations discussed in the last chapter, is impressive.
The author uses the evidence the artist has left behind, both verbal and visual, to construct an interesting portrait of Soyer. I think those uncomfortable with that portrait are those who have been, for whatever reason, perpetuating a static view of Soyer (gender, race and religion matter!), or have ignored him altogether.
This new look at Soyer is just what's needed - and not just for art history, but religious studies, gender studies, and all those interested in difference.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jewish art analyzed in depth, July 12, 2004
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
This book was recommended to me by a professor who felt that the text would clarify my questions about what Jewish art is. The book did that and more. The book carefully goes through the many possiblities of what Jewish art is, how it has been understood in the past, and what the author thinks. Before this book I felt that Jewish art could really only be defined as religious, but now I understand much more about the ethnic dimensions of Judaism. According to the author, the "cultural" aspects of Jewish art are just as worthy as the religious ones. She expains all this with examples and by testing her ideas on the art of Raphael Soyer. R. Soyer's art is really great, as is this book. I recommend it to anyone interested in American art, Jewish art, or Soyer.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read, January 7, 2005
By 
William A. Mandel (University Heights, Ohio) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
What captivated me moreso than just the history of this artist was the style in which the author arranged and wrote this wonderful book. The points and details were laid out in a way that made the read enjoyable, almost like a novel, (It was upsetting whenever I had to put the book down), and I never felt talked down to even though the subject matter was new to me. I totally devoured this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in art, art history, immigration, diaspora or jewish studies, not to mention biographies. I would also recommend it to someone just searching for a good read! I look forward to other such works by Dr. Baskind.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Artist of the First Rank and an Old Debate, June 4, 2010
By 
drkhimxz (Freehold, NJ, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
I read the book when it was still hot from the presses (or from whatever they may use to print books these days). I own just about every book ever written about or by Raphael Soyer. I had many of his drawings, lithographs, and some of his paintings (as well as those by twin brother, Moses and some lithographs by younger brother, Isaac) and, still, at the beginning of the life decade in which he died, have a painting and some lithographs to help keep me company. As he would have assumed a collector would, I had many works by others of his place and era, of Jewish and non-Jewish origin. So, why do I drop my vote between the well-explained one star and the well-written five star.
Simple: I enjoyed the book. I am happy it was published. I would like as many people as possible to read it.
On the other hand, I agree entirely with Arnold Lieber's assertion that Soyer was not a Jewish artist in the sense of a motivation to portray, express, expose, disseminate, reinforce, and whatever other words will say it, something Jewish in the world, other than as one part of the urban vista which was his life's work. Why not take him at his word, one can see it on Youtube, when in his 80's he rejected the identification of being a Jewish artist (whatever that might mean other than that the person was born of parents who had something about them that warranted some people to call them Jewish). He was, by his word and deed, a chronicler of (mostly) the New York City in which he lived all his life after arriving from Russia.
This is not to say that what he had been as a specifically Jewish child in Russia had no impact on his work. This is not to say, that growing up in a City and in an art world filled with Jewish people and their various subcultures, did not have an impact on his work. It is simply to say that he set his mind and his orientation to art on a universalistic course.
So, what about the book. I judge it to be a legitimate effort to get at what Justice Holmes called, "The Can't Helps" in a persons life, the things that he cannot help being, thinking, and doing. This is the first effort in a long time to make a stab at that for Soyer. Unfortunately, it is the fate of most artists, even of the first rank, quickly to be forgotten, particularly, when there are not available the resources to do the things necessary to increase the chances of being remembered. That is why I can accept what may be weaknesses in the book. Unfortunately, six years later I do not think it has done much good. With time, the living witnesses decrease, the works deteriorate in private hands, and less and less can be collected in ways that preserve them.
In sum, read this book, treat the propositions as one should, as hypotheses for further testing. Then read the fine monograph by Lloyd Goodrich and, of course, the small books by Soyer himself. Of course, if one is in a position to do so, see the occasional gallery exhibition of some of his work.
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17 of 26 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a critical review, March 25, 2004
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
"Raphael Soyer did not want to be known as a Jewish artist." So begins the only book-length study of him and his work, a serious book dedicated to undoing that wish. Samantha Baskind, a professor of art history and Judaic studies, sees Soyer as a Jewish immigrant, steeped in Jewish culture and sensibility, whose work willy-nilly reflects that Jewishness. Soyer tried to suppress his Jewishness, "...going to great lengths to conceal his heritage," in the interests of career-advancement in an environment hostile to Jewish-born artists. Despite his "promotion of public image that he tried so desperately to perpetuate all his life," his Jewishness emerges (mostly unconsciously) in his iconography and thematic material which Baskind dissects "with fair and probing eyes that might have helped Soyer more honestly assess his motives." For Baskind, Jewishness is a source of richness and authenticity in Soyer's work and life; he was the poorer somehow for his denial of it, eventually tempered, as she sees it, by his finding in later life "comfort in, and/or acceptance of, his Jewish identity...being more open about his Jewish identity...no longer hiding his ethnicity..."
This is not a recognizable portrait of the man I knew.
Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) was born in Borisoglebsk, Russia. An inarticulate self-involved youth dreaming of becoming a great artist or some other kind of great man, he missed Russian literature and "sophistication" (his word)- his early Russian assimilation - more than the constricted Jewish milieu of his origins. Coming to the United States as a twelve year old, he slowly embraced the wider horizons of the New World. He didn't "suppress," he discarded and changed. His depressed mother, his cultured but impractical, old-fashioned father (who dragged him to Zionist meetings, added Zionist quatrains to his -Raphael's- poetry), their poor and crowded household - spurred him to escape into his life as an artist, the single-minded passion of his life. ("What would have happened to me if I hadn't been an artist," he used to say. "What else would I have been fit for? I'd have ended up as a soda jerk.") In that life he painted the New York world he found and created around himself. Soyer was a Jew of course (contrary to Baskind's claim, he always acknowledged that), the kind of Jew he chose to be, secular, uninterested in Jewish trappings, a liberated Diaspora Jew open to Western culture, Enlightenment ideas, democracy, socialism, urban sights and sounds. In this era of multiculturalism and identity politics it may be hard to remember that many Jews, of his generation and after, while retaining more or less strong senses of family and Jewishness, highly valued a universalistic, extensive, and inclusive attitude, with diminished emphasis on tribal divisions, not simply to escape anti-Jewish bias, but as a positive goal. Jews don't have a Pope. They define themselves.
Her central thesis is wrong. Soyer never denied he was Jewish. But he did not want to be known as a "Jewish artist", one who paints "Jewish art." That is what Baskind calls denial and suppression.
He didn't want to be a "Jewish artist", not because of stigma or economic reasons (one could think of making a career in Judaic-based art), but because to him it meant parochialism, narrow vistas, cliché, kitsch, a giving up of a secular, broad gauge relation to the world and more specifically the traditions of Western representational art over the centuries. He didn't want to be an ethnic genre painter or to be pigeonholed as one. A hint of what being labeled a Jewish artist meant to him might be found in his description of the New York's Jewish Art Center in the 20s.
"That was an inbred group ... proud, touchy, self-conscious and pretentious in its Jewishness, the painters wrote, the writers (painted)...Both Tofel and Kopman wrote books a la Nietzsche, and painted mystical and confused pictures. Tofel's canvases were poetic, nebulous in color and drawing, compositions of dwarfed, religiously posturing people." About Kopman: "...his shy pride, his reticence and his withdrawal limited his milieu to a circle of Yiddish intellectuals, poets, writers, and actors who admired him and in whose parochial acceptance he allowed himself to bask." (Self-Revealment, p.52) Limited artistic ambitions, parochialism, in-group smug self-congratulation. Soyer had high artistic aspirations, democratic instincts, and wanted to deal with all comers in the exciting, bigger world.
That Soyer was Jewish-born and exposed to and influenced by Jewish culture and milieu is a truism. In Soyer's mind that didn't make him a "Jewish artist" which to him was an art of Jews, about Jews, for Jews. Baskind says that despite himself he still created Jewish art defined as art "that says something about Judaism through its content and/or the influence of of its creator's Jewish values." With a definition as broad and elastic as this Soyer cannot elude her grasp.
What of the case for being a Jewish artist by her definition? First, before the "suppression" of Jewishness, when he lived in the Bronx with his family, a few of his early paintings clearly dealt with Jews and Jewish milieu, i.e. The "Man with the Broad" after Rembrandt is perhaps a man with a Jewish nose, "The Dancing Lesson," which Soyer called an "experiment in a direct and personal style" and Baskind a quintessentially Jewish painting.
Within a few years, came Soyer's "social realism" of the 30s , his pictures of shop girls, the homeless , the down and out, imbued with social consciousness, influenced, says Baskind, by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (healing the world.) Never mind that Soyer never said this, that there is not a shred of documentation for this influence. "It is not so important" she says in a footnote, "whether Soyer was familiar with the term `tikkun olam' although he probably was, but that he was influenced by this Jewish ideal and practiced it." So this Jewish-born artist, exposed to Torah teaching, who, when he depicts social conditions is, without need for further analysis, practicing "tikkun olam", thus creating "Jewish art." Baskind gives a primacy and power to origins without needing evidence that in fact his humanistic focus is permeated with specific Jewish ideas and motivations. In short Soyer cannot escape her, his original immutable cohesive Jewish identity, leaking through its "suppression," stamps his work as Jewish in Baskind's reductionist scheme.
I cannot here do justice to the ingenuity and convolutions of some of Baskind's tendentious arguments. A statement Soyer made about identifying with the homeless (depicted in "Transients," 1936) gives rise to an extended discuss of Zelig, the Woody Allen film parody character, an immigrant Jew with a passion to assimilate. Having made the invidious association, she draws a distinction. "While Zeling is the `ultimate conformist', a completely ambiguous man who assumes whatever identity is most convenient, Soyer's core ethnicity was always sustained." (p.105) But then a few pages later (p.110): "Soyer adopted Zelig's chameleonlike ability in "Transients" - he identified with the homeless. As did Zelig, Soyer wanted to be liked; he wanted to fit in..."
She also makes much of alienation in his work as a Jewish quality. Her questionable analyses of individual pictures makes too much of supposed splits in Soyer's self-image, being cut in half, etc.
Soyer is, I agree, a painter of alienation including his social realist paintings. Looking at his paintings gathered for his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1968 he was struck by the thread of continuity he found - "There is the same detachment, the same dissociation even when grouped together, the same withdrawal, the same involvement with oneself. From the first to last canvas there is no abrupt or sudden activity, no drama... (a) sense of the static, of repose...Like stills from some contemporary film; sitting, standing, walking, there is a feeling of waiting for something that is not expected to come..." (Self-Revealment p. 103.)
His pictures repeatedly show figures turned at angles away from each other, existential aloneness, a melancholy sense of the human condition. We can speculate on the sources of this quality --the immigrant experience, temperament, the missing childhood, his perhaps timid sexuality (what do we really know about it?), long hours behind canvas or drawing pad, the adoption of the observer position as a safe and even powerful role - all factors not specifically Jewish.
Soyer describes his first meeting at the John Reed Club in the `30s. He invites his studio model , he sits and sketches the male artists present; the girl, "realizing she was not expected," leaves. He apparently doesn't introduce the model and put her at ease. He positions himself as an observing outsider. Apart, awkward, inarticulate (early on but not later- he became a confident conversationalist), alienation came easy to him. (Self-Revealment, p. 72)
To recap Baskind's thesis: from his personal evolution away from traditional Judaism and his refusal to be a "Jewish artist" she posits his Zelig-like, opportunistic, suppression of Judaism, makes a reductionist claim of Jewishness (i.e humanism equals Jewishness) asserting itself against that suppression, and then invents a late life surge of franker Jewish acceptance/comfort.
As evidence of that surge, Baskind makes much of his collaboration with Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrating Singer's stories and autobiography in 1970, 1979 and 1981, as evidence of an acceptance of Judaism. As he aged, Soyer became "comfortable enough to express his Jewishness decisively...enjoyed his Jewishness in forums where it could been safely expressed" and the like. (But he was Jewish all his life in his way--married to Jewish wife who was a Yiddishist and associated with "Jewish Currents," a left Jewish magazine.) He was attracted, she says, to Singer's Jewish sensibility and his response "actively modifies the artist's past overt renunciations of things Jewish." (Being labeled a Jewish artist, clubbing up exclusively with other Jewish artists is what he rejected.) She gives his byroad into illustrations an unmerited significance and omits some reasons he worked with Singer.
Singer was a neighbor and friend ( he painted Singer's portrait in 1970) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and a famous man, a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. Soyer was interested in meeting famous and accomplished figures. In his trips to Europe he looked up Moravia, Guttuso, Manzu, Bratby, Agnon, Balthus and many more. (He also of course knew a wide variety of American artists -including Hopper, Dickinson, Maril, Kunyoshi, Arshile Gorky, Jacob Lawrence.) He considered them fellow members of the cosmopolitan world of art and literature, and so too Singer. Singer was a more complex character than some readers imagine. His dark novel "Shadows on the Hudson," almost not published, deals with the legacy of the Holocaust, the breakdown of faith, and clinging to faith, sex, the problem of evil. Among Singer's offbeat attractive qualities for Soyer were his mordant wit, his "filthy mouth" and preoccupation with sex. As for the Jewish "manner" of painting these illustrations, the emulation of Chagall -(seen by Baskind as another aspect of Soyer's franker embrace of Judaism)- whatever Chagall's influence in his illustrations, it was some early Chagall that he liked and had always liked. Much of later Chagall he found overrated, a kind of Jewish kitsch if you will. Nor did the illustrations mark a new phase of Soyer's artistic work -it was rather a minor detour and a diversion, as he continued to work in his old manner, without intensified "Jewishness".
Late in her book she concedes that looking at Soyer as a Jewish artist is but one approach- he could be examined in other ways as well-- but never comprehensively in any one way--as an American or New York artist --or perhaps best, a "human being." (He might have preferred "American representational artist" and that she talked about his art - as art, rather than an element in her design.) But this is a sop. Her approach seems based, despite her explicit denial, on finding a man to fit her thesis rather than finding a thesis to fit the man. Despite her scholarly talents and devoted attention to her subject, she misses the mark.
How irritated Soyer would have been about this brouhaha about Jews so peripheral to his artistic concerns and how dismissive of the claims of the possessor of those "fair and probing eyes" who, not dealing with him or his art on their own terms, acts as a kind of academic Jewish policeman, taking him into custody for his own good.
E. L. Doctorow, by Baskind's criteria, is a "Jewish writer." In a recent essay (Deism, in Reporting the Universe) he says (let's substitute "artist" for "writer" in his text): "...When I read Jack London and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, whatever their religious preference might have been never crossed my mind. Were they Christians? Perhaps in some unconscious way I knew their background was not Jewish. But in fact they were not Christians either, they were Jack London, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. And if you think this was a selective blackout on my part, I'll admit that, however strongly circumstantial the evidence might have been, as a high school student I didn't think of Kafka, I. B. Singer, and Saul Bellow as Jews. I thought of them as Kafka, I. B. Singer, and Saul Bellow. I read them and was inspired by them...But it was never the case of ethnic bonding with them- they were too spectacularly themselves. Of course the writer's background, religious tradition, nationality, lived life is crucially directive as to what she writes about whom and where...but as a reader I find it quite beside the point that Garcia Marquez is a Catholic from Columbia or Jane Austin is an Anglican from Britain, as instrumental as their culture might have been in forming them. Dostoyevski is a fanatically orthodox Christian from Russia. What else could he be? But there is another religion the great ones practice in their art, and it has no name...All writers worth the name are unaffiliated. The novelist, the poet, will understand the institutions they live within, including their religious traditions, as aggregate historically amended fictions. Appointing themselves as witnesses , they are necessarily independent of all institutions....
"However well intentioned, constructive and generous in spirit it may be to label the work of any particular group of writers as if their value is first and foremost of local value, a boon on the neighborhood - as if they are uniformly bound in the cultural context in which they find themselves -to do do so runs the risk of portraying them as a chorus, rather than as the soloists, temperamental divas, and unconscionable upstagers that they in fact are. And it seems not to recognize the truth that every author responds to all the given literature, and that the authorial conversation transcends borders and spans generations."
Arnold Lieber
arnlieb@yahoo.com
March 4, 2004
The writer was Soyer's son-in-law from 1958-72
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7 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars extremely disappointing, April 6, 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art (Hardcover)
I agree with the first reviewer that Soyer deserves more attention than he has received, but, unfortunately, this book is not the kind of attention he deserves.
Baskind tries to fit all of Soyer's work into her narrow interpretative frame. I did not find her arguments convincing. Her focus seems to be on "outing" Soyer as a Jew (not really necessary, since this is a well-known aspect of his identity, and nothing he ever tried to hide), rather than telling us anything new about his work or its historical context. In fact, I found myself not trusting the biographical information she does report because it all seems to be twisted around to support her predetermined arguments.
If you are interested in the question of "What is Jewish art?" you might enjoy this book, but if you are an admirer of Raphael Soyer, you probably won't.
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Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art
Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art by Samantha Baskind (Hardcover - March 29, 2004)
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