Georgetown University art historian Ori Soltes tells the story of first reading Plato and Socrates when he was in college. Socrates’ relentless questioning left him unsatisfied. But, gradually, as Soltes matured, he learned to accept the value of questioning, even when probing doesn’t lead to solid answers.
“That sensibility [of questioning] is one that I carry with me in every lecture, every class and every article or book that I write,” he said.
Anyone who opens Soltes’ 630-page “Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art & Architecture” may want to keep that in mind. Throughout the book, Soltes returns again and again to the straightforward-sounding question: “What is Jewish art and architecture?” True to his M.O., he discovers no solid answers. But he hopes his inquiry will enable people to better understand Jewish art and architecture — even if these are terms he is ultimately unable to define.
One of the biggest problems Soltes encounters in trying to define Jewish art and architecture is the problem of what qualifies as Jewish. In antiquity, Soltes writes, the people some identify as Jews were actually Israelites or Judeans.
The problem of what Jewish means extends throughout Soltes’ sweeping narrative. He analyzes the work of 20th century artist Frida Kahlo, who had one Jewish grandparent and, as Soltes demonstrates, used Jewish themes in her work. In her 1945 painting
“Without Hope,” Kahlo addressed the Holocaust by portraying herself lying in a bed with different blood-red objects being forced down her throat and a torture device that evokes the Spanish Inquisition.
But even beyond the problem of defining Jewish, Soltes encounters more questions than answers when combining the terms “Jewish” and “art.” For one, what can commonly be considered “Jewish art and architecture” is, in fact, often heavily borrowed from other cultures. Even the First Temple in Jerusalem of 960 BCE is in the style of a Northern Canaanite long house and incorporated architectural features that were popular among the surrounding cultures of the day.
Jumping ahead two millennia, Soltes teases out how even Israeli art, which is often conflated with Jewish art, includes art by artists who aren’t Jewish. He gives the example of Assad Azi, a Druze painter whose art is indisputably Israeli in its themes.
Still, in his large survey, Soltes finds examples of art and architecture that are undeniably Jewish. One important example is that of the thousands of timber synagogues in Eastern Europe that were distinct from surrounding architecture because of their high roofs, large central elements and the fact that they were constructed without nails.
Despite the questions he hopes to raise, Soltes intends to dispel myths in his book, including the misconception that nearly all Jewish art is Judaica. Soltes also sought to counter the idea that Jews are a bookish people who aren’t interested in the visual arts.
“The notion that Jews don’t do visual art is not only simply not true, but given the opportunity to do so, which gradually happened in the past 150 years or so, Jews have become fantastically productive,” he said. “I want my audience to realize how wide and deep the waters of Jewish visual productivity in fact are.”
The content of Soltes’ book reflects the explosion in Jewish art since the Emancipation, when Jews generally gained civil rights in Western Europe over the course of the 19th century. While the book includes chapters on ancient, medieval and early modern art, roughly four-fifths of the book addresses art made after the Emancipation.
One of the most significant artists discussed is Marc Chagall, the 20th century Russian-French cubist and expressionist painter. Soltes spends a good amount of time discussing Chagall’s painting “White Crucifixion” because of its significance to the larger themes Soltes explores in his book. The painting portrays Jesus on a white cross, but it is unequivocally Jewish — the loin cloth covering Jesus resembles a tallit and there is other Jewish imagery in the painting. Soltes writes that Chagall displays “not the beloved Savior of humanity, upon whom Western art has doted for fifteen centuries, but a suffering Jew, crucified for his death.”
“White Crucifixion” is one of more than 700 images in the current edition of the book, which was published in 2016 by Canal Street Studios. Soltes said that another publishing house will publish a color edition of the book in the next six months.
Soltes acknowledged that it can be difficult to make such a lengthy book with so many images economically viable, but he joked that he “isn’t in it to get rich.” In fact, Soltes began working on the project in the 1980s when he created a 26-part, 13-hour video course on the history of Jewish art.
Over the course of the past few decades, Soltes, who is the former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, said that the issue of defining Jewish art came up often in talks and when he was on panels.
“Clearly it’s a big question, and my life’s work has been to make people think and rethink and not just assume things,” he said. “As I say in the book, maybe questioning is the consummate Jewish art.”