The category of Jewish Art History cannot simply be subsumed into a generalized European art history. The modern artist as the author-agent of the work of art is a relatively new persona and figure for Jews, emerging only in the nineteenth century along with greater historical movements of emancipation for Jews in Europe. My great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki (1881?-1943?) was split between affinities: on the one hand, he was a painter of traditional Jewish life in Poland, settling his gaze upon
scenes of synagogue, teaching, labor and leisure. In this, his paintings are an invaluable source of visual information about a world that has vanished. On the other hand, his self-portraits reveal a man apart from the world he depicted, a modern subject rendered in a minimalist style with expressionist lines in contemporary and not traditional dress. The tension between the ethnographic content of the painting and the modern gesture of the cosmopolitan painter is a fascinating one, a tension that plays itself out as Jews became modern citizens of European capital cities (one thinks of Freud as Rynecki's contemporary). At the same time, the shtetl lay just over the border, where the ostjuden, Jews of the east, with their foreign, traditional, anti-modern culture, lived.
This tension, and the duality which gives rise to it, is even greater than it might seem, because the very idea of talking about Jewish artists was once unfathomable. The Jewish community's strict interpretation of the Second Commandment's prohibition against graven images would not allow for Jews to be artists. Today the concept of a "Jewish painter" is less contradictory and much more accepted. Pioneering artists in the nineteenth century such as Moritz Oppenheim, Camille Pissarro, Maurycy Gottlieb and Max Liebermann were forced to make difficult choices about whether to embrace their religious background and incorporate it into their work, or instead to elide their ethnic heritage. Their individual choices ultimately made it easier for artists who followed in their footsteps to navigate and live in a broader society without abandoning their Jewish roots.
In fact, for some painters, art emerged directly from their Jewish identity; there was no separation between their Jewish identity and their art. For others, political freedom made it possible to relinquish the Jewish world and to expand their opportunities and experiences. For a third group, there was a constant struggle to find a balance between the demands of the contemporary art world with their own religious background. Those who navigated this path seemed to live in two worlds; they were motivated to accurately depict religious study and rituals, but did not want to paint classically religious paintings. Instead of attempting to document a devout lifestyle, these artists sought to accurately reflect the Jewish experience in its historical context, and to celebrate the people and their traditions without making their works overly brooding or nostalgic. These works appealed to the growing acculturated middle class Jews living in Central and Western Europe. The art reflected the middle class' struggle to live a contemporary life while searching for ways in which to preserve their Jewish identity. The paintings helped them to do both.
My great-grandfather's dual identity as a Jew, and as a member of the growing middle class in the more secular setting of Warsaw, allowed him to intimately paint aspects of Jewish life and tradition and yet to distance himself to position himself as a witness, an ethnographer of the community. It is this philosophy and approach that convinced him to go into the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite his son's pleas to obtain fake papers and pose as a non-Jew outside of the Ghetto, Moshe wanted to be in the Ghetto so he could paint and record the tyranny and cruelty perpetuated by the Nazi regime. Ultimately this decision cost him his life.