Jewish Imagery and Orientalism in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century European Art

Tsang, Wing Yi 曾穎怡
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas

The Bible fundamentally defines Jewish identity. Its meticulous descriptions of Jewish history, faith and geographical movements have deeply affected how Jews and Gentiles alike have perceived Jewish people. The biblical identities designated to Jewish people are of two kinds; first, they are the descendents of ancient Israelites, and second, the brothers of the Arabs. These two identities played a crucial role in defining Jewish people in the Orient in art of the 19th and early 20th century.

The major aim of this thesis is to explore the relation between Jewish imagery and Orientalism. This thesis does not follow Edward Said’s approach in understanding the Orient by imperialistic terms and by focusing only on the Islamic population. Instead, it extends the scope of Orientalism to Jewish imagery of the Orient to scrutinize various concepts of Orientalism and visual elements used for Jewish identity by both Jewish and non-Jewish artists.

Chapter one overviews the development of Jewish imagery from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. It demonstrates a general trend from symbolic representations to objective realism in Jewish imagery, introducing the consistent use of visual codes to indicate Jewish Otherness, early Orientalist depictions of Jews, and more objective representations of Jewish life.

Chapter two deals with Jewish imagery in French Orientalist art. It seeks to show that painters’ association of Jews as Israelites and as Arabs led to an admiring representations of Jews, with Jewish festivity and costume elements in exoticizing Jews. It also examines the intertwining of Judeo-Arabic identity.

Chapter three studies Jewish imagery produced in Central and Eastern Europe. It first surveys the various genre scenes of contemporary Jewish life that had no connection to Orientalism. Then it examines Jewish artists’ responses to Orientalism, which were based on a Jewish search for roots and a return to the homeland, rather than on imperialistic expansion. Examples demonstrate Jewish artists’ self-projection of biblical identities onto themselves and fellow Jewish people to reinforce their links with Palestine and the enriching function of Arabic identity in constructing Jewish identity.

The final chapter focuses on the Jewish national movement, Zionism, and its art in the Middle East. It analyzes art created by the Bezalel Art School and the Modernists, most of whom were Jewish artists who traveled to Palestine and worked there in the first three decades of the 20th century. It particularly examines art with different Orientalist tendencies that were still based on biblical associations to call for a national return, to paint local Jewish models, and to set the local Arabs as a contrasting image to Jews in order to refashion a new and tough national Jewish identity.

This research aims to generate alternative perspectives in understanding Jewish identity as represented in art in the context of Orientalism, and to stimulate more critical analysis of both Jewish art and Orientalism.