A Mark Rothko painting. Regan Vercruysse via flickr.

The Evolving Scene of Jewish Art

Jewish art has proven to be a medium for personal self-expression as well as cultural proliferation.

Intricate Jewish art dates back to Biblical times. One of the earliest examples of Jewish art is in the Tabernacle, constructed by the Biblical Bezadel, an artist appointed by God for this project. The Bible details the artistry involved in building the First Temple in Jerusalem under King Solomon. Despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., as well as the beginning of a 2,000-year Jewish exile, Jewish art prospered in the early post-exilic period. The construction of the Dura Europos and Beit Alpha Synagogue, specifically, are examples of Jewish art thriving in this time period. The Dura Europos contains frescos from the third century that portray figures in Biblical scenes.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Islamic rule restricted evidence of Jewish art to the construction of synagogues and the illustrations of manuscripts. However, the Enlightenment period, as well as a greater acceptance of Jews in the world, allowed Western Europe to become a home for Jewish art. Camille Pissarro, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall, are all examples of the flourishing Jewish artist scene in 19th and 20th century Western Europe.

Contemporary Jewish artists, like Mark Rothko, continued to proliferate Judeo-Christian themes in art. Some critics interpret Rothko’s 20th century work of large canvases with blocks of color as the “modern-day Tabernacle.” However, the increasing amount of modern outlets for Jewish art seem to have allowed present-day Jewish art to thrive.

Today’s plentiful number of Jewish artists are certainly unique. Ken Goldman, an Israel-based conceptual artist and sculptor, creates colorful Kabbala dolls representing the three angles sworn to protect children, which were hugely popular at the annual toy audition in 2006 at FAO Schwarz in New York City. Since then, his unique and eclectic works of Judaica have been exhibited, installed and sold widely. ​In the fall of 2018, Goldman was one of five international artists chosen for a three-week Venice art residency on climate change through a Jewish lens​. ​He is currently finishing a three-stage sculpture installation in an old Jewish cemetery in Poland.

Hilla Ben Ari, a​ ​kibbutz-raised visual artist with a degree from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, uses video, sculpture and other media to depict the female form as a medium to explore identity, sexuality and the relationship between men and women. Her work has been displayed in Barcelona, Beijing, Berlin, Bonn, Brussels, Bucharest, Bulgaria, Los Angeles, Milan, New York, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Vancouver and at many Israeli museums.

Another Jerusalem-based conceptual artist, Andi Arnovitz, uses installations, prints, artist books and sculpture to explore issues of infertility, divorce, domestic violence, gender, politics and religion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her work has been exhibited across the world as well. Arnovitz’s work is displayed in public and private collections including the US Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in California and Yale University in Connecticut.

With its foundation in Biblical times, Jewish art has proven to be a medium for personal self-expression as well as cultural proliferation. Jewish art has endured exiles and genocides and has continued to be a premier form of documenting cultural histories and preserving religious values, as well as to explore modern ideas. Jewish art is unique in its application of religious and cultural practices while celebrating the lively and enduring culture of Judaism.

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Molly is a junior at Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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