Jewish Modernism Part 2: Figuration from Chagall to Norman

April 30, 2020 – December 31, 2021
Palm Desert, CA


Heather James presents a two-part online exhibition of artworks from our collection featuring the modernism developed by Jewish artists. Part 2 focuses on the development of figurative and representational paintings.

The show opens on Marc Chagall, one of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, who fused his Jewish background to create an influential mode of modernism. These vibrant lithographs by Chagall are delightful examples of the modernist visual language he developed. Much of his unique voice derived from the synthesis of his Jewish identity and modernist trends applied to diverse subjects.

Nevertheless, Chagall never limited himself through his religion. The other lithographs demonstrate his ability to adapt differing subjects and themes to his unique style. Chagall even made the stain glass windows for St. Stephan church in Mainz, Germany.

The exhibition also explores the impact of Jewish identity on artists such as Camille Pissarro. Pissarro was born into a Jewish family on the island of St. Thomas. While never the explicit subject of his artwork made for public consumption, his identity girded his political and cultural point of view particularly his emphasis on farmers and country workers. For the artist, the land and the workers are related and intertwined. Pissarro also faced rising antisemitism due to the Dreyfus Affair, and it played a part in his falling out with fellow artists, Paul Cezanne and Edgar Degas. Nevertheless, it was Pissarro’s pioneering spirit and ability to change his style which has given him the name “Father of Impressionism”.

Irving Norman was born in Lithuania in 1906 and was a Jewish immigrant to the United States. A social surrealist, his paintings capture the trauma of modern life during the 20th century, informed by his own personal experiences including as a soldier defending the Spanish Republic from Franco’s fascist Nationalists. Dark and often violent, Norman believed that his paintings and art in general have the power to change society and our behavior. Not just totems to destruction, these paintings are a calling out to humanity’s compassion.

Straddling the line between abstraction and figuration, Roy Lichtenstein became a pioneer of Pop Art. Lichtenstein’s Jewish identity influenced his art in more indirect ways whether it was the subtle housing discrimination he faced while growing up or his joining a Jewish fraternity. Much more direct but still subtle, were the Jewish influence of the comic books that defined the artist’s style. The artists for these comics were often Jewish including Jack Kirby and Irv Novick.

William Kentridge brings us to Contemporaray Art. Kentridge’s artwork are charged examinations of political and societal relationships stemming from his own identity as a white, Jewish South African. Taking on a theatrical flair, his works slip into beautiful absurdism grappling with the history of Apartheid and its effects. From Norman to Kentridge, we can see a through line of politics and art influenced by one’s own Jewish identity and experiences.

Other artists in the exhibition include Alex Katz, Morris Louis, and George Segal.