Review: “Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern”

Charles Dellheim, Professor of History at Boston University, sets out in Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern to show how Jews made a disproportionately large contribution to the ascendancy of Modernist art. As discussed in a previous review, Jews are commonly linked to the avant-garde and Modernism. Dellheim’s project is to explain why Jews entered the European art trade and were particularly supportive of Modern art. In Vienna of the belle époque under Franz Joseph I (an era of industrialisation, expansion and modernisation of the city, as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) the arts were open to all people of means. The exclusion from certain fields of Jews (voluntarily or involuntarily), left them with free rein in the arts. “This left the Jewish bourgeoisie an unprecedented opportunity to seize the aesthetic initiative. And they made the most of it.”

Dellheim – a descendant of German Jewish refugees – defines Jews as ethnic Jews rather than just those practising Judaism. He rejects the idea that there is anything inherent in Jewish genetics that makes Jews inclined towards, and proficient in, art dealing and appreciation, preferring to see the matter as one of acculturation, law (Jews being restricted in certain matters) and economics (again, determined by law as well as broader economic opportunities). Strong in-group preference facilitated the establishment of profitable and long-lasting family businesses, some of which have lasted over 150 years.  

Jewish art dealers

Dellheim notes that entry of Jews into art collecting, dealing and creating was a late development. Jews were concerned with religion, scholarship, law, trade and finance, not much with the visual arts until the second half of the Nineteenth Century. (Before the emancipation of the Jews in France in 1791, Jews had no right to join a guild – including the Guild of St Luke – or trade fine art.) The public art gallery and the annual salon opened art to the general public. The crisis of academies and salons being unwilling or unable to absorb and co-opt new artistic forms sufficiently rapidly led to a new opportunity for private dealers and middlemen to act as bridges between avant-garde producers and prospective bourgeois collectors. The new entrants into this field included Jews, who had some natural advantages by having preferential access to credit from Jewish financiers to establish businesses, finance speculative acquisitions and sustain businesses during downturns. Some of these networks had been well established in the preceding century, during which the ending of absolute monarchies, the reduction of power in the hands of the aristocracy and the transfer of capital to industrialists all led to a professionalised art market, public auction houses, specialist publications and the foundation of art history as a professional discipline (a movement originating in Vienna) lubricated by the dispersal of noble collections. Thus, a network of Jewish art historians, collectors, publishers and dealers – working with Jewish bankers – led to the flourishing of the European art trade, albeit primarily in Old Masters, in the pre-1850 period.

So, when the rise of the Realists, the Barbizon School and the Impressionists took place over the 1850-75 period, the Jewish art network was already established and ready to take up the opportunity and absorb new entrants. Nathan Wildenstein started selling minor paintings by Old Masters in the 1870s, while working as a textile merchant. His motto was, “Boldness in buying. Patience in selling. Time does not matter.”

Wildenstein became a partner of Ernest Gimpel, another Alsatian Jew, who had worked for Jewish bankers as a commodities broker. These bankers had social access to the richest families in France, who were hungry for social status through art acquisition. Gimpel and Wildenstein made their fortunes through selling French art from Colnaghi in London. Colnaghi had acquired most of his stock from the descendants of French émigrés who had fled the revolution. Watteau’s The Poet’s Dream was bought from Colnaghi for 10,000 francs; ten years later it was sold to a French banker for 150,000 francs. When he established Hôtel Wildenstein at 57 rue la Boëtie, it was a palace of culture and statement of ambition to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the high society of Paris.  

[Image: Hotel Wildenstein, Paris]

The Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain are a legacy of the Duveen family of art dealers, founded by Joel Duveen, a Dutch Jewish immigrant to Hull, where the family trade was import-export. If anything, the liquidation of aristocratic collections was even more rapid and extensive in Britain than elsewhere. Dealers facilitated the transfer of art masterpieces from British stately homes to magnate mansions in American cities. The Duveens had branches in London, Paris and New York. They formed a secret partnership with Italian-art expert Bernard Berenson, a Lithuanian Jew. Denied a professorship at Harvard University, Berenson went on to become a scholar, critic and populariser of Renaissance art. He is attributed with stimulating rich Americans to collect European art, thereby accelerating the transatlantic art trade and elevating prices. Berenson was a close adviser to Isabella Stewart Gardner – leading cultural light of Boston high society and one of foremost American art collectors. Berenson acted as an authenticator and insider contact for the Duveens – which clashed with scholarly detachment and disinterest. His high public and credibility made him an invaluable ally for a dealing house.

Gimpel, Wildenstein and the Seligmann brothers followed the Duveens by opening branches in New York to feed the apparently insatiable demand for Old Master art for New Money collectors. At the end of the century, the collections of Jewish bankers joined the inherited art of the British aristocracy entered the art trade, with much of it heading West to the USA. “The rise of Jewish art collectors provided an opening for Jewish art dealers who social connections mattered more inside their own communities than outside of such.” Having favoured status gave Jewish collectors and dealers access to art (and credit) that allowed the creation of great collections at a slightly lower financial and time cost than would have been the case for gentiles. The establishment of dynasties cemented this. After all, when grandfather died and his collection had to be sold by his legatees, they could turn to the art-dealer grandson of the dealer who had sold the art originally to buy it back.

[Image: Paul Rosenberg, Paris, c. 1920]

Modernism and Jewishness

The Rosenbergs (father Alexandre, sons Paul and Léonce) and the Bernheims backed avant-garde art, collecting and selling Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The Bernheims were big backers of Impressionism and benefited when it occupied centre-stage in the French art scene (at least, commercially) for over half a century. Paul and Bruno Cassirer paved the way for the Post-Impressionists in German through a Berlin gallery and a publishing house (which published van Gogh’s letters in German). The Secession movement of Vienna and Berlin was backed by many Jewish collectors. Gustav Klimt’s portrait subjects form a veritable checklist for the wealthiest Jewish women of Vienna.

In Vienna, Franz Joseph I found himself patronising the Secession exhibitions despite being temperamentally ill-disposed to Modernism – he particularly loathed the Loos House that faced the entrance to his palace. The Kaiser was politically supportive of Modernism because his fractured, multi-cultural, multi-lingual composite empire was being torn apart by separatist movements and Modernism was the only school of art that had no distinctive national character, did not assert an ethnic identity and was not supported by anyone except the cosmopolitan liberal elite and a few radical artists and architects. Thus, the art patronised by the wealthy Jewish upper class found itself a de facto empire style despite being (or perhaps because it was) widely despised.

Hitler lived in Vienna at this time and grew to detest Modernism. When Hitler inaugurated the House of German Art in Munich in 1937, this Nazi brainchild was declared to be explicitly intended to reverse the tide of Modernism. “[…] art and art activities are lumped together with the handiwork of our modern tailor shops and fashion industries. And to be sure, following the maxim: Every year something new. One day Impressionism, then Futurism, Cubism, maybe even Dadaism, etc. A further result is that even for the most insane and inane monstrosities thousands of catchwords to label them will have to be found, and have indeed been found.” We can see the typical Nazi condemnation of Kulturbolshewismus (cultural Bolshevism) in Hitler’s linkage of Modernism to Jewry. “Judaism was very clever indeed, especially in employing its position in the press with the help of so-called art criticism and succeeding not only in confusing the natural concepts about the nature and scope of art as well as its goals, but above all in undermining and destroying the general wholesome feeling in this domain.” As Dellheim writes, “The conviction that modernism was a Jewish threat to German culture became a staple of reactionary ideology. It fit in easily with the image of the rootless, abstract, cosmopolitan Jew, always consuming, never producing, and greedily sucking the life out of the true Germany.”

Dellheim is equivocal on whether Modernism was (at least partly) Jewish. He notes the Jewish Modernist artists (Pissarro, Leibermann, Modigliani, Soutine, Chagall, Lipchitz), collectors (the Stein siblings, the Cone sisters, Peggy Guggenheim) and critics (C.R. Marx, W George, Vauxcelles, Salmon). He then goes on:

Both Jewish entrepreneurs and avant-garde artists were archetypal outsiders, whose social paths otherwise might not have crossed. Both were largely excluded from the old regime in art and society and, moreover, stood to benefit from its destruction. Both were on the margins of their respective worlds as a small religious minority in largely homogenous societies with long histories of antisemitism. Prejudice made it extremely difficult for Jewish bourgeois to attain the degree of social status or respectability that their non-Jewish compatriots could take for granted. Avant-garde were on the margins of the official art world that upheld classical standards and shaped professional success. Neither Jewish entrepreneurs nor avant-garde artists were willing to remain on the periphery, however. Both craved professional success and social acceptance to one extent or another. They were outsiders who were determined to become insiders. But they wanted to do so, if possible, on their own terms rather than by capitulating to traditional ways or majority opinion. The need to circumvent entrenched authority provided common ground for avant-garde artists and their Jewish champions.

Readers might consider that the author could have pursued further this posited division between Jews and the traditions of the nations they inhabit. He lays out this powerful case and does not draw out its implications.

According to Dellheim, Modernism was not a Jewish project – the majority of its producers, dealers and consumers were non-Jewish, and it was not initiated by Jews – Dellheim sees that Modernism was a unique social, financial and artistic opportunity for Jews to acquire advantage. It must be said that many Jewish dealers and collectors were heavily invested in traditional art; however, there was nothing to prevent them from either additionally or successively transferring their backing to Modernism. We might see Modernism as speculative and risky compared to the Old Masters, and that new entrants might see openings that more conservative bodies might miss or disdain. “Marketing modern art – like many of the endeavors in which Jews clustered – was a middleman business that offered limited barriers to entry, the prospect of high returns, competitive advantages to family firms and ethnic networks, scope for international trading, and geographical mobility. The barriers to entry were few, the required capital modest, the competition limited, and professional hierarchies only beginning to gel. Successive waves of artists and schools created openings for dealers seeking a foothold in the commerce of art.” This is the rapid turnover of schools and styles in the Modern era – a hyper-charged cycle of innovation, popularisation, exploitation and obsolescence that can be found in movements lasting less than a decade, as artists, dealers, critics and collectors scrambled to establish themselves as pre-eminent before the next generation displaced them.

The course of history

Dellheim outlines the Intimiste circle, Berthe Weill and Alfred Flechtheim (dealer of Otto Dix). Picasso would have numerous Jewish dealers: Weill, D.-H. Kahnweiler, the Rosenbergs, Louise Leiris, Georges Wildenstein and others. So associated was Picasso (and Cubism) with Jewish and German names, that he kept a low profile during the Great War, for fear that French patriots would attack his art. (Spotting the non-French “k” in a Picasso painting was enough to stir ire.) Paul Rosenberg was a great champion of Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Braque and other top-level Modernists. René Gimpel made a point of supporting Modernist artists who were Jewish (Modigliani and Soutine).

The bulk of the book is a lively and well-sourced account of the Modernist art market from the 1910s up to the return of dealers following the end of World War II. The travails of art restitution bodies and the Monuments Men are raised here, though Dellheim acknowledges the extensive coverage of that subject already. Although those familiar with the major dealers and artists will know the outlines already, lesser-known incidents catch the attention. For instance, a Dusseldorf auction arranged by Flechtheim was bombed by the SA on 11 March 1933. The explosion did not kill anyone and was presumably an effort to frighten the Jewish art dealer and to damage his display of “un-German” Modernist art. He recounts the sad end of Paul Cassirer. Married to the beautiful actress Tilla Durieux (painted by Franz Stuck), Cassirer was so suicidal or reckless due to her rejection of him that he fatally wounded himself in the courthouse during their 1926 divorce proceedings.

[Image: Tilla Durieux at Paul Cassirer’s funeral, 1926, Berlin]

The wartime pillaging of Jewish collections is the “betrayal” in the title. Many colleagues and friends of the dealers – who fled, leaving behind most of their collections – collaborated with the Nazis, due to cupidity, envy or fear. Some Jews in neutral countries profited through acting as dealers for art that was stolen or extorted from fleeing collectors and dealers. The dispersal of Jewish collections has still not been entirely resolved to this day. It has been the subject of many books and documentaries and now is almost its own branch of law.

The scope of Dellheim’s subject is so huge that the book cannot help but have omissions. The Jewish patronage of the Secession in Vienna is only lightly sketched and the role of Jews around the early vanguard Modernism of the USSR is omitted. This book nicely sets up what could be a follow-up – an examination of Jewish dealers, artists and critics in the next phase of Modernism, the School of New York. A large percentage of the actors in 1940s Abstract Expressionism and dealers in the New York art scene were Jewish. Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Irving Sandler were pioneer critics and artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Philip Guston addressed explicitly Jewish themes in their art. All the time Leo Castelli, Frank Lloyd and Ileana Sonnabend were waiting in the wings, ready to advance following art movements.  

Dellheim has had to balance storytelling and analysis and has generally prioritised the former, which is to the benefit of general readers. His chapter “Between Bohemian and Bourgeois” (about the competing drives of Jews to rebel or to assimilate) seems tantalisingly inconclusive. He correctly ascertains that the bourgeois and the bohemian are not diametrically opposed but takes it little further. We could say that both bourgeois and bohemian are archetypes of liberalism – the support of progress (in whatever form that takes), consumers of culture (in whatever form that takes), self-regarding keepers of the flame of modernity (in whatever form that takes), opposers of tradition, religion and aristocracy (right or wrong, regardless). Bourgeois and bohemian are two sides of the same coin, two stages (youthful rebellion, materialist maturity) of conformity within the modern Western middle-class. One hungers for a little elaboration from Dellheim on this.

Belonging and Betrayal is a fine account of the broad and controversial subject of Jewish participation in the rise of Modernism in European art. Dellheim is well informed, thoughtful, sympathetic and a good writer. This book is suitable for anyone studying the history of the art trade, Modernism in the fine arts and the Jewish contributions to European culture.

Charles Dellheim, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, Brandeis University Press, 21 September 21 2021, hardback, 674pp, 24 col./96 mono illus., £32.00, ISBN: 978-1-68458-056-9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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