Jonathan Freedman, “Jewish Decadence”

Jonathan Freedman is a professor at the University of Michigan, who has published critiques of literary Modernism, high and low culture and the role (and perception) of Jews and Judaism in Anglo-American culture. The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity is a study of Jewish creators played a role in fin-de-siecle Modernism and the Decadent Movement, in the process coming to be identified with vanguardism and all the connotations of formal progressivism and moral turpitude. Freedman appears to agree with Potolsky’s suggestion that “[…]“decadence” is perhaps the first transnational, cosmopolitan literary/cultural formation in the West […]”.

“As Jews entered European and Anglo-American cultures in the long fin-de-siècle, they faced a vexing dilemma. When they confronted decadence the cultural movement, they also encountered decadence the cultural smear: the claim that Jews were themselves exemplars, if not bearers, of cultural and social decline. With roots in German philosophy and support from the burgeoning eugenics movement, with an impetus from reactionary political movements and from established medical authorities, the identification of Jews as decadent took two opposing forms. On the one hand, they were seen as decayed representatives of a declining race, atavistically clinging to their outmoded rituals and superseded faith. On the other, they were identified as citified, hystericized, sexually dysfunctional avatars of a degenerate futurity.”

The author takes the fin-de-siècle to be 1870-1920, somewhat broader than purists would prefer, but it does permit the inclusion of Jewish precursors and retardataire followers of Decadent movements. It also allows him to include early cinema and Proust.

How much importance Jewish people have as instigators or participants in the avant-garde is a very open question that will never be fully answered. Is a Jew as an outsider (if we are to accept that Jews are indeed outsiders, which is a thorny issue) naturally more open to the unusual, the strange, the disturbing or the extreme? Why should that be? Is it just a matter of timing, with the influx of Jews into civil society and wider Western European culture dating to the series of emancipatory acts of the 19th Century, coinciding with the decadent phase of culture pre-1914? The deracinatory effect of expansion of the suburbs, industrialisation, mass mobility, dwindling religiosity and social emancipation, combined with relative civil stability and improving prosperity, necessarily gives rise to the pleasure-seeking phase for the urban elites – the anomie that Durkheim writes of in Suicide – and the degree to which Jews contributed to that (rather than simply following the trend and embodying the zeitgeist) is something that Freedman cannot answer. To be fair, such a vast question is not even formulated by Freedman.

“Decadence was, to be sure, largely a high-cultural phenomenon; indeed, its promotion of art t a near-cultish status may be said to have served as a powerful reaction-formation to the rise of mass culture.” Although, Freedman goes on to note that the sensation value of creators such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Moreau made them figures of popular currency and allowed them to reach audiences through non-high-cultural means. Much of that knowledge was second hand and indistinct – along with the understanding of Decadence and related movements as a whole – but it was clearly not secret or forbidden knowledge. One could say that such high-art forms as atonalism or automatism did not reach a mass audience at the time, even though the material was nominally accessible to anyone who wished to acquire it. It is the sensational quality of Decadent art and the moral peril to consumers and producers – and by extension to society more broadly – that fired the imagination of the general population at a distance.

Jews played a prominent role in the art trade, involved in the promotion of avant-garde art. Berthe Weill, Charles Ephrussi, Paul Cassirer, Alfred Flechtheim, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Wilhelm Uhde, Murray Marks and the Bernheim, Durlacher, Wildenstein and Rosenberg families are just a few of the most successful Jewish dealers who played a part in the marketing of Modernist art. Likewise, Jewish collectors heavily bought in the field. Regrettably, Freedman does not dig deeper into what it meant to be a Jewish vanguardist in the visual fine arts.

The question of what a people with a strong visual tradition but lacking a distinct school of pictorial art will do when they move into a secular society causes us to consider the neophilia of the more adventurous members of the vanguard who were also Jewish. Is it unreasonable to see Jewish neophilia in secular culture as an attempt to shape and claim a portion of a new territory as a response to a notable absence of Jewish influence in a long-standing national culture? This situation is separate from (though it is undoubted related to) the issue of the difficult negotiation of the loss/reward balance that comes with assimilation into host societies.   

We should not overlook the drive of the Westjuden to distinguish themselves from their Ostjuden cousins. There was an ambivalent attitude of the urban dislocated Westjuden in Western and Central Europe towards the rural Ostjuden with long-standing links to the land and traditions, whom they viewed with a mixture of sentimental religious reverence and repulsion at the crudity and poverty of their lives. For the Westjuden, the prohibition against image-making had been loosened, whilst (famously) painter Chaïm Soutine fled his Lithuanian shtetl because he was beaten for making images in his youth. One freedom and way of distinguishing the sophistication of the Westjuden was art making.

Freedman devotes a chapter to support by Jews for Oscar Wilde, including the commissioning (by William Rothenstein) and execution of his tomb (Jacob Epstein). Wilde proposed to Charlotte Montefiore (a Jewess) after the death of her brother (Leonard), to whom Wilde felt particularly close. Wilde would patronise the disgraced Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), who had to retreat from public life after two prosecutions for homosexual acts and ended up an alcoholic inhabitant of a workhouse. (Freedman suggests an affinity between homosexuals and Jews as outsiders in the Victorian period, although without overstressing the point.) Wilde’s American theatrical tour and admiration for socialism brought him into contact with Jews in both fields. The Leversons, who took in Wilde during his trial, were steadfast supporters. Reggie Turner (an acculturated Jew) who was one of Wilde’s closest companions and was with Oscar’s deathbed. Freedman notes Turner’s ambivalence about his Jewish ethnicity and absence of Judaic belief; identified as Jewish by others, he oscillated between an adopted Anglicanism and anti-Semitic remarks and a passionate defence of the Dreyfusard.    

However, despite Wilde’s admiration for certain Jewish writers and artists, one cannot detect anything in his writing or outlook as specifically Jewish, with the sole exception of the selection of Salome as a subject. It seems Salomé was translated into Yiddish, published and performed on stage by 1907. “When Salomé was finally performed in English, critics saw it as a creaky anachronism, and it is The Importance of Being Earnest that lays his claim to theatrical immortality. But Jewish literary culture responded with equal enthusiasm to Wilde’s incandescently vengeful Salomé, with her over-the-top desires for mutilation and necrophilia.”

According to Freedman, by the last decades of the 19th Century “pervert” and “Jew” were virtually interchangeable in the discussions of sexologists and criminologists. Both Jewish men and women were seen as predatory and unnatural, not least because of the powerfully strong endogamic tradition of Judaism made sexual relations between gentiles and Jews taboo. This context made depictions of Salome, a prominent Jewess who used her sexual allure to procure the death of John the Baptist, particularly potent at the time.

[Image: Romaine Brooks, La Venus triste (1917), oil on canvas, 150 x 271 cm, Musees de la Ville de Poitiers, copyright Jean Pierre Prevost/Pascal Legrand]

Salome became a favoured character for Jewish actresses and dancers, from Sarah Bernhardt, Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova, Bessi Thomashefsky, Ida Rubinstein to Fanny Brice, who were (when young) strikingly slim and slight – contradicting the stereotype of Jewish women as zaftig or matronly. The character was an Orientalist costume, to be donned in order to perform sexual provocation, comedic lasciviousness, neurotic narcissism or unearthly beauty, forming an ideally malleable role for Jewish actresses seeking to exploit their ethnicity, be that due to reasons as negative as absence of other roles or as positive as an opportunity to take a starring role and expand their range. For the abovenamed performers, it was a chance to use their apparently atypical appearance in a starring role, which was one of few Jewish characters commonly known in Christian societies. Bernhardt’s thinness became a raging fashion among women of the 1880s, even though it was also mocked in caricature as being unhealthy. (Freedman puts the case that Bernhardt was the first vamp-goth-style archetype in popular culture.) Ida Rubinstein was a link from Bernhardt to the Modernist age in dance and Alla Nazimova’s flapper costume and vamp make up in Salomé was the actress’s own design, done to exploit her taut physique.

Studying the Western press, a Jewess could be forgiven for thinking that she could not win: she was either a zaftig temptress (of unnaturally strong libido) or a starkly slim waif (harbourer of tuberculosis or syphilis), either way a malevolent threat to gentile normality. (Read my review of E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women here.)  

For painters such as Klimt and Moreau, Salome became a topic in which could be invested all the eroticism and Orientalism that they could conjure. Freedman notes that Moreau turned to the subject of Salome at least 70 times in his career. (One might posit a psychoanalytical reading of a never-married painter of notoriously opaque sexual taste becoming obsessed by the story of a beautiful woman symbolically castrating the object of her spurned desire by having him publicly beheaded.) In Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), the tattooed character displays her slender, almost androgynous physique, in a hieratical pose. Moreau never conveyed movement in anything like a persuasive manner; each of his pictures (respectively) benefits or suffers from a quality of Byzantine stillness.

[Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), oil on canvas, Musee Moreau, Paris]

Freedman gives a chapter to Proust – an equivocal half-Jew – and depictions of Jews in his À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s tangled attitude towards his Jewish inheritance was tied into his other hidden identity as a homosexual. Freedman notes that Proust dedicated one volume to Léon Daudet, a virulent anti-Semite. “Decadent culture, sexuality, and Jewishness were conflated in Proust’s own life as well as in the public sphere of his moment,” the author comments before quoting a letter from Proust (of 1888) disavowing decadence. Proust notes “the religious belief in beautiful forms of language, a perversion of the senses, a sickly sensibility that finds pleasures in exotic occurrences, in musics more suggestive than real….”, which seems an ideal definition of decadence.

Another chapter deals with Jewish responses to Schopenhauer, a giant figure in Germanic thought, deeply pessimistic, with a tragic outlook. Freedman summarises the responses of Freud, Italo Svevo, Isaac Bashevis Singer and (somewhat anachronistically) Saul Bellow to Schopenhauer. Another chapter considers Walter Benjamin as a critic of French anti-Semitism. Freedman’s discussion of An-Sky’s The Dybbuk (1914) (dybbuk is a malevolent possessing spirit) includes an illuminating discussion of Count Dracula as a stereotypical Jew. A final chapter mentions Claude Cahun (a subject covered by me here and here). Claude Cahun (Lucie Schwob) was the niece of Wilde’s French translator Marcel Schwob. Freedman deals with the Jewish dance of adopting and dropping their religious/ethnic identity through necessity and choice.     

Overall, The Jewish Decadence is a richly rewarding read, blending deep knowledge, provocative insight and unsparing honesty to the role Jews have played in fin-de-siècle culture of Europe and the USA. Barely a page goes by with an insight into cultural production and consumption and unexpected links between creators, places and ideas. This book will be of value to anyone wishing to under early Modernism and Jewish contribution to vanguard art.

Jonathan Freedman, The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity, April 2021, University of Chicago Press, paperback, 304pp, 41 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 0 226 58108 8 (cloth edition available)

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


Gustave Moreau

“”Moreau’s diverse and often paradoxical oeuvre lies at the crossroads of apparently contradictory trends in 19th-century art”, Peter Cooke observes at the end of his monographic study of Gustave Moreau (1826-98). Often described as a proto-Symbolist—and less often as a history painter—Moreau has proved hard to classify. The best of his elaborate biblical and mythological tableaux are hauntingly memorable but they are difficult to decode. Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism succeeds in illuminating a very peculiar and compelling figure on the margins of French art.

“Moreau’s classic oil compositions feature figures in isolated areas of light surrounded by large areas dark enlivened with coloured highlights, bestowing these grottoes and throne rooms with a bejewelled appearance. The expressions of the characters are restrained and their gestures anti-naturalistic and hieratic. Intricate decoration covers garments and architecture, causing paintings to exude a pseudo-organic quality.

“By the end of the Second Empire salon history painting had sometimes become an exercise in sensationalism, titillating with visions of gratuitous horror and nudity. It is difficult not to see Moreau as—to some degree—wilfully martyring himself by adhering to the history-painting tradition which he suspected was moribund…”

Read the full review at THE ART NEWSPAPER, 1 May 2015 here:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/reviews/books/155001/