E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women

Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation HD

The subject of Lynne M. Swarts’s study Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German is Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), acclaimed as the premier visual artist of the nascent Zionist/Jewish nationalist movement among German-speaking Jews in the 1900-25 period. Lilien was an ardent Zionist and his works were aimed at a Jewish audience. Swarts examines how Lilien’s art supports and undermines views of Jews that were current among the Jewish and non-Jewish population. Swarts believes that the subject of the new Jewish women has been overlooked by writers and that Lilien’s deliberate construction of a distinctive female counterpart to the New Jewish Man (found in his numerous and popular Biblical illustrations) is worthy of special examination.

Lilien was born in Drohobycz, Austrian Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied painting in Krakow under Jan Matejko. After a period in Vienna, Lilien moved to Munich and made illustrations for Jugend, a Jugendstil/Art Nouveau journal. He later moved to Berlin. His line illustrations for Juda (1900) – a collection of poems about Hebrew subjects written by the Gentile Börries von Münchhausen – sold well and became a popular among German Jews. Lilien became acclaimed as the first Zionist artist and was commissioned to illustrate the books of the Old Testament, which brought him further acclaim, although the series was not completed. In 1906 he travelled to Palestine to photograph Biblical sites and Jewish types of physiognomy and clothing in preparation for that project. He made later visits to Palestine.

“Lilien retold the narrative of national identity in terms of old-new heroes: powerful, strong, manly men, as muscular and physically fit as their athletic Teutonic brothers. These new corporeal bodies claimed progressive socialist and utopian readings of modern Jewish life, incorporating the return to authentic Jewish labouring or tilling of the soil in the Biblical homeland of Zion or Eretz Israel. His model of Jewish manliness, developed at the fin de siècle, was a form of cultural resistance, a crucial strategy in the struggle to overcome the twin dilemmas of Jewish ‘otherness’ or alterity: antisemitism and assimilation.” Although the emancipation of Jews (in 1867 in Austro-Hungary and 1871 in Germany) offered the fullfilment of potential, it also presented a threat to Jewish identity. No longer were Jews shunned by law. The possibility of assimilation and integration offered a secular reward for the shedding of Jewish identity and integration into secular civic society that had been barred to them hitherto.

A common iconography is one of the pillars of a nation. Thus the rise of an international Zionist movement to unify the Jewish diaspora and restore it to a homeland stimulated a search for the trappings of nationhood and (ultimately) statehood. Lilien’s imagery was a conscious attempt to contribute to this effort. An exhibition of art by Jews was held in 1901 in relation to a Zionist congress, although the art was disparate and not overtly Jewish in style or Zionist in content.[ii] Lilien wanted to restore pride in Jewishness by forging new (or reviving old) archetypes of heroic masculinity. Lilien made a point of showing typical male Jews as handsome, healthy and unambiguously heterosexual – countering negative anti-Semitic stereotypes. Some of Lilien’s images of patriarchs were based on the appearance of Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement, who he personally met.

Lilien’s career coincided with the rise of the New Woman – the embodiment of legal, social and sexual emancipation of women, initially in the USA and Great Britain but later across Western Europe – which was celebrated and attacked with equal vehemence by progressives and conservatives. Thus Lilien’s images of women have an added layer of significance. He was not only attempting to distinguish the Jewess from Gentile, he was responding to the irreligious challenge posed by New Womanhood to traditional gender roles.

Concern regarding liberated women – guided by feminism – having fewer (or no) children caused nationalists to worry about nation birth rates. Zionism had to reconcile newly emancipated Jews (and Jewish women tempted by the attractive advantages of becoming a New Woman) with the demands of piety, fidelity to tradition and the raising of a new generation of Jews within a definitively Jewish homeland. In the women of Art Nouveau we find the contradictory iconography of woman as ethereal spirit, supernatural force, untrammelled avatar of humanity, seeker of sensual gratification, femme fatale and sophisticated consumer. The symbolism was advantageously malleable in that it allowed artists to make women Christian maidens, pagan temptresses or discerning modern trendsetters in multiple manifestations with the minimum of differentiation. Swarts typifies the woman in fin-de-siècle art as passive, romanticised, aestheticized and essentially ornamental. She was a damsel in need of chivalric rescue (in a story illustration) or the latest perfume (in a poster on the side of an omnibus). Lilien was inspired by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the paintings of Gustav Klimt and the posters of Alphonse Mucha.

“The belle Juive was an ideal an earlier nineteenth-century depiction of the Jewess as an ideal, oriental, exotic beauty. Raven-haired and dark-eyed, she was often named Sarah, Rachel, or Judith […] The conflation of the dark racial physiognomy of the Jewess with the belle Juive as ‘exotic and beautiful’ added to the new Jewish woman’s appeal as the artistic muse or model par excellence.”For many Europeans in 1900 ideas of the Jewish women, Jewishness as a subset of Orientalism and the New Women phenomenon formed a nexus within which the Jewish woman was a unique figure of dangerous sensuality, sexuality and subversion, liminal to some areas of mainstream society.

Lilien wanted to show Jewish women as healthy, fit, supreme examples of humanity in harmony with culture, nature and their religion. In his Biblical illustrations, the model women are chaste and dignified – with Esther apparently based upon Lilien’s wife Helene. Rahab, the prostitute of legendary beauty, is shown as graceful and desirable in Juda (1900); by the time she appears in the Bible illustrations (in Vol. I, 1908) her face incorporates some Helene’s appearance combined with that of an anonymous model photographed by the artist (illustrated in the book). In other illustrations there is abundant carnal display. (“[Lilien was] the first to portray the Jewish woman as an active participant in sensual and sexual pleasure […]”) In The Song of Songs, the women seduce and are seduced, with partial nudity complementing the flowing arabesque lines of the style. In other illustrations for ex-libris bookplates, nude women are shown as partially seductive, partially innocent, always attractive.

Swarts touches on the cultural friction between the Ostjude and the Westjude, with the assumptions and perceptions about the historical position of the Jew in Europe. Western Jews (often urban) in 1900 held often strong feelings about their Eastern brethren, with their greater religiosity, longer period of historical continuity and stronger connection with the land as farmers and shtetl dwellers. For a Western Jew committed to Zionism, the Eastern Jew had real or purported authenticity – yet attachment to such a notion (often sentimental and unrealistic) brought out the Western Jew’s ambivalence towards his own family’s history of partial assimilation. Too often Jewish women were caught between the alien, exotic and dangerous East and the over-cultivated West, stigmatised on either (or both) counts, adding to the ambivalence that Jews generally had towards the division between Ostjude and Westjude.

Swarts concludes that Lilien’s ambivalence towards the emancipation of Jewish women in light of his commitment to Zionism influenced his portrayals of women. He was also influenced by the fine art and illustration of the time and was to a degree directing his work towards an underserved (Zionist) audience using the visual language of his time. Lilien’s art remains pungent and effective and merits attention (quite aside from its historical value) as fine art of a high standard. His early death, the dispersal and (deliberate and accidental) destruction of his papers and original art – plus changing taste – has meant that Lilien’s illustration and printmaking is not as well known in the Anglosphere.

If there is criticism to be made of this title, it is that the author pays too much deference to Post-Modernist, feminist and Post-Colonial theory. Swarts proves herself capable of assessing contemporary responses to Lilien’s art and how the art has subsequently been interpreted and repurposed. We do not benefit from the theory nor does this book. Happily for us, there is not enough to detract from Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation, which is a sound and informative analysis of a rich subject. Although it has a strong academic basis, the book is approachable, with many specialist historical aspects outlined. The many illustrations give us a view of Lilien’s art and related images.

Lynne M. Swarts, Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German Fin de Siècle, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, hardback, 328pp + xxxiv, mono/32 col. illus., £95, ISBN 978 1 5013 3614 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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