• E-Books
  • Latest Catalogs
  • Books for Courses
  • Exhibits Listing
  • View Cart

Quick Browse





272 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 9 color and 61 b&w illus., notes, bibl., index, 8 pp. color insert

$50.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-8078-2848-9
Published: Spring 2004


 Add to cart
 View cart
 Checkout


Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art

by Samantha Baskind

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Introduction

If I try to be like him, who will be like me? —Yiddish proverb
Raphael Soyer did not want to be known as a Jewish artist. In an interview tape-recorded in the late 1970s, art historian Barbaralee Diamonstein and the then eighty-year-old Soyer shared the following exchange:
BD: Raphael Soyer is one of America's most respected realist painters, whose inspiration for over sixty years has been the streets of New York. Some call him the Isaac Bashevis Singer of the painting world… . Did I see a quizzical response to that introduction, Mr. Soyer? RS: Yes. This is the first time that I was called the Isaac Bashevis Singer of painting, and I really don't think there is any similarity or any relationship at all. I always was a nonparochial painter, and I painted only what I saw in my neighborhood in New York City, which I call my country rather than my city.
The tiny, white-haired artist sputtered and shuffled his feet some more when Diamonstein responded, "Actually several critics have referred to you that way." "Did they?" he hastily replied, "Well, I don't think too much of critics."[1]

Labels such as the Isaac Bashevis Singer of the painting world and an earlier epithet assigned to him, "East Side Degas," were anathema to Soyer.[2] Ever mindful of his public image, Soyer did not want his art, an art almost exclusively dedicated to realistic representations of the human condition, to be affiliated with Judaism in any way. So why am I, an art historian who has grown quite fond of Soyer during my years researching his life, examining his paintings, and interviewing his family members and friends, writing a book on Soyer and Jewish art? I have struggled with this question. But the longer I have been immersed in Soyer's art and life, the more I have come to believe that were the artist still alive he might even be pleased with this book. For while I look at his work and describe the Jewish qualities I see encoded within his canvases, prints, and watercolors, I do so with a fair and probing eye that might have helped Soyer more honestly assess his motives. I am not presuming that I know Soyer better than he knew himself, only suggesting that perhaps my insights might have liberated Soyer from the constraints of personality and the promotion of public image that he so desperately tried to perpetuate throughout his life. I am trying to understand why an artist who so desperately sought fame has escaped the scholar's pen, and to discover why Soyer has been labeled the quintessential Jewish American artist when in fact he actively sought to dispel the idea that his art was related to his Jewish identity.

Raphael Zalman Soyer's life shows him to have been very much a product of his religiocultural background and, just as important, his Jewish American immigrant experience. Soyer was born in the final days of the nineteenth century on December 25, 1899, in Borisoglebsk, Russia, to Bella and Avroham Schoar.[3] The first of six children, Raphael was one of four sons, three of whom—Raphael, his twin brother Moses, and his younger brother Isaac—became artists.[4] In 1912, when the family was forced to leave Russia because their "Right to Live" permit was revoked, the Soyers traveled to America via Luzern and Liverpool, setting sail for the United States on September 18. After docking in Philadelphia, where the family stayed with a relative of Bella's for almost a year, Avroham traveled alone to New York City to find work before sending for his wife and children.

Though poor and living in a small Bronx apartment composed of three generations, the Soyer family deviated from the typical model of the Jewish immigrant in other important ways. They avoided the sweatshop and pushcart peddling existence that so many other Jewish immigrants endured, for example. A writer and professor at Yeshiva College in Washington Heights, Avroham raised his children in an intellectual environment where authors such as Dostoevsky and artists such as Rembrandt were household names. Twelve years old when he arrived in the United States, Raphael blurred the division between immigrant and first-generation Jew. Old enough to have distinct memories of his native land, he was yet young enough to assimilate more easily than immigrants of his parents' age. Soyer's experience of Americanization, then, fell somewhere in between that of new immigrants and that of first-generation Jews. Moreover, because Soyer's life spanned almost the entire twentieth century, his long, productive career reflects some of the vicissitudes of the Jewish American immigrant experience.

The last words of Soyer's autobiography, Self-Revealment: A Memoir, show us how personal he believed his art to be: "How autobiographical my art is. All these portraits of myself, my parents, the members of my family; the pictures of the artists with whom I came in contact; the city I have known, and its people… . I have revealed myself in them long before this rambling chronicle was conceived, not only by the usual automatic revelation of the artist's personality, but through the subject matter which is my life."[5] Situating Soyer's "subject matter" in its larger cultural context can help viewers better understand what life was like for a Jewish immigrant in twentieth-century America. And knowing what life was like for the immigrant Jew of this period can improve our understanding of Soyer's art and Jewish art as a whole. This mutual exchange is central to this book, because most readings of Soyer's artistic output focus on the climate that precipitated the works' conceptualization, and this environment, whether Soyer would admit it or not, was a Jewish one. Reared in a religious home where Jewish artifacts were displayed and used and where the Sabbath was observed through prayer and respect for the prohibition against lighting fire between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, Soyer was inculcated by his parents in Orthodox Jewish thought.[6] He remained in New York all of his life, living in Jewish neighborhoods and surrounding himself with Jewish friends. Soyer's world had a "palpable Jewish ambience," to use Charles Silberman's words; "Jewishness was in the air people breathed" in New York.[7] Close examination of Soyer's life shows that his identity was, in fact, quite influenced by his Jewish background, and it is my contention that his art often confirms this point of view. In this book, Soyer, prolific artist and writer, will be examined through his autobiographical art. We will see what he reveals about his family, his artist friends, his city, and himself—but also what he hides. I consider the art and life of Raphael Soyer, self-conscious creator in many different media, with the aim of understanding who Soyer was, as an artist and a man, as a Jew and an immigrant, in twentieth-century America.

Because Soyer was so adamantly against the conflation of his religion and his art, going to great lengths to conceal his heritage, those differing incarnations of his Jewish American experience usually manifested themselves in his artwork and life in subtle rather than overt ways. In his personal writings and interviews, for example, Soyer never really discusses his ethnic background overtly; rather, he refers to events in his life and to ideas that he sometimes places in a Jewish context. For instance, in one of Soyer's many polemics against abstract art, the derision he directed toward the champions of Abstract Expressionism carried a telling "Jewish" undercurrent: "All these people are like Talmudists: They can talk in circles. There's a lot of nonsense in the Talmud and a lot of rationalizing about nonsense, and sophistry comes just as naturally to these art people."[8] Although Judaism and Jewish ideas pervaded his discourse and ideas, when explicitly asked how Jewishness affected his life, Soyer often either deflected the question or downplayed his Jewish identity. This book, however, will demonstrate that Soyer's verbal rejections of Judaism were frequently contradicted by his actions and artistic work.

Interwoven through my narrative of Soyer and his life is a critical examination of the assumptions and methodologies scholars employ when discussing Jewish art. Most past commentaries on Jewish art written by both Jews and Gentiles have classified art as Jewish in terms of style, form, iconography, or authorship, or according to an instinctive understanding as to what constitutes Jewishness. By instinctive understanding I mean the effort to identify an indigenous Jewish "school" by intuitively discerning Jewishness in art. For instance, in 1941 William Schack enigmatically described his perception of a Jewish art: "One may detect something of Jewish feeling in those of our contemporaries who make use of Jewish subject-matter in an unsuperficial way; indeed one may conceivably find it in the work of such men as Chagall and Soutine even when they record something as racially non-committal as a nosegay or a carcass."[9] Schack's attempt to define a singular Jewish aesthetic based on tenuous grounds, in this case a Jewish feeling that permeates subject matter unrelated to the Jewish experience, is characteristic of many historians of Jewish art and is just one of the diverse interpretations of Jewish art that will be examined.

While throughout the book I engage in a dialogue with writers who have made unsubstantiated arguments about Jewish art and categorized the work of artists who were born Jews as Jewish without adequately exploring their assertions, Chapter 2 focuses specifically on the fundamental question: What is Jewish art? It is here that I present one of the most regularly cited American discussions of the subject: critic Harold Rosenberg's aptly titled article "Is There a Jewish Art?" written for the July 1966 edition of Commentary, a liberal periodical published under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee. While the article is discussed in more depth later, it is instructive at the onset to outline Rosenberg's proposed definitions of Jewish art: "First and most obviously … art produced by Jews … [second,] art depicting Jews or containing Jewish subject matter … [third,] Jewish ceremonial objects … [fourth,] a kind of ceremonial and semi-ceremonial folk art of an ephemeral nature … and [fifth,] metaphysical Judaica." As the article draws to a close, Rosenberg suggests a sixth and final possibility for Jewish art: "Jewish art, then, may exist in the negative sense of creating objects in the mind and banning physical works of art. In this sense, the Second Commandment was the manifesto of Jewish art."[10] Rosenberg goes slightly overboard with his final three suggestions on the nature of Jewish art, offering challah as a form of "folk art of an ephemeral nature," for example, but his basic point—the challenge of defining Jewish art—is aptly made. Rosenberg's propositions, which he ultimately discards, illustrate some of the many possible understandings held of Jewish art, in America and beyond. Describing and analyzing the myriad interpretations of this difficult concept, I hope to bring new insights to the question by investigating, in particular, the 1926 canvas Dancing Lesson, the one Soyer painting cited by scholars as indisputably "Jewish."

The underlying premise of this book invokes that old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? In fact, Raphael Soyer came first. It was while conducting my early research on Soyer that I discovered that his infrequent appearances in art literature were almost exclusively confined to survey books on Jewish art. Soon, I, too, began to call Soyer a Jewish artist, but I promptly realized that I was not quite sure what that title actually meant. Looking for points of comparison, I performed bibliographic searches on "Jewish artists" and "Jewish art" from the modern era. I quickly found that there were few analyses of Jewish art from the fourteenth century onward. Scholarly work tended to concentrate predominantly on Jewish ceremonial art, synagogues, and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts—and what work did exist focused on Jewish art in Europe.[11]

The journal Jewish Art also shies away from modern art, the majority of its articles being devoted to art before the modern period. Occasionally a modern Jewish artist, most notably Marc Chagall, is discussed, but typically in connection with openly Jewish subject matter. Before long it became evident that some scholars do not believe that modern Jewish art even exists. For example, Joseph Gutmann takes the stance that only art produced prior to the nineteenth century can be called Jewish because at that time the artist of Jewish descent was part of a distinct Jewish community. Gutmann argues that after the Emancipation—that eighteenth-century period when Jews in the Western world began to be accorded equal rights—the artist's identification ceased being singularly Jewish, therefore his or her art no longer reflected "the collective Jewish thought, feeling, and symbolism of that community."[12] I feel differently. True, art after the Emancipation is not Jewish in a religiocommunal sense, but it seemed to me that an artist's individual expression as a Jew can be just as valuable and revelatory, even if not universal. Furthermore, "Jewish" does not simply signal a religion, and the secular aspects of Jewishness encoded in a work of art are as legitimately Jewish as religious signifiers.

The text that I was sure would solve the Gordian knot of Jewish art was auspiciously titled The Seminar on Jewish Art. In this 1984 publication a group of renowned scholars agreed that "Jewish art is art which reflects the Jewish experience."[13] Believing that the answers that had so far eluded me lay within the text, I scoured the book for examples of art that depicted "the Jewish experience." It cited art created for purposes of worship, like ceremonial art, synagogues, and Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, but alas, there was no debate on painting or modern art, and I was still left wondering how Soyer and other twentieth-century, Jewish-born artists fit into the group's definition. Further, exactly what constitutes the Jewish experience remained unclear. The ambiguity of the Jewish experience was only magnified by Jewish art survey texts where the term "Jewish art" was used without precision, understood interchangeably as meaning art by those who were born Jewish (regardless of subject matter) or art with Jewish subject matter (regardless of whether the artist was Jewish or not). Uncertain as ever, I continued to ponder the conundrum of who and what a Jewish artist is—an artist born a Jew or a painter of Jewish subjects—and, correspondingly, what is Jewish art? Left with no other recourse, I decided that since no existing book addressed these important questions, mine would.[14] Thus, my proposed work on Soyer was transformed into a different sort of project. For while this book looks at Soyer's art and his experience as a Jew and an immigrant in America, it also addresses the complications inherent in the study of Jewish art; each of my chapters looks at Jewish art differently, examining the concept through Soyer's art.

Not only do I use Soyer's art as a springboard to theorize on Jewish art, but Soyer also becomes a model for different kinds of methods to tease out the influence of Jewishness in the work by an artist born a Jew. In other words, strategies for interpreting "Jewish art" are pursued in my analyses of Soyer's artistic production. The third chapter, for instance, looks at how Soyer saw himself as an artist and a Jew through his political affiliations and the kinds of images he produced during the 1930s. Here I place Soyer's "social realist" images within their cultural milieu, observing both the national and Jewish communal repercussions of the Great Depression and the New Deal period on his art. I explore how even if obvious Jewish subjects are removed from an artist's work, the artist's subject matter might still suggest the influence of a Jewish upbringing.

When viewed outside of Jewish art, as he is only rarely, typically in general texts on the history of American art, Soyer is described as a Social Realist painter or classed under the broad heading of realism.[15] Realism, the painting of the world naturalistically, has enjoyed a great tradition in both Europe and America. American painters such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer are considered among the best American realists, and Soyer tried to align himself in particular with Eakins, an artist known for his honest and masterly understanding of the human condition. Importantly, Eakins was a native-born American, a distinction that would have appealed to Soyer, who very much wanted to be viewed as part of the great pantheon of American, in other words, not foreign or Jewish, artists.

During Soyer's almost seventy years working in the visual arts, he witnessed the transformation of the American tradition of realism as it succumbed to a more abstract vision. In the early part of the twentieth century, Ashcan School painters such as Robert Henri and John Sloan captured the realism and humanism of New York City with their down-to-earth portraits of everyday life. Their vision was carried through to the 1930s in a movement known as Social Realism (not to be confused with Socialist Realism, a Russian art movement that was not critical of existing systems and actually glorified the status quo). Soyer and other Social Realists such as Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, and Robert Gwathmey were interested in more than just the painting of the world naturalistically; they were also concerned with and critical of the conditions of modern life. The group flourished in New York City during the years after the stock market crash, when the hardships of the Depression provided an almost endless supply of material on which to comment. The Social Realists are generally pitted against the Regionalists, a contemporaneous group of artists—led by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood of American Gothic fame—who focused their attention on life in the Midwest. Both movements, however, were ultimately superseded by the Abstract Expressionist tendencies of painters such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman who dominated the art world in the decade after the Second World War.

By the time Soyer died of pancreatic cancer on November 4, 1987, the art world was so pluralistic that a legion of different artistic expressions coexisted. Abstraction was no longer vehemently promulgated, and realism was making something of a comeback, although in a form that more often than not tended to ignore psychological and humanistic content. This "new realism," as it is sometimes known, intermixed with a variety of newer and often contested art forms, such as performance art, earth art, and pattern and decoration. For reasons that will become clearer in the following pages, Soyer adamantly rejected all of these alternative art forms. Soyer believed that the only legitimate artistic expression was his humanistic brand of realism. He was especially critical of abstract art. In the introduction to a 1961 book on his art, Soyer wrote: "And now I would like to discuss the non-representational art, so-called Modern Art, which negates life and reality. It fills the museums and galleries of today. It is constantly in the public eye. It is part of those prestige mills—the American Universities. There seems to be a concerted effort to promote this art, 'to put it over on the public' through the efficient publicity facilities of today."[16] In Chapter 4 I consider Soyer during the years of his confrontation with abstraction. I examine how the rise of Abstract Expressionism affected Soyer's awareness of his artistic motivations, arguing that by becoming an Other in the art world, Soyer was forced to reach a better understanding of why he chose to paint representationally and how his Jewishness influenced his aesthetic form.

It is important to note that explicit Jewish themes did enter Soyer's oeuvre late in his career. In the 1970s he illustrated a Limited Editions Club publication of two Yiddish stories and the second two volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer's memoirs. These illustrations were Soyer's most consistent and unambiguously Jewish project, and it is with them that my study reaches its conclusions. In Chapter 5, I describe how in his final illustration project, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Lost in America, Soyer appropriates the artistic forms of his youth. This chapter substantiates earlier claims as to the "Jewishness" of Soyer's art by asserting that the artist's use of his own seemingly universal subjects in an explicitly Jewish project indicates that many of his earlier paintings are indeed either metaphors for the diasporic experience of the Jewish people or evocations of his "Jewish" preoccupations.

Lost in America, a tale of the difficulties that Singer endured during his acculturation, could also be an appropriate title for this book. For the purposes of this study, I understand "Lost in America" in a twofold sense: Jewish American artists are often casualties of modern scholarship because the influence of their religiocultural heritage on their art is neglected; in addition, much of their art is about loss. Religious ritual, the means through which traditional Jewish identity had been expressed for over four centuries, was no longer the main expression of Judaism in twentieth-century America. In an effort to adapt to American culture or avoid anti-Semitism, or as a reaction to the ardent Americanization campaign in the 1910s, many Jews created a culturally based, less religiously obtrusive Judaism. Soyer was not immune to these environmental factors—he was incredibly sensitive to his surroundings—and as the twentieth century progressed Soyer's Judaism/Jewishness, and by extension his art, was similarly altered in its American milieu. In the only extant investigation of Soyer's Jewishness—Milly Heyd and Ezra Mendelsohn's essay "'Jewish' Art?: The Case of the Soyer Brothers"—the authors assert that although Soyer's art does not have explicit Jewish subjects, his work cannot be adequately understood without its "Jewish context."[17] I agree with this in great part but firmly believe that this context is more specifically an American Jewish one. Accordingly, in this book I describe how the Jewish religion gets lost in America, but also how Soyer as a man, as a Jew, and as an immigrant, sometimes gets lost in his adopted country. I contend that Soyer loses, or maybe temporarily misplaces, his Jewish identity in America. Throughout Soyer's life he was affected by external circumstances that were in direct conflict with his Otherness. How Soyer negotiated his difference and identity during his lifetime leads into discussions of his self-portraiture, genre scenes, street scenes, and other subjects of this study. In the first two chapters, for example, I consider how a young Jewish immigrant reacted to his ethnicity in three early paintings. I demonstrate, and examine why, Soyer expressed his fear of being Jewish in America even as he painted illuminating representations of his Jewish world.

Because of the dual nature of this book, it cannot be a linear, all-inclusive biography of Soyer and his art. Soyer's output is immense, and this study does not discuss aspects of his work that, while interesting, are not as relevant to consideration of of his work as Jewish art. Rather, different aspects of the artist's work are read thematically, keeping his identity as a Jewish immigrant in mind throughout. The main body of the book takes the form of five chapters, arranged so that Chapter 5 acts as the crescendo. It is necessary to evaluate chronologically the themes that preoccupied Soyer to better understand how and why he ultimately embraced overt Jewish subjects and his Jewish identity late in life. Additionally, by proceeding in this fashion I am able to enunciate slowly and build on various theories, my own and those of other scholars, on the subject of modern Jewish art. Thus, while the book looks deeply and carefully at Soyer and Jewish art, it also foregrounds connections between aesthetic, political, and ethnic concerns in twentieth-century America. Because of the multiple purposes developed in the study and the weaving together of historical, sociological, religiocultural, visual, and biographical resources with theoretical issues, the book should be of interest to readers from Jewish studies and American studies as well as those with art history backgrounds. The pages that follow attempt to shed light on the questions about Jewish art and Jewish artists brought to the fore by my initial research on Soyer through an intensive examination of the essence of the subject under consideration, the actual works of art.

My conviction that Soyer would be a fruitful subject for this analysis of how an artist responds to his Jewishness and his particular Jewish experience in changing ways throughout his life was furthered by the variety of his artistic production and his substantial output of writing. Soyer's art covers many categories, both in genre and media: he was a watercolorist, etcher, lithographer, book illustrator, and painter, and he created artworks ranging from self-portraits to still lifes. His writings are also diverse: he authored book reviews, penned prefaces to art catalogs, and wrote memoirs. These primary texts are essential resources that have shaped the content and analyses in this study.

Soyer's four autobiographies span the course of fifteen years and a variety of formats. In addition to his 1969 Self-Revealment: A Memoir, Soyer wrote A Painter's Pilgrimage (1962), Homage to Thomas Eakins, Etc. (1966), and Diary of an Artist (1977). Some of his writings are reminiscences, others are journal entries chronicling his travels through Europe or his experiences with artists whom he was painting at the time. The first of the journals, A Painter's Pilgrimage, discloses little about Soyer's life prior to the time it was written. Subtitled "An Account of a Journey, with Drawings by the Author," the journal begins on May 15, 1961, during the artist's first hour of flight from New York to London. We join Soyer, and later his wife Rebecca, as they travel through the major cities in Europe, visiting other well-known artists, both foreigners and expatriate Americans, as well as major art collections. The journal ends on September 3, 1961, during Soyer's passage home to New York. This journal reveals more about Soyer's artistic influences than his personal life and is illustrated by sketches of the paintings Soyer saw and the people he met on his journey.

Soyer's second memoir, Homage to Thomas Eakins, Etc., describes the process Soyer underwent while painting his monumental group portrait by the same name. "Etc." refers to other concerns the artist shares with the reader, namely his return abroad and his observations of paintings in major European museums, as in A Painter's Pilgrimage. Covering almost two years, from June 1963 to February 1965, this memoir is divided into thematic chapters rather than sequential diary entries. Half of the chapters describe Soyer's sittings with artists included in the homage, such as Edward Hopper and Jack Levine, while the remainder take the reader back to Europe on the artist's travels. Self-Revealment: A Memoir is true to its title; the book is much more revelatory than Soyer's previous two autobiographies. Self-Revealment returns to a journal format, but the entries are no longer confined to the present moment. Soyer's recollections of his past, from his Russian youth to his recognition as an acclaimed painter, fill the pages. Beginning in October 1967, the journal ends nine months later in July 1968. Soyer's final memoir is entitled Diary of an Artist. The first 262 pages of Diary of an Artist are excerpts from Soyer's previous three biographies, while the last 40 pages comprise a new narrative composed of letters Soyer wrote and received, additional discussions of his travels in Europe during 1969, and sporadic diary accounts dating from December 18, 1974, through May 24, 1977.

Soyer's urge, or need, to write four autobiographical accounts is astounding. As his journals continue, Soyer gets progressively more personal in his thoughts and recollections, as if he was not satisfied with his initial attempts at "self-revealment," having been left with the nagging feeling that he had more to confide to his readers. In his first book Soyer dated his entries and kept his words impersonal, not giving the reader much access to his private feelings. In the foreword to A Painter's Pilgrimage Soyer expressed his trepidation about this first journal project, writing that the book "is more or less spontaneous, for it was not really planned. It is haphazard … personal … intimate … not too … I hope" [exact transcription from text].[18] Yet in his final completely original memoir, Self-Revealment, Soyer shares intimate recollections and feelings about a number of issues, not strictly impersonal opinions about subjects like the rise of abstraction or the artist Edward Hopper. Soyer was so impressed by the introspective nature of this memoir that after receiving a letter from an editor at a prospective publisher who wanted to reformat the book from diary form into thematic sections, editing much of the text, Soyer responded: "After reading your letter several times I came to the conclusion that I do not want this manuscript published in the manner suggested. I do not want it to be another so-called 'art' book… . To me Self-Revealment is important as a personal document of one born in a foreign country, who came here as a child, became an artist and contributed to our pluralistic culture… . I do not want to make it into a showpiece as suggested."[19] Soyer's reaction to the editor indicates that he desired control of his written work, in part because he appears to have viewed his final original attempt at self-revealment as his closest approximation to an immigrant success story. Too, Soyer wanted the text of Self-Revealment presented in the manner in which it was conceived, to convey his most intimate observations and feelings to his reader.

Significant questions arise as Soyer's memoirs are used to help corroborate many of my analyses of his paintings. Harold Rosenberg cautions the art critic who consults an artist's own writings: "Statements by artists, though frequently of great value to criticism, are to be regarded with suspicion and never taken as the last word as to fact or attitude."[20] So while I use Soyer's prose accounts to help me extricate meanings in his art, I read these texts critically. Soyer wrote his memoirs late in life, and some reminiscences may have been consciously or unconsciously omitted, altered, or imagined. For example, the artist's ambivalence toward Judaism becomes evident when comparing his actions to his writings. While publicly distancing himself from Jewish religious practice, Soyer would occasionally write in Hebrew. He ultimately illustrated Singer's memoirs. Despite his professed "shunning of Jewish things," Soyer made sizable donations to Jewish causes.[21] Most notably, in 1973 he donated eight works, one etching and seven lithographs, to the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York Israel Emergency Fund. The cause was a relief effort for the Yom Kippur War.[22] Additionally, Soyer may have decided to write his autobiography as a way to project and maybe even influence a certain public image, to be an active participant in the version of Raphael Soyer that would go down in perpetuity (which would be consistent with his personality). With all this in mind I continually remind myself that the autobiographical theorist, as John Sturrock so eloquently admonishes, must "distinguish the dance from the dancer."[23]

For an art historian, four autobiographies would seem to constitute a gold mine. However, Soyer was extremely repetitive. Thus, while Soyer's memoirs have been essential to my understanding of the man and his art, after exhausting these important resources, I turned to his other writings. Thus, not only do I use Soyer's memoirs throughout the project, but I also analyze his writing in other genres that, to some, constitute autobiography, for example letters and oral histories. The most cited theorist on autobiography, Philippe Lejeune, does not include any of the forms of "autobiography" used in this project in his definition of the genre. Lejeune defines autobiography as a "retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality."[24] Because Soyer combines the traditional retrospective autobiography with daily journal entries, his memoirs do not fit into the rigid definition Lejeune imposes on autobiography. Lejeune is interested in defining autobiography as a distinct genre of literature, whereas my concern is identifying texts (I use this term broadly) that convey something of the personal side of Soyer. Lejeune's phraseology excludes journals and diaries (and to take this even further, any autobiographical text, such as poetry, self-portraiture, and the personal essay). Such limitations are necessary from his vantage point, but they dictate the dismissal of personal accounts such as Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and, for my purposes, Soyer's prose and oral interviews.[25] My use of personal texts is better understood by demarcating the autobiography and the autobiographical, or by simply grouping both forms together under the heading "self-representations." Soyer's urge to write transcends many different categories, and his texts—the written, oral, and painterly—are autobiographical because they are revelatory about his personality, an essential part of Lejeune's definition.

While many different kinds of people write autobiographies, Americans and Jews feel particularly compelled to chronicle their lives, especially as they age. Autobiography in America is unprecedented in its numbers. In A Bibliography of American Autobiographies, Lewis Kaplin catalogs more than 6,000 published autobiographies.[26] Such an outstanding number gives credibility to the much-advanced hypothesis that Americans feel the need to write about their lives because they live in "the melting pot." The literary form of autobiography helps a person in a land without cohesiveness to structure his or her thoughts and feelings. This explanation clarifies why ethnic autobiography is especially prevalent in America. As a means to organize life issues and one's status, immigrant autobiography, in James Craig Holte's words "is one way of imposing order on change, and perhaps one reason for the popularity of this form in the United States is the feeling of rootlessness felt by so many Americans."[27] As early as 1919, writers noticed the proliferation of Jewish autobiography.[28] Kate Simon, born Kate Kaila in the Warsaw ghetto, is one of the many Jewish chroniclers from the massive wave of immigration to America at the end of World War I. In her sixties, Simon wrote two autobiographies that trace the life and difficulties of a Jewish immigrant living in the Bronx during the early years of the twentieth century.[29] Memoir writers like Simon and Soyer accord with my understanding of autobiography: that the self-consciousness society imparts on those designated as Other pushes them into a state of self-reflection. This condition can inevitably lead a creative person to feel the need to define him- or herself through the act of autobiography. The desire to redefine one's status in light of the dominant majority's values and definitions is a major impetus for minority autobiographers of many ethnicities, not just Jews, to write about themselves. The proliferation of Jewish writers who take up their life story is almost matched by that of black writers, such as Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou, who also feel the need to define themselves through autobiographical prose.

Soyer's memoirs differ from the typical immigrant autobiography in that his writings are not always chronological and are not in the form of a straightforward narrative about his immigrant experience. In most immigrant autobiographies, the ethnic writer constructs a narrative around his or her "conversion" to an American. The text usually commences with the author's immigration to America and chronicles his or her woes during the acculturation process. Typically, the ethnic writer demonstrates his or her success in the American environment by learning English, losing a foreign accent, and ultimately assuming the American value system. In another common variant of the standard ethnic autobiography, however, the author remains in the role of outsider, blaming the dominant ideology for keeping him or her in the role of Other and out of mainstream society.[30] While Soyer does not exactly follow the chronological American success story in his autobiographies, the artist's motive is analogous to the "celebration of America" thesis. When viewing the memoirs as a set, we see that Soyer does talk about the uncertainty of growing up foreign in America and that he subtly exalts the success he achieved as an artist in his adopted country. Soyer demonstrates his success through his experiences. He travels through Europe, has contacts with famous artists, and talks about professional achievements like his one-man retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1967. Soyer's final autobiography, Diary of an Artist, ends on such a note of success. In the penultimate entry, in which Soyer describes his attendance at a Thomas Eakins show and symposium at the Hirshhorn Museum in 1977, he writes that to his "pleasant astonishment," his painting Homage to Thomas Eakins was hung at the entrance to the show.[31]

Mary Antin's 1912 autobiography, The Promised Land, is one of the earliest examples of Jewish immigrants writing about their experiences in America. Antin, who like Soyer emigrated from Russia in her early teens, wrote her life history at the early age of thirty. In it, she echoes a sentiment that pervades this book. Although her overall argument is in favor of Americanization, she concludes her story by asserting the dual effect of living in two cultures: "I can never forget, for I bear the scars. But I want to forget—sometimes I long to forget. I think I have thoroughly assimilated my past… . I want now to be of to-day. It is painful to be consciously of two worlds. The Wandering Jew in me seeks forgetfulness… . A long past vividly remembered is like a heavy garment that clings to your limbs when you would run."[32] Because Soyer could not reach such a state of forgetfulness he is a fascinating artist to examine in relation to ideas about Jewish art and his Jewish American identity, and an excellent case study of an individual Jew during the socially, historically, and culturally rich years during and after the great wave of Jewish immigration to the United States.

A final note: Necessarily, several different members of the Soyer family are discussed over the course of the book. To avoid confusion, members of the Soyer family, including Raphael, are often referred to by their first names.


Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art | Home

© 2012 The University of North Carolina Press
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
How to Order | Make a Gift | Privacy
Greenpress Initiative Network Solutions