In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jewish Art, Modern and Contemporary

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Digital Resources
  • Historiography
  • Museology
  • Museums
  • Patronage
  • Jewish National Art
  • Contemporary Israeli Art
  • Art and the Holocaust
  • Art Criticism and Theory
  • Spatial Practices
  • Synagogues
  • Painting
  • Sculpture
  • Decorative Art and Handicrafts
  • Ceremonial Objects
  • Lithography
  • The Jewish Book
  • Theater
  • Fashion
  • Photography
  • Film
  • Comics and Graphic Novels
  • Social Media

Art History Jewish Art, Modern and Contemporary
Maya Balakirsky Katz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0064


This article takes a minimalist approach to the designation of “Jewish” in the category of “Jewish art,” focusing primarily on works that directly engage the modern Jewish experience and the role that Jews have played in the development of new visual media in the 19th and 20th centuries. At the same time, this article takes a maximalist approach to what is meant by the term “art” by including a wide range of visual mediums. The academic study of Jews in the arts can be traced to Germany in the mid-19th century, when both art history and Jewish studies were relatively new academic disciplines. While art history devalued Jewish art as derivative in the context of the development of modern national identities, Jewish studies devalued non-textual sources for academic study. It was the interdisciplinary field of Jewish art that would serve to negotiate biases from both academic branches, proving influential in the development of iconographic interpretation by promoting critical attention to the narrative function of a wide variety of mediums. This article traces the extent to which Jewish studies scholars have compensated for earlier disciplinary tensions by questioning the premise of nationalist models for art history and how they have broadened the criteria for visual analysis in the study of Jewish art. Although some of the most recognized modern artists are Jewish, the focus here is more narrowly dedicated to those artists and visual media that have secured a place within Jewish studies. In recent decades, scholars of Jewish art have forged an accessible path by adopting more of a “visual culture” approach that considers production and consumption of Jewish content in the plastic arts in non-hierarchical terms. Because Jewish studies touch on a wide range of disciplines, the study of Jewish art has come to include the material aspects of vernacular life (decorative art and handicraft) and popular media (stage design, photography, film) as well as the traditional fine arts (architecture, sculpture, and painting) within schools of style (Impressionism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism). Scholars of Jewish art have largely avoided the high/low debate typical of other branches of art history by emphasizing the experiential aspect of Jewish objects of all types. This article is a survey of modern and contemporary Jewish art from approximately 1850 to 1990, when Jews participated in the artistic mainstream, and points to the considerable scholarly attention Jewish studies have placed on art as a comprehensive experience rather than a purely aesthetic one. The article opens with second-order categories, then moves to scholarship devoted to issues that are central to the field, such as nationalism and Jewish/non-Jewish relations, and closes with scholarship devoted to diverse media.

General Overviews

In the 1940s, a number of overviews of Jewish art were published by German Jewish scholars in order to substantiate the idea of an unbroken chain of Jewish culture despite Jewish landlessness, such as Landsberger 1946 and Schwarz 1949. These surveys, published in the shadow of the Holocaust, focus on Jewish participation in and contribution to Western culture, theorizing on connections between art and Judaism/Jewishness to contrast the typical focus placed on Jewish art as limited to the ceremonial and liturgical, particularly in the premodern context. Goodman 2001 demonstrates, however, that while mainstream art historical scholarship in the 19th century marginalized Jewish art, Jewish artists were gaining a foothold in the Academy. Despite a relative lack of coverage of the modern era, several general overviews are important documents of modern and contemporary attitudes toward Jewish art. The author of Cohn-Wiener 2001 has stimulated a defining debate by including in this survey a number of modern Jewish artists who made little contribution to Jewish subjects or practices but succeeded in entering the European avant-garde. Jewish artists have innovated and participated in significant art movements into the 20th century and, since World War II, they have been active in art around the world, particularly in the United States and Israel. The criterion of “experience” is first applied to the Jewish art survey in Kampf 1984, but the author has, nonetheless, remained loyal to the high art canon as applied to Jewish art. Cohen 1998 provides an excellent contextual history of a broader range of Jewish media in the service of modern Jewish communities. Koltun-Fromm 2010 focuses specifically on the American intellectual scene and credits the urban American landscape as fundamental to the shaping of a modern Jewish material culture. Bringing the modern European Jewish survey up to date, one of the central themes of Baskind and Silver 2011 is the tensions between Israeli and Diaspora Jewish artistic culture.

  • Baskind, Samantha, and Larry Silver. Jewish Art: A Modern History. London: Reaktion, 2011.

    An accessible and lavishly illustrated chronological overview of artists incontrovertibly relevant to modern Jewish history, some of whom have also won international recognition.

  • Cohen, Richard. Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

    A highly influential study and widely used in Jewish art courses on both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Seeks to provide an interpretation of the social conditions that nurtured Jewish creativity, especially the roles of antisemitism and nostalgia in tumultuous political climates.

  • Cohn-Wiener, Ernst. Jewish Art: Its History from the Beginning to the Present Day. Translated by Anthea Bell. Yelvertoft Manor, UK: Pilkington, 2001.

    Originally published in German in 1929. The first basic overview to include the modern era alongside ancient and medieval art. While many of Cohn-Wiener’s ideas are outdated, they are nevertheless instructive from a historiographical perspective.

  • Goodman, Susan Tumarkin, ed. The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe. New York: Jewish Museum, 2001.

    Lavishly illustrated Jewish Museum catalogue of an exhibition that considered the entry of Jewish artists, from various national contexts, into professional artistic careers, and their incorporation of Jewish tradition into their work. While this inclusion of Jewish subject matter in oil painting has stimulated further scholarship in the field, catalogue contributors place artist biographies and work on a somewhat confusing and inconsistent acculturation spectrum.

  • Kampf, Avram. Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1984.

    Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1975. In an inventive version of the biographical approach, Kampf considers the Jewish experience of the arts more relevant than the Jewish contribution to high art. As typical of Jewish studies at the time, Kampf narrates the survival of Jewish culture as a consequence of the early-20th-century emigration from Russia.

  • Koltun-Fromm, Ken. Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

    The only full-length book that explores the theme of material identity in the religious and/or philosophical work of Jewish writers.

  • Landsberger, Franz. A History of Jewish Art. Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1946.

    Eminent German art historian who turned to the study of Jewish art for the first time after the Nazis expelled him from the University of Breslau. His mission in this overview was to call attention to the persistence of Jewish art by providing an unbroken chain of Jewish creative production.

  • Schwarz, Karl. Jewish Artists of the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.

    Schwarz’s biographical approach to Jewish artists first appeared in the German periodical, Kunst und Kirche 7 (1930). This classic work has been used to analyze the influential figure of Karl Schwarz in the Jewish art field more than his subject matter.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.