Jewish Museum Finds Living Room Treasures

by Jessica Levy
       At the Jewish Museum of Maryland, a show that began as a celebration of Arthur Mones’ photographs of Jewish artists in their studios has emerged as a fascinating look at the artists’ work and their collectors in Maryland’s Jewish community.
        The photographs, originally shown at the Hebrew Union College in New York City, are now stored at the Jewish Museum, which was granted permission to display the photos as it saw fit.
       Melissa Martins, director of the exhibit, wanted to somehow tie the photographs to Maryland culture. When Joe Weisenfeld, a former president of the museum, mentioned his collection included the work of Mon Levinson--one of the photographed artists--the scope of the exhibit suddenly widened. In two months the Jewish Museum had assembled a collection of never-before-seen works by Roy Lichtenstein, Elaine DeKooning, Mary Frank and others.
       “It was a very spontaneous thing, really,” Martins said. “People in the community just kept volunteering [work for the exhibit].”
        Maryland’s rich history of Jewish philanthropy includes the world-renowned Cone and Epstein collections housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art. But there is a major difference between the collections at the BMA and the collections represented at the Jewish Museum. The Cone sisters began their collection on a very cerebral level. They enlisted their cousin, Gertrude Stein, to help them choose from the works of Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, and Renoir. The work of the Fauves and Post Impressionists was something they grew to love.
        In the Jewish Museum exhibit, the wide variety of work reveals a more intuitive impetus. Martins pointed out that the selections in many private collections have been based on personal reasons: a particular moment in the collector’s life, or simply choosing something because it went nicely in the living room.
       “It’s a very secular and modern [exhibit],” Martins said. “The variety represents the Americanization and culturalization [of collecting].”
        Indeed, the majority of the work is from pop and abstract expressionist artists. At first glance, nothing would make a viewer identify the exhibit as particularly Jewish, except Mones’ photographs. But Martins noted that many abstract expressionists are Jewish, and the abstract nature of their work is open to interpretation.
        Martin’ s point about the secular and Americanized nature of the exhibit directly reflects the history of the Jewish community in this country. Since the arrival of the first Jews in 1634, they have made a remarkable effort to assimilate tradition with contemporary American culture.
        It has been said that the Jewish experience most fully embodies the story of America: as a refuge from religious persecution, as a melting pot, as an entirely unique culture, and as a society powered by consumerism.
        The Jewish community’s history in the Baltimore/D.C./Philadelphia area is particularly long and full. As early as 1641, Mathias de Sousa, who is believed to have been a Portuguese Jew, served on the Maryland Assembly. Pennsylvania’s famous efforts at religious freedom made it a desirable destination for Jews fleeing the persecution they faced--well, everywhere.
       For its part, Maryland passed “An Act Concerning Religion,” commonly known as the “Toleration Act” in 1649 which was designed, specifically, to avoid conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, but was worded broadly enough to prohibit Jewish persecution through prosecution. And in 1826 Thomas Kennedy succeeded in passing the “Jew Bill,” which sought to put “Jewish [citizens] on equal footing with Christians.” At that time, there were only 150 Jews in all of Maryland but within a few months of law’s enactment, two Jewish men were elected to the Baltimore City Council.
        Almost simultaneously, two very important shifts occurred in the European Jewish community: first, in 1848 revolution and riots in central Europe spurred immigration to the United States; and second, in 1844 the second commandment--which warned against worshipping or creating graven images--was reinterpreted.
        Prior to 1844 there really wasn’t such a thing as a “Jewish artist”-- at least not a practicing Jew. But the reinterpretation allowed the creation of artwork as long as the work itself wasn’t meant to be worshipped. This meant a whole new population opened itself up to the art world: as artists and patrons. And since Pennsylvania and Maryland were arguably the most religiously “free” states in the country, Jews migrated to them, bringing with them their desire to embrace and incorporate.
        Baltimore’s penchant for art collecting. Baltimore’s upper class is credited with bringing copies and prints of famous works from England to the New World. The Jewish élite did the same. The Epstein collection--which includes Rodin’s “The Thinker,” a portrait by Goya and a Van Dyck--reflects a fashionably conservative and discriminating taste from the Lithuanian-born Baltimore wholesaler. But with the Cone siblings--who were educated here in Baltimore--collecting shifted to satisfy personal tastes.
        This little exhibit is spontaneous in conception, free form in layout, and intimate in mood. But for those who wish to look closely, it marks a moment of change in the history of one of America’s many vibrant and formative minorities--one for whom art- making and art collecting is a delicate melding of tradition and that most American word: “personal.”

“Artists and Patrons: Contemporary Jewish Collecting in Maryland” is on display through December 26 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. 15 Lloyd Street in Baltimore. Call 732-6400.

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This story was published on November 3, 1999.