Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art
By Samantha Baskind
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8078-2848-3
Chapter One A New York Painter
A Jew is a person who calls himself a Jew, or who is called Jewish by others. -Melville J. Herskovits, anthropologist and Jew, in 1927, the year Soyer painted his Phillips Collection self-portrait
Identity is connected with the fateful appraisals made of oneself-by oneself and by others. Everyone presents himself to others and to himself, and sees himself in the mirrors of their judgments. The masks he then and thereafter presents to the world and its citizens are fashioned upon his anticipations of their judgments. -Anselm L. Strauss, sociologist and Jew
It is the year 1927. Imagine this: The artist enters his studio. He paints his own image on the back of a used piece of panel. After completing the work, rather than simply signing his name, the artist adds a flourish. In the lower left-hand corner he writes in bold capital letters: "Raphael Soyer New York painter who is sleepy when he is not painting." Fast forward 52 years. It is now 1979. The artist gives an interview in which he is quoted as saying, "A self-portrait is never objective. It's always introspective because you are alone and you think about yourself. You can't help the mortality that creeps into it." Twenty more years have passed. It is now the present day. The art historian marvels at what this could all possibly mean.
We do not need to leave this scenario entirely to the imagination, because it actually happened. In 1927, Soyer painted his first oil self-representation (fig. 1), now in Washington, D.C., at the Phillips Collection. In built-up painterly splashes, Soyer portrayed himself at his easel in full frontal view. Below his hands this small oil on panel portrait bears the inscription transcribed above. This chapter examines Soyer's first oil self-portrait, suggesting that we can understand the artist's self-fashioning only by considering the work as a personal statement, or manifesto, on his aspirations as an artist. I argue that by posing himself at the easel, a type of self-portraiture traditionally associated with the advertisement of skill, the young Soyer was commenting on his goals as a fledgling artist, and acting as his own best publicist. The inscription, however, complicates matters. The inclusion of the distinctive inscription lends credence to the chapter's ultimate assertion: that this self-image speaks of Soyer's ambivalence about his ethnicity, which he feared would interfere with his career ambitions.
The Phillips Collection self-portrait is one of three instances in which Soyer painted himself in full frontal view before his easel, with palette and paintbrush in hand. Soyer portrayed himself over forty times, in three different media, and it is instructive to examine why and when in the course of his life the frontal-easel pose appealed to him. The artist sitting or standing alone at his easel in a fully furnished studio, the artist in his studio sitting in the presence of models, and, of course, the completely independent self-portrait outside of the studio setting are just some of the many poses Soyer employed in his extremely varied output of self-representations. But a fully frontal, half-length view posed with his easel occurs thrice, and at three crucial periods of his life. Consider the last of these three self-portraits, which Soyer completed in 1980 at the age of eighty-one (fig. 2). At this time his health was failing, and many of his contemporaries, including his brothers Moses and Isaac, had passed away. Here Soyer is not pressed up against the picture plane but recedes into the background, looking small and frail in comparison to the large palette in his hand and easel on the left side of the canvas. Although this is not the place for an in-depth discussion of this late self-portrait, a tentative analysis suggests that his self-fashioning was one of sadness and loneliness, as if at times in the waning years of his life all Soyer felt he had left were his palette and canvas.
Much closer in conception to the 1927 self-image is Soyer's 1941 self-portrait (fig. 3). Like the 1927 Phillips Collection self-portrait, the later painting also bears an inscription. Beneath the artist's signature it reads, "Painted by himself in the 2ond year of the 2ond World War," with the words "2ond year" and "2ond World War" (notice the European war dates) highlighted in red. In light of what would eventually become known about the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe-this information was not yet publicized (though the severe harassment of the Jews was-the special coloring of this inscription seems prophetic. Of interest is that in two of the three oil self-portraits in which Soyer pictures himself alone at his easel he includes an inscription, indicating that it was important to him to provide clues above the visual evidence. In view of the increase in Nazi power and the oppression of the Jews during the Second World War, it is obvious why Soyer would feel insecure during the early forties and why he might be preoccupied with the war. The conundrum of why Soyer stressed his identity as a New York painter when he posed in front of his easel in 1927 will be the focus of this chapter.
In the 1920s, painting oneself at an easel was not in vogue for American artists; the formal bust representation was more popular because this format was a requirement for admission into the National Academy of Design, to which Soyer was elected as an Associate in 1949 (he became an Academician in 1951). In exploring precedents for the easel self-portrait in the late 1910s and early 1920s, a pattern emerges. Typically, American artists used the National Academy bust-length pose, but when an easel arrangement was used, it was often employed by artists who were, for one reason or another, not part of the mainstream or who were experiencing transition in their artistic career. In both cases, these obstacles might create a high degree of self-consciousness in an individual. Female artists, continually battling for equal recognition among their male peers, quite often painted self-portraits in which the artist was either in the act of creating or in front of her easel. The Massachusetts native Gertrude Fiske (1922, New York, National Academy of Design) and the prominent New England portraitist Lillian Wescott Hale (ca. 1927, New York, National Academy of Design) depicted themselves in front of their easels, and a young Lee Krasner painted herself for the first time in front of her easel in workmen's coveralls around the age of 22 (ca. 1930, New York, Pollock-Krasner Foundation).
The genres of self-portraiture are many, but it does appear that American artists generally turned to the topos of the artist in the studio with tools of the trade during periods likely to induce a high degree of self-awareness, such as career transition. John Sloan, already a renowned artist by the 1920s, painted himself in three-quarter view in 1924 (fig. 4). Confidently sizing up the viewer, with a pipe in his mouth, Sloan looks like a venerated master. However, in an earlier self-portrait broadly dated from 1917-22, Sloan painted himself in full frontal view at his easel (fig. 5). The facts of his life show that in the mid-1910s, Sloan was at a low in his artistic career. In the summer of 1914, an advertisement in the socialist periodical The Masses, for which Sloan served as art editor, offered any two of a series of Sloan's etchings for five dollars, and this price included a one-year subscription to the magazine. Only two people responded to the advertisement. In the same magazine, Sloan advertised for students to study with him during the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Only one artist replied, a woman named Beulah Stevenson. The following two summers were similarly unyielding: while five students accompanied Sloan to Massachusetts in 1915, only three went with him in 1916. In light of the circumstances surrounding Sloan's 1917-22 self-portrait, this self-image functions as an advertisement of his skill, his diligence, and his work ethic.
In 1927, Reginald Marsh pictured himself at his easel (New York, Whitney Museum of American Art). In the late 1920s Marsh was trying to make the transition from magazine illustrator-he sketched for the Daily News, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker-to fine artist. Shortly after a six-month trip in Europe to study the Old Masters from December 1925 to May 1926, Marsh painted his self-portrait, in which he poses with his paintbrush in front of an easel just outside the left side of the canvas. In 1926, the year he began his career as a teacher at the Art Students League, Thomas Hart Benton, also portrayed himself at his easel, looking especially anxious (fig. 6). Although generalizations like "artists tend to create self-representations at their easels during times of uncertainty" can sometimes be reductive, in America during the 1910s and 1920s artists often did adopt this tried and true convention to serve their purpose.
Similarly, Soyer painted the Phillips Collection self-portrait during a period of career uncertainty. In 1927, Soyer had yet to be recognized for his craft (though this would be remedied a year later when he was offered his first one-man show at the Daniel Gallery). Eager to prove that he was an artist despite the lack of external recognition, Soyer may have felt he needed to assert his dedication to his craft by showing the viewer that only sleep could keep him from his art, or that only when working is he fully awake, or even alive. By portraying himself at his easel, which lines the left side of the canvas, holding a palette in one hand and actively engaging the brush with the other, Soyer demonstrates that he is involved in the creative act. His arched eyebrows, which show him to be inquisitive and alert, combined with his straightforward gaze, make Soyer come across as thoughtful and intelligent. The artist's disheveled hair, wrinkled shirt with rolled up sleeves, and loosened and askew tie are compositional cues that he was at work on the painting intently and laboriously. Not only does the figural evidence support this observation, but this point is also made clear through Soyer's vigorous brushwork. This kind of brushwork became commonplace in Soyer's art by the 1950s, but in the 1920s Soyer's edges were usually much stronger and more precise, as seen in his 1928 Still-Life (fig. 7). Moreover, the strong highlighting on the right side of Soyer's face acts as a visual parallel to the implied wakefulness the artist was experiencing from his creative act. This could explain why he was "sleepy when he is not painting," thus bolstering the verbal description of his work ethic on this resum‚ of sorts. The long tradition of artists in both America and Europe painting themselves at an easel to emphasize facility at their craft suggests something about Soyer's motives in this self-image, but the addition of the inscription implies that Soyer felt he needed to go beyond the typical means to convey his point.
In one of his initial entries in Self-Revealment, Soyer wrote: "I am writing my third book. The first one was called a Painter's Pilgrimage, the second, Homage to Thomas Eakins, Etc. This one I think I shall call Self-Revealment, and it will be the last of the trilogy. Self-revealment! As if I have not been revealing myself since I first began painting. I'm still trying to understand why at this time, and at this age, in my sixties, I began this business of writing about myself, my work, my predilections in art. After all, my profession is painting and there, automatically, my personality is revealed." In the Phillips Collection self-portrait, Soyer combines the two creative outlets he employed to "reveal" himself for the first time in his long career. The figurative manner in which Soyer paints himself on the panel provides an explanation of the artist's intent, but the inscription adds another dimension. If he had just signed the painting Raphael Soyer, we might have simply viewed the work as a frontal self-portrait by a hardworking, or even an "inspired," artist. The inscription, however, insists that Soyer was trying to tell us much more than that.
If we look at how Soyer breaks down his remarkable inscription-Raphael Soyer New York Painter Who is Sleepy When He is Not Painting-we discover an instructive permutation: Raphael/Soyer/New York/Painter/Who is Sleepy/When he is Not/Painting. When each line is taken as a separate element, what happens when we remove some of these elements? Let us try again: Raphael/Soyer/New York/Painter/Painting. Soyer's playful comment that he is "sleepy when he is not painting" no longer seems so important. Soyer references painting twice: he is a painter and he is painting, also made apparent through the manner in which he introduces himself on the panel. But as of yet no part of the composition bolsters the element New York. The significance of the inscription lies not in that he was a painter, because obviously he is, as the portrait is a well-executed self-image, or that he works hard, as the figural context shows us this. The importance of the inscription lies in the words "New York."
The work introduces us to a mantra that Soyer repeated over and over again throughout his life: "New York Painter" (or Artist). It is curious that Soyer chose the description New York painter instead of say, Russian painter, or male painter, or young painter-all appropriate designations as well. Because it is unlikely that at his young age Soyer would have yet formed a deep emotional attachment to his adopted country, which had so far exposed him to prejudice and poverty, the adjective New York was probably not chosen as an expression of loyalty for the artist's new homeland. It seems instead that the description New York painter was designed to distract the viewer from another possible category that could be applied to Soyer: Jewish painter. In the 1927 self-portrait, as in many written texts and interviews throughout his life, Soyer wanted to be recognized as a New York painter, not a Jewish painter. Identifying with one's land, not one's religion, was a position taken by more than one Jewish-born artist. In a 1905 interview Josef Israels adopted the same stance as our New York/Jewish painter when he proclaimed, "I am not a Jewish artist, nor do I want to be. I am a Dutch artist."
In 1924, the artist Louis Lozowick wrote an article for the Jewish periodical The Menorah Journal which praised the work of "Jewish Artists." He included names like William Gropper and Jacques Lipchitz, artists who did not paint "Jewish" subject matter. Lozowick notes that few of the names he lists devoted their art "to the expression of Jewish theme and a Jewish spirit," and even says that there "can be Jewish artists, but no Jewish art, unless there be a social need for it."
Excerpted from Raphael Soyer and the Search for Modern Jewish Art by Samantha Baskind Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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