How Vincent van Gogh helped Jews break into the art world – and vice versa
NEW YORK – In the culminating gallery of “Van Gogh: The immersive experience”, The painter’s masterpieces come to life thanks to swirling animations projected everywhere. Even the lounge chairs are covered in “Sunflowers” and other recognizable Van Gogh touches.
Van Gogh’s commercialization process began 120 years ago, when German Jewish art collector Paul Cassirer organized the first exhibition of the Dutch painter’s works in Berlin. After this exhibition, van Gogh’s legacy – and modern art in general – mingled with the trajectory of European Jews, according to historian Charles Dellheim.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Dellheim spoke of the “risk-taking” qualities of Cassirer and other Jews that helped van Gogh to posthumous fame. More than a century later, van Gogh’s paintings that once belonged to Jews are still making headlines due to looting by Nazi Germany.
“Van Gogh’s art, especially its posthumous history, intersects with the history of modern Jews in Europe and America,” said Dellheim, whose new book, “Belonging and betrayal: How Jews Made the Modern Art World, ”was published on September 21.
Before the popularization of artists such as Cézanne, Monet and Picasso, “art” was about uplifting religion. The Jews pushing “modern” art entered a new realm and peddled what some called irreligious or “degenerate” art.
Among the modernist painters adored by Jewish collectors, van Gogh featured prominently. In the two decades since the artist’s death, much of his paintings and drawings had been purchased by Jewish collectors, said Dellheim, a longtime professor at Boston University.
“With the post-impressionists like Van Gogh, the Jews [were] start to be smelled as historians, critics, merchants, connoisseurs and painters too, ”Dellheim wrote.
Born into a family of pastors in 1853, van Gogh tried his hand at several trades before finding his vocation. Van Gogh sometimes sketched or painted Jewish sites – and people – he met in The Hague and Amsterdam. In the closing montage of “The Immersive Experience”, however, the artist’s love for the countryside is what shines most.
The dark, sinewy “Starry Night” trees sway in the wind, as farmers and their plows float through the wheat fields. From above, the eyes of van Gogh’s self-portraits contemplate the now iconic pastoral scenes he painted in France and the Netherlands.
Shortly after painting some of his most famous nature scenes – including “Tree Roots” and “Wheatfield with Crows” – van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 37 years old.
Coming from a wealthy German Jewish family, Paul Cassirer was “way ahead of the game” when it comes to art, Dellheim said.
“He was an intellectual and artistic risk-taker willing to bet on a new art,” Dellheim said. “He put a lot of faith in his own eye. For example, Cassirer was the first to show French Impressionists in Germany, including Manet and Gauguin.
For years, Cassirer had pleaded with Johanna van Gogh – the widow of Vincent’s brother and sponsor, Theo – to allow her to show some of van Gogh’s paintings. A breakthrough came in 1901, when Cassirer was able to show five of van Gogh’s works in an annual “Berlin Secession” exhibition by modernist artists.
Cassirer’s success, Dellheim said, was that he had cultivated “a circle of enlightened and progressive collectors” to whom he could sell van Gogh’s paintings.
While the “old master” paintings were “imbued with Christian symbols,” Dellheim said, “you didn’t have to be a religious person to appreciate Van Gogh. You didn’t have to kiss anything to understand Van Gogh.
In his Berlin exhibitions, Cassirer was known to have mixed “old masters” like El Greco with “avant-garde” artists like Renoir and Picasso. For Cassirer and other Jewish art collectors, the attraction to van Gogh was “intense and aesthetic,” Dellheim said.
Following the 1901 exhibition, some German galleries and museums purchased works by van Gogh. However, modern art was widely seen as “French and unpatriotic,” Dellheim said. Jewish art dealers began to seek buyers from overseas, including American museums.
From the 1920s onwards, racial propaganda called Jews and modern art “alien elements” to be eliminated. The myth of the “stab in the back” after World War I, for example, included the story of the Jews “poisoning” the German “racial community” with influences such as degenerate art and social movements.
The dramatic weight of Dellheim’s book comes from the sudden fall of the Jews in the art world who thought they had “made it” in Europe. After working so hard to “acculturate” in Germany, France and elsewhere, these families were quickly stripped of their works of art and other possessions. Those who could not flee Europe in time were murdered.
“The Nazis asserted their own cultural claims and economic hunger through the systematic and racial theft of Jewish-owned collections,” Dellheim wrote. “The fine arts have therefore become a bloody crossroads where culture and money, aesthetics and greed have come up against disastrous consequences.