L'Art juif danois
Par le professeur Ulf Haxen*
As a concept, the term Jewish art is not clear and unambiguous. There is no comprehensive definition of the notion. At best there are several, for dependent on time and place certain requirements can be made, certain specific characteristics which must be present before fine art or decorative art can be called Jewish. The definitions will vary greatly according to time and place, but they will also depend on the individual looking at them. It is nothing new that a concept with which we operate every day cannot be reduced to a formula, and it is certainly nothing to be regretted, provided we ourselves realise that we are not using an unambiguous term. So each individual author must consider and evaluate the term and its significance. The term Jewish art is not least an art-historical tool to classify works and objets d’art which in one way or another can be designated as being Jewish. 
It would almost be easier to decide which definitions cannot be used. Jewish art is not only art produced by Jews. From antiquity to the present day, countless works of fine art and applied art have been created by non-Jews for the use of Jews. So among other things Jewish art is an art that forms part of and has a “function” in Jewish life. Nor is the art created by Jews necessarily Jewish art, though this is an area where a new interpretation could so to speak suddenly re-categorise a work. A work which might have been considered “neutral” can nevertheless on interpretation turn out to belong to Jewish art, as has been seen in the case of several 20th-century artists, for instance Barnet Newman, and also with some Danish artists.
The next, inevitable, question is who can be designated a Jewish artist in this context. Is it someone born of a Jewish mother, as Jewish law defines the term Jew? In that case the definition also applies to assimilated Jews. But what about someone who feels Jewish but is not Jewish according to the law? We have, like many before us, transcended the traditional definitions. We have among other things taken the works as our starting point. We have included the work when we believe that we have found a Jewish aspect to it; and where relevant, we did so without regard to narrow definitions.
As said, there are countless definitions of what is meant by the term Jewish art. Ignoring earlier authors who deny the existence of the concept at all, there have over the last century been so many definitions of Jewish art that it is tempting simply on the basis of this to decide that Jewish art after all is a concept. It is, understandably enough, especially artists who have been opposed to these attempts to class them together under the heading of “Jewish artists” simply on the basis of their personal backgrounds. This is a very difficult balance to achieve, just as it is impossible to define most artists as one thing or another. Some artists have acknowledged their Jewish inheritance, for instance the Danish painter David Monies. He has been included in this book, where indeed he naturally belongs, but I would be very reluctant to venture into any definition of his work in relation to the Jewish concept. He painted both Danish Jews and non-Jews. On the other hand, Theodor Philipsen, who also came from a Jewish family, is not included. His landscapes and animal motifs do not reflect any Jewish aspect at all, any more than, as far as is known, he himself felt any affinity with Judaism. We would have had to stretch the definition to include him in this book. The same applies to the architect Arne Jacobsen, not to mention Pissaro, who can formally be designated a “Danish Jew”, as he was born of Jewish parents in the Danish West Indies. A third category concerns the artists who consciously turn away from a Jewish background which can nevertheless be sensed in their works.
Certain Jewish authors have defined the concept on the basis of ethnicity; if English art can be defined as art produced by Englishmen, however varied it might be, then it must be possible to create a category comprising Jewish artists irrespective of whether they come from Afghanistan or New York. And starting out from thoughts of this kind, attempts have been made to distil a special Jewish style.
As will be seen, I will make no attempt to provide an unambiguous definition of Danish-Jewish art. But on the other hand this does not imply that I deny the existence of the concept. The mere fact that The Society for the Publication of Danish Cultural Monuments (Selskabet til Udgivelse af Danske Mindesmærker) asked me to write on “Jewish art in Denmark” indicated of course the existence of the concept if not its lack of ambiguity. So the starting point for this publication is not a desire to move the artists and works of art from their status hitherto as Danish artists producing Danish art but to focus on such aspects of their art as are related to Jews and Judaism. Similarly, we turn a specific light on art for instance when we examine a city’s or region’s artists, bourgeois art, church art, women’s art, the art of the Danish Golden Age. In choosing to retain these categories, which in certain respects limit the field of vision, it is in the hope that a special approach of this kind might bring out aspects that are lost in the general context.
A secondary aim in this book is to present an aspect of the history of a minority, in this case the Jewish minority, which in 300 years of close contact with the majority population has become part of Danish history, a minority that has become integrated but not therefore necessarily assimilated. It is my hope that this might contribute positively to the present discussion concerning the assimilation of foreign residents, not least refugees.
The book does not deal with all Jewish art in Denmark, but is concerned only with Danish-Jewish art. It is then far more difficult to come to a definition when the concept of Jewish art is to be linked to a denotation of nationality such as Danish which is not even in itself unambiguous. Scania, Halland and Blekinge will generally speaking be left out of consideration in this context, but Altona, once Danish territory, was an important intermediate station for Jewish immigration and settlement in a number of major Danish cities, for which reason some of the early Jewish art from there must be included under the heading of Danish-Jewish art, as for instance is the case in the history of Danish ceramics, which includes faience made in the Duchies which now form part of Germany.
In certain sections we have felt that it would be of interest to provide as complete a survey as possible of the art of Danish Jews. Elsewhere, however, it would be absurd to aim at a comprehensive view.
On the other hand, we have included what in one way or another will cast light on Jewish life and the history of the Jews in Denmark. So we have also included artists and decorative art which belong entirely to Danish art, have always been considered to be Danish art and will continue to be so. The aim of this book is, as said, to focus on the Jewish element whether large or small.
But apart from what can be termed Danish-Jewish art, this book introduces another chapter in Danish-Jewish art history, that is to say art portraying Jews. There are several reasons for this, not least because this aspect of Danish art in general has not been dealt with before. The reticence hitherto felt in Jewish circles with regard to this aspect of culture and art has over the last 10-20 years been largely overcome, and although there will still be those who believe it is too specific a net to throw out, we believe that the approaches to Danish art in this book are linked, and that they can also play their part in throwing light on aspects of Danish-Jewish life, which ultimately means aspects of Danish culture.
As the overall aim has thus been to consider the Jewish aspect of Danish art, we have introduced a selection of portraits of Danish Jews, as the task of tracing Danish-Jewish paintings quickly revealed that there was a vast number of portraits of Jewish men, women and children. This can in itself be seen as expressing a clear tendency for Jews to have their portraits painted just like other citizens in the country, despite any religious prohibition against images and any reticence. Again we believed that it was interesting to include this as an aspect of Jewish attitudes to art, so that the portraits of course could be classified under this heading just as these same portraits can be classified under different headings. We have received numerous warnings about this; some have wagged their fingers and the opinion that it was just as bad as writing exclusively about women’s art. Perhaps there is a parallel; at all events there is a tendency these days to look at Jewish culture not merely as an isolated phenomenon, but in constant interplay with the surrounding community. A tiny corner of the great area covered by the term Danish art can reasonably also be considered under the designation Danish-Jewish, that is to say as a kind of iconographic point of view just as the same subject has always been illuminated from various angles in the history of art.
Although reliable records of Jews in Denmark only date back to the 17th century, images of Jews have existed since the Middle Ages. The Danish medieval church murals contain a range of material demonstrating this hitherto unnoticed aspect. So it was obvious that this subject and this group of motifs should be included, something which will undoubtedly be of interest to both Danish and foreign readers.
Jewish involvement in Danish art has been intense. This has not least been reflected in the desire of affluent Jews to acquire Danish art and support Danish artistic life. A not unimportant section in the story of Danish support for the arts concerns a group of Jewish patrons of the arts and art collectors. This aspect, too, is rightly included in this book.
The quite special situation that has obtained in Denmark provides the real background for this attempt to bring together so many aspects. Not only were most of the Danish Jews saved, but Jewish works of art, including buildings, escaped the destruction suffered in other countries occupied by the Germans. Almost like a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen is the story of how the many magnificent Torah scrolls from Copenhagen Synagogue were transported in fire brigade ambulances for safe keeping in the crypt of Trinity Church. Beneath a red heart on the outer wall of the tower belonging to that church, the Round Tower built by Christian IV and completed in 1642, the King’s motto is inscribed: “Bring, O Lord, wisdom and justice to the heart of King Christian IV”; the name of God is written in gold in Hebrew lettering. Thus were 300 years of Danish and Jewish history woven together.
The fate of the Jews in Denmark is unusual not only in the context of Jewish history, but also in the history of Europe. It has not been without its dark chapters, but compared with the persecutions, humiliations and complete annihilation that took place in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and in both East and West in the 20th, the history of the Danish Jews shines like a tender light in the dark.
It has therefore for many years been our hope that, like other countries, Denmark might acquire its Jewish museum. And the aim with this, as indeed with this book, will be to tell and show how co-existence – perhaps not always harmonious but generally peaceful – led to a fruitful assimilation, but happily also to an integration that did not result in a demand on the part of the Danes for the abolition of all barriers and boundaries. This book is therefore also an account of how a minority was allowed to live its own quiet life “inside the walls”, but at the same time was able through individual contributions to make an at times powerful impression on Danish history and culture. In an age of growing racism and nationalism, this aspect is surely not the least important.