Susan Reimer-Torn: Upper West Side #6
Eight years ago, as I was resettling in my native New York City after living in France for twenty-two years, Ariel Sharon provoked a mini scandale by issuing an extremist warning to Jews to leave France immediately to escape rising anti-Semitic violence. Then came the murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2006, and the murder of four (three of them children) at a Jewish school in Tolouse in March of this year. With these terrible crimes embedded within hundreds of recorded acts of anti-Semitism annually, it is understandable that many well-meaning folks have assumed that my family and I were on the run from anti-Semitism.
True enough, France had never quite felt like home. I had sorely missed the diversity and openness, the banter and informality of the Upper West Side, where I had lived up until my expatriation. But my longing for home had nothing to do with how we were viewed or treated as Jews in my adopted land, where I had become a naturalized citizen, raised two sons, enjoyed a career in journalism and communication, and never considered Jewish identity to be a major determinant of how we spent our time.
It is only now, years later, that I have begun to revisit the paradoxical, intense love-hate relationship of France and its Jews, as it has unfolded for hundreds of years. (It is best described in the must-see documentary Being Jewish In France.)
France’s generally enlightened spirit has long been a beacon to Jews: Right up until the massive deportations of World War II (and arguably after), Paris was revered as a New Jerusalem by many a patriotic Jewish refugee. These days, however, I ask myself if it is possible to be a Jew in France without that particular identity daily influencing the way you are seen, and responded to, by others— and I have come to understand that the answer is non, impossible and that there is little sustainable benefit to pretending otherwise.
A Group Apart
In the past weeks, the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaism in Paris and The Jewish Museum in New York both hosted exhibits in which major artists focus their gaze on a segment of Jewish society. The French exhibit, called Les Juifs dans l’orientalism, is unflinching in its assumption that being Jewish implies being seen and objectified as the Other, while the New York exhibit, Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, sidesteps the question in an ultimately unsatisfying way.
The Paris exhibit focused on major artists’ encounters with the North African and Mediterranean communities of the early 19th century. In lush paintings by Delacroix, Chasseriau, Moreau, and Gerome, among others, European men express a longing for the exotica, known as the “barbaric splendor,” of the so-called Orient.
These gentile Europeans distinguished Jews from the local Arab populations with whom Jews lived side by side. Jews not only have ethnic specificity, they also play a particular role as go-betweens, connectors, bridge-makers, mediators, interpreters, without whom, one critic asserts, the encounter between local Arab populations and the European voyeur might never have taken place.
Certainly, today’s politically correct viewer might object to the racial profiling – the Jewess as irresistible femme fatale, the ethnic feast always gluttonous, the prosperous Jewish businessman looking as swarthy and suspect as he is savvy. Even if Jews are here over-eroticized, their opulence exaggerated, their adaptability shaded, this exhibit leaves no doubt that Jews are seen as a distinct people. Its visual framework incarnates Sartre’s classic assertion that in France the Jews are, indeed, a group apart, a collective whose status and fate will always be contingent upon how it is viewed by the mainstream.An Equal Opposite
The premise – even the raison d’etre – of the Vuillard show in New York is very different. The exhibit is all about Vuillard’s relationship with his wealthy Jewish patrons. They are his subjects, his models and his muses, his mistresses and his hosts, his companions, his confidantes, his clients, his galeristesand his collectors.
What’s more, if some critics are to be believed, these same influential Jews were an unfortunate constraint on what might have been Vuillard’s far more experimental artistic range.
“A Jewish Museum show reveals an avant-garde painter in turn of the century Paris transformed by his patrons into a mere portraitist” says the Tablet headline. A long-time Vuillard admirer, taken aback by the allegation, I crossed the park one Sunday morning to see whether or not I shared this point of view. In the end, I did not. But Vuillard’s debatable self-realization turned out not to be my primary focus.
My first thought was that a French museum could never mount a Vuillard exhibit with this Judeo-centric angle. French curators in national institutions would avoid any such framework for fear of accusations of racial profiling. As for an allegation of wealthy Jewish influence stunting an artist’s growth, no French journalist would risk the inevitable outcry. In a society where there is denial around racial issues, there is also its equal opposite – hyper-awareness and overarching vigilance.
A Conspiracy of Denial
What stirred me up the most at this show was not the question of Vuillard’s range but the all-too-familiar conspiracy of denial. The underlying assumption of the show is that from the 1890’s through the 1930’s, these French Jewish arbiters of the avant garde were unmarked and unhindered by their religious identity. Even if I claimed the same prerogative for myself for over twenty years, I find it impossible to believe that this group, and the non-Jewish Vuillard who chronicled them, could be that deep into self-deception.
Vuillard’s romance with these prominent Jews begins and flourishes during the twelve years when the Dreyfus affair provoked wave after wave of anti-Semitic rioting across the country. The divisive hysteria around this accusation of treason shook France to its roots and brought down government after government. There was no corner of French life that retained neutrality during the furor. Even best-known painters were lined up on either side of the venomous debate: Degas, Renoir and Cezanne proclaimed Dreyfus guilty while Pissaro, Monet and Cassat insisted he was not. Denial of the “Jew as Other” in the period beginning with the Dreyfus outbreaks and extending to the rise of Nazism therefore seems to border on the psychotic.
I do not begrudge Vuillard and his muses their privileged and beguiling experience. I understand how this particular circle of highly-placed Jews perhaps considered themselves to be an exception to the rule, insulated above the fray. But the recurring bigotry that marks this temporary detente as both extraordinary and fragile (if not outright delusional) is barely alluded to in the show. In the end, the viewer misses what should be a dynamic tension provided by sociological context. How not to emphasize the irony of our clearly seeing what the paintings’ subjects do not? This exhibit loses impact, not from a stunting of Vuillard’s talent, but from its curatorial conspiracy of denial about France and its Jews.
I stare the longest at a painting of a 3-year-old boy seated on a massive ornate sofa. This is Claude Bernheim de Villers, painted in 1905. If you look long enough, you see a suggestion of a woman in the left foreground. She is transparent, ghostly, a hovering presence. We learn this is the little boy’s mother who perished in Auschwitz in 1943. All these years before, she haunts the scene, ethereal, a passing cloud, rendered by the brushstroke of an artist already weightless despite her grounding wealth. In a portrait painter’s moment of prescience, she is there yet nearly gone, rising in a spiral of chimney smoke before our wishful and disbelieving eyes.