Stereotypical Representations of Jews in Religious and Non-Religious Art

The previously addressed problem of the relationship between the two artists’ political stances and their respective works can be specified in particular via the question whether anti-Semitic opinions and attitudes can be detected, and whether these opinions and attitudes correlate with stereotypical representations of Jews in their work.

In Nolde’s case, the traumatizing key experience of 1910 should be called to mind: The year in which Nolde’s painting Pfingsten (Pentecost, 1910), submitted for the spring exhibition of the Berlin Secession, was rejected by a jury chaired by Max Liebermann. Liebermann was not only the main representative of German Impressionism and a highly influential figure on the German art scene; he was also Jewish. And so Nolde’s reaction to the rejection of his work consisted not merely of writing a vituperative letter to the press criticizing what he saw as Liebermann’s outdated art (which in turn led to his expulsion from the Secession); rather, as a result of the Liebermann éclat, he developed strong anti-Semitic resentment against the art market, which was supposedly dominated by Jews, as his autobiographical writings reveal. Even later successes such as the purchase of his painting Die Sünderin (The Sinner, 1926) by the Nationalgalerie Berlin in 1928 could not change this resentment.

Indisputably, there are stereotypical depictions of Jews in Nolde’s work. The visual codes of the sloping forehead and the prominent hooked nose can be observed in the preparatory studies for the paintings Pfingsten (Pentecost) and Das Abendmahl (The Last Supper, both 1909). Lotte Lindner & Till Steinbrenner have uncovered the profiles of corresponding apostles’ heads from reproductions. However, Nolde makes a differentiated use of such stereotypes. The etching Joseph und seine Brüder II (Joseph and His Brothers II, 1910) is remarkable in that it deepens the contrast between the fine, chosen Joseph and his coarse brothers who hate him, a contrast that is already inherent in the Old Testament itself: On the one hand, the figure on the right margin is revealed as Joseph through its noble slenderness; on the other hand, Nolde also distinguishes between the brother shown in profile on the left, who with his receding forehead, prominent hooked nose, and bulging lips most clearly corresponds to the stereotype of the depiction of a Jew, and the middle brother, shown frontally, for whom this applies far less clearly and who seems to be mediating between Joseph and the brother shown on the left.

The question of what these partially stereotypical depictions of Jews have to do with Nolde’s personal resentment against the Jews who supposedly dominated the art market is a completely different matter. In this regard, it should first be noted that in the aforementioned depictions, Nolde does not primarily depict Jews in early 20th century Germany, but Jewish or Jewish-Christian characters from the Old and New Testaments. It is against this background that Nolde’s explanation of his depictions of Jews, whose stereotypical character he did not dispute, must be regarded, which amounts to saying that his depictions of biblical motifs are simply committed to Historical Realism.

In his autobiographical book Jahre der Kämpfe (Years of Struggle), published in 1934, Nolde opposed the practice of earlier centuries when Jesus and his disciples were painted as Germans or Italians by German or Italian artists. In this way, Nolde professed his allegiance to 19th-century Historicism, which for the first time consistently broke with the custom common in the Middle Ages and the early modern period of adapting the hairstyles and attire of the subjects to their own present, and instead strived for a historically authentic representation. Rohlfs’ antique-style painting Römische Bauleute (Roman Builders, 1879, illustration) bears elaborate witness to this. And in this sense, Nolde also considered it legitimate, indeed imperative, to “paint Jews, as Jews” when featuring biblical motifs. He was by no means the first to do so: Adolph Menzel’s depiction of twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple (1851) features a Jewish scholar in the foreground with a stereotypical, almost cartoonish Jewish physiognomy. And in Liebermann’s iteration of the same motif (1879), the realistic portrayal of the young Jesus himself as a “Jewish rascal, [...] barefoot and with a stained shirt” (Ute Haug [translation]), caused such a scandal that Liebermann felt compelled to repaint Jesus in the vein of a more “dignified” character (illustrations of the preliminary study and the final state).What was new about the contemporary reception of Nolde’s depiction of Jesus and his disciples was that he not only fell into disrepute with Christians, who wished to see Jesus and his disciples portrayed as “Aryans” rather than Jews, but also encountered resistance from Jews for the first time, who had become socially emancipated in the German Reich and felt defamed by the stereotypes. Thus he wrote in 1934: “It was quite strange to me to be threatened and fought from two opposite sides at the same time and for decades. It takes iron strength of character to remain calm when, on the one hand, a painter is persecuted by the Jews because he paints them as Jews and, on the other, is fought by the Christians because they want to see Christ and the apostles painted as Aryans.” (Emil Nolde: Jahre der Kämpfe, Berlin 1934, p. 170 [translation]).

The subjective sincerity of this appeal to realism in the historicist sense is supported by the fact that, as recent research has pointed out, from 1934 onwards Nolde painted no more biblical motifs and thus, in particular, also renounced the “historical-realist” depiction of Jewish or Jewish-Christian characters in this sense. The reason for this—after the National Socialist seizure of power—could hardly have been a consideration for Jewish sensitivities by the anti-Semite Nolde, but rather that he preferred not to paint Jesus and his disciples in particular at all, rather than foregoing their historically faithful depiction as Jews for the sake of an adaptation to so-called “racially appropriate Christianity” propagated by the National Socialists. If, on the other hand, in his depictions of biblical motifs he had simply been concerned with the stereotypical portrayal of Jews for their own sake, then he could easily have found material suitable for this purpose in the Jewish protagonists of the Passion narrative, who were hostile to Jesus, precisely in the sense of National Socialist racial ideology. It is true that not all of Nolde’s biblical works are anti-Semitic. The painting Pharaos Tochter findet Mose (Pharaoh’s Daughter Finds Moses, 1910), for example, is dedicated to the prophet who will save the people of Israel and lead them to the Promised Land. Lindner & Steinbrenner have assembled the female figures from the painting into a mask, which Lotte Lindner is wearing in one of the photographs. Finally, Nolde’s Heilige drei Könige (Three Wise Men, 1913) calls for methodical caution when interpreting Nolde’s stereotypes: The wise men from the East are not Jews themselves, and yet their depiction is a particularly strong example of expressionist grotesque exaggeration.

In contrast to Nolde, Christian Rohlfs achieved a completely independent physiognomy for his religious portraits, which emphasizes the graphic-like in its concise focus on lines and, moreover, completely detaches itself from any striving for historicist realism. The dispute over the interpretation of his painting (Jüngling) Am Scheideweg ((Young Man) at the Crossroads, 1917), which can be considered one of his major works, provides an instructive example of this. The work is interpreted both biblically as a depiction of the King of Babylon leading the Jews back from exile and, in view of ancient Greek mythology, as a depiction of Heracles at the crossroads, who has to choose between two paths in life offered to him by the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite. The latter interpretation seems much more plausible considering the two female figures the young man faces in Rohlfs’s painting.

Concerning stereotypical portrayals of Jews in non-religious images, it should be remembered with regard to the politically quite unsuspicious Christian Rohlfs that in the 19th century religiously motivated anti-Semitism was gradually replaced by a socio-politically motivated and biologistically-phyisiognomically coded anti-Semitism: The social inequality the industrial revolution entailed for many people in Europe was projected onto the Jews as the supposed bearers of a new master class of industrial capitalists. This is reflected in some of Christian Rohlfs’ woodcuts—Der Bürger (The Citizen, 1922), Der Jude (The Jew, 1923), and Der Jude, weiterer Titel Jüdischer Händler (The Jew, alternative title The Jewish Merchant, 1932)—in which bourgeois-emancipated Jews become equivalent to capitalists and the Jews are marked as an ethnic group, even a race.

In Nolde’s work, another projection dominates: the Jewish woman as the dangerous, sinful temptress, as she was antagonistically juxtaposed in the Christian tradition in the Old Testament temptress Eve with the New Testament figure of Mary. In this respect, Nolde’s undated Madonnenkopf (Head of the Madonna) appears ideal in her beauty. It could have been painted in the 1930s, since the Madonnas of the 1910s and 1920s had black hair in accordance with Nolde’s claim to “racial” truth. Nolde’s woodcut Junge Jüdin II (Young Jewish Woman II, 1912), which at first appears to be a portrait of a type, also fits here. While the young woman’s hooked nose immediately catches the eye, it is only at second glance that one realizes that her seemingly flat and harmless hat is in fact a traditional pointed Jewish hat, the tip of which is merely bent over. Here, the coding of Jewishness related to a stigma visualized by clothing reaches back to the Middle Ages, and the boundary between a Jewish seductress and a witch becomes fluid. The beautiful young Jewish woman in particular, as she appears in the etching Salomo und seine Frauen (Solomon and His Wives, 1911) or in the painting Junge Jüdin (Young Jewess, 1918, illustration), belongs in this context.


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Christian Rohlfs, Römische Bauleute (Roman Builders), 1879, Oil on canvas, 162 × 101 cm, LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster. Acquired with the support of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Freunde des Museums 1976 © bpk | LWL Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster. Acquired with the support of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Freunde des Museums 1976

Adolph Menzel, Der zwölfjährige Jesus um Tempel (Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple), 1851, Pastels and gouache on paper, 43 × 58 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle © bpk | Hamburger Kunsthalle

Max Liebermann, Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel (Twelve-Year-Old in the Temple), Study for the eponymous painting, 1879, Black chalk over graphite, 43.4 × 30.4 cm. Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin © bpk | Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Max Liebermann, Der zwölfjährige Jesus um Tempel (Twelve-Year-Old in the Temple), 1879, Oil on canvas, 149.6 × 130.8 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle © bpk | Hamburger Kunsthalle | Elke Walford

Emil Nolde, Junge Jüdin (Young Jewish Woman), 1918, Oil on canvas, 46.3 × 36.2 cm, Private collection, Photo: Bridgeman Images, © Stiftung Ada und Emil Nolde Seebüll

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