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The Inner View of Isidor Kaufmann

The Portrait of a Young Boy by Isidor Kaufmann, offered at auction on November 12, 2002 by Kestenbaum & Company, is one of many singular paintings by this unappreciated master of Jewish art. This modest little portrait, only nine inches high by six and three quarter inches wide, has a disproportionate power and can be seen as an example of how art can challenge prejudice and criticism leveled against Orthodoxy both in the beginning of the twentieth century and now.

 Portrait of a Young Boy, oil on panel (9" X 6 ¾") Isidor Kaufmann Courtesy of Kestenbaum and Co.
Portrait of a Young Boy, oil on panel, 9″ x 6 ¾”, by Isidor Kaufmann, courtesy of Kestenbaum and Co.

Kaufmann (1853-1921) was born in Arad, Hungary, studied art first in Budapest and then in Vienna where he eventually settled. He made paintings in the style of bourgeois realism, specializing in sentimental Viennese street scenes. This kind of genre painting, anecdotal and superficial, was exactly what the European avant-garde, including the post-Impressionists, the German Expressionists and the Fauves, were rejecting in their ground breaking modern art at the dawn of the new century. Twentieth century modernism was born out of the disgust artists and writers felt toward the kind of superficial and commercial artwork that was Kaufmann’s specialty in the 1880s and early 1890s. According to most modernists, the academic realism he practiced, loving attention to details of costume, moody lighting and heart-warming subject matter, was simply irrelevant for the dynamic society that was being born throughout Europe at the turn of the century. The rush of industrialization in Europe had brought enormous changes characterized by the rise of socialist parties, the Zionist movement, increasing demands for democratization and women’s rights. The world was hurtling into the modern age and Kaufmann’s art seemed to be blithely ignoring it.

Although Kaufmann was from an assimilated background and had little or no Jewish education, after 1895 he began exploring rural Hungarian Jewish communities to paint Talmudic scholars and Jewish places of worship. We don’t know why he made the change in subject matter. This shift into Jewish genre paintings found a niche market among the rich assimilated Jews of Vienna and led to considerable success that was crowned when Emperor Franz Josef bought The Rabbi’s Visit and presented it to the Vienna Museum of Fine Art. Kaufmann continued to study the shtetl and shtiblach of Eastern Europe for inspiration, costumes, models and interior views producing more and more refined paintings of traditional Jewish life. Kaufmann’s work, now almost exclusively Jewish, could still be shamelessly sentimental about what was ultimately an adopted subject matter.

Kaufmann was an outsider, or at best, a concerned tourist in the traditional Jewish world he found in Eastern Europe. He writes in 1917 “Since it was my conviction that the strength of every artist is rooted in his own people—I became a painter of Judaism. I have always pursued the vision of glorifying and exalting Judaism. I strove to reveal its beauty and its nobility and tried to make the traditions and institutions that speak of such great religious devotion and reverence accessible for Gentiles as well” (Kestenbaum November 2002 catalogue). Interestingly enough, it may have been precisely that distance Kaufmann felt as he encountered religious Jewish life that allowed him to be such a sensitive observer of that world.

When Kaufmann moved beyond paintings of popular scenes of Jews praying in synagogue something unusual happened. His images of single individuals, posed in front of a Torah curtain or even more starkly against a plain background, convey a depth of insight and feeling unmatched in early twentieth century painting. He gave a deeply human face to a kind of Judaism that was increasingly accused of being irrelevant and old-fashioned in the modern world. In short, he gave the Orthodoxy of Eastern Europe a complex psychological inner life that anyone with a modern sensibility could see and appreciate. These depictions made it difficult to dismiss Orthodox Jews as reactionary survivors from the past mechanically following tradition.

Combining the artistic heritage of Rembrandt with twentieth century insights of Freud, Kaufmann subtly conveys his message. The very humanity of these people, revealed in their vibrant interior life, forces his audience, religious and secular alike, to reconsider the nature of Orthodoxy in the modern world.

The power of this diminutive painting, Portrait of a Young Boy, rests in an exquisite tension between the formal elements of the artwork and the psychological heart of the portrait. The youth’s head appears isolated in a sea of neutral grays to draw our undivided attention to the face. The large velvet yarmulke creates a sharp edge near the top of the painting, establishing a pictorial authority by virtue of its high contrast and crown-like shape. The only other element that is as well defined is his tallis katan, especially articulated along the shoulder closest to us. These details, emphasized by the specifics of black above and white below, create a top/bottom dialogue of clarity that frames the much more subtle face in the middle.

Patterns of light and dark are the tools Kaufmann uses to weave his magic. Light is coming from the upper left and illuminates the youth’s right temple, curiously flattening his reddish brown hair and catching the upper and lower lid of his right eye and the full side of his nose. Peyos softy frame his face further focusing our vision on his features. What we find there is soft and sensitive, articulated in very close tonal values that, with the exception of the eye and the nose, allow the details to blur. There is practically no distinction between his nose and his cheek and eye in shadow. It is exactly this inarticulation of facial features that draws us into the painting, forcing us to explore the psychological clues found in the expression of his mouth, the sharp turn of his head and the specific glance of his eyes.

Kaufmann, avoiding simplistic realistic description, here only suggests the complexity of his subject and thereby forces the viewer to search out and interact with the painting. He sets up a psychological tension framed by the symbols of religious observance, the yarmulke and the tallis, thereby creating a sensitive portrait of an observant Jew in the modern world.

According to modernist dogma of the early twentieth century, realism was dead. Traditional religion, especially Orthodoxy, had no place in the modern rational world dominated by free individuals. Orthodoxy, according to this view, had only oppressed the individual and left no room for an active inner life. Kaufmann’s paintings challenged this view using a realistic style skillfully conscious of modern pictorial composition. The orthodoxy of modernism was shown in this case to be wrong since realism still could be used to depict a very modern condition, the validity of an individual’s inner life. Isidor Kaufmann created in his paintings a living reality of the inner life of religious Jews that reverberates with us to this very day.

Kestenbaum & Company; (212 366 1197)
Viewings at The Doral Park Avenue Hotel 70 Park Avenue, New York, NY

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