Exhibition'You didn’t have to be religious to appreciate Van Gogh'

How Vincent van Gogh helped Jews break into the world of art — and vice versa

High-tech ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ exhibitions are touring the globe 120 years after a Jewish art collector helped launch the Dutch painter to stardom

Reporter at The Times of Israel

From 'Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience' in Lower Manhattan, New York City, June 2021 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
From 'Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience' in Lower Manhattan, New York City, June 2021 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

NEW YORK —  In the culminating gallery of “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” the painter’s masterpieces come to life through swirling animations projected everywhere. Even the lounge chairs are covered in “Sunflowers” and other recognizably van Gogh touches.

The process of commercializing van Gogh started 120 years ago, when German-Jewish art collector Paul Cassirer staged the first showing of the Dutch painter’s works in Berlin. After that exhibition, van Gogh’s legacy — and modern art, in general — became intertwined with the trajectory of European Jews, according to historian Charles Dellheim.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Dellheim spoke about the “risk-taking” qualities of Cassirer and other Jews who helped van Gogh achieve posthumous fame. More than a century later, van Gogh paintings that were once owned by Jews still make headlines in connection to having been looted 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 Art World Modern,” was published on September 21.

Before the popularization of artists such as Cezanne, Monet, and Picasso, “art” was about elevating religion. The Jews pushing “modern” art were inserting themselves into a new field and peddling what some called irreligious or “degenerate” art.

Among the modernist painters adored by Jewish collectors, van Gogh figured prominently. Within two decades of the artist’s death, a good deal of his paintings and drawings had been purchased by Jewish collectors, said Dellheim, a longtime professor at Boston University.

From ‘Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience’ in Lower Manhattan, New York City, June 2021 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“With the post-Impressionists like Van Gogh, Jews [were] beginning to make themselves felt as historians, critics, dealers, connoisseurs, and painters, too,” wrote Dellheim.

Born into a minister’s family in 1853, van Gogh tried his hand at several professions before finding his calling. Van Gogh sometimes sketched or painted Jewish sites — and people — he came across in The Hague and Amsterdam. In the closing montage of “The Immersive Experience,” however, the artist’s love for the countryside is what shines brightest.

The dark, sinewy trees of “Starry Night” sway in the wind, while farmers and their plows float across wheat fields. From above, the eyes of van Gogh’s self-portraits gaze down on the now-iconic pastoral scenes he painted in France and the Netherlands.

From ‘Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience’ in Lower Manhattan, New York City, June 2021 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Not long 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.

‘Racially-driven theft’

Born into a well-heeled German-Jewish family, Paul Cassirer was “way ahead of the game” when it came to art, said Dellheim.

‘Belonging and Betrayal’ by Charles Dellheim, published 2021

“He was an intellectual and artistic risk-taker willing to take a gamble on new art,” said Dellheim. “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 been imploring Johanna van Gogh — the widow of Vincent’s brother and sponsor, Theo — to permit him 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 of modernist artists.

Critical for Cassirer’s success, said Dellheim, was that he had cultivated “a circle of enlightened, progressive collectors” to whom he could sell van Gogh’s paintings.

While the “Old Master” paintings were “suffused with Christian symbols,” said Dellheim, “you didn’t have to be a religious person to appreciate Van Gogh. You didn’t have to embrace anything to understand Van Gogh.”

In his Berlin exhibitions, Cassirer was known for mixing “Old Masters” such as 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,” said Dellheim.

‘Blok the Jewish bookseller’ by Vincent Van Gogh (public domain)

Following the 1901 exhibition, some German galleries and museums purchased van Gogh works. However, modern art was widely viewed as “French and unpatriotic,” said Dellheim. Jewish art dealers started looking abroad for buyers, including American museums.

Beginning in the 1920s, racial propaganda branded Jews and modern art as “alien elements” to be eliminated. The post-World War I “stab in the back” myth, for example, included the backstory of Jews “poisoning” Germany’s “racial community” with influences such as degenerate art and social movements.

The dramatic heft of Dellheim’s book comes from the sudden downfall of art world Jews who thought they’d “made it” in Europe. After working so hard to “acculturate” into Germany, France, and elsewhere, these families were rapidly despoiled of their artwork and other property. Those who could not flee Europe in time were murdered.

“The Nazis asserted their own cultural claims and economic hunger through the systematic, racially driven theft of Jewish-owned collections,” wrote Dellheim. “Fine art, therefore, became a bloody crossroads where culture and money, aesthetics and avarice, collided with disastrous consequences.”

Painting by Claude Monet (public domain)

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