Updated: Jan 6
Shanah Tovah Los Angeles. Once again it is Astor, the most loquacious of the Minyan
that is Speakeasy tattoo. So for all those not in the know this week was Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, so I have been very busy with that and not having much time to work on basically anything else so this week’s historical blogging is going to be mercifully brief. Happy year 5782 to me.
So in thinking what to write about this week I figured it would be a good time to just highlight an artist that has influenced me and who is not super well known and like many a Mel Brooks before me I am going to be mining my Judaism for content. Today we are going to look at the work of Ephraim Moshe Lilien.
Ephraim Moshe Lilien is often times referred to as the ‘first Zionist Artist’. Now before we go any further let me say a few things. First, I am not going to be condemning nor glorifying zionism as a political project here, I simply don’t have the time or the energy to get into all of that, and second zionism had a different context and mouthfeel when Lilien was alive and working during the late 1800’s than it does today. Historically, this was a particularly turbulent time to be a Jew in Eastern Europe, where ghettoization was standard, labor exploitation was common, and the deadly anti-Jewish riots known as pogroms were becoming more and more commonplace. E.M. Lilien was born in present day Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1874. This means that he was around and making art during rising tide of violent antisemitism, which in turn influenced his illustrations.
As a nouveau artist he is noteworthy because his subject matters are exclusively Jewish, with many of his works depicting scenes straight out of Jewish tradition and folklore. The illustration below is of the dybbuk— a harmful spirit of Jewish origin— and an all around dope piece.
However, he wasn’t solely concerned with illustrating Jewish mytho-history. Being a politically active man, Lilien actively tackled issues facing contemporary Jews of his day in his illustrations. He made works depicting the economic and social ills of his community, including the forced diaspora through relocation, and the exploitation at the hands of gentile factory managers, as well as the breaking up of established communities across Europe as a consequence of the escalating violence.
Art nouveau is experiencing something of a cultural renaissance right now. In fact, one of my closest friends had an art nouveau half-sleeve done just last week. But, while I like Aubrey Beardsley as much as the next guy (no seriously, I do), I also think that E.M. Lilien deserves a closer examination. The intensity of his work is unusual for the genre, marrying beauty with pain, allegory with commentary.