Wrestling with angels (and demons) at the Getty Museum

Is there something about being Jewish that can bring artists together? It’s a question that arises when considering four of the six painters whose work is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center as part of a new exhibition, “London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj.” The Getty is usually not the city’s go-to place for Jewish art so much as its nearby neighbor, the Skirball Cultural Center, but the Getty, along with London’s Tate Museum, which loaned most of the works to the exhibition, has nevertheless unwittingly created a show that leads us to ask whether being Jewish, even for those who do not seem particularly so, plays a role in their affinities.

The show presents the work of six painters of what has been called the “School of London,” who have, since World War II, according to the catalog by Elena Crippa and Catherine Lampert, “consistently explored the appearance and frailty of the human form.” One gallery is devoted to each artist, and it is easy to see that during a period when art was heading toward territories less figurative, even pop, this group, especially Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, reveled in the intense examination of human geography, from head to toe and all the fleshy regions in between.

Walking through the show, the Jewish connection among Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and R.B. (Ronald Brooks) Kitaj does not jump out at you like a rainbow tallit. Only the work of Kitaj, as presented here, depicts anything recognizably Jewish. Yet, looking into their families, experiences, proclivities and the times they inhabited, a Jewish picture does begin to form. 

“Self-Portrait” (1958) by Frank Auerbach. Photo courtesy of the Daniel Katz Gallery London

The exhibition catalog points out that the six were connected during their lives and careers by “mutual admiration,” but beyond that, two of the four Jewish artists shared an escape from almost certain death at the hand of the Nazis. Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931 and escaped from Nazi Germany to England in 1939 via transportation arranged by writer Iris Origo. His parents later died in a concentration camp. Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud, escaped the Nazis in 1933, moving to Britain with his family.  

Adding to the four’s war connection, Kossoff, born in London in 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrants who ran a bakery, served during World War II in Europe, in the Royal Fusiliers. Kitaj (pronounced kit-EYE) was born in 1932 in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, near Cleveland; was in high school during the war; and by 1950 became a merchant seaman. During his career, he repeatedly painted a character he named Joe Singer, who served as a stand-in for those who survived the Shoah (“Joe S” can be seen near the top of one of his pieces in the show, “Cecil Court, London W.C. 2. (The Refugees, 1983-84).”

“Girl With a Kitten” (1947) by Lucian Freud. Photo courtesy Tate

It’s not easy to imagine this group sitting down to study Torah or Talmud, but as students of the human form, some of their work with the human figure can be viewed through Judaism’s sometimes matter-of-fact, and even graphic, approach to the human body. In the morning prayers, Jews praise God for “fashioning the human body in wisdom,” including “opening, arteries, glands and organs,” some of which appear prominently in Freud’s work.

Going psychologically deeper and darker, the introspective moods represented in Eikhah (Lamentations), chanted on Tisha b’Av with references to sick hearts and the wounded, and prophesies of “delusion and deception,” connect with these artists’ painterly expressions of love, pain and loss, and dark mood.

Their ease at going against the crowd is also something they share. Before the early 20th century, Jewish artists had to be rebels to paint the human form, because the Torah describes painting and sculpture of the human form as idolatry. The Russian painter Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), after drawing his town’s rabbi, was severely beaten for doing so by the rabbi’s son. It’s interesting to note that although these four painters in the Getty show were long removed from that prohibition, they continued to rebel by painting people and places during a post-war period when many artists’ eyes were drawn to geometric forms, shapes and color. 

With the story of Jacob’s dream of wrestling with an angel as a cultural touchstone, Jews have tried to come to grips with expressing their humanity, and these four fit into that tradition. Auerbach paints himself (“Self-portrait,” 1958) seemingly staring inwardly. Kossoff paints a “Father Resting” who could be either in mourning or in prayer, and Freud shows his mother in a saddened moment.

But it is Kitaj who wrangles the group together, connecting them through a setting taken from the Jewish life cycle. After the death of Elsi Roessler, his first wife, Kitaj, who had returned to the United States from London in 1965, moved to Hollywood and taught at UCLA. When he returned to London in 1972, he increasingly gave expression to his Jewish heritage. In the late 1970s in Los Angeles, he met an American artist, Sandra Fisher, and they were married in 1983 at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, which is Sephardic. (Built in 1701, it is the oldest synagogue in Great Britain.) 

In “The Wedding, 1989-93,” we see Kitaj — who studied the works of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, as well as Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka (in 2008, posthumous shows of Kitaj’s Jewish art and writing were mounted at UCLA’s Archive of Jewish Culture and at the Skirball Cultural Center) — wearing a tallit and kippah standing under a huppah with Fisher, his bride. According to a description by Kitaj, Lucian Freud is standing on the left, Auerbach in the middle, Kossoff is shown poking his head in from the right and, for those who have ever wondered what David Hockney, Kitaj’s friend and best man, looks like in a kippah, here he is, wearing a nice blue-and-white one.

Unfortunately, the union represented on canvas as a kind of colorful kinetic simcha was not to last, as Fisher died in 1994, followed by Kitaj in 2007 in Los Angeles, and Freud in 2011. Caught in the frame of the picture, however, the figures and friends, and the expression of humanity they created, remain together.

“London Calling: Bacon, Freud, Kossoff, Andrews, Auerbach, and Kitaj” continues at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, through Nov. 13

‘Summer Sneaks’ calendar



“The Art of Forgiveness” is a heartfelt presentation of stories, plays and poems about what it means to forgive. Performance by the Jewish Women’s Theatre; presented by Beit T’Shuvah’s Creative Arts Department. 7 p.m. $15; $20 at the door. Beit T’Shuvah, 8847 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 204-5200, ext. 263. SUN | JUNE 12


This lively program will showcase what Yiddish culture is all about. While enjoying Yiddish music and comedy, you’ll learn about the rich history of the language. Starring Yiddish translator and stage performer Shane Baker and Yiddish singer, songwriter and actor Amanda Miryem-Khaye Seigel. 2 p.m. Free. Come early; unclaimed reservations will be released 15 minutes before the program. Central Library, Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles. (213) 228-7388. ” target=”_blank”>thewallis.org.



Come enjoy the L.A. Lawyers Philharmonic and Legal Voices perform music by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Ferde Grofe and the Sherman Brothers, the American songwriting duo who wrote more motion-picture musical scores than any other songwriting team in film history. The Shermans wrote the film scores for “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Jungle Book” and “Charlotte’s Web.” Richard Sherman will conduct an arrangement of one of their best-known songs, “It’s a Small World.” 8 p.m. Tickets start at $20. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. TUES | JUNE 21


Acclaimed journalist Walter Shapiro assumed that the outlandish stories about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein were exaggerated, but in recent years, he decided to search for the truth. In “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer,” Shapiro investigates Bernstein’s life — and the possibility that a New York Jew committed fraud against the German government and may have been responsible for a critical shortage of Nazi resources during World War II. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. WED | JUNE 22 


This Tony Award-winning musical depicts the early life and career of the legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. “Beautiful” tells the inspiring true story of King’s rise to stardom. Born Carol Klein in Brooklyn, King worked her way up to becoming one of the most successful solo acts in popular music. However, it wasn’t until her personal life began to fall apart that she found her true voice. 8 p.m. Tickets start at $29. Performances through July 17. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 468-1770. SAT | JUNE 25


The musical “Meshugeneh,” an original production by Avi Gross,  tells the story of Frankie Leftov, a musician in his mid-30s who smokes a lot of weed and has disappointed everyone in his life. But when he is called upon to help prove that his late father’s business partner is guilty of fraud, he uncovers a startling truth that drives him into manhood and “menschhood.” An original production by Avi Gross. 8 p.m. Free. Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 990-2324. THUR | JULY 14


The emotional and powerful music of this time-honored story comes to the Hollywood Bowl. Taking us back to 1950s New York on the Upper West Side, “West Side Story” reminds us of a time when racial and social tensions were at a high. Los Angeles Master Chorale will perform many of the classic songs: “Maria,” “America,” “Somewhere” and “Tonight.” Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. 8 p.m. Tickets starting at $8. Additional performance on July 19 at 8 p.m. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 Highland Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000. TUES | JULY 19 


Hershey Felder brings to life the story of “America’s Composer,” the great Irving Berlin. From his struggles with anti-Semitism in Czarist Russia to New York’s Lower East Side, Berlin rises to achieve the American Dream. You will hear some of Berlin’s most popular songs, such as “God Bless America,” “Always” and “White Christmas.” Directed by Trevor Hay; featuring lyrics and music by Irving Berlin; book by Hershey Felder. 7:30 p.m. Performances through Aug. 17. $25-$125. The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.  (626) 356-7529. FRI | JULY 22 & SAT | JULY 23


Singer, songwriter, parodist, record producer, satirist, actor, voice actor, music-video director, film producer and author, “Weird Al” does it all! Winner of four Grammy Awards for his hilarious creations, Yankovic will take the stage with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for his “Mandatory World Tour,” skewering popular culture through song parodies and original satire. He also uses his music videos to further satirize popular culture, the original artists and the original music videos themselves. 8 p.m. $14 and up. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. TUE | JULY 26


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SUN | AUG 28


Join the 17th annual Jewish Community Day as the hometown Dodgers take on the Chicago Cubs. There will be kosher food options, and the ticket packages include an exclusive Dodgers’ Jewish Community Day T-shirt! 1:10 p.m. Tickets starts at $34. Dodger Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 224-1507.

‘Freud’s Sister’: Abandoned by her brother to the Nazis, a story of childhood love and betrayal


Dr. Freud at 150

“Why,” Sigmund Freud once asked rhetorically, “did it [psychoanalysis] have to wait for an absolutely irreligious Jew?”

Why indeed?

Freud was born in Freiberg, in the Austrian empire, on May 6, 1856, 150 years ago this weekend. Three years after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. There, the reaction of Freud’s personality to the mix of cultural, political and scientific forces was such that — we may state in hindsight — psychoanalysis could not have been created by anyone else in any other time or place.

Already for 1,000 years, in the Islamic and Christian worlds, medicine had been a Jewish profession par excellence. In late 19th century Vienna, as well, a vastly disproportionate number of doctors were Jews, and they were contributing mightily to the explosive development of modern medical science.

But the Austrian political climate was souring. A few decades of liberalism (in the European sense of individual freedom) were followed by a reactionary wave of Austro-Germanic nationalism and anti-Jewish politicking.

In the new age of medical specializations, the prejudiced academic powers that be were channeling Jewish medical students away from the prestigious mainstream fields, like internal medicine and surgery, into marginalized specialities: dermatology, ophthalmology — and psychiatry.

Yet if some Jewish doctors were being pushed into psychiatry, many others were voluntarily drawn to it. For the Jews of late 19th century Vienna were facing mental pressures different from any in past Jewish history.

For centuries, Diaspora Jewish physicians and philosophers, such as Maimonides, had written on the means of attaining spiritual well-being, often in a sea of hostile humanity. Their compass was the age-old Jewish religious and cultural values.

Now, however, Jews were being set adrift in an era of modernity that they themselves were doing so much to create. Nowhere more so than in Vienna, as the 20th century approached — where Josef Popper-Lynkeus and Ludwig Wittgenstein were developing their radical philosophies of science and technology, and Arnold Schoenberg would soon experiment with daringly atonal music.

Little wonder that the pioneering psychiatrist-anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, author of “Man of Genius,” attributed the apparently high rates of insanity among his fellow Jews to “intellectual overactivity.”

Such was the atmosphere in which Freud found himself. No longer a Jew in the religious sense but of the rationalist tradition of Judaism (“free from many prejudices which restrict others in the use of their intellect,” as he put it), Freud first made important, if unrevolutionary, contributions to our understanding of aphasia (major speech impairment due to physical trauma or stroke).

By the 1890s, however, Freud became intrigued by more cryptic language disturbances as signs of neurotic conflicts caused by hypothesized unconscious forces: slips of the tongue in wakefulness, and the largely imagistic and apparently nonsensical — but in fact symbol-laden — “language” of dreams at night.

Freud famously called dreams “the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious.” And his own dreams and their analysis revealed to him a whirl of conflicts around his Jewish identity.

Thus to cite just one of many examples, Freud dreamt that he sat almost in tears beside a fountain at the Porta Romana in Italy. The children had to be moved to safety, and a boy who was but wasn’t Freud’s son said to him in farewell the nonsensical “auf ungeseres,” instead of the usual “auf wiedersehen.”

Among a labyrinth of free-associations the next morning, Freud recalled his actual viewing of the Porta Romana (the gateway to Rome and, by implication, the Roman Catholic Church) during a recent visit to Siena, where the Jewish director of a mental hospital had been forced to resign. Returning to Vienna, Freud had attended a play on the Jewish question called, “The New Ghetto.”

Freud linked the dream fountain to the refrain, “By the waters of Babylon … yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” The seemingly nonsensical farewell, “auf ungeseres,” derived from the German word for unleavened bread and a Hebrew word for imposed suffering. Clearly, the life as a Jew in fin-de-si?cle Vienna was one of exile, with professional barriers and social burdens imposed on him and his children.

Such encumbrances could be relieved in a day with a splash of baptismal water and assimilation into Austria’s Roman Catholic majority. But Freud would have none of that.

“I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitism. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew,” he defiantly declared. “A Jew ought not to get himself baptized — it is essentially dishonest.”

If Freud’s view of dreams had been limited to analyzing them for various personal and cultural conflicts — some of which are lurking below the level of consciousness — it would have been a significant but unrevolutionary contribution to psychology.

But to repeat Lombroso’s term, the “intellectual overactivity” characteristic of so many modern Jews was part and parcel of Freud’s genius. Thus he went on to develop his psychoanalytic model with its Oedipus and Electra sexual complexes, supposedly laid down in early childhood, and continuing to dominate the unconscious id of the adult mind.

The libido, Freud theorized, ultimately supplies the driving force behind all dreams. A task of civilization was to channel such forces to higher goals. This, too, was part of the millennia of Jewish tradition.

“In his inner being, the Jew, the true Jew, feels only one eternal guide, one lawgiver, one law,” Freud proudly declared. “That is morality.”

Such radical theories faced a long uphill battle against the conservative medical establishment. But, as Freud told his B’nai B’rith lodge brothers, “As a Jew, I was prepared to join the opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.'”

The psychoanalytic theory ultimately did gain much acceptance. It was Freud’s international reputation that allowed him to flee Vienna after the genocidal Nazis took control of Austria in 1938.

When Freud died in London two years later, he was more of an exile than even he would ever have dreamt when first developing his model of the mind. But disciples of his were in the Land of Zion — pursuing a Jewish dream that would become reality.

Dr. Frank Heynick’s most recent book is “Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga” (KTAV, 2002), in which Sigmund Freud plays a prominent role.