August 19, 2019

The Other Oppenheim

Neo-Classicism or Romanticism? Although two movements whose conditions have been the subjects of rhetoric over the fact that they share many principles, and yet are so different, perhaps do not matter as much when one considers that aesthetics, which is the one thing which represents truth in artistry, is exceptionally difficult to categorize.

With no real intent to offend those who believe in the notion of ideas over beauty when it comes to art, it is those such as Oppenheim who push us towards the latter and former in an appropriate synthesis, yet with a particularity for aesthetics, that produce the best forms of artistry. 

It isn’t simply Oppenheim’s familiarity with the grandeur of the human form, condition, and subjectivity, it is rather his apt and ingenious way in which he molded ideas, and aesthetics to produce not only representations of Jewish culture in the 19th century, but perhaps more interestingly representations of both Jewish and non-Jewish culture of that period. What do I mean?

In essence, he took German and Jewish cultural signifiers and played them in a conglomerate of semantics, to produce mixtures of the “perfect” Jewish-German familial unit. Oppenheim took elements such as the emancipated, and modernized Jew reading the Talmud in front of a bookshelf of Rabbinic teachings. The reason he did this, perhaps not so surprisingly was to appeal not only to Jews but also the German populace who at the time reveled in Romanticized settings and darkened colours. Yet, there is more to it than that.

Oppenheim wanted to produce an “image” for the German public where Jews were shown to be closer to Western ideals, elements, and aesthetics than they originally believed, in an attempt to downplay the anti-semitism that he had experienced his whole life.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Oppenheim remained within the Jewish faith, as he did not choose to convert to Christianity in order to gain more popularity. Some have referred to him as the first true modern Jewish artist, as a result of his choice of cultural self-preservation.

Yet, that is not to say that he did not move away from his traditional Orthodox upbringing in the heart of Hannau, Germany. His parents, like many Jews in that era, wanted their son to either go into business or become a Rabbi. However they were lenient enough to let Moritz follow his heart and take up art lessons in his youth, which eventually took him to the Munich Academy of Arts at the frail age of 17.

At a young age, through his art, Oppenheim became enthralled in the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement which celebrated the study of Jewish history, culture, and literature as a whole, which interestingly laid the foundations of the modern discipline of Judaic Studies. It was also one of the things which perpetuated his stance on Judaism, and made him deny conversion for opportunity.

Throughout his long life, of 82 years, he had worked prolifically not only to sustain himself but also his art. The gratest product of his labours is without a doubt the famous “The Return of the Jewish Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation” which has it’s subject a modern Jewish family rejoicing the return of one of its sons from the Napoleonic war.

“The Return..” is more than an adequate example of the synthesis of Western and Jewish elements to create a sense of positive assimilation, but also the intertwining of two cultures to create a distinct and unique one. Yet Oppenheim was only depicting truths, not fabricated representations. A great deal of many Jews fought in German armies, and many other European ones. Thus to see a Jewish man in an uniform surrounded by his brothers and sisters, and by his mother’s joy was/is no oddity. However this work has a lot more to say not only about Oppenheim’s ideals, but also the lives of Jews in 19th century Germany.

The truth is that Oppenheim’s time was no longer that of Gluckel of Hameln when Jews were fully isolated from the majority of the German population. Jews were, in a sense, hopping on the bandwagon of nation building. People and artists such as Oppenheim were no longer referring to themselves as only Jews, they were proud German Jews.

When one looks at “The Return…” it is obvious that the furniture is European, the decor Romantic, and the people have Jewish elements surrounding them yet they are wearing Western clothes. In other words, a synthesis espoused in beautiful colours and shades.

Mind you, a synthesis which has always been a constant and prevalent aspect of Jewish culture for thousands of years, signifying both a wealth of diversity, as well as uniqueness.