How Jews Made the Art World Modern

August 2, 2022 | Jonathan Karp
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After moving to Paris from Germany in the early 20th century, a Jewish businessman named Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler took up art dealing and did much to promote the genre known as cubism. “What would have become of us,” Pablo Picasso would later ask, “if Kahnweiler had not had a business sense?” Jonathan Karp reviews a new book by Charles Dellheim that aims to understand, and put into context, Kahnweiler and other Jewish dealers who had an outsized role in creating the world of art as we know it today:

In Belonging and Betrayal, Dellheim shows that the shift of many Jewish businessmen from trade in cloth, grain, or cattle to works of art was a natural and even logical progression. Although only a relative handful of Jews ever entered the field, art dealing became enough of a Jewish commercial niche to become emblematic of the link between art and commerce. What was different about art was that it not only had high margins; it also counteracted the stereotype of Jews as grasping materialists. If the poet Heinrich Heine famously quipped that a baptismal certificate was his ticket to European civilization, then a certificate of provenance for a work by an old master attested to its owner’s connoisseurship—with the advantage that he could remain a Jew and become a civilized European. No wonder the Nazis sought to separate the Jews from their art as a crucial step in de-emancipating them.

Since the Middle Ages, Jews had been rooted in commercial life and exchange—at all levels, from money lenders and court Jews to peddlers and small artisan shopkeepers. This was not just because Jews had been excluded from other occupations, especially agriculture. Local and royal privileges clearly show that Jews were first invited to settle because they were already by and large a commercial people. Later restrictions only ratified and reified this reality. When Jews were finally granted legal equality in different parts of Europe from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, it was despite, not because of, their mercantile identities. . . . And what could be more enticing to them than a trade in new commodities not yet monopolized by non-Jews?

The conspicuous role played by Jewish mediators in brokering European modernity made them prime targets in the emerging culture war.

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