Ephraim Moses Lilien: Hebraic Artist

Ephraim Moses Lilien: Hebraic Artist

By Israel Zangwill
(Special to “The Australian Jewish Herald[“] from Jewish Correspondence Bureau, 1921.)

Ephraim Moses Lilien is one of those masters who by contributing not to galleries, but to books, magazines and bookplates, has brought art nearer to everyday life. Restricting himself to black-and-white, he has minimised the difference between his original touch and its mechanical reproduction, so that a Lilien post-card has more value than many a pretentious oil-painting. Indeed, it was through a postcard that I first became acquainted with this genius. It was the design dedicated to the Fifth Zionist Congress at Basle.

At the first glimpse it was impossible not to think of Aubrey Beardsley. The same black-and-white effects as in the English artist, the same instinct for the decorative, the same singing lines, the same contrast of masses, the same poetry of space. The same, but how differently applied. For, what in Beardsley was frequently used to express decadence, here served to promote renaissance. I felt as when I hear the epigrammatic turns of Oscar Wilde in the mouth of Chesterton, that militant Christian, who, with no less wit than the notorious immoralist, has harnessed paradox and fantasy to the chariot of orthodoxy.

And when I came to know Lilien in the flesh, as I had known poor Beardsley, I was struck by the same contrast between the healthy, sturdy product of the Galician Ghetto, and the consumptive-looking Brightonian, doomed to die at Mentone at the age of twenty-six. It throws a curious light upon the ingenious hypotheses that seek to explain artists by their mileu [sic], that of the two young men driven by their genius to express themselves with artificial elegance, the one was born in a great ugly British seaside resort, and the other in an atmosphere of salt and petroleum in the dismal industrial townlet of Drohobyczr amid the monotonous steppes to which the gaunt Carpathians slope.

Whether Beardsley had any influence upon the efflorescence of Lilien I do not know. The English designer was born in 1872 — only two years before Lilien — and marvellously precocious though he was, his work could scarcely, have had time to penetrate to Cracow, in whose art academy Lilien made his first studies, though possibly, if only through imitators, it may have reached Munich or Berlin, to which the Galician youth subsequently migrated. Or perhaps both artists learnt from the Japanese. In any case, the self-inspiration of Lilien is the dominant fact of his development. A lad, despite obscurity, poverty, and even hunger, forces his way up from sign-painting to world-fame, is explicable only by himself. The factors of genius have never yet been fixed by any eugenic formula, though it may perhaps account a little for Lilien that his father was a turner, accustomed in his humbler function to shape and plane reality. Craftsmanship may sire Art, as talent — especially in music — frequently sires genius. But why not invariably? There were other turners even in the Ghetto. Why only one Lilien?

And why even one Lilien? Captain Peter Wright, a British Commissioner to Poland, could see in its Jewry only an uncouth and exotic survival, an ignorant and inartistic mass against which pogroms and boycotts were not unintelligible. Yet, it is from villages unknown to Western Europe even by name that emerge the Rubensteins and the Liliens.

I have characterised the note of Lilien as “artificial elegance,” but it is in no depreciatory sense. As Goethe said, “we call Art Art because it is not Nature.” It is the business of the artist to express a personal vision of the universe, and in the interests of this vision — which, if it be not stimulating, is not Art — to alter, add, or eliminate with the free creativeness of Nature herself. Nobody expects music to reduplicate the sounds of Nature — and Walter Pater said that all the arts should tend to music. I have already spoken of Lilien’s “singing lines,” and there is hardly one of his designs but gives the exhilaration of music. I have before me a volume of reproductions from many artists, but though it contains the work of more famous Masters, none of their pictures, as therein reproduced, gives as great an uplift as the least of Lilien’s bookplates. It is because Lilien is a master of what Berenson called “space-composition” so that each line is lyrical, and each design symphonic.

But if, like music, he departs from Nature, he never leaves her utterly behind. Visual art cannot be as independent of the representative element as auditory. Its essential existence is in space, not in time, and it cannot escape its category. By the Futurists — who are perhaps already passes — we are confronted with an art which seems almost like a return to the Second Commandment, with its prohibition against making a likeness to anything that is on the earth below or the heavens above, or the waters under the earth. The argument put forward by these eccentrics is that their art is not representative, but dynamic — that it paints not the external world, but the inner world, of their emotions. These artists can hardly ever paint, but they can never reason. They forget that the right artistic medium for the expression of emotion is the art-form free from objective representation — to wit, music — and that if they are unable to express themselves in it, they must remain as dumb as Nature has made them. Painting is the idiom of the eye. The reason why human faces cannot be represented by cubes or other monstrous adumbrations of reality is that the faintest effort towards a face — even a baby’s attempt at a circle with dots — recalls a real face, and the discordance between a real face and a face made out of cubes produces a horiible jar. It is only when the visual design is limited to imaginary conformations that the jarring reality is not recalled, and in such designs we merely get back to the arabesques by which Islam evaded the Second Commandment. But arabesques, too, cannot escape the obligation to be beautiful, whereas the bulk of the Futurists, even when they refrain from reminding us of reality, create, whether by wilfulness or importance, designs which depress and confound, instead of stimulating. They tell us that we must apply ourselves to learn the language in which they express themselves. It is a forbidding task when one is not sure that what they have to say in their argot is worth deciphering; and when the classical languages of art already contain so much to engross our attention. Of many modern works it may be said, in short, that if they recall Nature they shock us by their unlikeness to her; and if they do not recall her, they repel us by their ugliness.

In the work of Lilien, on the other hand, we have the arabesque in all its flowing beauty, combined with the representative element in all the beauty of efficient reproduction. As when Pachman strikes a black or white key, the piano sings, so does the paper sing when the pencil of Lilien passes over it. Being able to draw, he is not driven to new art-theories to cover over incompetence. He has not to babble a’nd scribble—to draw suffices. “If art could .be talked,” says a character in my art-novel, “The Master,” “it would not need to be painted.” Conversely, if art is painted, it does not need to be talked. It is not that Lilien has less imagination than these loquacious freelances of the brush. In the realm of the fantastic and the grotesque he moves as assuredly as in the simply poetic. But he can be grotesque without being absurd, and fantastic without being ridiculous. And even when he has something profound to say, he can be as decorative as these modernists at their shallowest and most immoral. You may ransack the world’s a’rt in vain to find a lovelier design than his “Isaiah” on the Zionist postcard which introduced me to him. Perhaps in his illustrations to the Bible this glamoro’us or fairy-tale quality is a little out of place. Yet here, too, there is strength amid the beauty, a’s in his figures of Moses, or of Jacob struggling with the angel. Thus, whether we ask for image or emotion, for strength or delicacy, for -thought or beauty, for grotesquerie or grace, Lilien has the wherewithal to satisfy us. Like most Jewish artists, he began by Hellenic assimilation, yet his characteristic grace, his clear-cut melody of line, scarcely exists in his early drawings in “Jugend,” with their somewhat spotty technique, any more than in his illustrations to Von Wildenradt’s novel, “The Revenue Officer of Klausen,” in which he aped the old German woodcut. It was only when his a’rt became saturated with Hebraism that it became creatively Hellenic. Fortunately, the .bulk of his output responds to his inmost essence. It was in his illustrations to “Jude” and to Morris Rosenfeld’s “Song of the Ghetto” that Lilien found himself. And of the influence of Zionism upon his development, his picture of “The Creation of the Poet” bears eloquent witness. For the harp-bearing angel in attendance is no other than Dr. Herzl, the Assyrian-bearded founder o*f the movement! In Lilien, in fine, the Hebrew’s quest for spirituality is fused with the Greek quest of beauty. It is a reconciliation which is the world’s main need. That is why Lilien’s place in contemporary art is a’s important as it is unique.

The Australian Jewish Herald⁩, Dezember 1921. Online