Ephraim Moses Lilien (The Reform Advocate)

Written exclusively for The Reform Advocate by Oscar Leonard.

News has reached the Jewish Press Club of New York that Ephraim Moses Lilien, the consumate artist who understands the Jewish soul and knows how to portray it for others, is coming to us. He is coming to America to show originals of his works, many
of which we know from reproductions. Lilien is a man who struck out for himself. He was not content to draw, like others did before him. He wanted a new method whereby to tell his message. It is the method as well as the message that has gained name
and fame for him. In Europe he is widely known. In America he is not unknown. After he comes here he will go back to Europe with an American reputa-tion. We know his work and we may therefore assert that his will not be a reputation consisting in a
bushel of clippings. It will be a reputation well earned. It will have something behind it.

In Europe a great deal has been written about Lilien. In America one book about him and his work has been published. It is written by M. S. Levussove, of the art department of the New York City college and published by B. W. Huebsch. Among the many
important works that attracted a good deal of attention is the volume illustrating the German translations of Morris Rosenfeld’ s “Lieder des Ghetto.” The book is still widely circulated although Lilien has been so busy at work on something bigger that he has forgotten all about that early work. He is now at work illustrating a ten volume edition of the Bible. The edition is to include the Old and New Testaments. He is drawing not only the illustrations but also the initials and the borders and page decorations. A great deal of work this. A life work almost.

Judging from the first two volumes already issued the undertaking is a tremendous one. George Westermann of Braunschweig has undertaken the publication of this monumental work , which is likel y to prove Lilien’s most important effort. In the first volume Lilien illustrates the five books of Moses and the book of Joshua. His method prevails all through. There is simplicity, delicacy, deep meaning, allegory, symbolism — in a word phases of art that appeal to the heart and to intellect. He has a way of transfiguring his men and women. His pictures speak. One can look at them again and again, finding something new each time.

And who is this wizzard who gives us these pictures in which we can read the story of a people, become acquainted with their despair and with their hope, with their sorrows and their joys, their sufferings and their aspirations? He was born in 1874 in
Galicia , that land where the Jews are said to be poorer than in any other land, where the darkest misery holds the Ghetto in its grip. He is the son of one of the poorest of poor Jews. His father who was an artisan was too poor to send his son to school. Lilien had to go through the experiences of others of his class. He had to learn all alone, dig for himself into the
mine of knowledge, finding a gem here and a precious stone there, finding not very much but still enough to encourage further efforts. As a child he gave much of his time to drawing pictures. He did not receive any encouragement from his elders. His
“rebbe” of course objected to it. To him like to others of his class drawing pictures meant idolatry for all pictures are idols to the fanatic medieval Jew. Still the boy drew. When he was old enough to be apprenticed he was sent to a sign painter to learn the trade. That was considered the best trade for the boy who had a passion for drawing pictures.

He learned to paint signs and to paint them well. He was sought after and well paid. But even as he worked he dreamed. Sign painting could not satisfy his artistic soul. He wanted to go to a school where he would acquire the knowledge of the principles of art. When he had enough money on hand to venture out he went to Cracow and enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts. Before long he attracted some attention. His work pleased the teachers and they advised him to go to Munich — the art center of the world. He had heard of the place and longed for it. As soon as he could do so he went. There amidst beauty and art his artistic soul lived and developed. His work began to attract attention in some of the publications where it appeared. With slow but certain steps he was coming into his own.

A simple story this — simple to us who know that all our great men have gone through this same struggle. Yet the story is inspiring in its simplicity, in its very plainness. It is bound to inspire other young men who are struggling and dreaming just as did Lilien. His success is bound to make them more hopeful and give them courage. Of course writing about his success for American readers it would be customery to tell how much money his work has brought him, how much it is bringing now. For, we
in this country measure success in terms of cash. I am certain some cash, perhaps a good deal of it, goes with his artistic success, but it is not that phase of his success which interests us at the present moment. We are talking of Lilien the artist, of what his pencil can do when guided by his mind. It may be that his signature to a check means something to day. But why talk of it since that part of the man can not live long? His name on a picture will live long and become more valuable as time continues its flight. And it is of living things we like to speak.

That Lilien will live in his art no one who has seen his work can doubt. The life he puts into it reverts to him, giving his brain more vigor and his hand more surety of touch. This can easily be seen from his work in “Die Buecher der Bibel.” The first volume show it. So does the volume in which the poetic parts of the Bible are illustrated. It is hard to point out any particular picture in the volume. They are all good. In fact the entire volume must be seen to be appreciated for the pictures are placed in artistic surroundings as it were. Which shows that Herr Westerman who publishes the monumental work is also something of an artist. If Lilien had produced nothing before he undertook to illustrate his edition of the Scriptures, this work alone ought to impel us to give him a heart y welcome when he comes to our shore.

The Reform Advocate (Chicago), 19. Jahrg., 19. Februar 1916, Nr. 26, S. 15. Online