Discoveries in the visual arts held the spotlight during the past several months, much of it focused on news about Jewish painters whose works are being reevaluated by prominent individuals in the art world.
An artwork from past centuries may sometimes be erroneously attributed as the work of a one painter and then, for various reasons, is later reassigned to the hand of another, either lowering or elevating the picture’s status or reputation. It’s an unprecedented and somewhat shocking occurrence, however, that a group of anonymous early Baroque Italian canvases would be studied and identified as being executed by a Jew, who would have been prohibited from pursuing a livelihood in the field during this era.
The news was announced at a late November press conference held at Italy’s famed Uffizi Gallery in anticipation of an exhibit on the Florentine ghetto planned for 2023. The story of Jona Ostiglio (his last name, that of a town in Italy’s north-central Lombardy region, offers a clue to his origins) is one that will impact and challenge assumptions about Jews in the 17th century. Through the discovery, the discoverer has also become a star: academic Piergabriele Mancuso, director of Jewish Studies at the Medici Archives, who joined forces with curator Maria Sframeli to identify eight Ostiglio paintings housed in various locations throughout the country.
Here is what Mancuso’s research has revealed, so far: Ostiglio, who lived from about 1620 until about 1695, was self-taught, as Jews were not permitted to join guilds or study with an artist who was a guild member. Violating the law, at least for a time, by residing outside of Florence’s tiny ghetto, he enjoyed the patronage of at least one member of the ruling Medici family, known to be tolerant of Jews. Ostiglio’s name is among the select painters and sculptors who were members of the prestigious Medici-funded Academy of Fine Arts, founded by architect and draughtman Giorgio Vasari, the first biographer of Michelangelo, Raphael and other Italian masters.
Mancuso’s detective work, which uncovered evidence of a scandalous love affair between the artist and an affluent widow, itself paints a picture of a rebel, perhaps an apostate, whose motivations and ambition seem to reflect a modern sensibility. Without constriction, Ostiglio seems to have answered only to his conscience, even though it meant that he would encounter the wrath of the Church and, perhaps, his own people. Mancuso noted: “The idea that we have is of a Jew that is unique. He was quite familiar with the Christian environment and unafraid to distance himself from rabbinical laws…” How many others were like him?
Although photos of Ostiglio’s figurative pictures have not yet been published on the internet, his beautiful landscapes, with their dramatic depictions of meteorological conditions and contrasts of light and darkness, conform to the conventions of his time.
Another Jewish maverick, Hedda Sterne (1910-2011) is probably best-known not for her art, but from a photograph. Towering above her colleagues, a handsome silhouette in a smart black coat, she’s the star of the famed Life Magazine portrait of New York artists and critics called the “Irascibles” published in 1951. Active as a professional artist in Europe and America for nearly 75 years, Sterne was associated during her lifetime with both Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, but her work cannot quite fit neatly into these pigeon-holes. Sterne was allied with, but did not ally herself, with a group or movement; finding a source of inspiration from processes, subject or lack of subject matter, she went her own way, and achieved success. She wrote: “I see myself as a…perceiver of something that exists independently of me….don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found.”
Inviting multiple reconsiderations of the mark she made on feminist art history and to the art she produced, a solo show at Venice’s Victoria Miro Gallery in November and December is devoted to works in various media produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Large and luminous, the rectangular and spherical pictures from her “Lettuce” series dominate the physical space, while her so-called ink Baldanders (a German contraction of “soon” and “change”) capture the viewer’s attention through both their stark, densely black, presentation of leaf and vine forms on gleaming white paper. All signal the influence of Eastern religious philosophy pervasive during this era.
Born Hedwig Lindenberg in Rumania, Sterne became involved with the Bucharest group of Surrealist painters, sculptors and photographers as a teenager and went on to receive her formal training in both fine and decorative arts in Paris. Fleeing the Nazis, she immigrated in 1941 to America, where her work was often included in group shows devoted to Surrealism and to art by women. Like her husband, Saul Steinberg, Sterne references Surrealism as lens with which the world is perceived. She said that her opulent life in New York often seemed surreal to her after her austere years she spent in Europe. It was in the mid-1940s that she became associated with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and the other movers and shakers of Abstract Expressionism.
The works now on view in Venice were created at a time that Sterne had stepped away from the Manhattan art scene, when she pursued a relatively solitary life in then-rural East Hampton, New York. The paintings and drawings she created there reflect both her innovative experimentation with various media, as well as a more contemplative approach to art making.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B’nai B’rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.