Published: March 26, 2002
Ruth Light Braun:
NEW YORK CITY – Continuing a 59-year tradition of presenting the work of artists whose contributions to the history of the visual arts in America has been largely overlooked by recent generations, Hirschl & Adler Galleries is presenting “Ruth Light Braun: , 1926-1933,” which will run through April 27.
Although the 60 pictures by Brooklyn-born artist Ruth Light Braun (born 1906) in this exhibition span only a few years, they are remarkable for their documentation of contemporary Jewish life, both in the United States and Palestine. Braun, now 95 years old, consciously followed a program to record for posterity the styles and customs of Jews in both the United States and the Holy Land. Since Braun’s period of activity was concurrent with a rise in cultural awareness among Jews around the world, her work provides a fascinating and nearly unique record of the appearances and aspirations of Jews in America and Palestine.
As a young woman, Braun, then Ruth Light, followed her studies at the Cooper Union Art College for Women, New York, with work as a freelance illustrator, producing illustrations for The New Yorker and numerous books. She soon sought additional studies with Winold Reiss (1886-1953), a German-born artist who had founded an art school in New York in 1916. By the time Light entered his school, Reiss was already famous for his Art Deco-inspired portrait studies of American ethnic “types,” especially of the Blackfoot Indians of Montana and the Negro community in Harlem. Reiss was among the first to represent America’s ethnic populations realistically, in a straightforward and dignified manner, without resorting to stereotypes.
Under Reiss’s tutelage, Light was particularly inspired to record her own ethnic “type,” and her portrait style flourished. Having maintained since childhood a strong interest in, and identification with, Jewish culture and her own Jewish heritage, Light endeavored to make a record of the varied character of contemporary Jewish life in much the same way as had Reiss. Light made numerous portraits of Jews in New York, as well as many genre sketches of Manhattan, particularly its Lower East Side, the neighborhood of New York that at that time had the largest concentration of recently arrived Jewish immigrants.
Many of Light’s portraits of New York Jews contain themes that reveal a yearning for upward mobility and a participation in the American dream, often presented in vignetted images in the backgrounds behind the sitters. Other works juxtapose elderly Jews, symbols of the Jewish culture of the past, with imagery of the modern industrialized world. Still others are portraits of famous Jews of the stage, including Molly Picon and Maurice Schwartz. Light’s urban sketches capture another aspect of the Jewish experience in New York. These anecdotal genre scenes, which depict street vendors, ladies’ department stores, subway stations and tea rooms, capture the atmosphere of the working-class character of the streets in New York’s Jewish neighborhoods.
Around this time, Light and several of her friends joined Hadassah, the National Women’s Zionist Organization of America, a group that supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In a time of rising Jewish awareness, it was not surprising that Light, a young enthusiastic artist whose sole interest up to that point had revolved around documenting Jewish identity in the modern world, and who through her work demonstrated a strong sense of Jewish class consciousness, became interested in the cause of Jewish nationalism. And when she met a visitor from Palestine who invited her to stay at her home in Jerusalem, the opportunity proved to be too tempting for the ambitious young artist to resist.
Light spent the period from August 1931 to January 1933 in Palestine. She eagerly took advantage of her time there, as she set about recording the contemporary life of Jews in the Holy Land. Staying first in Jerusalem, Light also traveled to Tiberias, which lies in the northeast on the Sea of Galilee, and to Rehovot (also known as Rehoboth), in what is now central Israel.
She was warmly received by many of the Jewish immigrants from Western cultures, including some of the leading figures in the Zionist movement. Light was able to capture the likenesses of several Zionists including Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah and Youth Aliyah, and Joseph Baratz, founder of the Degania Aleph kibbutz, one of the earliest and most influential communes in Palestine.
Beyond her ambition to record the major contributors toward a Jewish state in Palestine, Light also hoped to make a lasting visual record of the Palestinian immigrant culture. Light’s heroic portraits of Palestinian Jews followed essentially the same formula she established for her New York portraits, in that they often contain stylized landscapes and anecdotal genre details in the background. But in these works the theme of “aspiration” displayed in her New York works through the juxtaposition of “old world” and “new world” scenes, is mostly absent – these people’s aspirations, to form a Jewish state in Palestine, were being lived out every day.
Like her New York sketches, Light’s genre scenes of Palestine record glimpses of working-class life. Scenes of marketplaces, laundry rooms, city streets and rooftops give an on-the-spot impression of daily life in Palestine.
“Ruth Light Braun: , 1926-1933” is accompanied by a catalog available for purchase in the gallery. Hirschl & Adler Galleries is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 am to 4:45 pm and Saturdays, from 9:30 am to 4:45 pm, or by appointment. For information, 212-535-8810.
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