Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 12, 2007

Camille Pissarro at the Jewish Museum

Filed under: art,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Camille Pissarro

Despite the heavy pall of Zionist propaganda that covers The Jewish Museum in New York, there are occasionally some good exhibits. Yesterday I strolled over to the museum with an old friend from my misspent Trotskyist youth to look at the Camille Pissarro show. Pissarro, a French impressionist, was a Sephardic Jew who was born to a shopkeeper in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in 1830. Although Pissarro was about as observant as me, the museum decided to mount a show because he belonged to the tribe. I was particularly interested in seeing his paintings in light of the NY Times article titled “The Radical Eye of Impressionism’s Patriarch” by Karen Rosenberg:

He is known as the father of Impressionism, yet Camille Pissarro has always been eclipsed by his more charming brood. Last year’s Cézanne and Pissarro exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, was billed as a dialogue in the mold of Matisse-Picasso, but it quickly became a one-sided conversation. Pissarro on his own is not blockbuster material; his paintings have a muddy, homely aspect next to Cézannes or Monets or Renoirs. Yet for Pissarro, an anarchist and a Jew (albeit a secular one) in 19th-century France, Impressionism was about much more than the fleeting effects of light. It was about labor, the elimination of hierarchies and an idealized balance between urban and rural life.

The Jewish Museum’s “Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country” contains few out-and-out masterpieces, but it does give us a rare look at the radical philosophies behind paintings that to a modern eye appear harmlessly bourgeois. (That most of the works in the show come from private collections suggests that anarchy is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.)

Two Young Peasant Women

Pissarro’s anarchism is very much suggestive of Kropotkin. His vision of socialism involved a return to the countryside and collective work on peasant communes. His paintings do not make any kind of obvious political statements, but are content to represent agricultural workers in a positive light. Chapter two of T. J. Clark’s “Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism” is titled “We Field Women” and is devoted to a discussion of Camille Pissarro’s 1891 painting “Two Young Peasant Women” within the context of anarchist movement politics. Clark writes:

One cannot stand in front of Two Young Peasant Women very long without wondering what the protagonists are (really) talking about, and how much more work they are likely to do before turning in. Answering the latter question would be easier if the picture gave a clue – of costume, maybe, or physiognomy – to the two women’s relation to the means of production. Are they day laborers, or servants living in a household, or members of the family? How hard is the work they are taking a break from? Who is the cider and cheap wine for? Is it for sale or use? How strong are the women? How healthy? Are they married or single? “The body’s worth more than the dowry,” as the saying had it. “Fille jolie, miroir de fou.” Idleness is ultimately a political matter. Pastoral is a dream of time – of leisure sewn into exertion, snatched from it easily, threaded through the rhythms of labor and insinuating other tempos and imperatives into the working day. I did say a dream.

They are going to take the fields and harvests from you, they will take your very self from you, they will tie you to some machine of iron, smoking and strident, and, surrounded by coalsmoke, you will have to put your hand to a piston ten or twelve thousand times a day. That is what they will call agriculture. And don’t expect to make love then when your heart tells you to take a woman; don’t turn your head towards the young girl passing by: the foreman won’t have you cheating the boss of his work . . .

Then, there will be no women and children coming to interrupt toil with a kiss or caress. The workers will be drawn up in squadrons, with sergeants and captains and the inevitable informer . . .

These words were written by one of Pissarro’s anarchist friends, Elisee Reclus, in a little pamphlet often reprinted in the 1890s, A Mon frere, le paysan. I think that some such scheme of values, and maybe even some such foreboding of the century to come – of course neither Reclus nor Pissarro could imagine the true horrors of agribusiness – lay at the root of Two Young Peasant Women, and made its dreamworld worth realizing.

While we were at the museum, we also took in a photography and video exhibit by Bruce Davidson titled “Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side.” Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, wrote exclusively in Yiddish, a language that was spoken all around me growing up in the 1950s. Except for Hasidic Jews, the language is not spoken nowadays at all. When the state of Israel was created, there was a concerted effort to wean people off of Yiddish and to begin speaking Hebrew. Yiddish symbolized everything about ghetto culture that the new muscular state was anxious to put behind it.

Bruce Davidson photograph of Isaac Bashevis Singer

Davidson and Singer lived in the same Manhattan apartment building. In 1972, they collaborated on a humorous and surreal film, Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard, based on a Singer story. During and after production, Davidson photographed Singer in his apartment and around the Upper West Side.

A year later, Davidson took a series of photographs on the Lower East Side that are included in the exhibit. They feature customers of the Garden Cafeteria, an East Broadway restaurant that Singer frequented on his trips to The Jewish Daily Forward, where his stories appeared over the decades. Davidson also photographed local merchants, rabbis, and storefronts on Essex and Orchard Streets. The pictures are magnificent as should be obvious from the one below:

Heshy Stolzenberg and a carp at the Essex Street Market


  1. I love Pissarro. Not only are his paintings beautiful, but they also show his humanity. He also painted city scenes. True none are overtly political, but they are emotionally charged and positively so nonetheless.

    Michael Yates

    Comment by Michael Yates SVC 67 — October 12, 2007 @ 9:16 pm

  2. I’ve only seen a small number of his works hanging in a couple of London galleries, so a question for the experts, did he return at all in his art to his Caribbean roots, did he paint the West Indies, did Black people ever figure in his art?
    Any pointers to pictures I could look at would be appreciated.

    Comment by Henry Monroe — October 14, 2007 @ 6:44 am

  3. One of the very first paintings he ever did was at the Jewish Museum. It was in a traditional style and depicted two Blacks on a beach in St. Thomas. Unfortunately I can’t find an image of it on the Internet.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 14, 2007 @ 1:09 pm

  4. This page is very well done as is the current show at the Jewish Museum which I saw while in NY last month.
    As for Henry Monroe’s question I would like to add that after 1857 Camille did not paint st. Thomas subjects and black people were not featured in his work.
    I have no doubt that black people were close to his heart as he went to a school attended by children of slaves and followed the struggle for the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean.

    David Stern, London

    Comment by David Stern — October 14, 2007 @ 10:57 pm

  5. thanks for the replies to my question, I’d just been reading about Edward Wilmot Blyden and wondered about Pissaro’s Caribbean identity.

    Comment by Henry Monroe — October 18, 2007 @ 9:27 pm

  6. Will the Pissaro exhibit be at the Museum Sunday Jan 14?

    Comment by Betty Rubenstein — January 11, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

  7. Will the oisaro exhibit be open Sunday Jan 14

    Comment by Betty Rubenstein — January 11, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: