Lilien and Zionism

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Lilien and Zionism
Haim Finkelstein
Department of Foreign Literatures & Linguistics,
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
phraim Mose Lilien has often been described as the first artist of the Zionist
Movement, or even labeled at times the "first Zionist artist."1 There is
undoubtedly ample justification for referring to Lilien in such terms; he was,
after all, the foremost contributor to the early visual vocabulary of the Zionist
Movement, and some of his images have persistently kept a firm hold on the
imagination of later generations. He was, furthermore, actively involved over
a period of years with the Zionist Movement, and served as representative to
the Sixth Zionist Congress. He was one of the founders of the Jüdischer Verlag,
the Jewish publishing company in Berlin whose publications propagated the
artistic and literary output of the Jewish Renaissance. He also took part in
establishing the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem. However, a marked lessening
of his commitment to Zionism may be discerned in the years following his
first trip to Jerusalem, at the time he started working on his Bible illustrations
and developing his skills as an etching artist. The roots of this development lie
further back in time, close to when he was still actively involved in Zionist
affairs. A certain ambivalence in his Zionist attitudes could be discerned even
then, and it is the peripeties of his Zionist stance that are brought under scrutiny
in the following pages.
There seems to have been, in retrospect, much to commend the conjoining
of Lilien and the burgeoning Zionist movement. Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, to
apply in Lilien's case the German term for the Munich-based Art Nouveau
center, embodied to a large extent the striving for a new art, a new aesthetic
direction free of any allegiance or subservience to the styles of the past. Thus,
words like "renascence" and "liberation" figured often in writings associated
with the movement.2 The names by which the style was known in its various

centers — Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, or "style of youth," Modernista, Modern
Style — also convey a sense of a new beginning.
It is hardly surprising that, quite early on, at the time Lilien's association
with the Zionist Movement was already well-established, the awakening of
the Jewish national spirit would be associated with this stance of artistic
liberation. In 1906, in a small book entitled The New Art of an Ancient People, M.
S. Levussove, an art professor in New York, argued that the renascence of the
Jewish spirit could be compared to what he termed the 'art rebellion, the war
of the Secession,'3 which he defined as an 'onslaught on the academic and classic
art' resulting in the creation of a new style.4 Levussove was careful enough,
however, not to define a "Jewish style", and his stylistic observations regarding
Lilien's work could have fitted a great many of the artistic trends associated
with the Secession movement in general.
The question of Jewish art was heatedly debated in the Fifth Zionist
Congress. Martin Buber argued that the diaspora Jew, his existence wholly
lacking the aesthetic dimension, is a barren human being, blind to beauty and
nature. Jewish art, Buber said, would help regain this dimension and
complement the efforts of the Zionist movement to lead the Jewish people
toward a realization of its potential. While a truly national art would flourish
only on Jewish soil, there is much that can also be accomplished, Buber asserted,
by Jewish art, if it becomes fully conscious of the cultural tradition of the Jewish
people. Buber's reference to a 'truly national art' flourishing on Jewish soil
appears to be the closest he came to evoking the notion of style. Indeed, Martin
Buber, Ahad Ha'am and others saw Jewish art mostly in terms of Jewish content
or Jewish iconography, and there was very little effort to define a Jewish style.5
This is where Art Nouveau, especially in Lilien's Jugendstil version, could indeed
have suggested the means of circumventing the question of style by potentially
enabling the incorporation of the symbols and iconography of the Jewish
cultural tradition within a stylistic framework, which, in placing itself under
the banner of the new and in its somewhat eclectic stylistic orientation,
presumed to free itself from subservience to any hallowed style of the recent
or more remote past. Its floral ornament suggesting life and energy would
have formed a strong stylistic correlative to the promise of dynamic awakening
inherent in Zionism. Furthermore, perceived as essentially a non-Jewish artistic
mode, Jugendstil also suggested to Jewish intellectuals of the time the benefits
of incorporating, under the aegis of Zionism, a vital non-Jewish cultural force
into Jewish secular self-identification.6
The coming together of Jugendstil and Zionism had its beginning in Lilien's
career during the last years of the century. Lilien's artistic activities in Munich

Fig. 1: E. M. Lilien, "At the Anvil"
("Am Amboß"), Süddeutscher
September 1897.
during that time might, indeed, be seen as nurturing those developments that
eventually led to the later conceptions underlying his work for the Zionist
movement. In 1897, a short while after he had begun publishing drawings in
the literary and artistic journal Die Jugend, Lilien began his activities as illustrator
for various socialist publications, primarily the illustrated magazine
Süddeutscher Postillon, whose editor, Eduard Fuchs became a close friend of
his.7 Beginning with his first drawing to appear in the Süddeutscher Postillon,
an illustration for a poem entitled "Der Amboß" (The Anvil) (September 1897),
(Fig. 1), Lilien's illustrations for this magazine, in their relative sobriety and
solemnity, exhibit marked differences from his work for Die Jugend, with its
Arcadian subjects of nymphs and satyrs and its erotic, almost decadent frivolity
— characteristics that also exemplify some of the ex-libris he designed around
that time. Some of the elements that formally characterize the works for Jugend
— undulating curves and uninterrupted flowing lines, usually applied to
bacgrounds or to the depiction of serpentine hair — found their way to the
Süddeutscher Postillon illustrations. Such are, for instance, the undulating hair
of the female figure in the cover of the Christmas issue of 1897, or the ornamental
sparks arising from the grinding machine in "Das Rad der Zeit" (The Wheel of
Time), the centerfold illustration of the August 1898 issue. However, contrary

to the light and sketchy character of the Jugend illustrations, the latter exhibit
stronger lines and simpler decorative schemes. These works for the Süddeutscher
and, similarly, the title page and double-page spread for the Mai-
of 1899, already reveal much of what would characterize, a few years
later, his work for the Zionist movement, both conceptually and stylistically.
They were mostly conceived as allegorical schemes involving personifications
of, for instance, labor, art and Social Democracy. These allegorical figures are
engaged in symbolical actions (for example, the winged Social Democracy
handing a wreath to the worker who has just broken off his chains; labor and
art shaking or holding hands). In a manner which would become even more
pronounced a few years later, Lilien retained the primacy of the human figure,
setting an opposition between the academic naturalism of the figure drawing
and the flatness of setting and ornament. The decorative schemes were mostly
relegated to the borders, often involving ornamental elements that functioned
as emblematic signs communicating meaning (for instance, stylized and
schematized workers' tools).
These characteristics point away from normative Art Nouveau or Jugendstil,
and it is, indeed, in such deviations that one may locate the promise for his
contemporaries of concepts such as Socialist art or, later, Jewish national art.
To this might be added considerations of the thematic implications of Lilien's
stylistic choices, especially in view of what might be considered the failure of
Art Nouveau's program of regeneration of art and life. While preparing the
way for important future experiments in art, architecture and design, Art
Nouveau was also bogged down by an undertow of Romantic and mystical
yearning, as well as by its inability to face the harsh realities of modern society.
Weary and decadent fin-de-siècle mood, and ornament of great preciosity
approaching the morbid, took precedence over its more robust representations
of the vital forces of plants and flowers. Zionism, on the contrary, required a
more robust approach; not pure aesthetics but a forceful expression of ideology;
not a suppression of narrative content but harnessing such a content to its
overall political and social purpose. Academic naturalism, combined with
decorative forms which also stood for Jewish or Zionist emblems and symbols,
served this purpose better than Art Nouveau morbidity or abstraction8 on the
one hand, or any of the more progressive Post-Impressionist trends on the
All these considerations notwithstanding, that Zionism seemed for a while
to have found a potent vehicle in Jugendstil was largely due to the publication
in 1900 of Juda, a book of poems by Börries von Münchhausen, designed and
illustrated by Lilien. There is, however, no reason to assume that Lilien's work

on this book had been prompted by any direct association with Zionist circles,
or that he had in this publication consciously proposed a program or a model
for a Zionist or Jewish national art. That is not to say that Lilien was wholly
oblivious to Zionism at the time. It has been argued that it was in his hometown
Drohobycz (1892-1894) that the foundations had been laid for his strong national
Jewish sentiments as well as his identification with Zionist ideology,9 and that
some of his associates in Munich belonged to Zionist circles.10 It might be added
that some of the symbols introduced in Juda, such as the Magen David and the
eight-branch Menorah, were, as noted by Yigal Zalmona, at that time already
well-established as new Zionist emblems.11 However, within the overall
thematic and decorative scheme of the book, these seem to be grafted on to
what is generally a Jewish cultural context and thus appear more in their
capacity of traditional Jewish religious symbols. Admittedly, there were no
clear demarcation lines at the time between sentiments related to a renascence
of Jewish national identity, in its religious-cultural sense, and those associated
with Zionism as a national liberation movement that aimed to provide an
answer to questions raised by modern anti-Semitism. However, steeped on
the whole in Jewish and Biblical themes, the book is certainly quite removed
from anything referring to Zionism's "political" aim of creating for the Jewish
people a home in Palestine, as it was proclaimed in the "Basle Declaration" in
1897. As a collaborative effort by von Münchhausen and Lilien, the book is an
expression of late-century romantic-national ideas. In what concerns the book's
literary context, the name "Juda" indicates its "Judaizing" tendency; that is, the
casting of its Biblical material in a specifically Jewish framework (rather than
Christian exegesis).12 Even the ballad "Passah" (Passover), with its call for the
Jews to return to their homeland and celebrate Passover in the future in
Jerusalem, is not necessarily an expression of modern Zionist political rhetoric.
In this respect, the material is no more "Zionist" in essence than, say, Byron's
"Hebrew Melodies." This could also be said of Lilien's illustration for "Passah",
which represents an old Jew, his figure encircled in thorns, viewed against
monumental Egyptian architecture and the distant sun of "Zion" sending forth
its rays. The Jew, standing on a high precipice, irrevocably separating him from
"Zion", does not even turn directly toward it; the thematic roots of the illustration
are thus embedded in the Diaspora rather than in anything associated with a
contemporary Zionist sentiment. If we can still see Juda as a Zionist creation, it
is because it was so enthusiastically adopted by the Zionist movement. It was
indeed the book Zionism yearned for, one whose conception, overall design,
and stylistic deviations from typical Jugendstil norms, suggested a promising
direction for the art to be, a Jewish national art that would fulfil its ideological

Fig. 2: E. M. Lilien, "The Jewish May" ("Der Jüdische Mai"),
Lieder des Ghetto, 1902.
and propagandist needs. Furthermore, it would appear that it was the
enthusiastic reception accorded to the book by Jewish and Zionist circles that
helped recruit Lilien and his art to the cause of Zionism.
Once Lilien harnessed himself to this task, he began pursuing successfully
an artistic idiom that would answer the expectations of his generation, as is
well apparent in the persistence of some of the images he created in the common
consciousness of the Jews in the following decades. Such is, for instance, the
illustration for the poem "Der Jüdische Mai" ("The Jewish May," Lieder des Ghetto,
1902) (Fig. 2), with its unabashedly emotional depiction of an old Jew who,
bound with thorns and guarded by snakes, stretches his arms with a tearful
and yearning look toward the sun which rises over an enchanted dream-vision
of a Zion underneath which flows a meandering river bedecked with lush
vegetation and palm trees. For the Diaspora Jew yearning for a Zion he had
never seen, few images can equal this one in its direct emotional appeal (in this
respect, it is far superior to the "Passah" illustration). A similar image was used
around that time for a souvenir card for the Fifth Zionist Congress (1901), in
which a similarly bound Jew is ordered by an angel to look toward a distant
Zion where a Jew is seen ploughing the land within the orb of a huge and
blinding sun. Lilien's art succeeded indeed in synthesizing readymade
ingredients with a proven appeal to the Jewish popular imagination — mostly

those in which the religious and folkloristic motifs remained dominant. When
Issachar Ryback and Boris Aronson, in an 1919 article, criticized Lilien, from
the perspective of Jewish modernism of the Russian Revolution era, for
embracing the 'Biblical, Zionist sentiment with all its superficialities and
pseudo-romanticism — the palm tree from Goldfaden's theatre and the Menorah
from the poems of Frug,'13 they pointed precisely, though unsympathetically,
to those elements that made his art so popular.
As noted before with regard to Juda, the Zionism inherent in Lilien's work
was romantic-national in essence. As an expression of Utopian longing for Zion,
tinged with "Biblical" romanticism — paralleling, in a sense, the Utopian
socialist themes, with their somewhat romanticizing attitude regarding labor
and the proletariat, that dominated his work during the Munich years — it
remained an insubstantial vision, quite lacking in what referred to activist
Zionism. It was also well removed, as we shall see, from the reality of Palestine,
to which he was exposed during his first trip in 1906. Ryback and Aronson's
criticism notwithstanding, Lilien's illustrations were less heavily tinged with
romanticism and more topical in their implications when he came to express
Jewish, or even Jewish-national, themes that were not necessarily related to
Zionism. His illustrations for Morris Rosenfeld's Lieder des Ghetto are, in this
respect, more persuasive as authentic expressions of Lilien's frame of mind
vis-à-vis their subjects than those for Juda, for instance. The son of a poor wood
turner in Drohobicz, Lilien witnessed in his childhood the plight of the small
craftsman who could hardly provide for his family. This childhood experience
is given memorable expression in the portrait of his father at the lathe, a haunted
and despairing look on his face, framed by his working tools and by the highly
stylized shapes of the shavings coming off the wooden block. In other
illustrations for the "Lieder der Arbeit" section, the sinister shapes of a blood-
sucking vampire or a spider weaving its web are grafted on to the more realistic
depictions of Jewish tailor and sweatshop worker. Most of Rosenfeld's poems
deal with the fate of Jews in the Diaspora. Appropriately, they are accompanied
with images — in illustrations and border decorations alike — that revert in
their form, mood and iconography to an idiom that might be considered closer
to normative Jugendstil. Such are the bare drooping branches of a tree and a
broken harp (cover illustration), roses with extremely long thorny stems,
drooping flowers, curling snakes, and cobwebs. These images appear to be
more indicative of the general mood of the book than the depiction of an
archangel bearing Herzl's physiognomy in the illustration for "The Creation of
Men" (Fig. 3). Indeed, the book as a whole is quite removed from the spirit of
Zionism as a movement of political renascence and liberation. The illustration

Fig. 3: E. M. Lilien, "The Creation of Men" ("Die Erschaffung des Menschen"),
Lieder des Ghetto, 1902.
for "Storm" (Fig. 4), with its two Jews forlornly sitting on the deck of a ship
tossing in the storm, is, in its expression of the experience of Jewish immigrants,
far more concrete and immediate than the illustration for "Der Jüdische Mai"
— the only direct "Zionist" work in the book — in which the yearning for Zion
is offered from the timeless perspective of the traditional viewpoint of the
Diaspora Jew.
Some of the illustrations of Lieder des Ghetto convey a hidden sense of
uneasiness. It is not just a matter of sinister bats and vampires, or snakes rearing
their heads in the border decoration. In a less obtrusive manner, it is introduced
even in the illustration for the poem "Mein Kind," which follows a long
Romantic tradition of portraits of children, whose innocence and purity find
their counterparts in flowers and other creations of unspoiled nature. Here,
though, this innocence seems to be threatened, since the heartshaped frame
surrounding the child's head is made of thorns. Such an almost undefined
quality of bizarreness, even perverseness, can also be discerned in the
illustration for the poem "The Creation of Men." It is not so much that the
image of Herzl, as one of the angels present at the creation of man, is shown
practically naked, although this does have a somewhat bizarre effect. Rather,
this quality is derived from the contrast perceived between Herzl's strong and
masculine figure, which dominates the left-hand page in this double-page

Fig. 4: E. M. Lilien, "Storm" ("Sturm"), Lieder des Ghetto, 1902.
illustration, and the boyish, vulnerable and somewhat feminized figure of the
newly-created man seen on the left.14 As suggested in the poem, the newly-
created man also represents the poet or artist, and one might be tempted to see
this vulnerable poet as Lilien's oblique reference to himself as an artist
dominated by the larger-than-life figure of Herzl. A certain ambivalence
regarding Herzl, that may have been only hinted at in 1902, became much
more pronounced later on in 1908, when a Herzl figure appeared again in
Lilien's art in several of the illustrations for the first volume of the Westermann
edition of Die Bücher der Bibel. The juxtaposition one may perceive in the
illustration for "The Creation of Men" comes up again in the depiction of Jacob's
struggle with the angel, where, in a strange reversal of roles, Jacob, a strong
black-bearded figure (indeed, with pronounced Herzlian features) struggles
with a young vulnerable angel whose own twisted thigh is more prominently
displayed than Jacob's. I suspect there is some homoerotic quality in this pair;
or, it may refer to some hidden current of a love-hate relationship with Herzl.
I won't go into the psychological implications of such illustrations (a subject
that still awaits a serious study), but rather consider the implications insofar
as Lilien's commitment to the cause of Zionism is considered. These are brought
into high relief in the representation of "The Expulsion from the Garden of
Eden," where an angel holding the "flaming sword which turned every way"

bears Herzl's features, while Adam's appearance somewhat resembles that of
the vulnerable angel struggling with Jacob. The angel, whose sword, held
upright along his body, hides his nakedness, refers back to two very significant
precedents: Lilien's earlier "Rahab" illustration in Juda, in which the naked Rahab
is lying prostrate below the figure of an angel with huge dark wings and holding
a long phallic sword that seems plunged into her body. The posture of this
figure appears directly related to that of the angel represented in Franz von
Stuck's The Guardian of Paradise (1889), whose sword also seems to have been a
model for the sword in the Bible illustration. I suspect that both Von Stuck's
painting and its permutation as an erotic-sadistic scene in the "Rahab"
illustration were on Lilien's mind, perhaps quite unconsciously, when he came
to represent his version of the "Guardian of Paradise." The question is why has
Herzl been assigned such a role in Lilien's work. It has been suggested that the
desert-like seashore, with its desert vegetation, is a reflection of the Land of
Israel, as Lilien saw it during his first trip to Palestine.15 The border of the
Garden of Eden, on the other hand, seems to consist of papyri or bulrushes,
and these are associated with Egypt. Thus, the illustration also has as a subtext
the Exodus from Egypt, with Herzl-Moses ordering the Jews to leave the
fleshpots of Egypt-Europe in order to settle in the desert-land of Israel.16 Does
Lilien's picture imply a perception on his part, however unconscious it might
be, of his own inability or unwillingness to leave Europe for the desert land of
Zion? The drooping heads of the lilies (Lilien in German) seen at the feet of the
angel, next to Lilien's signature, seem to offer a further substantiation for this
Can we discern in these pictures hints concerning a disenchantment with
his role as a Zionist artist or a lessening of his Zionist commitment? In the
most extensive biographical source, Lilien's collected letters to his wife, Briefe
an seine Frau: 1905-1925
(1985), there is no specific indication warranting such
a conclusion. However, whereas the early letters are full of enthusiastic
pronouncements concerning Zionism, letters written during or after his first
trip to Palestine appear to be quite low key in this respect. Alongside enthusiastic
responses to sites holding remnants of the Biblical past, the letters also seem
to express some disappointment with the present-day reality he found there,
which was quite removed from the Utopian vision of Zionism presented by
him in his earlier work. This disenchantment may have been enhanced by a
weakening of his ties, following Herzl's death, with the new leadership of the
Zionist Movement. To this might be added Lilien's falling-out with Boris Schatz,
after he had accompanied him to Jerusalem as a member of the executive
committee of Bezalel, in order to help establish there the Bezalel art school. It