Wednesday, August 10, 2011
A Palestinian Art Nouveau Song of Songs
One of the duties of a historian to society is to point out to people that much of what they take for granted as "traditional values" is in fact about nearly as modern as the modern values being denounced. (I am sure that on some other planet or in some alternative universe historians are appreciated and lauded by society as guardians of good sense and judgment. If someone knows the way to such a world please tell me and I will gladly move.) An example of this is the social taboo against nudity as sexual enticement. This has far more to do with nineteenth century Victorian concerns over the disintegration of social mores in the face of Enlightenment skepticism and later biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution than the Middle Ages let alone biblical society. The very nature of pre-modern societies, the close proximity in which people lived without formal bathrooms, made nudity a fact of life.
Perhaps in the future I will bring some practical examples from medieval art, but for now I will stick to Song of Songs from the Bible. Read this book and give all the pious speeches you want how this book is an allegory for the relationship between God and man or the Nation of Israel. But then ask yourself how it could be that western society up until modern times was that comfortable with "pious" eroticism that such a book could have been canonized. How is it that today a Haredi publishing company like Artscroll would feel the need to give an "allegorical" translation? (If anyone could speak about how Song of Songs has feared with modern day Evangelical Christians, I would love to find out more about that.)
In this spirit I would like to present Zeev Raban's illustrated Song of Solomon, printed in 1930 Palestine. (It is possible that the plates were actually done in Germany as Palestine lacked the facilities for such a task.)
This work is an example of the Israeli art nouveau Bezalel school of art. This style of art has an affinity to nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite work and much of the early twentieth century Christian biblical art that is still found in Bibles and children's books today.
The difference here being that Raban proved perfectly comfortable in translating the spirit of the author to visual form, mixing the spiritual with the erotic.