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Fin-de-siecle Zionist artist who put Jewish women in charge of their own libido

Lynne Swarts
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Published: 24 August 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

LYNNE SWARTS: Ephraim Moses Lilien is renowned for his images of muscular Jewish men but deserves more recognition for redefining the independence of the Jewish female form

EPHRAIM MOSES LILIEN - often called “the first Zionist artist” - was one of the most significant Jewish artists of the modern era. With little formal academic training, Lilien matured into a master printer, a prize-winning photographer, and a renowned illustrator, publishing three major illustrated books during his brief lifetime.

Born in 1874 in Drohobycz, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he befriended many of the celebrated Jewish intellectuals of the German-speaking world, including Stefan Zweig, Theodor Herzl, Martin Buber, and Chaim Weizmann.

Lilien became the darling of the German Jewish art world, playing an important role in the cultural Zionist art movement. He worked, albeit briefly, at the first Israeli national art school, Bezalel, in Jerusalem when it opened in 1906.

His iconic photograph of Theodor Herzl looking out over the river Rhine is better known for its emotional rhetoric than for the name of the artist who snapped the image.  

The Jewish Independent

Israeli and Jewish history buffs recognise the photograph of Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, who stands looking east toward a hopeful future for the state of the Jews. Yet most are unaware that Lilien accumulated a large following for his modernist black-and-white illustrations during the first decade before World War I.

Lilien and Zionism

Considering Lilien’s place in Zionist visual culture, it is surprising and disappointing that his female representations have largely been ignored. Scholars focused on ways to historicise Lilien’s prophetic constructions of the powerful and muscular “new male Jew” who formed a major part of early Zionist debates on nationalism, politics, emancipation, and the Jewish body.

To this day, Lilien’s prophetic construction of the “muscular Jew” continues to reverberate in the Israeli psyche, and appears on stampsbook covers, and Haggadot throughout the Jewish world.

The Creation of Man (EM Lilien)
The Creation of Man (EM Lilien)

In 2014, more than 114 years after he first came to the attention of those early central European Zionists, the Israeli art collective Broken Fingaz created a homage to his art on the side of a three-story building in the former historic Jewish quarter in Kazimierz, Kraków, where Lilien attended art school .

Lilien and Women

Some observers of Lilien’s early female illustrations such as My Fair Young lady, May I Dare, created in 1896, believed they were evidence of the artist’s unlimited penchant for scenes of naked young women with flowing hair about to be sexually ravished.  

The risqué humour makes light of his complicity with the masculine values of the period, as if teasing his male audience in an erotic, private game. My Fair Young Lady was created for the fledgling Jugendstil magazine Jugend. Lilien created many similar femmes fatales for other journals and individually commissioned, hand-drawn bookplates.

More than a decade later, in 1909, Lilien produced a vastly different image of a Jewish woman. In My Garden is my Betrothed formed part of a trilogy of drawings for what was, paradoxically, the most sensual book of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs.

The Expulsion from Paradise
The Expulsion from Paradise
The Garden
The Garden

Aware of the male gaze, the woman in My Garden challenges late-19th-century sexual stereotypes that demanded subservience to her male partner.

Lilien’s representation personified the social and political possibilities of equality with men, a woman in charge of her own libido, and a woman on the verge of political, social, and sexual emancipation—sexually alluring, freethinking, and independent. The illustration was part of a three-volume set of images for The Books of the Bible (1909–1912).

As a young man, Lilien went to art school for a year or so before moving to Munich. He arrived at an opportune moment. He worked for Jugend magazine as an illustrator and photographer in 1896, the year the magazine began. Named for the young rebels showcased in the magazine, Jugendstil became a household name.

During these years Lilien created several non-Jewish femme fatales. With naked bodies perfectly positioned for the stares of lecherous men, Lilien’s illustrations hardly differed from other male avant-garde artists working at the time.

Lilien moved to Berlin in 1899, just as the city supplanted Munich as the centre of the German art world. He collaborated with Börries von Münchhausen, a fascinating fin de siècle character who would later become a Nazi supporter and take his own life at the end of the war.

Together, the men shared an interest in German Romantic poetry, and collaborated on a book titled Juda (circa 1900); Lilien created the illustrations and Münchhausen composed a series of Hebrew ballads. The book became an overnight sensation. In one well-known illustration, The Silent Song, Lilien fashioned a modern and Jewish artistic style, for a different audience.

Juda, handsome and looking a little like Herzl, kisses his female, and possibly, Jewish lover. Lilien’s use of Herzl’s face as a prototype for the construction of positive Jewish male imagery signalled the rising popularity of the political Zionist doctrine that conceived of a new race of Jewish people to counter the growing antisemitic projections about the Jewish body.

Herzl fascinated Lilien. And it was Lilien, often supplementing his income by taking photographs, who snapped that iconic image of his hero attending an early Zionist congress.

In contrast to Juda, his lover is half-naked. Lilien’s female partner for the “new male Hebrew” has much in common with the provocative femme fatale of his earlier illustrations. 

Acculturated German Jews such as Buber and his colleagues in the cultural Zionist movement praised Juda for its depiction of ancient Jewish male heroes. Yet Lilien’s depiction of a Jewish woman as wanton and submissive was passed over in silence.

His courageous Jewish heroines, such as EstherRuth and Miriam, became positive representations of a new Jewish woman, an equal partner to his new male Jew.

Following his commercial success with Juda, Lilien embarked on his Bibelplan—an illustrated German Bible with Jewish and Christian editions. For the first time in modern Jewish and European art history, the Hebrew Bible was fully illustrated by one of its very own.

Lilien used the opportunity to create heroic men and heroic women. His courageous Jewish heroines, such as EstherRuth and Miriam, became positive representations of a new Jewish woman, an equal partner to his new male Jew.

The most striking of all the images he created for his Bibelplan was My Garden (Fig. 5). The dark-eyed beauty looks as if she is about to reach a sexual climax. Her dark hair streams in front of her like the dense and heavy overhanging pomegranate branch above her head.

Clearly Jewish, she wears a striped ancient tribal costume. With minimal use of line, Lilien portrays a young Jewish girl on the brink of ecstasy. The drawing was revolutionary.

Lilien portrayed the Jewish woman as an active participant in sensual and sexual pleasure.

At that moment in time, no other images of Jewish women expressing sexual pleasure existed. Neither femme fatale nor biblical heroine, Lilien depicts a modern Jewish woman who defies easy categorisation.

He searched for an “authentic” Jewish identity that would help overcome how non-Jewish Germans perceived him and his fellow Jews; not quite white and not quite German. His portrayals of Orientalised Jewish women form part of that search for identity, roots, and meaning.

Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation. Women in the work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German Fin de Siècle (Bloomsbury $49.25).

Illustration: The Silent Song, circa 1900 (Ephraim Moses Lilien)

About the author

Lynne Swarts

Dr Lynne Swarts is an educator, historian and curator, and an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney

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