Artist Spotlight: Ephraim Moses Lilien

Perhaps only accidentally homoerotic, Lilien's pursuit of a handsome Jewish ideal manifested in beautiful art nouveau drawings of men.

BY Christopher Harrity

July 06 2013 3:00 AM ET

Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925) is known as the father of Zionist iconography. Although he was raised Orthodox in Galicia, he sought a secular education and settled in Germany in 1899, where he became involved in the movement to restore Jewish statehood. He was the master of the Jewish motif and fashioned a national Jewish art by blending traditional Jewish symbols within contemporary styles, such as the Jugendstil (German art nouveau). 

Lilien was married. But his pursuit of a Jewish ideal included his famous photographs of Theodor Herzl (pictured at right), whom Lilien considered the perfect representation of the "New Jew." And we see this strong angular face over and over in his work. In 1896 he received an award for photography from the avant-garde magazine Jugend. Lilien also illustrated several books. In 1923 an exhibition of his work opened in New York.

No conclusions need be drawn. The men are strong, muscular, and mostly nude. Many of them appear on bookplate designs for friends and clients. (Traditionally, this was a printed piece of artwork that informed the reader about the ownership of the book. They were often coded as to the particular interests of the book's owner.)

At left, a self-portrait

Lilien introduced groundbreaking efforts in book art, which were illustrated methodically in India ink.  His first endeavor was Juda (1900), a book of biblical poetry by a Christian friend, Börries Freiherr von Münchausen. It was followed by Lieder des Ghetto (Songs of the Ghetto) (1903), which contained Morris Rosenfeld’s translated Yiddish poems about the suffering masses in the Diaspora. Unlike Juda, which focused on the proud ancient Hebrews, Lieder des Ghetto concerned the torment of a displaced people with hope for future redemption in the Promised Land. Although Lilien traveled to Palestine and helped found the first Jewish art institute in Jerusalem, he and his wife, Helen Magnus, an assimilated Jewish intellectual, grew increasingly absorbed in German bourgeois life and he never emigrated.

Sources: Artistic Expressions of the Jewish Renaissance and Wikipedia.

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