Jewish culture is among the oldest ones in the world but there is no particular style of Jewish visual art as such. Most scholars believe that fact that Jews didn’t develop a distinct art style comparable to Indian or Chinese for example is related to aniconism which strictly forbids portrayal and sculpture of deity in human or other concrete form. And this tradition was more or less followed until the Jewish emancipation between the late 18th and early 20th century. However, this doesn’t mean Jewish art didn’t exist until that time.
Jewish Sacred Art
Jewish artists may be rare until the late 18th century but Jewish sacred art flourished throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the finest achievements of ancient Jewish art such the Temples in Jerusalem for instance have been lost or destroyed. But their descriptions in the Tanakh and other written sources reveal that they rivalled the greatest masterpieces of the ancient world.
After the dispersion of the Jews in the Roman Empire following the Roman destruction of Judea, Jewish sacred art was also created outside the Holy Land. Architecture – building of synagogues – and decoration of ritual objects were the predominant art forms from late antiquity throughout the Middle Ages. Jewish artists, however, didn’t develop a distinct style but adapted local styles instead.
Jewish Secular Art
Not many Jewish secular artists are known until the Emancipation. Salomon Adler (before 1630-1709), a Jewish portrait painter and mentor of Fra Galgario who lived and worked in Milan, Italy, is the exception rather than the rule. This changed only in the 19th century but Jewish secular art began to flourish only in the early 20th century. The First Zionist Congress that was held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1901 turned out to be a major incentive as it helped establish artistic expression as a legitimate part of the Jewish culture.
Jewish Art in the 20th Century
During the early 20th century and after the Second World War, Jewish artists played an important role in a variety of art movements and influenced greatly the future developments. Many also achieved an international admiration and influence. Some of the most notable names in Jewish art of the 20th century include Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Milton Resnick, Leon Bakst, Marc Chagall, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Art Spiegelman, Stan Lee, Andre Kertesz and Cindy Sherman, to mention only a few.