Artistic Masterwork

David Frishman



Arnold Böcklin is dead1—yet who among you knew that he lived? If I were to tell you that he was the man who knew how, with paintbrush dipped in colors upon a piece of canvas, to shake every heart down to its very foundations; and if I were to tell you that this man was a painter without comparison, whose like has been beyond compare these last hundreds of years; and if I were to add further, that he created for men worlds to which they could flee when they had weak, weary, and aching hearts, and when their souls drew them to nothingness; and if I were to say still more, that with his power he conquered a world entire and compelled kings to bow down before him—would you not answer me: and what is the real difference to us, what shall he give and he do unto us? [ . . . ]

I do not know of any people upon the face of this earth whose feelings are dulled to the same extent, and who have cut off their innermost senses, like the Jewish people. Whatever you show, whatever you say—he will not feel, will not feel. [ . . . ]


They say, the dry bones, but I say, the dry souls. Our souls, which are dried up like the lulav left over from last year; let these dried, meager, and shriveled souls be resurrected, and the bones shall be revived of their own accord.2 If only the people of today had understood this, then it would have been a sign unto us that the souls are in fact no longer dried up at all, and therefore we would have had no need for all this back-and-forth.

But the people out there do not understand this. Dr. Bernfeld comes (in Ha-dor, issue 14) and makes light of the revival of the nation through artistic masterwork [melekhet makhshevet], throwing a little cold water on the heads of those who say [we should] “raise up the genius for poetry, the sensitivity to beauty and loveliness among our people”; he somewhat disparages those “who cry, ‘Fine arts! Paintings! Statues!’” And he knows that the Jewish people are no more inferior in their sense of beauty than gentiles, for indeed, during his stay in Jewish tavernkeeper’s inn, in a remote Galician village, “the sons of the Jewish farmers soon engaged him with many questions and doubts about Schiller’s poetry,” and the reason for this was very simple: “they could bring books like these into their homes and read them when they were free from their work in the field, and take pleasure in the beauty of flowery verse”; however, if they do not know “the Venus de Milo or the paintings of Rembrandt” then the reason for that is also very simple—they have not had any opportunity to know them. Those who intend to resurrect the people by the aforementioned method [i.e., the promotion of artistic masterwork] “have not tried to do anything by means of positive action, that is, with national artistic works likely to awaken the people’s sensitivity to beauty in the heart of the lowly classes.” Therefore Dr. Bernfeld concludes, “that a large part of the enthusiasm for and admiration toward beauty and loveliness, which has awakened within us all of a sudden, is only mimicry or fraud,” and all this noise is only because one talented sculptor, “happened upon our camp and was accompanied by some writers, and soon enough there was a new tune in our literature: Behold, we are all of us mere corpses! We have no aesthetics, no sense of taste.” However, the fact of the matter is that Dr. Bernfeld is doing that which he always does: he orders us “to sometimes consult our own history, to learn from it,” after which they will see that, “the movement which courses within the Jewish camp at this time . . . has already existed throughout the ages.” “And what do I request and demand from our writers? That they, at least sometimes, study Jewish history!” [ . . . ]

However, the people who are now asking for something else; they are asking for the total opposite of all of this, from one extreme to the other. I am not ashamed to say that I believe with perfect faith in that saying: artistic masterwork—revival of the nation.


[ . . . ] I also discussed this very matter in my article, which as of late I cannot put out of my mind for even a single day, to wit: that the feelings of the heart have faded away from within our people, and it is incumbent upon us to revive them by means of the power of beauty and taste. To strengthen the point, and by way of a beautiful phrase I added in that same article: “And not from thinking, not books, nor history.” Could it have come into my heart at that time, that there would exist people who would suspect me of actually desiring to abolish studying philosophy, books, and history? And yet that very thing has come to be! People came forth in letters and accused me of insulting the sciences and history! They came forth and rebuked me, saying that I had made a mistake, and that in truth, interest in the sciences and in the wisdom of history is not damaging at all, on the contrary, scholars agree that even science and history are somewhat useful. Blessed be the scholars, who finally opened my eyes to these vital matters . . .

Master of the Universe! A little power of patience, give me some patience, to suffer your burdensome nation!

Translated by


[Böcklin (1827–1901), was a Swiss symbolist most known for his series Isle of the Dead.—Eds.]

[See Ezekiel 37:1–14.—Eds.]


David Frishman, “Melekhet maḥshevet” [Artistic Masterwork], Kol kitve David Frishman, vol. 8 (New York: Lily Frishman Publishing, 1932), pp. 94–96, 102, 104–5.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 7.

Engage with this Source

You may also like