Charting the Landscape of Jewish Modernism

Charting the Landscape of Jewish Modernism

In flight
Edith London, In Flight, 1995. Mixed media, 13 x 16 inches (33 x 40.6 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Museum purchase and partial gift of Lee Hansley Gallery; 1997.25.1. Courtesy Nasher Museum of Art

“It’s fulfilling to have a collaborative public outcome born from a course,” Saskia Ziolkowski, associate professor in Romance Studies, admits.

She’s referencing Mapping Jewish Modernism, an exhibit currently on view through August at the Rubenstein Library’s Mary Duke Biddle Room. An accompanying reception is scheduled for Wednesday, February 28 in the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, also in the Rubenstein Library.

The exhibition is the culmination of a Spring 2023 course of the same name and part of the Global Jewish Modernism lab, a Humanities Unbounded initiative directed by Ziolkowski and Kata Gellen, associate professor of German Studies.

Charting the Course

As they were initially designing the course, Ziolkowski and Gellen gave thoughtful attention to what defines Jewish modernism — and how those definitions could translate to an exhibit.

“Jewishness is discussed in terms of ethnicity, religion, identity and culture,” Ziolkowski explains. “Though ascribed to roughly the 1890s to the 1950s, modernism is highly debated. We decided that introducing a mapping component to the exhibit would take advantage of the openness of these two categories by including objects that move between places.”

The pair charted the movements from three perspectives: examining the trajectories of Jewish authors and artists as they relocated from one place to another; exploring the movements of objects, particularly rare books, tracing their origins and paths of acquisition; and delving into mapping within works themselves, analyzing the spatial and conceptual movements of the characters within the pieces of art or literature.

A cigarette pack edition of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and “In the Penal Colony.”
A cigarette pack edition of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and “In the Penal Colony.” (Margo Lakin/Trinity Communications)

This three-pronged approach afforded students a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness and dynamics within modern Jewish culture in the humanities.

Collaborations — in and out of the classroom

The course objective brought undergraduate and graduate students together to research and curate an exhibition exploring modern Jewish culture through literature and art. Along with in-class readings, students spent significant time in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where they selected pieces for the exhibit and created museum labels to identify the objects and provide background information. 

books on display in mapping jewish modernism exhibit
The Mapping Jewish Modernism exhibit will be on view through August at the Rubenstein Library’s Mary Duke Biddle Room. (Margo Lakin/Trinity Communications)

“We couldn’t have created this exhibit without the amazing collection housed in the Rubenstein’s Rare Books archives,” says Ziolkowski. “And we owe a huge debt to the Rubenstein librarians Rachel Ariel, Margaret Brown and Kate Collins.”

By fostering a collaboration between students from different academic levels and interests, the course encouraged and welcomed diverse views and interdisciplinary approaches. The students’ own varied linguistic backgrounds brought different approaches to archival work, further enriching the experiential learning.

“Each student really gave such a unique perspective to the course — and to the exhibit,” Ziolkowski says. “From students fluent in German or Italian who were able to read original texts we discussed in class to the grad student who researched Ethiopian Jews in Israel to the undergraduate students who gravitated toward history and literature.”

One of those undergraduate students was Sophie Levenson, who took the course because of her love for modernist European literature — thanks to a high school English teacher who introduced her to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The novel's portrayal of a protagonist born to a Jewish father and grappling with the complexities of belonging struck a chord with her. 

“Through Leopold Bloom’s poignant journey, I found a reflection of the universal human experience, encapsulating the struggle to find one's place in the world and the longing for connection,” she explains. “This profound exploration of the human condition is what makes modernist literature so compelling to me — it captures the essence of our shared humanity in a way that transcends cultural and temporal boundaries.”

Surveying Jewish Modernism

The student-curated objects in the exhibit cover a huge amount of space and are quite visually interesting,” Ziolkowski shares.

An interactive digital map provides a visual representation of the movements of artists and authors forced to leave Europe in the 1930s and 1940s — including artists like Edith London.

London is represented in the exhibit by her painting “In Flight,” on loan from the Nasher Museum of Art. Born in Germany, London fled with her husband Fritz in 1933 and eventually settled in Durham, North Carolina. She continued to paint and worked with the Art History Department at Duke, while Fritz London was member of the Duke faculty.

Visitors can also view “The Mark on the Wall” from British author Virginia Woolf. Printed by Hogarth Press, owned by Woolf and her husband, Leonard, the artifact offers a unique glimpse into the intersection of literature, art and editorial craftsmanship.

“The Mark on the Wall” from British author Virginia Woolf
“The Mark on the Wall” from British author Virginia Woolf offers a unique glimpse into the intersection of literature, art and editorial craftsmanship. (Margo Lakin/Trinity Communications)

“This particular work holds historical significance, as it contains images along with Virginia Woolf's handwritten annotations and corrections, providing insight into her creative process and the evolution of her ideas,” explains Ziolkowski. 

Detail of an edition of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”—with a giant cockroach resting on the book’s spine
Detail of an edition of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”—with a giant cockroach climbing on the book’s spine. (Margo Lakin/Trinity Communications)

Among the student contributions are three from Levenson. First is a copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” that features a 1920 painting by Max Beckmann on the cover. She found the convergence of literature and visual art on the book cover added another layer of depth to the modernist work.

Next is an issue of “Kenyon Review,” where James Joyce discusses themes of home, belonging and identity. She feels that Joyce's reflections on these topics offer valuable insights into his literary works and personal experiences while underscoring the universal themes of identity and belonging that resonate across cultures. The third contribution is the title font for the exhibition, Corvinus skyline, which happens to be designed by a European Jew.

“I was sitting in the Rubenstein basement and randomly found the font on the Internet, and I thought it would be fitting to have the font for this exhibition designed by a Jewish person,” she shares.

Initially taking the course because of her love for modernist literature, Levenson left with a realization for how much thought curators put into every aspect of an exhibition — and the experience of how deeply she and her classmates would venture into creating this exhibition.

“Now, whenever I visit a museum, I’m going to bring a completely new perspective and appreciation for the inner workings.”



The exhibition has two accompanying events scheduled.

March 20: Archives, Exhibits, and Literature Dialogue

Two Duke faculty, Annette Joseph-Gabriel (Department of Romance Studies & Department of Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies) and Felwine Sarr (Department of Romance Studies), join two visitors, Emma Bond and Max Czollek, to examine the intersections, problems and productive intersections between archives, exhibits and literature.

April 4: Translation and World Literature

A dialogue about translation and world literature, with visiting scholar Stiliana Milkova, and Duke faculty: Carol Apollonio (Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies), Eileen Chow & Reut Ben-Yaakov (AMES) and Martin Eisner & Sarah Quesada (Department of Romance Studies).