Jewish Woman

Jewish Woman

1915–1916Oil on canvas108.5 × 78.7 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Konrad Mägi depicted Jews in a number of works. There is also information about Mägi socializing with other Jews and being fond of Jewish humour.

The model for this work is not known. Mägi may have been interested in the model’s exotic looks – large eyes, darker complexion, dark hair – but besides aesthetic categories, which are more important in Mägi’s portrait work than psychological or social aspects, we cannot overlook the model’s self-aware bearing and ethnicity.

In the 1910s, Mägi depicted women’s liberation figures often, but emancipation was not reflected in the motifs of the paintings, but rather only in literary backgrounds. We see women festooned in drapery, jewellery, hats and patterned and colourful clothing, who look elegant but not savvy. The Jewish woman on the other hand is depicted in a pose that expresses independence, her gaze and her whole attitude radiate something inaccessible and indomitable. Nor has Mägi emphasized the decorative element in her clothing, at least not to the extent seen in other portraits of women. Mägi has thus constructed a fantasy of an emancipated woman as symbolized by this subject, seeing in her something that he otherwise did not when painting portraits of women.

The ethnicity of the model is stressed through his own aesthetic choices, but the yellow flower in her hair is of interest. Yellow had been used to signify Jews in Europe since the Middle Ages, taking on a sinister dimension in Nazi Germany. But Mägi was probably spurred by the desire to link the woman and a flower, as he had done in several cases (see e.g. Portrait of Irmgard Menning (Maiden in White), also 1915–1916, Art Museum of Estonia; likewise, the portrait of Linda Bachmann) and here we can discern a motif familiar from art history. After all, it is common for artists to use an element from nature to symbolize women.

According to scholar Anna Verschik, Jews only made up a tiny group in Estonia at the time, and tended to be in the middle class. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, they did not live in compact communities and many audited courses at University of Tartu. Anti-Semitic sentiment was not keenly felt but according to interwar historian Kopl Jokton, Jews in Tallinn were suspected of siding with Germany during the First World War and at one point there was a push to have them expelled from the city. In precisely the years of the painting, many Jewish refugees accused of treason by the Russian tsarist government emigrated to Tartu. In the late 1910s, a little more than 400 Jews had the right to vote in Tartu. One of the leaders of the community was the father of Julius Genss.

The background behind the model deserves attention. Mägi often leaves the background of his portraits vague, but here he has introduced dramatic tufted forms reminiscent of clouds. It creates an odd switch from realistic foreground to fantasy-filled background, which is like the technique used in salon photography back in the day where the model stepped in front of a painted background as if entering some fiction. It isn’t clear whether or not the dramatic background should signal something about the emancipated Jewish woman in the foreground, though.