Moi rodzice (My Parents). Yankl Adler, Poland/Germany, 1920-1921. Oil and collage on board Muzem Sztuki, Łódź (2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn / Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź)

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Adler, Yankl

(1895–1949), artist. Yankl (Jakub) Adler was born in Tuszyn, near Łódź, and died in England. Apprenticed in engraving in Łódź in 1912, he moved to Düsseldorf in 1913 for further studies. There Adler came into contact with the Düsseldorf-based artists of Das Junge Rheinland (Young Germany; 1918). He subsequently moved back to Łódź, joining Moyshe Broderzon as cofounder of Yung-yidish, the first avant-garde Jewish cultural movement in independent Poland.

In its journal of the same name (1919; with a total of six issues), Adler introduced the themes and stylistic features of German expressionism. The images in his linoleum block prints were drawn from traditional Jewish topoi: Eve tempted by the serpent; a torpid yeshiva student; a scene of torture; a seemingly cheerless bacchanalia; and a Chagall-like imitation of a Jewish student playing the cello. The figures are flat, elongated, stylized—even grotesque—and are drawn in heavy outline, with sharp contrasts of black and white.

Adler’s works have an architectonic element, and his general aim was to fuse Jewish perspectives and images with expressionistic color and style. His painting titled The Rabbi’s Last Hour (1919) typifies his early style. His dedication to fostering a new Jewish art form was disrupted by the Soviet–Polish War. Following a return to Germany in 1920, he adopted the politics of the Left.

From 1922 to 1933, Adler participated in most of the major German and international art exhibitions. He played an important role in the Rheinische Sezession (1920) and organized the Union of Progressive International Artists in 1922. During this period, his paintings garnered many European prizes. Stylistically, his works depicted static human figures, and are rather monumental in design yet reduced to basic characteristics. Faces tend to be forceful, with features that eschew individual expression in favor of types. Adler’s mature work reflects the influence of cubism and constructivism. (See image at right, top.)

Adler’s paintings dating from the Weimar period, a successful time for him, contain no explicit Jewish references. He focused on formal concerns involving tonal contrasts and variations of surface texture. After the Nazis took power, they forced his departure from Germany. His paintings were removed from German art museums—some were exhibited in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition held in Munich in 1937—and his frescoes were destroyed.

From 1933 to 1940, Adler lived in France. He joined the Polish army in World War II and was evacuated to Scotland in 1941. At this time, he started painting Jewish subjects again (e.g., Two Rabbis; 1942). He settled in London in 1943, joined a circle of refugee artists, and interacted with the postwar British artistic community. His last works reveal a more abstract, geometrical style that nevertheless was within the boundaries of representational art, and he remained a fine colorist.

Adler’s final paintings on Jewish subjects—Ba‘al Shem’s Daughter, King David, Woman with Raised Hands (1948–1949; all in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York)—capture the broad sweep of Polish Jewish imagery, from the Bible to the shtetl. Unlike Marc Chagall or Yisakhar Rybak, Adler eschewed humor or folkloric local color in order to express universals through Jewish motifs.

Suggested Reading

Jankel Adler, Welln zajten kimen, lichtige: Jankel Adler; Gemälde und Arbeiten auf Papier, 1922–1948 (Düsseldorf, 2002); Jerzy Malinowski, Grupa “Jung Idysz” i żydowskie środowisko “nowej sztuki” w Polsce, 1918–1923 (Warsaw, 1987); Jerzy Malinowski, Malarstwo i rzeźba Żydów Polskich w XIX i XX wieku (Warsaw, 2000).