Lasar Segall’s Happy Life Didn’t Make for Great Art

There are artists whose lives are more compelling than their art, and the Brazilian painter Lasar Segall (1891-1957)–now the subject of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum–is certainly one of them. Segall, whose sensibility remained that of a northern European Expressionist even in sunny Brazil, was born to an Orthodox Jewish family, one of eight children of a Torah scribe, in Vilnius, Lithuania, which was then part of the Russian Empire. At the age of 14–and apparently with his parents’ approval–he left home to study art in Berlin. This was, alas, a period in which Germany loomed for many Russian Jews as a haven from the anti-Semitic oppressions of the Czarist regime.

To travel from the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius to cosmopolitan Berlin was, of course, not only to enter a new social world but to effect what amounted to a leap in historical time–a leap into modernity. Yet the young Lasar Segall seems to have negotiated this radical change with remarkable facility. Four years after his arrival in the German capital, he was exhibiting his work with the Berlin Secession group. By 1910, when he was not yet 20, he had moved to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden, where he was enrolled as a student teacher. That year, too, the Gurlitt Gallery in Dresden gave Segall his first solo exhibition.

In 1912, Segall made his first journey to Brazil, where he had family connections, staying long enough to have two more solo exhibitions before returning to Dresden in 1913. He was actually lucky to be in Germany, rather than Lithuania, when the Great War came in 1914. For although he was expelled from the Dresden Academy as a Russian national when Russia entered the war, and interned for two years in the nearby city of Meissen, he was able to continue painting without interruption and–even more important–he did not have to experience the carnage of the war itself. When released from internment while the war was still raging, Segall even managed a last visit to his parents in Vilnius, which was soon thereafter destroyed.

There can be no doubt that the formative artistic experience of Segall’s life was his immersion in the German Expressionist movement. For a young artist trained in the highly restrictive conventions of the Berlin and Dresden academies, an encounter with the emancipatory ethos of the Expressionist avant-garde was bound to be a heady experience. It promised liberation not only from the moribund conventions of academic art, but from the hierarchical traditions of a highly stratified society. In Segall’s case, moreover, Expressionism proved to be a way of coming to terms with his experience as an emancipated Jew. As was often the case with Jewish artists and writers of his generation who felt exiled from their religious upbringing, yet retained a sense of solidarity with the traditions that had nurtured them, Segall found in Expressionism the means of accommodating both his feelings of alienation and his troubled social conscience.

Expressionism thus became for Segall something more than a pictorial style. It was a mindset that allowed him to channel all his sympathies for the lost world of his childhood into a facile depiction of destitution and suffering. Unfortunately, it was a mindset that, in Segall’s case, also encouraged a kind of morose sentimentality whenever he felt called upon to dwell on Jewish subjects or the lives of the poor. Satisfied that his heart was in the right place, he had a distressing tendency of turning every modernist innovation he favored into an instant caricature of the feeling that prompted it. There had always been an aspect of Expressionism that lent itself to caricature of this sort, and Segall was especially drawn to it.

It is thus remarkable that in the same year that he produced the painting called Interior of Poor People II (1921), a kind of compendium of Expressionist clichés in the service of social pathos, he was meeting Vasily Kandinsky, El Lissitzki, Naum Gabo and other luminaries of the European avant-garde. Yet none of the artistic developments that followed his attachment to Expressionism seems to have made much of an impression on Segall. The use he sometimes made of Cubist structure in his painting tends to be academic–and so, for that matter, is his dabbling in the New Objectivity realism that enjoyed a vogue in Germany in the 1920′s.

By the mid-1920′s, however, Segall was clearly preparing his departure from the European scene. In 1924, he had an exhibition in São Paulo and had decided to settle in Brazil, though he continued to divide his time between Europe and Brazil for a few more years. His first marriage collapsed, and in 1925 he remarried. His first son was born in Berlin in 1926, and another son was born in Paris in 1930. But by that time, Segall had become a Brazilian citizen–a wise move for a Jew residing in Germany in the late 1920′s, but not one, as it turned out, that did much to benefit Segall’s artistic development. His long residence in Brazil turned him into a thoroughly provincial artist, though it seems to have provided him with an otherwise happy life. In Brazil, he was treated as a modern master.

The current exhibition has been organized by the Lasar Segall Museum in São Paulo in collaboration with the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. At the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, the show remains on view through May 10.