Deaf Polish Jewish Artist, Maurycy Minkowski (1881-1930)
By Hugh Dominic W Stiles, on 24 June 2016
Maurycy Minkowski (1881-1930), sometime known as Maurice Minkowski or Minkovski, was a Polish Jewish artist, born in Warsaw. He seems to be an early 20th century artist who has been largely forgotten.
When one of his works, “After the Pogrom” appeared in a 2002 exhibition in The Jewish Museum (New York), it was bracketed with several other paintings by the critic as putting “a specifically Jewish spin on the worst excesses of 19th-century sentimentality” (Prose, 2002). That seems a little harsh, but Richard Cohen says he was one of the Jewish artists who “remained deeply anchored to the cataclysmic events of the day”, namely the terrible pogroms that broke out in Eastern Europe and European Russia at the turn of the century (Jewish Icons, 1998). If you search for his paintings on line you will get a flavour of the types of image – women, children, old men, the victims of dislocation and hatred.
It is hard to find solid details about his life, at least in English. His family were it seems middle class, and according to Cohen were “acculturated” (1998, p.245). He had an accident when he was 3, falling off a table (see comment by Ruth below) which entailed hospitalisation and left him deaf. Aged 12 he was talented enough to be asked to paint a portrait of the Governor of Warsaw (Jewish Chronicle obituary). From 1900 to 1904 he trained at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Jozef Mehoffer, Jan Stanisławski, and Leon Wyczółkowski (ibid and his Polish Wikipedia entry). Cohen tells us that they awarded him with a gold medal at his graduation (ibid p.245). He is called ‘deaf and dumb’ which suggests that he had no spoken language, but as I have found no proper interviews and only one contemporary account of him, it is impossible to say whether he signed in Polish sign language or had to use lip-reading or other forms of communication. His Polish Wikipedia entry says that he attended the Institute for the Deaf, as well as having private tuition in drawing, but it cites no sources for that. He had a brother, Feliks, and at some point married Rachel Marshak (Baker, p.108). His obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, despite calling him ‘well-known’, runs to a mere 16 lines.
The pivotal period of his life that influenced his art seems to have been the events of the Polish Revolution in 1905. There were attacks on Jews, and a pogrom at Bialystock where Cohen says (p.245) the “plight of the children left the artist shaken”.
He travelled around western Europe in the following years, and the Polish Wikipedia article says he settled in Paris in 1908, though he continued to travel. Another source says that it was in 1924 that he moved permanently to Paris, where he exhibited (Stevens, 1925). Interviewed by Kelly Stevens, it seems that, as he knew no French they communicated with gesture and “signs”. He left Paris for Argentina in August 1930, taking 200 of his works with him. One work, that seems to me to be very fine, a portrait of Mosheh Oved, is in the Ben Uri collection in London. When crossing a street near his house in Buenos Aires on Saturday the 22nd of November 1930, Minkowski was struck by a taxi that he failed to hear because of his deafness, and died almost instantly (Baker p.109). His funeral was attended by thousands of people. About ten years after his death, some of his art was sold to cover the debts of his heirs. Much was bought by a Jewish cultural association in Buenos Aires, the IWO (Baker, p.117). The collection narrowly escaped total destruction when there was a terrorist attack on the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in 1994, that killed 84 people. You can read more about that in Zachary Baker’s article.
The short obituary cited above, quotes the Jewish Chronicle’s art critic from an earlier exhibition review:
In the work of Maurice Minkowski…. We see a splendid example of the East European Type of Jewish genius…. We find the penetrating grasp of character and the absorbed interest in human emotion which is to be expected in a Polish Jew: it is the high intensity with which these are developed which is remarkable.
The reception of Minkowski’s work in the pre-World War I period remains enigmatic. Hardly any Jewish newspaper that popularized Jewish artists singled him out, and he is referred to only fleetingly until the appearance of the Hungarian Jewish journal Múlt és Jövő in 1911. This journal gave his work extensive coverage, publishing many of his paintings. After World War I, Minkowski staged several large exhibitions in the west, which were introduced by the French cultural figure, Anatole de Monzie (Cohen p.250-1).
The photograph of the artist, from our collection made by Selwyn Oxley, is the only image of him that I have seen, and is what set me off trying to find out a little about him. It comes from The Silent Worker article. His seems a fascinating story, and probably requires the research skills of an art lover who can read Polish, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. Please add any interesting information you can contribute in the comment space below.
UPDATE 1/7/2016: I put the wrong birth date in the heading and first paragraph from an early version – it was 1881 NOT 1888 as one or two sources suggested. I have also expanded a few bits and added a couple of links and a quote from Cohen.
UPDATE 15/5/2019: I added the age at which he lost his hearing – thanks to Ruth for her comment, & this reference http://www.jpress.nli.org.il/Olive/APA/NLI_heb/SharedView.Article.aspx?href=DHY%2F1931%2F01%2F23&id=Ar00202&sk=6DF6C216
Baker, Zachary M. Art Patronage and Philistinism in Argentina: Maurycy Minkowski in Buenos Aires, 1930. Shofar Vol. 19, No. 3, Special Issue: The Jewish Diaspora of Latin America (SPRING 2001), pp. 107-119
Cohen, Richard I., Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe. University of California Press, 1998. p.245-51
The Jewish Chronicle, November 28th 1930 p. 14
The Jewish Chronicle, December 5th 1930 p. 5
MUSEO MAURICE MINKOWSKI Calle Pasteur 633 , Buenos Aires , 1028 , Argentina