Bibliophiles along with Jewish philosophy and Jewish Americana people and maybe a couple of modern art historians will want to check out this extraordinary blogpost by Margaret Olin, which you can read here. In addition to her own inspired commentary, the post documents Peg’s chance discovery at the Yale undergraduate library of the reader’s marginalia left behind in Arthur Cohen’s copy of Hallo’s translation of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption. Peg’s post reflect upon the spiritual in art and spiritual marginalia.
There’s a long backstory here, about Peg’s own snarky response as a recent PhD back in the 1980s to a review someone wrote of a review concerning Bauhaus trained graphic designer Herbert Bayer. She dismissed as “meaningless mumbo jumbo” the reviewer’s assessment about Bayer’s engagement in “sustained investigation of the means by which intimate nature, monumental nature, and ultimately celestial nature can be made the apposite to human finitude.” She goes on to write, “I accused the author of depicting the great designer ‘as a mystical, pantheistic painter who designed on the side,’ the escalation of a deplorable tendency to fetishize artists of the German Bauhaus.
As it turns out, the review she savaged was written by none other than Arthur Cohen, an important and under-examined American Jewish philosophical theologian and esthete. It is to Cohen’s marginalia to which now turns Olin, the art historian now employed at Yale Divinity School where she teaches visual theory, photography theory and history, visual culture and Jewish visual studies.
Clearly, Peg was on to something. With the eye of a trained observer, she observes with what waves of excitement Cohen marked up and underlined his copy of Rosenzweig’s text. She follows how “the marks then become agitated, tremble along in waves, vibrate with the mounting excitement of reading an important passage and seem to gain speed.” She tells us something about the impression made by Rosenzweig on his American reader, and also about shifts in the way art historians approach religious material, and the digitalization of Jewish thought and culture. The blogpost is itself a thing of beauty, smartly curated and sumptuously illustrated.
It also turns out that Cohen owned Noonday Press, which was the house that published the edition of Heschel’s Man is Not Alone with the cool Bauhaus inspired abstract anthropos figure on the front cover. That’s what Peg told me at the AJS conference the other week in Boston. For my own part, I’m just awfully glad that the young Margaret Olin did not review my Shape of Revelation, which explores and tries to take seriously the very same mumbo jumbo in the German Expressionism of Rosenzweig and Buber, Kandinsky and Klee.