Painting spawns Mendelssohn Project at the Magnes

Francesco Spagnolo, curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, has viewed thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of artworks during his academic and professional career, but one piece that has always captivated him is Moritz D. Oppenheim’s 1865 painting “Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn.”

The painting was donated to the Magnes in 1968 by the family of Friedrich and Edith Straus, Jewish emigrés who, with their five children, fled Hitler’s Germany three decades before. For Spagnolo, it exquisitely represents the dilemma faced by Jews worldwide: the choice between adherence to religious traditions or assimilation into modern, secular society.

The painting “Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn” resides at the Magnes. courtesy the magnes collection

Spagnolo has been so taken with the painting lately that he worked with U. C. Berkeley’s arts and humanities division and departments of history and music to create “The Mendelssohn Project: One exhibition, two historic pianos, and fourteen lectures & performances.” The collaboration of free Mendelssohn-related events kicked off on Jan. 26 and continues through the spring.

The linchpin of the project is the exhibit, titled “From Mendelssohn to Mendelssohn: German Jewish Encounters in Art, Music and Material Culture,” in which the painting by Oppenheim, considered the first Jewish painter of the modern era, is displayed front and center. The work depicts an imagined meeting of three great minds of 18th-century Western Europe: German Jewish philosopher and scholar Moses Mendelssohn, who is best known as the father of haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment; Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss writer, philosopher and theologian; and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German philosopher and writer.

In the painting, Mendelssohn, wearing both a yarmulke and tzitzit — which he did not wear publicly in real life — is engaged in a heated chess match with Lavater while Lessing observes. The scene takes place in Mendelssohn’s study and includes both Jewish and secular trappings of mid- to late-18th-century German upper-class life, including bookshelves, a candelabra-like chandelier and a mizrach, an ornamental piece of art hung on the eastern wall of the library — a reminder of the direction Jews face during prayer.

“The work is highly allegorical,” said Spagnolo, explaining that the chess match mirrors the public sparring between Mendelssohn and Lavater, in which the Christian theologian challenged the Jewish intellectual to embrace Christianity or refute its precepts.

“Chess is a representation of that back-and-forth. The painting is an iconic view of the German Jewish Enlightenment, of how an intellectual dialogue can be undermined by a ‘friendly’ foe,” he added, referring to Lavater, who held Mendelssohn in high esteem despite their strong theological disagreements.

Mendelssohn successfully defended the rights of Jews to practice their religion and never converted to Christianity. Nevertheless, all but two of his six children did so, and his most famous grandchildren — composers, pianists and siblings Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn — were baptized and raised as Christians.

The remainder of the exhibit, which Spagnolo assembled with the assistance of curatorial apprentice Lauren Cooper, a senior at U.C. Berkeley, includes period drawings, prints, rare books, artifacts and two other works by Oppenheim. Together, these items call to mind the salon culture of Europe of which Moses Mendelssohn and his heirs were a part, with particular emphasis on their contributions to Western culture.

Two 19th-century grand pianos are also on display and will be used during concerts connected to the exhibits. The next musical presentation will take place on Sunday, Feb. 7, when Berkeley music professors Nicholas Mathew and James Davies, along with students from the university’s Pianism seminar, perform Felix Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words.” It will be preceded by “Inner Voices of the Mendelssohn Family,” a talk by professor Michael Steinberg of Brown University.

Spagnolo said the Mendelssohn Project holds particular resonance for members of the Bay Area’s Jewish community because the Oppenheim painting that inspired the exhibit was owned for generations by the Straus family, who lived in Berkeley — just blocks away from the museum’s current location — after escaping Germany.

The Straus family, who were bankers, had amassed not only great wealth over the century preceding Hitler’s rise to power, but also valuable furniture, art and artifacts. While they lost the lion’s share of their assets when they left Germany, they were able to ship some of their art, including “Lavater and Lessing Visit Moses Mendelssohn,” to the United States, according to Oakland resident Hal Feiger, a grandson of Friedrich and Edith Straus.

Feiger, who vividly recalls seeing the painting in his grandparents’ home hanging right above a bowl of M&Ms when he visited for Shabbat and other holiday dinners, said it was “thrilling and touching” to know that the Oppenheim work had a special place in Jewish art and history. When he saw it at the Mendelssohn Project’s opening, he said he “was moved to tears.” n

“From Mendelssohn to Mendelssohn: German Jewish Encounters in Art, Music and Material Culture,” through June 24 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Related events ongoing through mid-April. Free.

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.