Vivian Mann, Professor Emerita of Jewish Art History and Visual Culture at The Jewish Theological Seminary and Morris and Eva Feld Chair of Judaica at The Jewish Museum in New York City from 1979 to 2008, passed away on May 6, 2019.
The leading Jewish art historian of her generation in America, Vivian occupied a special place in Jewish Studies. Born to an Orthodox family in New Jersey, she received her BA from Barnard College, an MA from the University of Washington, and her doctorate in 1977 at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University with a dissertation on Romanesque ivories. She formally entered the field of Jewish art when, shortly later, she became curator at the Jewish Museum. There she immediately asserted Jewish art’s centrality to the museum’s mission by spearheading a series of remarkable, milestone-setting exhibitions. The first of these exhibitions, most of which she did in collaboration with other leading scholars, was Danzig 1939: Treasures of a Destroyed Community (1980). This was followed in short order by A Tale of Two Cities: Jewish Life in Frankfurt and Istanbul 1750-1870 (1982); Kings and Citizens: The History of the Jews of Denmark 1622-1983 (1983) ; The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collection (1983); Gardens and Ghettos: The Art of Jewish Life in Italy (1989); Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians In Medieval Spain (1992); From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage, and Power 1600-1800 (1996); and Morocco: Jews and Art in a Muslim Land (2000).
As their titles indicate, these exhibitions were not merely about “art.” Each one conceptualized and captured a previously undefined cultural moment in the Jewish historical experience focused upon a specific place in its full visual and material richness. Each exhibition was also accompanied by a meticulously annotated and magnificently illustrated catalogue with comprehensive scholarly essays exploring the multiple dimensions opened up by the objects in the exhibit. In editing or co-editing these volumes, Mann effectively helped create a new genre of scholarly writing in American Jewish Studies: the field-defining museum catalogue. And even after leaving the Jewish Museum in 2008, Vivian did not cease her museum work. In 2010, she organized a groundbreaking exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art entitled Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain that explored the unusual and unlikely collaborations of Jewish and Christian artists in creating both Jewish and Christian religious objects and manuscripts within a culture of rising religious hostility and persecution.
Throughout her curatorial career, Mann published many articles and essays growing out of her exhibitions and other scholarly projects. She had a special interest in the actual working relations between Jewish and Christian artisans. Above all, she was deeply committed to the belief that the study of Jewish art must be anchored both in the knowledge of the Jewish textual tradition and in the history of the art of the surrounding majority cultures. To this end, she founded and directed the master’s program in Jewish Art and Visual Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 2000, she published Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, a collection of source texts on different aspects of Jewish art (drawn from both Jewish tradition and from general art history and criticism) with accompanying commentary, and in 2005, Art and Ceremony in Jewish Life: Essays in the History of Jewish Art, a collection of her essays and articles. In 1999, she received the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Jewish Thought from the National Endowment for Jewish Culture.
With Vivian Mann’s passing, American Jewish Studies is left without a senior scholar In Jewish art with anything close to her scope and breadth, with her academic knowledge and her hands-on experience.