Barbara Madgy Cohn views the art tour as “a way to connect with the DIA in a new way.”
Barbara Madgy Cohn, a trained docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), has been to the museum many times, but a few years ago, she noticed for the first time four paintings that included Hebrew writing. An art history specialist with a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University, Cohn undertook research to learn about the meaning and context of these paintings.
This led her to develop a Jewish-themed art tour at the DIA for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (JHSM); she is one of its vice presidents. The first tour in 2019 was enthusiastically received with 80 participants and a waiting list. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant that additional tours were put on hold.
But now, JHSM is planning to start the tours again in June. Recently, Cohn led a pilot tour with JHSM members Ron Elkus, who has served as a JHSM docent; Jeannie Weiner, a JHSM vice president; and Suzanne Curtis, who serves on its board of directors. The group viewed a diverse selection of paintings with Jewish themes, such as The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael, Ben Shahn’s Book Shop, and portraits of Samson and Delilah with Hebrew names above them.
Cohn views the art tour as “a way to connect with the DIA in a new way.” The museum has one of the largest and most prestigious collections in the U.S. with 65,000 works of art.
In addition to paintings with Jewish themes and references, including biblical stories, Cohn pointed out several works of art originally owned by European Jews that were taken from them by the Nazis and later “restituted”— returned to the original owners or their descendants. In 1950, the DIA was the first U.S. museum to return a piece of Nazi-looted art, a painting by Claude Monet, to its rightful owner.
The DIA’s very famous and popular Detroit Industry murals, which adorn the walls of the Rivera Court, have a Jewish connection. The murals painted by Diego Rivera include portrayals of Henry and Edsel Ford. But they also depict a tool and die worker named Harry Glicksman — an Orthodox Jew who worked at Ford from 1916 to 1952. Cohn explained that Rivera wanted to depict a German person on the assembly line and thought that Glicksman was a Jewish name. (Glicksman was actually born in Poland.) In the mural, he wears a cap typical of the 1930s but switched to a yarmulke when he left the factory.
The DIA has benefited from many generous members of Detroit’s Jewish community who have donated funds or artwork to the museum. Albert Kahn, a German Jewish immigrant who became a world-renown architect, was asked to design a bigger DIA museum on Woodward Avenue during the 1920s. According to Cohn, Kahn declined the prestigious commission due to other work commitments but served on the Art Commission that chose Paul Cret as the architect for the new building.
Kahn had an extensive art collection and donated some artworks to the DIA. Cohn showed the JHSM members several examples including Head of a Saint, a Spanish limestone sculpture from the early 13th century. Kahn also gave two sets of beautiful silver candlesticks to the museum; these are exhibited in glass cases. Today the DIA has several galleries named after major Jewish art collectors and donors from the Detroit area.
JHSM is training members to be docents for the Jewish connection art tours and hopes to begin offering them in June. Information will be available at michjewishhistory.org. The Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, a nonprofit educational organization, was founded in 1959 to interpret and highlight the history of Jewish Michigan. JHSM offers docent-led tours, lectures, classroom materials and publications.