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Art of Lionel Reiss Subject of New Harvard Catalog

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Road builders, 1952 (untitled), HCL, Reiss Inventory no. I:39B.117

Through his artwork, Lionel S. Reiss (1894–1988) created a remarkable record of 20th-century Jewish life. Within a career that spanned decades and countries, Reiss produced an extensive oeuvre of primarily documentary artwork exploring Jewish identity. Although prolific, Reiss never attained widespread fame as an artist. However, a new catalog produced by the Judaica Division of Harvard College Library, Harvard University, which serves as the primary repository for Reiss' work, may very well bring Reiss' collection to the further attention of scholars.

"Lionel Reiss sought to show that there was not a Jewish racial type," writes Kenneth E. Carpenter, the catalog's editor. "His portraits demonstrate that, but Reiss succeeded in his goal in another way. At the same time that he sketched the lives and surroundings of Jews, his desire to capture the emotional life of a people has given his art a universality."

A Polish immigrant to New York's Lower East Side, Reiss left high school early to take a job in commercial art. In 1922, he left a comfortable and well-paying position to travel to Europe, visiting and documenting Jewish communities and ghettoes that would later be destroyed. His work—drawings, paintings, watercolors, etchings—captures daily life in these communities, exploring social and class distinctions and the transformative power of oppression. Reiss himself saw his art as divided into three general series: his documentation of European and Middle Eastern communities between the World Wars, plus additional paintings done in Israel in the 1950s; paintings of 59th Street in Manhattan in the 1940s; and his later Genesis paintings that explore biblical themes.

Harvard initially came to hold a large collection of Reiss' work in 1971 when a committee of donors organized by Harry Starr, Class of 1921 and president of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, donated a series of Reiss's portrait studies. The wide-ranging series—which documented Reiss' travels in the 1920s and 1930s to Europe and the Near East—fit well with the Judaica Division's mission to document comprehensively Jewish life and culture in every place and period. The collection grew again in December 1995 and again in December 1997 when Reiss' son, David Reiss, Class of 1958, and his wife Jo Ann, chose the Judaica Division for a gift of a significant portion of the artist's work, thereby making Harvard the major repository for Reiss's art.

The recently published catalog, which contains the inventory of items held by Harvard, also reproduces a representative selection of 59 pieces. It is enriched further by a piece penned by David Reiss about his father's history, influences, and accomplishments; an introduction on Reiss written by Cheryl Slutzky, which is a revised version of her master's thesis in art history; and a revised version of a lecture given by art historian and retired museum director Tom Freudenheim, Class of 1959, when the collection was exhibited in 1997.

Many items from the Reiss collection have been digitized and will be available through the VIA (Visual Information Access) catalog later in 2008.