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On the Master-Disciple Relationship in Hasidic Visual Culture: The Life and Afterlife of Rebbe Portraits in Habad, 1798–2006

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Scholarship on Hasidism typically utilizes literary source material of the dynastic leaders and their top disciples, while the more typical master/disciple relationship has escaped attention. Hasidic movements have produced, distributed, and voraciously consumed visual portraits of their leaders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The most visually productive Hasidic community is the Belarusian HabadLubavitch, which has produced images of five of its seven generations of leaders. Indeed, portraits of its leaders have been integral to the development of Habad both in Eastern Europe and its post-Shoah rejuvination in the United States. This paper begins with Habad's visual history from the 1880s release of portrait paintings of the first and third Habad leaders in the effort to establish a unified group identity at a time of factionalism. The survey then moves to Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of Habad, who rallied his followers with the medium of photography. Photography became a central component of his leadership in the 1930s and 1940s. The study then moves to the seventh and last Habad leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who expanded the use of visual culture in Habad and used his own image to forge a post-Shoah group identity around a distinctly American leader who was also the spiritual repository of the six preceding Russian leaders. Schneerson's image production and reproduction began to model American celebrity culture in the early 1970s as part of a public campaign to inaugurate the Messianic Age. This broad dissemination of Schneerson's image inadvertantly created an elastic Schneerson portrait, whose reflexivness, in some respects, transcended its subject.


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