The utilization of Jewish symbols from Tanach and Talmud in Judaica is one of the primary methods of generating meaning in what are simply ceremonial ritual objects. These visual symbols can lead us into a heady mystical universe. A diminutive painting by Alfred Lakos, (catalogue 197) In Prayer also inhabits a mystical realm. Lakos (1870 – 1961) was born near Budapest and studied art in Budapest, Munich and Paris. He began his career creating caricatures for journals and magazines to fight the ubiquitous anti-Semitism of his time. Later he turned to painting Jewish genre themes including Mourning Jews, Shabbos Rest, The Bocher and Pogrom Victims and even Biblical figures, particularly the matriarch Rachel. Not surprisingly his work features many pietistic depictions of Jews and/or Rabbis in prayer. In what began as a criticism of his work, author and noted Hungarian Zionist Joseph Patai declared in 1916 that; ”For twenty years he has been a painter for the emancipation of the Jewish theme. To say it with biblical words, these themes are flesh from his flesh and bones from his bones – the redemption of the wandering Jews from the galut. Art for Lakos is not l’art pour l’art, but means for a higher purpose…the strongest weapon in the fight against hatred and lies and inhumanity.”
In Prayer at first seems like many of Lakos’s profiles of old Jews. All of the elements of the formula are in place; the white beard, aged wrinkles and tallit over his balding head. But upon close inspection there is a freedom and joy in the paint application, one that goes well beyond mere description and begins to approach a mystical animation both on the surface and in the paint itself. While we don’t know what year this was painted in, it betrays a decidedly modernist quality. The blue stripe of the atarah is starkly centered in the painting, neatly dividing the image: the pleading otherworldly profile on one side and the mountain-like folds of the tallit on the other. This individual is more than seen in prayer, he is mounted in another universe.
Easily the most extraordinary artwork in the Kestenbaum auction is the complete suite of 40 gouache, pen and ink paintings (each 19” X 14”) by Jozef Kaliszan; “The Warsaw Ghetto” (catalogue 234). Created in 1966, this achingly painful series of images was published in 1968 and has been in circulation ever since; but the original paintings where unknown until now. An excellent website, www.kaliszan.com features images of all the paintings. It is a museum quality masterpiece of Holocaust art.
Kaliszan (Kalisz) (1927 – 2007) was a Polish non-Jewish artist, raised under the Nazi occupation and who became one of the leading artists in the 1950’s socialist realism movement creating paintings, sculptures as well as set designs for Polish theater and television. His creation of “The Warsaw Ghetto” in 1966 appears to be an expression of his own memory of Jewish persecution in the ghetto that equally articulates the prevailing anti-fascist Communist ideology. In the published version Kaliszan created a running commentary that further elaborated on the harrowing images.
The paintings are divided into four equal sections: Exodus that depicts the shock, humiliation and persecution of Polish Jewry after the German invasion; Ghetto describes the incredible suffering of ghetto life; Ghetto Fighting documents the fierce resistance Jews mounted and finally Massacre forces us to witness the capture, murder and/or deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews. While many of the images are based on existing documentary photographs of ghetto conditions, the final section, Massacre, was largely based on the infamous Stroop Report, a Nazi written and photographic record of the brutal liquidation and destruction of the ghetto in April 1943.
While there are other examples of post-Holocaust art by non-Jews, I believe this is a exceptional if not singular example of works about Jewish victims among Polish artists. Considering its ambitious scale, complex narrative structure and seriousness of the works, it expresses a rarely seen heartfelt politics of empathy.
Significantly this Kestenbaum June 20th auction provides more than just the occasion to own some very noteworthy Judaica; it gives us the opportunity to ponder many of the meaningful challenges of the ideas that quality Judaica and Jewish art can present.