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Harry McCormick’s Paintings: A Unique Jewish Genre


Rabbi Lieberow and Family; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick.
Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Rabbi Lieberow and Family; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute

Chassidic Art Institute
375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-774-9149
Noon – 7pm, Sunday – Thursday: Zev Markowitz, director
Until July 25

At the Chassidic Art Institute one artist, Harry McCormick, has rather amazingly fathomed the authentic heartbeat of the individual Jewish life. This exhibition, running until July 25, shows a mere 16 paintings, but six of them reveal a deeply perceptive and sensitive chronicle of Yiddishkeit.

As curated by Chassidic Art Institute’s director Zev Markowitz, the paintings delineate a narrative arc around the gallery: the warmth of the Jewish family unfolds into the blessings of Shabbos and then blossoms into blessing the sun, a mitzvah available only once every 28 years. Moving beyond this sacred familial foundation we see one Jew standing alone in a mystical shul in Safed and then in Jerusalem; finally this Jew encounters a rabbinic mentor in a synagogue in New York. Quite a journey in one exhibition.

McCormick has had a successful career as an artist for most of his adult life, creating what is called genre art. While genre paintings, i.e. pictorial representation of everyday life with everyday people, can be found throughout all art history, it blossomed as a distinctive movement in the 17th century Dutch Golden Age of painting driven by the rise of the middle class. Its most famous practitioners include Brueghel, Vermeer, le Nain, Watteau, Fragonard, Chardin, Hogarth; right up to Bonnard, Hopper and even Norman Rockwell.

Eldridge Street Synagogue; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

Eldridge Street Synagogue; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

Over the years McCormick has specialized in depicting interiors with people, such as a decades long series depicting bars from around the world and their patrons. A quick glance at his website (www.mccormickstudios.com) reveals that these works are often penetrating sociological studies of the complexities of human relationships played out in extremely public spaces. Another recent fascinating series is of people looking at famous paintings in museums. While at first glance one might think that all he is doing is making an accurate representation of something he witnessed, a closer examination reveals that this is far from the truth. Aside from my discussions with the artist that revealed his complex working methods, we can immediately see that he takes enormous liberties with the actual size of many very famous artworks, all of which serves to heighten the intensely psychological narratives that play out in public art spaces. His encounter with the Jewish world is no less insightful.

Rabbi Lieberow and Family is a study in mystery cloaked in the ordinary. At first it seems like a charming family portrait of a father with his 4 children. And yet upon close inspection each child is immersed in his or her own world as the father carefully supervises. The two boys on his lap are occupied with stuff on the table; one is studying a piece of pita about to be consumed while his younger brother plays with a tiny toy. The boy in the foreground is intently kissing his father’s hand as his sister quizzically looks on. The heartwarming dynamics are complex and intriguing, especially when you realize that this image is the result of dozens of different studies, drawings and images painstakingly stitched together to create the illusion of a casual homebound scene. The painting divides into two parts that continually relate to each other. On the left the 3 figures ascend to the boy about to eat and finally to the ancestor portrait on the wall behind him. He is the link to the past, a piece of history in the making, while on the right there is the realm of Torah knowledge represented by the laden bookcase and the rabbi himself. The two books at the very top seem to symbolize the core of this family, the man and wife overseeing the unfolding family below. And of course the mystery is, where is the wife?

Friday Night Candles; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

Friday Night Candles; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

Richard McBee

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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