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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

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In the next painting the mystery continues. Friday Night Candles presents the anticipation created by the onset of the holy Shabbos. This painting presents an almost perfect balance. The figures are in the exact center; in the middle ground of the image, spatially delineated by the strong foreground table, chair, and side table and the implied distance outside the curtained glass doors. Here an older sister is lighting Shabbos candles with her two younger siblings. She has covered her hair with a delicate lace scarf and affectionately holds one sister as she lights the first of two candles. She will light the second one and then cover her eyes to pronounce the blessing. It is interesting to note that the midrash Eliyahu Rabbah understands the custom of two candles as representing the husband and wife. This subtle interpretation effectively links this painting’s symbolic parents with the two books in the previous artwork. And just to heighten the narrative mystery, the empty chair in the foreground, poised at the head of the table, likewise points to an unseen parent.

Sunrise Ceremony on the Beach; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

Sunrise Ceremony on the Beach; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

The third painting, Sunrise Ceremony on the Beach, resolves the mystery of the unseen parents by presenting one complete Jewish family in the midst of a rarely performed mitzvah, Blessing the Sun. Based on the Talmud (Berachos 59b and Eruvin 56a) as codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Birkas haChama is done once every 28 years when the sun returns to its original position on the fourth day of Creation. Since the first time the sun can be seen is the following sunrise, it was last done at sunrise, Wednesday, April 8, 2009. Even though it is preferable to do this mitzvah with a multitude of people, here McCormick has chosen to depict just one family as emblematic for the whole Jewish people. Father, daughter and mother carrying an infant becomes the primordial family upon which the future will grow. And as such they occupy the entire left side of the painting, perfectly balanced by the vibrant orb of the rising sun on the right. It is the Jewish family in balance with the God’s creation.

Yochanan ben Zacchai Synagogue; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

Yochanan ben Zacchai Synagogue; oil on canvas by Harry McCormick. Courtesy Chassidic Art Institute.

In the next three paintings McCormick narrows his focus from family to the lone individual. He is a searcher of faith and, secured by the refuge of the Jewish family, he can now explore the places where he might encounter God. Naturally the Abuhav Synagogue in Safed is a perfect place to start. The 15th century Abuhav Synagogue is famous for its delicate design and kabbalistic symbolism, allegedly designed by the Spanish rabbi and kabbalist, Isaac Abuhav, the author of the Menorat ha Maor. On the southern wall, facing Jerusalem to the south, there are three holy arks. This was the only portion of the synagogue that survived the devastating earthquake of 1837 and the remainder of the building and all the interior decorations were created after then. At this southern wall, close to the ark, we see the lone figure standing, cloaked in a tallis and deep in meditation. The painting’s harmonious contrasts of blue walls and earth-toned ark are notable for both the calm pensive atmosphere created and the artistic liberty taken since the walls of this synagogue are actually white. Yet the invention works wonderfully, creating an ethereal light and echoing the notorious use of blue on gravestones of the righteous and homes in Safed and the blue associated with attribute of chochmah in the Sefirot, We have entered a truly spiritual universe.

The Yochanan ben Zakkai Synagogue in Jerusalem is a step in yet another direction. The legendary foundation of this synagogue goes back to the Beit Midrash of the Tanna Yochanan ben Zakkai who courageously established the Sanhedrin in Yavneh to begin the reconstitution of Judaism and the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The current building was built in the 17th century and was in constant use since then, but was gutted under the Jordanian occupation that only ended in 1967. It has been totally restored and is now back in use. In McCormick’s painting the exact same individual is standing alone in the quiet interior, and yet the effect is deeply different. The confluence of ancient history, religious and physical revitalization drives the psychological narrative. The man is standing between the two giant Torah arks, rooted in their unwavering sanctity, while above him a mystical contemporary painting hovers. In its way the relationship between the painted reality of McCormick’s image is in radical tension with the depiction of the painted shul decoration. We are unsure which is “real” and which is “fantasy” while actually both are real and true.

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


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