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Is Curious George Jewish? Monkeys and Jewish Art


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The Wartime Escape: Margret and H.A. Rey’s Journey from France

March 26, 2010 – June 20, 2010

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

9603 Woods Drive, Skokie, Ill.

http://www.ilholocaustmuseum.org

 

Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey

March 14, 2010 – August 1, 2010

The Jewish Museum

1109 5th Ave, at 92nd St., New York

http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/ 

 

 

Monkeys and apes are generally symbols of base passion, particularly lust, in Western art. Giovanni Battista Foggini’s 17th century bronze sculpture “The Fall of Man” shows not only the serpent dangling from the Tree of Knowledge tempting Adam and Eve, but also a monkey seated behind the tree eating an apple. Foggini may have gotten the idea from Jan Brueghel the Elder, whose 1612 painting “Garden of Eden” features a monkey prominently, or from a c. 1410 “The Garden of Eden” by an unknown artist in Frankfurt. A century earlier, Martin Luther had famously referred to Satan as “God’s ape,” building upon the then-popular view of monkeys as unintelligent animals that simply mimicked primitive human behavior.

 

A monkey dressed as a court jester sits with a ball-and-chain shackling its legs in David Teniers the Younger’s “Prodigal Son” (1640), representing the son’s immorality and infidelity. In Eastern art, monkeys often torment the Buddha (as they do Christian saints), and several Frida Kahlo self portraits feature monkeys, no doubt referencing the artist’s passion. The title alone of El Greco’s 1577-9 work, “An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool,” identifies the tradition of identifying monkeys with loose morals.

 

Since monkeys so closely resemble humans (or vice versa), many artists have personified monkeys to offer social commentary, much like William Wegman photographed dogs dressed as people. The master of still life painting Jean-Sim?on Chardin’s 1740 “Monkey as Painter” shows a fashionably-dressed monkey painting a still life. Teniers, who placed a monkey beside his prodigal son, was famous for populating many of his works with monkeys: “Monkeys Drinking and Smoking” (1630s), “The Monkey Sculptor” (1660), “Monkeys at School” (c. 1660, not to be confused with his “Monkeys in School”), “Barber Shop with Monkeys and Cats” and “Guardroom with Monkeys” (c. 1663).

 

Like many other symbols from different faiths, monkeys found their way into Jewish art. According to some scholars, notably Rachel Hachlili in “Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in The Diaspora,” monkeys may appear on some of the walls at the synagogue at Dura Europos. In his seminal “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature,” Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish studies at Vassar College, notes that monkeys were among the animal depictions adorning the walls of the 17th century synagogue in Hodorov (modern day Ukraine).

 

In “The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies,” Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen and David Sorkin add that monkeys are among the animals depicted on seals found “at Israelite sites dating primarily from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.” A 1309 edition of the Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary from Brussels by Joshua b. Elijah (cited in Norman Roth’s “Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia”) features an illustration, which covers nearly the entire page, of a seated scribe holding a dog on his lap facing a monkey.

 

18. Margret and H. A. Rey, United States, late 1940s.  H. A. & Margret Rey Papers,

de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection,

McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.

 

 

It is against this larger tradition of monkeys that Margret and H.A. Rey created Curious George, the inquisitive monkey many will know from the Reys’ children’s book series.

 

Since there is no literal Jewish content in the work of the Reys, many readers might be surprised to learn there is any Jewish significance to Curious George. But the playful monkey has been the subject of recent shows at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and The Jewish Museum, owing to the Jewish identity of his two creators.

 

In fact, the Reys had to temporarily halt their work on the Curious George series to flee the Nazis and they escaped Paris on their bicycles with the George manuscripts in tow. When one looks for references to the Reys’ status as refugees in their character, one is reminded that the Man with the Yellow Hat (who remains anonymous) traps George and removes him from his home in the African jungle. As David Chack, president of the Association for Jewish Theatre, pointed out to me when we visited the exhibit together at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, the man’s hat could be a reference to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear.

 

 

4. H. A. Rey, final illustration for “One day George saw a man. He had on a large yellow straw hat,” published in The Original Curious George (1998), France, 1939-40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper.  H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.  Curious George, and related characters, created by Margret and H. A. Rey, are copyrighted and trademarked by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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