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Kestenbaum’s Gems

Sacrifice of Isaac (20th century) gouache on paper by Shalom of Safed Courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

Sacrifice of Isaac (20th century) gouache on paper by Shalom of Safed Courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

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Kestenbaum & Company
242 West 30th Street, 12th floor, NYC
212 366 1197; kestenbaum.net
Fine Judaica: Printed Books, Manuscripts, Autograph Letters
Graphic & Ceremonial Art including the Cassuto Collection of Iberian Books
Exhibition: Sunday, June 17 through Wednesday, June 20th.
Sun: 12 noon – 6pm; Mon-Wed: 10am – 6pm: or by appointment
Auction June 21, 2012: 3pm

The exhibitions that precede Judaic auctions are rather special events for anyone who has a feeling for the fabric of Jewish life as it has been lived for the last 500 years. Not only is one afforded the opportunity to see a wide variety of Judaica, books, manuscripts and Jewish art of considerable historic importance, but if something strikes your fancy; intellectually or acquisitively, you can actually handle the objects. For most artwork the thrill is in seeing it up close and judging the brushstrokes and details of a painting or watercolor. One stands in the exact proximity as the creator did. But for books and manuscripts the joy is in leafing through the complexities of a survivor from the past. This was especially true at a Kestenbaum’s pre-exhibition preview of its June 21st auction featuring the “Ferrara Bible” as its star attraction. Jewish history can be held securely in the palm of your hand.

This “Ferrara Bible” was printed in 1553 in Italy and has been acclaimed by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi as “one of the great landmarks in the history of printing” because “it is the first printed Spanish translation of the entire Hebrew Bible, the work of Jews” for the Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal. Printed by Abraham Usque and Yom Tob Atias it became “virtually canonical” for Sephardic Jews for the next 300 years. The title page at first appears typical of Renaissance printed decorations until one notices the central scene of a three-masted galleon floundering in heavy seas. Sea monsters threaten in turbulent waters as the winds blow from both sides. The tall central mast has snapped in half and is about to fall into the deep. According to Yerushalmi the hobbled “ship represents the afflicted Jewish people, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese exiles, in their perilous search for a safe haven.” A truly moving image on the title page of the Tanach that would be their rock for generations.

Ferrara Bible (1553) title page detail, printed by Abraham Usque & Yom Tob Atias Courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

The next gem I leafed through was a handwritten and illuminated Haggadah created in 1757 by Nathanel ben Aaron Segal. It was the personal possession of the noted Bezalel illustrator Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874 – 1925) and it is yet another example of the Jewish return to illuminated manuscripts in the 18th century. The illustrations are admittedly rather naïve, modeled on the famous 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah which in turn utilized many Judaized images from the Christian artist Matthaeus Merian (mentioned many times in these pages concerning early printed Haggadahs). However, the earnest spirit of the scribe’s images easily makes up for the clumsiness of much of the drawing. In many examples the scenes are changed to reflect the more humble landscapes his Jewish clients inhabited. Additionally the scribe is sensitive to nuances in the narrative. When the three Angels visit Abraham, Sarah steps forward as one of the angels directly motions to her, prophesizing her miraculous pregnancy; an emphasis not seen in earlier images of the same scene. Because of its simplicity, the artist’s depiction stresses the intense interchange between Sarah, Abraham and the Angels.

Sarah & 3 Angels (detail) (1757) ink & watercolor on parchment by Nathanel ben Aaron Segal Haggadah courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

In a number of images the artist added new material, such as the parasols shading Pharaoh’s daughter as she saves Moses; or creates what appears to be totally new images, such as the depiction of the Plague of Frogs. While in the 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah there is an image of the Plague of Frogs, it takes place in the interior of an Egyptian palace. In this Haggadah we see a Jewish man calmly walking along a balustrade with a black servant shielding him with an umbrella from the deluge of frogs, most of which litter the pathway he walks on. A young lad walks ahead of them to clear the way. This totally new image and concept dramatically shifts the pictorial point of view from simple description to seeing the plagues from the Jewish perspective of Divine protection.

Plague of Frogs (detail) (1757) ink & watercolor on parchment by Nathanel ben Aaron Segal Haggadah courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

Perhaps the most startling images in the exhibition are a pair of Indo-Persian Jewish folk paintings from the 19th century. While there is an established tradition of miniature paintings in Judeo-Persian manuscripts, I am not aware of a painting tradition of iconic images, here representing Aaron and Moses. Each is framed by a wreath of flowers, a magen david emblazoned with the word Tzion and surmounted by a crown, the whole assemblage held aloft by two smiling Persian angels. Both are standing in a lush green field punctuated by beautifully detailed flowers with fanciful mountains in the distance. Moses points heavenward as he holds two blank tablets. It is a challenge to imagine what setting was intended for these modest paintings (each 20” x 16”). Since they have blank panels for dedicatory passages, perhaps their function was as synagogue decorations or private home embellishments. Whatever their purpose, the straightforward and loving depictions of Torah luminaries reflects the age-old Jewish passion for visual expression and a fearless willingness to adapt from their surrounding culture.

Siegmund Forst (1904 – ?), the Viennese trained illustrator and designer, had a successful career creating numerous children’s books, haggadot and megillot after arriving in New York in 1939. While his work illustrating the Little Midrash Says children’s book series is remembered by many loyal readers, I am not sure that many know he also produced fine art, evidenced by his painting The Messiah, seen here. The deeply pensive Messiah, riding his traditional donkey, is engulfed by a firestorm of expressionistic red, yellow and ochre paint. The image expresses the world shattering upheaval inherent in the coming of the anointed one, even depicting shadowy resurrected figures on the left. Forst’s Messiah is deeply etched with a 20th Century consciousness.

Shalom of Safed (1887 – 1980) was a chasidwho worked most of his life as a watchmaker, scribe, stonemason and silversmith. Late in life he was encouraged to turn to painting after a successful Israeli artist, Yossel Bergner, discovered the extraordinary folk quality in Shalom’s hand-made toys. Although he only painted the last 30 years of his life, he nonetheless managed to create a unique form of contemporary Jewish art. Unconsciously drawing on the depiction of multiple narratives found in Dura Europos and medieval Jewish manuscripts, Shalom’s artwork explores Biblical and Jewish themes using the same “continuous narrative” style imbedded with the richness of midrashic exposition. Frequently he utilizes many horizontal registers to allow the narrative to unfold pictorially as he weaves the text and identifying labels into the images. The artist’s primary role as a storyteller sets the stage for insightful and witty commentary.

The Messiah (20th century) oil on board by Siegmund Forst Courtesy Kestenbaum & Company

Kabbalists of Tzfat depicts two sets of chasidim praying at the purported grave of Benayahu ben Yehoyoda, a righteous general in the time of David and Solomon mentioned in 2 Samuel 23:20-23. Still visited today, the site is depicted as a mound with a tree sprouting from it with the pious chasidim schematically facing it from each side. Shalom contextualizes the depiction with scenes of Tzfat and the surrounding countryside above and below the pilgrimage gravesite.

In The Sacrifice of Isaac the “continuous narrative” style of repeating the same character as the narrative unfolds offers the viewer the opportunity to compare differences between the three registers and glean the artist’s subtle commentary. The bottom register presents Abraham leading the way with the donkey, only then followed by Isaac, Eliezar and finally Yishmael, here outfitted in a Ottoman fez and wearing a incongruous sword. The fez represents the oppressive Ottoman Turkish rulers of Shalom’s youth and the sword symbolizes Yishmael’s violent nature. We must remember Shalom is utilizing the midrash here since the text only tells us Abraham took “his two young men.”

In the middle register the tone of the narrative changes. Now Isaac is leading the way, bearing the sacrificial wood on his back, followed by his father carrying the fire and the knife for the slaughter. The “lads” have been told to “stay by yourselves here,” hence Eliezar is seated with the donkey. Yishmael is seen at the very edge of the composition irreverently smoking a pipe, clearly clueless about the gravity of the event unfolding before him.

Finally the top section delineates the climatic moment of aborted sacrifice. Previously the narrative figures have all moved from right to left echoing the actual Hebrew text and the figures of Abraham, Isaac bound on the altar, and the ram caught in a tree-like “thicket” similarly follow this pattern. The great exception is the angel flying in from the left to grasp Abraham’s knife and stop Isaac’s slaughter. Once you notice this device, the visual tension becomes palpable and reflects Abraham’s pietistic frustration (noted in the midrashic commentaries) at being unable to complete the sacrifice as commanded by God. At the altar he has removed his shoes and donned a tallis, details that are Shalom’s unique invention and commentary. In Shalom’s vision, Abraham is the consummate obedient Jew, blindly doing God’s bidding. It is a brilliant and complex, if chilling, depiction of the Akeida.

In my extremely selective survey (I haven’t even touched upon the hundreds of fascinating books and manuscripts, not to mention Judaica offered) of this one pre-auction exhibition at Kestenbaum’s we have seen a breathtakingly wide-ranging survey of Jewish visual art from 1553 to the late 20th century. We have touched the Jewish cultures of Italy, Central Europe, India, Israel and America as we sampled holy texts, home ritual, Biblical narrative and finally the End of Days. Not half bad and not to be missed.

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

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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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