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September 18, 2014 / 23 Elul, 5774
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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

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.

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


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