Dangers lurking are not far from Shany Saar’s works either. The principle difference is that she locates her subjects within the Biblical narratives. While Saar, a native Israeli, is relatively new to Torah narratives in her artwork, the results of this last year’s painting is remarkable. In the 19 paintings shown here she explores Balaam, Miriam’s Well, Jonah, Burning Bush and the 12 Spies. The Twelve Spies are seen in two completely different large paintings. One is a fantastic urban view, the spies dotted about the streets and households of a whimsical hillside village. Each house is a different color and shape and we glimpse the spies on the streets and in the houses, indistinguishable from the natives. A curious donkey seems to accompany them. The other version of the 12 Spies is set in a vineyard with three of them underneath the grapevines wondering as to the import of this wonderful fruit. Locating the spies in the midst of a vineyard, in some way becoming one with the vertical trunks that support the grape leaves and clusters of grapes, is a stroke of pictorial genius thereby visually linking the spies with the thing that led to their own destruction. Their lack of faith led to a massive collapse of nerve on the part of the Children of Israel, precipitating a kind of drunkenness of will and collective disaster.
Six examples of Balaam and the Donkey explore this troubling narrative, concentrating on its aftermath. After the donkey saw the Angel of Hashem blocking the way three times and Balaam did not, the Angel castigates Balaam for his obstinate behavior. Saar imagines what happened next as Balaam continues his journey still struggling with the vindicated donkey. In all the images the donkey is refusing to be led by an increasingly desperate Balaam. The landscape takes on an importance of its own, in a way taking the place of the absent angel. Stubborn in its newfound power, the donkey understands that it can perceive God’s will as opposed to the pitiful Balaam, blind to Divine displeasure. Even after the prophet Balaam is thwarted by a lowly animal, he cannot and does not realize it is fruitless to attempt to curse the Jews.
Saar’s two paintings of Jonah present diverse takes on the reluctant prophet. In one small image we first see an enormous dark sea and then only notice a tiny figure sitting on the shore. He considers the enormity of his flight from prophecy or perhaps the depth of God’s wisdom in forcefully bringing him to Nineveh’s shore. Her other Jonah viscerally contemplates the terror of being swallowed. The storm tossed sea surrounds the open jaws of the great fish with Jonah in its mouth, in the exact center of the painting. The surrounding night is calm, a full moon shines in the dark sky over a tilted horizon and suddenly we understand what it feels like to be alone, hopeless and swallowed by God’s will.
It is perhaps the hazards prophecy that Saar is exploring in these paintings, for her depictions of Miriam all place her at her well surrounded by a vast landscape. While a lone donkey seems to be her companion, not one person accompanies her. Miriam here, drawing water out of the miracle well that follows her through the wilderness, is seen as the ultimate provider of sustenance, the source of life-giving water, tragically doomed to be alone.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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