Ruth Weisberg Unfurled
(2007 catalogue of exhibition at Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA)
There is a special class of Jewish artists who toil in the rich fields of Tanach and Jewish practice for years and years, quietly establishing a foundation of visual and intellectual markers for generation of artists to come. Ruth Weisberg is clearly one of these founders. Her seminal work articulates an approach to the Jewish narrative deeply informed by a Jewish feminism.
In 2007 the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles hosted a large retrospective surveying 30 years of Weisberg’s works. Along with 30 other artworks, the dramatic centerpiece of the show was The Scroll, a 94 foot long mixed media drawing that is an exploration of how Jewish history can be visually reflected in a personal narrative. Many of the other significant works evidence Weisberg’s concerns with Jewish memory and experiences.
The Past: The Great Synagogue of Danzig (1984) sets the tone for these musings by depicting nine children holding hands in front of the an apparition of the ill fated house of worship. First built in 1887 this synagogue soon became an important center for the German Reform movement. It fell victim to the waves of anti-Semitism in 1938 and was finally demolished by the Nazis in 1939. The children stand as a stark paradox to the historic façade, sweetly smiling as innocent survivors of the Holocaust. Their clothes echo the troubled past in ghettoized Poland and yet their smiles radiate a deeply hopeful future.
Weisberg believes that “the Bible is most potent when we find our own stories in its narratives,” and ponders its consequences in The Story of Ruth and Naomi (1988). The image appears disarmingly simple. Naomi on the left has paused as Ruth approaches and implores her “for where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people and your God is my God…” Complexity arises as we notice that ‘Naomi’ is partially transparent, the landscape horizon clearly visible through her upper torso. Perhaps more significantly, the two women look almost identical, as if they were projections of each other. It is this insight that leads us to remember that both have been tragically widowed; both have lost everything and face uncertain future prospects. In reality they only have each other as a veritable reflection of need and vulnerability. The mystery and tenderness of this work opens up the Ruth narrative as no other.
Teaching painting, drawing and printmaking at the University of Southern California since 1970 Weisberg quickly became a leader in the growing Jewish feminist movement. Those times of questioning and exploration combined with a growing commitment to Jewish learning and observance to drive much of her artwork into Jewish themes with a feminist cast. Additionally her study at the Academia di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy and a visiting artist residency at the American Academy in Rome cemented a lifelong love of the Italian Renaissance and classical techniques.
In Genesis: A Woman’s Voice, Weisberg’s series of figures underwater are a potent combination of Jewish ritual, i.e. the Mikveh and a classical approach to the female form. This series of mixed media on paper, oil on canvas and monotypes are a unique exploration of the deeply peaceful and meditative experience that mikveh evokes along with a startling modern abstract painterly sensibility in depicting the manifold underwater reflections that dapple the walls, floor and floating figures. These works are transformative of both the mikveh experience and modern painterly figuration.