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Beerman’s Plagues

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Why was it necessary for us to be taken out of Egypt? Why didn’t the Jewish people leave as part of a spontaneous slave revolt, led by our fearless leader, Moses, and with the help of our G-d? The answer, sadly obvious, is that we were so assimilated into Egyptian society that we wanted to stay, even as slaves. But something convinced us otherwise: “Hashem, on that day, saved Israel from the hand of Egypt and Israel saw the great hand that Hashem inflicted upon Egypt and the people feared Hashem, and they had faith in Hashem and in Moses, His servant.” (Shemos 14:30-31). Simply put, the plagues were overwhelmingly for our benefit. They were the first hesitant steps of our liberation, our liberation from ourselves.

 

In order to fully understand this, we must reconsider the plagues as lessons in terror; lessons at the expense of the hapless Egyptians that were meant to inculcate in us a fear of G-d, so that we might come to believe in Him and our own destiny. And this terrible message is what motivates Miriam Beerman’s paintings, “The Plagues.”

The first thing you notice about her paintings – completed in 26 days in 1986; most over five by six feet and some larger – are that the plagues don’t happen to someone else but they just happen, like a permanent state of terror underlying the structure of the universe. The plague itself is dread, anguish and fear of exactly how bad the world can become. In these paintings, we are faced with all of our worst nightmares.


“Rivers of Blood,” an eight by five foot oil painting, is a hallucination of blood. The red viscous fluid contains five dying fish, their eyes rolling and mouths locked in a grimace of death. They stare out in stupefied shock as their natural environment is contaminated by a nature gone terribly wrong, a curse on all life that depends on water for sustenance. Their innocence counts as no merit against their suffocation. As they twist and flop in a dance of death, we can imagine their fate becoming ours.


Who is this Miriam Beerman to summon such tragic images? She is an artist of considerable renown, boasting 27 solo exhibitions since 1965 and represented in over 45 public collections. She was a Fulbright Fellow from 1953-55 in Paris, France and was given the first one-woman exhibition in the history of the Brooklyn Museum in 1971. Her wide-ranging works on canvas and in the graphic arts take modern literature and art as a foundation upon which to build a skeptical and existential view of contemporary society. Never illustrative or topical, she is always sensitive to the injustice and madness in the world around her. “Imaginary Portrait of V.G #2″ (1985), in the permanent collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio, is a perfect example.


Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe,” is a severe study of the artist done in 1888, soon after he infamously mutilated his right ear in a moment of madness over a woman. He looks out at us in a calm oasis of momentary sanity, casually smoking his pipe. Beerman’s take on the individual artist’s anguish is to raise the ante, casting a whole people as victims of such suffering. In her painting, the artist’s features, seen in profile, take on stereotypical characteristics. His big nose and thick lips ostensibly identify him as a Jew, while bloodstains seep through his bandages. He glances at us in a kind of resigned angst. Is it his fault? Is he responsible for his wounds, even those he inflicts on himself? His expression seems to echo Shylock’s lines from the Merchant of Venice: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”


Revenge, or more politely stated as retribution, is frequently cited as the reason for the plagues against the Egyptians. But revenge against our oppressors never seems to remove oppression. Rather, the meaning of the plagues is most useful to us as a warning of the awesome power of G-d. Beerman’s “Hail” creates a universe in which the spectacle of hail, combined with fire, is made horrifyingly human. Each of 13 round hailstones, falling from the top of the canvas through the turbulent night sky, contains a terrified death head. Three horned devil heads preside at the top, gawking at their creations. The night sky, thickly painted in chaotic swirls, becomes a canvas for the dark forces of death that so often can easily descend upon us.


While it is to be understood that these “dark forces” also emanate from G-d (as we know from the euphemistic blessing “who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all”), when they descend we suffer all the same. These sufferings, known to the truly righteous as “afflictions of love,” haunt our consciousness. In “Gnats,” Beerman depicts a terrified individual lying face up, seemingly paralyzed in a blue fog, as a raucous horde of insects descends from the sky above. These winged black creatures have intense little heads with human faces, somewhat like the memorable Vincent Price movie “The Fly” – a man trapped in an insect’s body. They buzz and hover above the face, threatening to flood into his nostrils and open mouth, finally to consume him. Faced with tragic sickness of a loved one, the needless death of a child or the seemingly random destruction of nature, don’t we all feel just this helpless and terrified in the face of G-d’s power?


Terror is how we learn fear of Heaven. It is how we learned it in order to find the courage to leave the comforts of Egypt and it is how we learn it now. At least part of the reason, we believe, is because of G-d’s power, “O, King who causes death and restores life.” Each drop of wine spilled out at the seder should be seen as our blood that, but for the grace of G-d, would be taken from us. This is the lesson learned from Miriam Beerman’s paintings, “The Plagues.”


Miriam Beerman’s work can be found at miriambeerman.com. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish art. Please feel free to contact him with comments 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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