web analytics
October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post
Meir Panim with Soldiers 5774 Roundup: Year of Relief and Service for Israel’s Needy

Meir Panim implements programs that serve Israel’s neediest populations with respect and dignity. Meir Panim also coordinated care packages for families in the South during the Gaza War.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Doll (Haunted) House: Two ‘Naïve’ Holocaust Artists at GW’s Brady Gallery

Works by Magda Watts and Malcah Zeldis


Through Feb. 25, 2011


The Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, George Washington University


805 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C.



 

 


In an interview for an article published in these pages (Aug. 25, 2004), Jewish Bombay-born painter Siona Benjamin discussed her technique of hiding troubling imagery in the seemingly inviting floral and decorative borders of Indian and Persian miniature-influenced paintings. “Under the beauty of miniatures you can hide danger,” she told me of her “Finding Home” series. “The beauty of miniatures draws you in-veiling and revealing.”

 

I couldn’t help but think of the embedded symbols of slavery and violence in Benjamin’s borders as I walked through the current exhibit of Magda Watts’ dolls and Malcah Zeldis’ paintings at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery. Both artists are about the same age (the New York-based Zeldis is 79 and the Israel-based Watts is 81), and though the two have never met nor exhibited together, Lenore Miller, director of the gallery, had the insight to show the two side by side.

 

It is rare to see an idea this fresh in the Jewish curating circuit, and in this case, it is certainly not an overstatement to say the works together are more exciting and interesting than they are separately.

 

Writing about Zeldis’ exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan in these pages about a year ago (Feb. 3, 2010), I noted that the works didn’t strike me as particularly high quality. One painting “lacks any sort of perspective, proportion and shading, and the palette seems to be most appropriate for a chemical plant,” I argued. “But one needs a different set of standards in approaching works of folk art.”

 

I stand behind my remarks about the quality of Zeldis’ work, but Miller’s fascinating decision to juxtapose the two artists has made me rethink Zeldis’ art. It is too easy to write off the dolls and the paintings as childish and undisciplined. It’s also too tempting to categorize it as “naïve” or “folk” art and to say that such a categorization simply introduces a different vocabulary. Whether or not Zeldis and Watts (a Holocaust survivor whose doll-making skills proved her ticket out of Auschwitz) intended the stylization of their Holocaust-themed works to be directly tied to the content of the pieces, the combination works in a powerful way.

 

Just as Edgar Allan Poe turned a costume ball into a nightmare in “Masque of the Red Death” and Rod Serling lent masks an even creepier feeling in the Twilight Zone episode “The Masks,” the bold, bright colors of Zeldis’ paintings and Watts’ sculptures are all the more disturbing because they were initially so inviting.

 


Magda Watts. Detail of “Dollmaker of Nuremberg” (c. 2000). Mixed media

Courtesy of Richard Vanderveer. Photo: Jessica McConnell-Burt/GW

 

 

Watts’ “Dollmaker of Nuremberg” shows a woman at a table (a self-portrait?) surrounded by spools of thread, sewing materials and dolls in various stages of completion. An unattached head (with purple hair so disheveled it may have been designed by Medusa’s stylist) seems innocuous enough until you watch a documentary about Watts streaming in the gallery.

 

In the beginning of “Liberation of the Spirit: The Journey of Magda Watts,” a documentary film by Jennifer Resnick, Watts is shown creating one of her dolls. As she uses a knife to sculpt the nose and cheeks of a doll, the skin tones are so realistic that one cannot help but squirm at what seems to be the mutilation of a real person. The decision to show Watts in this light by Resnick – who also collaborated with the artist on the fascinating memoir Dafka (2008) – is no doubt intentional.

 


Magda Watts. “The Holocaust Dolls” (c. 2000). Mixed media

Collection of Zahava Bar Nir and Deborah Venderveer. Photo: Olivia Kohler/GW

 

 

The subjects of “The Holocaust Dolls” are corralled like cattle in an enclosed barbed wire fence, marked above “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work shall set you free”). Two skull-and-crossbones signs attached to the fence identify it as an electrified fence – which plays a significant role in Watts’ memoir, as she recalls inmates who chose to “go to the wire,” or commit suicide, rather than endure the hell of Auschwitz. To the right, a Nazi soldier watches from a guard tower with a machine gun slung over his shoulder, and white thumbtacks have never looked so ominous as do the ones stuck into the wooden planks of the fence to Auschwitz.

 

 



Malcah Zeldis. “Me and Anne Frank” (1998). Oil on board. Photo: Olivia Kohler/GW


 

 

In Zeldis’ “Me and Anne Frank,” the artist is depicted in a light blue top sitting beside Frank. Both figures wear yellow stars pinned to their clothes, and the white-haired Zeldis adopts a maternal pose, as she puts her arm around Frank. Over Zeldis’ left shoulder is a canvas on an easel depicting Jewish inmates in a concentration camp overseen by armed Nazis, who surround a guard tower. The composition of Zeldis’ painting-within-a-painting is very similar to Watts’ “Holocaust Dolls,” and the palette is equally muted, though the Zeldis’ larger work is quite colorful.

 

On Zeldis’ side of the table is a colorful palette and flowers surround Frank. Tea and pastries have been laid on the table, and beside the yellow stars, the only mournful symbol of the work is a piece of paper on the table which contains the Hebrew word, “Yizkor,” the memorial prayer for the dead.

 

A pack of cards on the table may be a reference to fate, but the painting is otherwise joyful, particularly a view out the window of a bright landscape with a birdbath – a frequent symbol in Zeldis’ work. One is reminded of Watts’ dream, which surfaces frequently in her memoir and helps her maintain her wits through her traumatic experiences, in which the young Watts dons magical glasses which help her soar (like a bird) high above the ground-level horror. Zeldis also illustrated her daughter Yona Zeldis McDonough’s picture book Anne Frank (1997), which features the same blend of childish illustrations and sobering content.

 

When I reviewed the war photographs of David Seymour (Chim) in this column (June 21, 2006) and in New York Arts Magazine, I used a title that would apply to the body of work in the Brady Art Gallery show as well: “Smile and Say Cheese: Children Maimed by War.”

 

 


Magda Watts. “Jew and Tefillin” (c. 2000). Mixed media. Courtesy of Deborah Vanderveer.

Malcah Zeldis paintings in the background. Photo: Jessica McConnell-Burt/GW

 

 

“Children playing with dolls generally make good photo ops. They fit well on wall calendars, interspersed among images of flowers and colorful birds, to be gazed at while listening to CDs with sounds of the rainforest,” I noted, but Chim was after a different sort of child – “the vulnerable, persecuted sort that frolics not on picturesque jungle gyms but in war zones.”

 

Neither Watts nor Zeldis deals exclusively in Holocaust imagery. Scenes of mahjong players, a bagel seller, Abraham Lincoln and the Statue of Liberty appear in the exhibit. Miller’s curatorial insight, which other venues showing Jewish art ought to study carefully, is to tease out the rare combination of naïveté and experience, and joy and trauma embedded within the work of the two nearly octogenarians, who, however similar, have never before been compared and contrasted in the same context.


 


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Doll (Haunted) House: Two ‘Naïve’ Holocaust Artists at GW’s Brady Gallery”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Agam Luria, from a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley, was identified as one of the four Israelis killed in the Nepal blizzard.
Israeli Sherpa ‘Pony Express’ Saved Hundreds in Nepal Blizzard
Latest Sections Stories

Sadly, there are mothers who, due to severe depression are unable or unwilling to prepare nourishing food for their children.

Michal had never been away from home. And now, she was going so far away, for so long – an entire year!

Though if you do have a schach mat, you’ll realize that it cannot actually support the weight of the water.

Social disabilities occur at many levels, but experts identify three different areas of learning and behavior that are most common for children who struggle to create lasting social connections.

Sukkot is an eternal time of joy, and if we are worthy, of plenty.

Two of our brothers, Jonathan Pollard and Alan Gross, sit in the pit of captivity. We have a mandate to see that they are freed.

Chabad of South Broward has 15 Chabad Houses in ten cities.

Victor Center works in partnership with healthcare professionals, clergy, and the community to sponsor education programs and college campus out reach.

So just in case you’re stuck in the house this Chol HaMoed – because there’s a new baby or because someone has a cold – not because of anything worse, here are six ideas for family fun at home.

We are told that someone who says that God’s mercy extends to a bird’s nest should be silenced.

Our harps have 22 strings. This gives musicians a wide musical range and yet stays within Biblical parameters.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”

Weck-051812

It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/doll-haunted-house-two-naive-holocaust-artists-at-gws-brady-gallery/2011/02/02/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: