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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.

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