To honor its 20th anniversary, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which is devoted to bringing “recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities,” is presenting an exhibit of art books, which questions, “Is it a book, is it art, or is it both?”
The museum admits that so-called “artists’ books” – which the museum defines as “art objects in the form of books,” which give “the content and form of a book” together “equal significance” so that “the book becomes more than a simple container of information” – are controversial. Yet the NMWA has been quite devoted to collecting artists’ books, with more than 1,000 volumes by 800 artists in its collection. The current “Book as Art” show draws 108 selected works by 86 artists who hail from 12 countries from the museum trove, and splits them up into nine sections: storytellers; autobiographers; historians; mothers, daughters, and wives; dreamers and magicians; travelers; nature; food and the body; and inspired by the muses.
Tatana Kellner. B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence. 1992. Silkscreen, cast handmade paper.
“Perhaps,” the museum speculates, “women’s attraction to storytelling, intimacy and collaboration explains the tremendous contribution of women to the art of the book.” The books of the NMWA show include a variety of forms: the traditional codex (the sort of bound book you have on your shelves), “accordion” books, scrolls, “tunnel” books, boxes, pop-ups, fans and flag books.
Within the exhibit, two works with strong Jewish content and themes immediately stand out. Tatana Kellner’s “B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence” is part of a two-volume set, which includes “71125: Fifty Years of Silence” (not exhibited at the NMWA show). According to Kellner, the aim of the set is to “preserve my parents’ memories of internment in several concentration and extermination camps during World War II.” The texts are handwritten in Czech – the artist’s mother language – and transcribed into English, all printed on top of photographs from concentration camps.
According to her website, Kellner is a founding member and artistic director of an artists’ workspace in Rosendale, NY, called Women’s Studio Workshop. Her books immediately grab the viewer’s attention, as there is a paper-cast, flesh-colored “hand” inside each book. Each arm represents one of Kellner’s parents (the tattooed numbers are historically accurate), and Kellner has cut the shape of the “hand” out of each page, so that the viewers can see the “hand” regardless of which page they are reading. Viewers literally cannot forget the tattooed number as they read the book.
“I’ve always known that my parents were Holocaust survivors, though this was never discussed in detail,” Kellner writes in the catalog. The only story she remembers her father telling her (when she was 10-years-old) was of his experience on a 10-day transport from Auschwitz to Brinnlitz, when he had neither food nor water. “He recalled hiding behind frozen corpses while other prisoners discussed who their next meal would be,” Kellner writes, noting “The only other reference my parents made to their suffering was the frequent reminder, ‘Eat everything; you don’t know how lucky you are.'”
Kellner’s father lost 53 family members in the Holocaust, while her mother was the sole survivor in her family. “As my parents grew older,” she writes, “it seemed important to record their stories.” She traveled to Czechoslovakia to photograph many of the sites of her parents’ childhood for inclusion in the books. The NMWA book, which holds the paper-cast sculpture that represents her father’s arm, aims “to ensure that the person who bore the number will be remembered.”
Joyce Ellen Weinstein. Birds Head Haggadah. 1998.
Parchment, watercolor, ink, leather, brass, beads, velvet. Cover shot.
A different sort of book, Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s Birds Head Haggadah, references the original Bird’s Head Haggadah, produced in southern Germany, circa 1300. In the catalog, Weinstein notes that the original book “curiously depicts humans with the heads of birds,” citing one theory that “the artist avoided painting human faces in obeisance of a Jewish law banning graven images.”
Weinstein intends her own work to accomplish a different sort of thing. “Throughout history, Jews have been called the People of the Book,” she writes, and “this work is a reflection of that identity.” Within the context of an exhibit of books by women artists, Weinstein’s reflection upon the fundamental Jewish Exodus story of the Haggadah carries a certain authority − while redefining the general Jewish identity as People of the Book.
The book employs photographs, photocopies and “found” objects – non-art objects introduced into a piece of art – and Weinstein has covered the book cover (see image two) and pages with a variety of abstract colors and forms to lend the piece an “unstable and mysterious” look, “as if it were an artifact from another time and place.” Like Coleridge’s “ancient mariner,” the book looks like it has experienced a lot and earned its stains and smudges; it is an old-looking book about an even older tale. To Weinstein, the piece meditates on the act of remembering. She views memories as “nothing more than hints about the past, and are neither concrete nor absolute.”
Joyce Ellen Weinstein. Birds Head Haggadah. Open book.
In image three of the opened book, viewers can notice an Aleph form in the lower left corner, and a bird’s head peeking out from above the text. The bird is drawn in a cartoon-like style, which is true to the original book − in many ways, a very modern enterprise. The text on Weinstein’s page includes tourist guide-like entries for Tourgeman Post Museum, the Tower of David, the Wolfson Museum in Hechal Shlomo, Yad Vashem and others.
“Within the context of the NMWA show, I find it extremely open on the part of the curator and museum that a piece that is so obviously Jewish was chosen for the exhibit,” Weinstein told The Jewish Press, “because in general I find secular institutions tend to shy away from exhibiting anything so blatantly Jewish.” Weinstein said she was moved by the “curious imagery” of the woman in the original Bird’s Head Haggadah, which she saw in Jerusalem. “And of all the pages from the book that could have been displayed, the page showing the woman was selected for the women’s show,” she said. “This, of course, is all very gratifying.”
The tour guide aspect of the book, which lays out information about certain sites and their merits and strengths, is a good metaphor, not only for Weinstein’s Haggadah – the Haggadah, after all, is a how-to guide for the Passover Seder – but also for Kellner’s book about Holocaust memory. Books are perhaps one of humanity’s greatest inventions, as they are able to “house” a tremendous amount of information in a portable format, which requires neither electricity nor wireless connection. But despite their knowledge-gathering capacity, books can also be art objects, which not only tell tales but also (by virtue of the visual) convince readers of the messages.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.