Mark Podwal is a busy, busy man. He has spent the last 38 years making every conceivable kind of art: innumerable paintings, 28 illustrated books written by him and Elie Wiesel, Harold Bloom and Francine Prose, children’s books, haggadot, ceramics and graphic works. Dubbed the “Master of the True Line” by author Cynthia Ozick, his pro-Israel cartoons and drawings have been featured on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times since 1972. Lately his passion for the Jewish community in Prague has expressed itself in a book, Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue and a documentary film House of Life: The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague narrated by Claire Bloom. His art is found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, Fogg Art Museum and Library of Congress. The Forum Gallery in New York has represented him since 1977. He also happens to be a Board certified Dermatologist. What is easily most remarkable about this breathless list of accomplishments is that his artwork has consistently focused on Jewish legend, history and tradition.
In one of his earliest Jewish works, Podwal used the words of the Prophet Jeremiah to illustrate Lamentations (1974) in a series of searing images delineating the tragedies of Jewish history that the prophet foretells. Podwal’s signature style is already evident; a powerfully simple line combines with acidic social commentary to bring an ancient text into contemporary consciousness. The frontispiece is a line drawing that copies the well-known Baroque arch and framing columns of countless copies of the Talmud and sacred texts. On the pediment “Echah” is inscribed with “Kinot for Tisha b’Av” in Hebrew in the empty archway. A lone noose hangs above the inscription, wrenching us from ancient history to modern day persecutions.
So too the verse “The adversary has spread out his hand upon all her treasures. For she has seen that the heathen have entered into her sanctuary.” (1:10) Podwal keeps us in the present, depicting two Nazi storm troopers marching off with the Temple menorah found on the Roman Arch of Titus. Similar in sentiment, but somehow more vicious, is the illustration from chapter 5:1-2 where we see the Roman Capitoline Wolf (symbol of the founding of Rome) staring defiantly at us and ironically crowned with a 18th century Polish Torah crown, grasping an ornate menorah in its savage teeth. For Podwal Rome continues to oppress well after its own demise.
And then there was “Schmuel the Shoemaker.” In You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-vavniks (1998), written by Francine Prose. The notion of holiness hidden in our midst is lovingly explored in this Eastern European Jewish tale. Podwal’s illustrations are uncharacteristically restrained. The hero is seen most poignantly as a humble man hidden in the purple of shadows, contemplating what the needs of his little town are. Nonetheless, this simple pious Jew who simply wished to help his fellow man saved his entire town from disaster. We are urged by his illustrations to reflect upon the subtle notion of how simple kindness can engender great blessings.
The legend of the king of the demons, Ashmedai, dominates the last quarter of the book with some of Podwal’s best images propelling the story. The wicked Ashmedai is seen as a grumpy gremlin, adorned with enormous bat wings and little white horns. After he steals the king’s ring and therefore his power, we see him transformed as a look-alike King Shlomo and the real king reduced to wandering the world as an impoverished vagrant. Even though he finally regains his magic ring and his rightful throne, the king is chastened, filled with a new kind of wisdom.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
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