The illustrator stands in an oft-denigrated position, scorned by modernists and traditional purists alike. For both schools of thought the sublime of art cannot be rendered literal. On the other hand, illustrators are curiously accepted if not celebrated by those in a postmodern disposition. In the last twenty years or so a creative relationship to text, narrative or non-visual motifs has gained legitimacy if not primacy in the visual arts. Under the watchful guidance of director Jean Bloch Rosensaft and the curatorial skill of Laura Kruger, the Hebrew Union College Museum casts one of its current exhibitions into this ideational fray. “Isaac Bashevis Singer and his Artists”is in its curious way an exposition on the illustrational as a contemporary motif.
For many American Jews Singer was a kind of universal Jew, deeply rooted in the “Old Country” and yet thoroughly familiar with the immigrant and post-Holocaust experiences of millions of New York co-religionists. It’s clear that his life history laid the foundation for his writing. He was born in 1902 in Poland and grew up in the small towns of Leoncin and Radzymin, finally moving to Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. His father was a Hasidic rabbi and his mother the daughter of the rabbi of Bilgoraj. He learned in heder and yeshiva but felt unsuited to become a rabbi and finally became a translator and journalist for several Yiddish newspapers in Warsaw. Fleeing rising anti-Semitism he immigrated to the United States in 1935 and quickly found his home as a journalist and critic for the Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward) where he worked throughout his life. All of his works were written in Yiddish, many have been widely translated and in 1978 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Irene Lieblich (1923 – 2008) was a survivor who took up painting at the age of 48 and, through an exhibition of her work, became friends with Singer after which she illustrated two of his books, A Tale of Three Wishes (1976) and The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah (1980). All of her 13 illustrations shown exhibit a folk-art charm that reflects both Singer’s and her roots in Eastern European pictorial traditions. Three shtetl children witnessing an angel driving a chariot through the sky before a chorus of angels, can be summoned by her as easily as a young boy and girl emerging from a manhole in war-torn Warsaw. Her “Partisans in the Forest” is especially affecting. In a wintery scene a group of Jews huddle around a makeshift menorah while two play with a dreidel on a tree stump, surrounded by armed partisans anxiously guarding the evening ceremony. The simple composition slowly reveals first courageous piety, then childish playfulness and finally the deadly seriousness of their guards. Jewish faith at work.
The roster of artists who illustrated Singer’s books is extremely diverse. Some shared his Jewish Eastern European background and most are professional illustrators. Yet among these are well-known artists in their own right: Roman Vishniac (1897-1990), noted documentary photographer of Eastern European Jews in A Vanished World (1947) became friends with Singer and permitted the use of his works in Singer’s A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw (1969). Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) was a close friend known internationally as an American Social Realist painter from 1930 – 1950. His illustrations here of flying demons, nudes and fantastic figures are especially revealing exceptions to his normally dour painting style. Another international artist, Larry Rivers, illustrated a deluxe edition of Singer’s The Magician of Lublin with a signature drawing of a contemporary man donning tefillin – simple, modern and disarmingly convincing.
“Isaac Bashevis Singer and his Artists” similarly sweeps us up in the creativity and passion of the master Yiddish writer’s texts. Curator Laura Kruger is careful to always provide the textual references, either summaries or the short stories themselves, so that the images live and breathe within the very texts they emanate from. Once joined together they nurture and complement each other like an old married couple; one starts a sentence and the other finishes it. By doing so she insists that at least in this framework, text and image are inseparable and that like all good commentary next to its source, make both even more a joy to behold.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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