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Every year in the early winter the world-renowned auction house, Sotheby’s, presents an auction of Israeli and International (Jewish) Art and Judaica. It is always a delight and Sunday, December 12 was no exception. Since it is an international affair, the foremost experts assemble the finest artworks available. The efforts of specialists Rivka Saker, Sigal Mordechai, Daria Gluck, Esta Kilstein and Jennifer Roth of Sotheby’s Israel and Jennifer Roth, Sharon Liberman Mintz, David Wachtel, Elizabeth Muller, John Ward, Jill Waddell, Kevin Tierney here in New York were well rewarded. It was a truly exciting exhibition that frequently surprised one with new insights into many familiar artists.
While I was privileged to attend a private viewing hosted by Nishmat (Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Israel), these pre-auction exhibitions are normally open five days before the sale to the public and always have specialists available to answer questions and show off the objects. As I strode into the exhibition I glanced at the diminutive Chagall but decided to look at it later. An evocative pastel, Shulamith (1939) by Abel Pann, had caught my eye.
Pann’s devotion to biblical subjects is well known, combining romanticism with exotic Bedouin costumes to produce what he thought would be authentic visualizations of ancient biblical characters. What was unusual in this piece was that he had found an inner life to a predominantly sensual character. The Shulamith is mentioned in Song of Songs 7:1 as an exquisitely beautiful dancer, at least in a literal translation. Others have associated her with Avishag, the young virgin brought to the aged King David when he could find no warmth. In either case we normally think of this woman in physical terms. And yet here Pann has depicted a young redhead pensively draped over the branches of a tree in full bloom. She rests her hand alongside her face deep in reflection. Aside from a bare bracelet-covered arm, she is quite modestly clothed; the only sensual thing about her is the bright orange necklace and bracelet that the artist expertly threads around her and the tree blossoms.
Around the corner was an equally surprising Moshe Castel (1909-1992). Born in Jerusalem to an ancient Sephardic family, he studied art at the Bezalel School and in Paris, and finally settled in Safed where many of his paintings pictured the Sephardi community of his youth. Looking for Mashiach, painted in 1947, depicts five robed figures lightly walking across a nightscape. Each is brilliantly colored, all facing a mysterious globe in the sky containing an arm and hand. Hovering off to the side are two angels, while down in the valley below a little village glows. This scene of mystery and wonder takes on special significance considering the year it was painted. Israel was being flooded by survivors of the Holocaust and was only a year away from becoming the first independent Jewish state in more than 1900 years. In their own ways many were “looking for Mashiach.” Castel may have been the only artist actually painting it.
These are just a sampling of the 293 works of art, Judaica, books and manuscripts offered for sale at Sotheby’s this year. It was breathtaking and I strongly suggest taking it in at next year’s Sotheby’s exhibition and sale of Judaica and Israeli and International Jewish Art. Who knows what we might discover?
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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