Sotheby’s Jewish Vision
Israeli, International Art & Important Judaica
1334 York Avenue, New York
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.
Shulamith (1939), pastel on paper by Abel Pann
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.
Right next to this pastel was a rather typical landscape in charcoal by the well-known Anna Ticho (1894-1980). This Jerusalem based artist was famous for her countless scenes of Israeli landscapes with evocative high horizons, many concentrating on the hills surrounding Jerusalem. They are practically portraits of the Judean landscape peacefully devoid of significant human habitation. And this example was true to form, a steep brush-covered hill reaching to the top of the image, with one exception. The title: The Burning Bush. Dating to sometime in the 1960’s, its theme is singular for Ticho. The fact that she turned a Jerusalem hillside into a sacred site reverberates wonderfully with the notion that all of Israel is holy.
Looking for Mashiach (1947), oil on canvas by Moshe Castel
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.
Upstairs there was the expansive Judaica section featuring, what from one perspective, was the “star” of the show, the Torah Finials from Congregation Shaar Hashamayim in Gibraltar. Actually two pairs of silver finials (or rimonim): One from the Dutch silversmith Pieter van Hoven dated 1710 and the other pair of Italian finials probably from Turin and dated 1780-1820. The Dutch pair is cast and exhibit elegant late Baroque decorative forms featuring gold bells and crown. The Italian finials are a considerably more complex visual program. They fuse Neoclassical architecture with Baroque ornamentation in the service of creating two tiers of compartments that ring each level. Each little section elaborately depicts the Temple vessels and the Kohen’s service and is enclosed by a miniature balcony. These masterpieces of Italian silversmith art are hand-tooled and embossed to produce amazing details of the Kohen’s tunic, the Temple menorah, the Tablets, hands in the priestly blessing, etc. First allowed to settle again on the Iberian Peninsula when the British captured Gibraltar in 1704, the Jewish community grew steadily, flourishing as merchants to the British navy and army. The Sephardic community was deeply cross-cultural, finding its roots from England, Amsterdam and Morocco. This magnificent finial (of which the congregation evidently has many more) was probably acquired when the entire community was evacuated in the Great Siege (1779-1782) to Livorno, Italy.
Torah Finials, ca 1780 for Congregation Shaar Hashamayim
In the manuscript section a remarkable Haggadah caught my eye. The Hamburg Haggadah, written and illuminated by Eliezer Zussman Meseritch in 1829, is stunning on two counts. First it is a highly unusual example of Jewish manuscript work in the 19th century when in Europe almost all Jewish books were printed, especially haggadot. That is not to mention that the scribe, Meseritch, was considered the “greatest Jewish calligrapher of the day,” and just a glance at the text one can see why. Written in black and brown ink on fine parchment, the haggadah text is in square Hebrew letters, a commentary by Simeon ben Zemah Duran in Rashi script and finally the translation into German was written in mashket, the script of Yiddish and Judeo-German. But it was four of the seven illuminations that stopped me in my tracks. Illustrating the Four Sons, Meseritch created a totally new and uniquely “modern” approach to these characters. Each son is depicted in front of a seder table labeled with his own designation: Wise, Bad, Simple and Unable to Ask. The father opposite him at the table has a haggadah open in dialogue with his son. And each figure is different, illustrating his personality in pure body language, a kind of pantomime that psychologically engages the reader. The Wise Son is bold and assertive in his knowledge, the Bad Son is violent, brandishing a stick defiantly, the Simple Son looks helpless, arms hanging at his side in innocence. Finally the Son Who is Unable to Ask is quite confounded, scratching his head in bewilderment. By their body language we have stepped into the psyche of each character.
Hamburg Haggadah (1829), scribe & artist Eliezer Zussman Meseritch
Finally, lets take a look at that Chagall I rushed past when I first walked into the exhibition. Titled Moses and the Golden Calf this 9 ½ x 13 inch oil on canvas was painted when Chagall was over 90 years old (he lived to be 98). Remarkable in and of itself, a close examination yields considerable insight into this dramatic and pivotal episode. The first thing we notice is that the calf is not golden at all; rather it is a pulsating red, unifying the mass of red figures wildly dancing around it. The entire side of the painting is characterized by that red, etched in black outlined figures, hands held high in fervent worship and overseen by an angry red sun. In stark contrast the right side is black, gray and white, a stern Moses holding the luchos, encased in the grim drama on the verge of smashing God’s handiwork. At the bottom the prone figure of Joshua rests. The contrast could not be greater between sinners and the stern lawgiver. That is in itself not particularly unusual in such depictions. What is extraordinary is the butterfly-like angel hovering between them. Still over the dancers, he is gesturing towards Moses. Totally non-textual, the angel is pure invention on the part of Chagall, perhaps attempting to plead for mercy for the errant Jewish people. His presence changes our understanding of the narrative, leading us to reconsider Moses’ angry response as one tempered by mercy. True, he smashed the Tablets, yet these stones could be re-created. And while he executed 3,000 of the sinners, he spared the vast majority of the people. Whatever its meaning, it is a vibrant, exciting and unique Chagall of Moses and the Golden Calf.
Moses and the Golden Calf (1980), oil on canvas (9×13) by Marc Chagall
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?
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org