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Sotheby’s Riches

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         The varieties of Jewish art are always a delight to explore, but occasionally an exhibition comes along that provides surprises and insights that trouble even the most assured of viewers. The auction of “Important Judaica” at Sotheby’s on December 19 is one of those truly exciting moments.


         All the traditional categories are well represented, and yet in almost every group a surprise lurks ready to reinvigorate what we though we knew about Jewish Art. There are almost 120 items in silver alone with 26 menorahs from practically every genre represented. The two Polish silver menorahs (#19 and 18) in the “Baal Shem Tov” style are hauntingly luscious with ornamented filigree backplates, decorative columns in a floral motif and festooned with fanciful birds.


         The North African Ceramic Lamp (#97) from the 19th century that was used for both Hanukah and Shabbos is starkly distinctive in its primitive simplicity, the terracotta glazed and delicately ornamented with black and ochre geometric designs that somehow proclaim the primal need for light. The tremendous creativity that Jewish craftsmen have expended on lamp production over the centuries is truly impressive. Manuscripts at Sotheby’s are similarly irresistible.



Polish Silver Filigree Hanukah Lamp (19th Century)

Karol Filip Malcz, Warsaw, Courtesy Sotheby’s



         A Torah scroll from Yemen (#121) may be the earliest example of a complete Yemenite Torah and dates from the 13th or 14th century. The Roman Jews are well represented with two machzorim, one a meticulously hand written personal prayer book (#125) from the 14th to 15th century, that preserves an early tradition of presenting pictographic symbols of the various different sounds of the shofar. Nearby there is an example of the first mahzor ever printed, the Soncino Roman Mahzor (#128), completed in 1486 in Casal Maggiore near Cremona, Italy.


         The selection of eight printed haggadahs starts with the impressive Mantua Haggadah (#142) from 1560. This is the earliest illustrated haggadah printed in Italy and is decorated with more than 50 woodcut illustrations and elaborate woodcut frames on every page. Among the other haggadahs is a pocket-sized edition of 1716 (#154) created by Tzvi Hirsch ben Haim of Furth. It has ten woodcut illustrations and contains Yiddish instructions and an interlinear Yiddish translation of “Ehad Mi Yode’a” and “Had Gadya,” all expressly designed as the first haggadah for children.


         There is also the fascinating American Haggadah (#173) from Chicago edited by Haim Liberman (1879) that features Hebrew and English translation and illustrations “in accordance with the instructions of the Talmud” (influenced by midrashic comments). Especially interesting is the depiction of the four sons all gathered around the Seder table (according to Yerushalmi, perhaps the first time this is represented) in distinctly American dress. The father looks suitably patriarchal and old world while the wicked son smokes a cigarette, tips back his chair and gestures dismissively at his father – sadly, a typical American immigrant experience.


         Two 19th century manuscripts are the true stars of the Sotheby’s exhibition because they contrast original content with artificial and yet wonderfully inventive imported style. The French Haggadah (# 197) from the second half of the 19th century is at first glance an amalgam of Persian miniature and medieval French illumination. Possibly based on Islamic “carpet page” manuscripts, this haggadah was created as a luxury object for a discerning customer in what was the immensely popular Oriental style. It features 33 pages of Hebrew text with nikudos and ritual instructions in French that are all surrounded by elegant illuminations in blue lapis and gold, no page or design alike. It is a pure artifact of shameless cultural appropriation that is nonetheless breathtakingly beautiful.



French Haggadah (19th century)

Illuminated Manuscript, Courtesy Sotheby’s



         “An extremely rare example of an illustrated Megillah Esther from India” is the next lot (# 198) and presents 31 columns of wonderfully decorated and illustrated text. Also dated from the 19th century, it contains 18 miniatures of the story of Esther and is absolutely unique in both style and technique. It features numerous decorative vignettes of flowers and horses top and bottom and stylized representations of court musicians that divide one column of text from the next. It is a wonderfully original and authentic expression of Indian / Jewish visual culture, easily as beautiful and creative as the aforementioned French Haggadah. Seeing them together makes one realize exactly how diverse and creative our culture is and how freely Jews borrowed from surrounding cultures and motifs to express themselves religiously.


         The 30 some odd paintings are a diverse lot that over-represent the genre of rebbi paintings in the styles of both Moritz Oppenheim and Isidor Kaufman, including three Kaufman originals. Especially notable is “The Newlywed” by Kaufman, a psychologically deep portrait of a young bride wonderfully bedecked in a pearl laden headdress (sterntichel) and gold-colored silk dress.


         Perhaps most instructive in this collection of paintings is the contrast between an overtly sentimental depiction of Jewish piety and a stark rendition of biblical tragedy. The relatively unknown Russian-born portrait painter Nikol Schattenstein (1877-1954) is represented by the curious genre painting, “A Mother’s Pride.” For works that trade in such sentimentality, it is remarkably inventive and, in a curious way, mysterious.



A Mother’s Pride, oil on canvas by Nikol Schattenstein,

Courtesy Sotheby’s



         A kippah-clad man is seated with his back to the viewer studying at a table by the light of a window. On the table there is a lamp, two unlit Shabbos candle holders, some other books, and, surprisingly, a sleeping cat. Seen past the table is an older woman, her hair covered, peeking over the footboard of a large old-fashioned bed. She seems pleased as she sees her son engaged in Torah study, hence the title.


         While the initial impression is purely sentimental, the unexpected details complicate the image. It is odd that their Shabbos table is in such close proximity to the familial bed and the rose tinged sheer curtain that filters the light from the window, is similarly out of keeping with a normal apartment.The cat sleeping on the table is likewise incongruous with the common practices of most observant households.Finally the large clock hanging on the wall near the headboard strikes an almost ominous note. The odd assemblage of discordant details cuts into the obvious message to create a more subtle and complex image of parental fidelity and a progeny’s piety.


         Similarly, Lesser Ury’s (1861-1931) image of “Moses” makes one reassess all we think we knew about our great leader. We see Moses, arms upraised and clad in some kind of baggy pants, shirtless and exposed. His muscular torso is nevertheless one of an old man, and he stands overlooking a vast expanse. The landscape below is dramatically lit, tents and palm trees are dimly seen under a sky divided between a black cloud below and a white light that silhouettes Moses.



Moses, oil on board by Lesser Ury, Courtesy Sotheby’s



         Is this Moses looking into the future, looking into the Promised Land that he is forbidden to enter? Indeed, this is the terrible yearning of the man who shepherded the Jews out of Egypt and through the Wilderness, only to die just within reach of the Land. Lesser Ury’s Moses reaches for that which it unattainable, as he looks upon what he has lost. Ury’s Moses is no superman; he is vulnerable and terribly human, only desiring to fulfill God’s promise to the Jewish people to dwell in their land.


         These kind of visions; of beauty, of reaching out to children, of interchange with our surrounding culture and reaching into our deepest traditions along with our deepest emotions, these are the qualities that Jewish art can bring to the table. And this is the fully laden table that “Important Judaica” at Sotheby’s presents to us.


         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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