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The Adventure of a Jewish Photographer: Miriam Mörsel Nathan’s Photo-Paintings

“Miriam Mörsel Nathan: Memory of a time I did not know…”


Curated by Steven Cushner


Through Dec. 17, 2010


Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, Washington D.C. JCC


1529 16th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.



 

 


In Italo Calvino’s short story “The Adventure of a Photographer,” part of his collection Difficult Loves (1985), the “non-photographer” and bachelor Antonino Paraggi, finds himself increasingly alienated from his married friends who go out with their families and cameras each Sunday and “come back as happy as hunters with bulging game bags,” their photographic catch of the day.

 

A philosopher by “mental attitude,” Paraggi loves discussing current events with his peers. He has no particular anemic reaction to the here and the now, but he annoys his more sentimental friends by insisting that photographing events-particularly when those photographs are staged-inevitably sacrifices the true present for the possibility of enjoying the photographs in the future.

 

Paraggi notes that photographing children is one of a parents’ first instincts. “Given the speed of growth, it becomes necessary to photograph the child often, because nothing is more fleeting and unmemorable than a six-month-old infant, soon deleted and replaced by one of eight months, and then one of a year; and all the perfection that, to the eyes of parents, a child of three may have reached cannot prevent its being destroyed by that of the four-year-old,” Calvino observes. “The photograph album remains the only place where all these fleeting perfections are saved and juxtaposed, each aspiring to an incomparable absoluteness of its own.”

 

This is precisely what confounds Paraggi, who cannot realize that his bachelorhood places him in far graver danger of being forgotten than his married peers playing the amateur photographer capturing their children.

 

Eventually, Paraggi takes the photographic plunge, but he decides his craft must represent a throwback. He scavenges for an old camera (the kind with a bulb to squeeze) and accessories in flea markets and other “cemeteries of objects no longer serviceable” and manages to create an anachronistic studio, where he photographs a particular model, who becomes his wife. In the end, Paraggi can find just one photographic project that is not contrived and staged-photographing a pile of torn-up staged photographs, a deconstructionist composition if there ever was one.

 

 


Portrait of Miriam Mörsel Nathan by David Nathan

 

Since photography was popularized in the early 19th century, it has had many opponents who, like Paraggi, have viewed it as a destructive medium. Several chassidic masters were rumored to have shunned having their pictures taken for fear of violating the Second Commandment, and there are Muslims today who make faces when posing for their driver’s licenses for similar reasons. But Jewish artist Miriam Mörsel Nathan, whose work is on exhibit at the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery in Washington, starts from the opposite premise.

 

Where Calvino was troubled by photography’s artificial response to life and prescribed destructive photography to overcome that design problem, Mörsel Nathan’s project starts with a single posed photograph of her aunt Greta and tries to create Greta’s world.

 

 


Miriam Mörsel Nathan. “Greta in green.” 30″ x 22″ monotype. 2008

 

 


Mörsel Nathan, a former director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, created all the works in the Bronfman Gallery exhibition based on a series of pre-World War II family photographs she found in a small box.  She has been fascinated by these pictures her entire life. “I have become an interpreter of these images, piecing together a story of people who look like me and my children and my grandchildren,” she says.

 

Making monotype prints of a photograph of her aunt Greta, Mörsel Nathan realized she had no idea what color dress her aunt was wearing in the black-and-white picture. “In fact, I didn’t know what colors she liked-a detail that points to a much larger issue, which is that I don’t know much about my aunt at all,” she says.

 

In a series of screen prints of the photograph-each of which includes a different colored dress-Mörsel Nathan imagines the content of the image in a manner reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s series on Marilyn Monroe, self-portraits and Campbell’s soup cans.

 

“The series of screen prints is of the same dress but in many different colors, as if to say to my aunt Greta-which of these do you like?” she says.

 

 


Miriam Mörsel Nathan. “Which One?” 15″ x 11 ½”. Four screen prints, 15″ x 11 ½” each. 2009. All photos of artwork by Gregory Staley and courtesy of Washington D.C. JCC

 

 

For Mörsel Nathan, this opportunity is tremendous. Greta Mörsel Braun was deported on April 29, 1942, and the artist says the series “remind me of what I don’t know.” Holocaust memory so often comes with rigorous attention to documentation and factual detail-and there is surely a great need for historical research on World War II-but Mörsel Nathan is to be applauded for approaching the enterprise from an artists perspective, where poetic license and suspension of disbelief are often necessities. In Mörsel Nathan’s case, if she didn’t use her art to imagine and to dream and strictly limited herself to the facts, she would know nothing about Greta beyond the photograph and the date of the deportation.

 

Instead, her works approach Holocaust memory (or what is called “postmemory”) with a unique vision, “with one eye on the past, one eye on the future and with their feet most firmly in the present,” according to curator Steven Cushner, who is on the faculty at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington.

 

“All of us have a desire to tell our story. For some, if we are fortunate, we have parents, grandparents, or other family members who can share their stories and memories with us. For others, there may be little or nothing left of this history to provide clues or guidance,” adds Cushner. “We must rely on the stories of others, and use religion, art and culture to guide us, to fill in or complete the story Mörsel Nathan’s work is quite realistic – she records not only the primary experience but also the memory of experience. She captures this uncertain and cloudy reality, and she honors these memories as both real and true.”

 

 


Miriam Mörsel Nathan. “Greta in Orange.” 30″ x 22″monotype. 2008

 

 

I agree with Cushner that Mörsel Nathan’s art honors the memory of her aunt, though there are sure to be some who object to the program, just as some felt that Art Spiegelman’s MAUS was inappropriate. Art about trauma-particularly about the Holocaust-can be quite controversial, so Mörsel Nathan is to be commended for her creative approach to a difficult (and highly personal) subject.

 

But it’s also worth noticing that her approach is a constructive, rather than destructive one. Where Calvino’s Paraggi was so traumatized by the prospect of documenting the present that he had to try to relive the past, Mörsel Nathan chooses not to be paralyzed by her lack of information about her aunt. Instead, she uses her lack of information to speculate about the truth. Confusing that conjecture with the truth would be madness, but it would be equally maddening to refuse to recognize that the mythology of the Greta series has truthful and real components.


 


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. 

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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