They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a
Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust
Through October 1, 2009
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York
As a matter of principle, I must begin this column by stating bluntly that in my opinion the column’s subject, Mayer Kirshenblatt, though he is a very talented storyteller, is not a very good painter by any means. Normally, that would present the end of the story. There are more than enough great artists who grapple with Jewish subject matter and themes that this column does not need to address work that is anything but first rate. That The Jewish Museum’s curatorial staff’s gave Kirshenblatt, the so-called Mayer July (which involves a Yiddish version of the nickname “Crazy Mayer”), his own exhibit is hardly enough of a credential, either. Yet, there is something unique about Kirshenblatt’s body of work, which merits further inspection.
Though he is an amateur, Kirshenblatt’s work features absolutely everything he saw in the shtetl. He might not have made art per se, but he was an artist. His work resembles Chagall’s, if one used a strainer that allowed the art to flow away and just the shtetl to remain. But most importantly, Kirshenblatt’s paintings – or illustrations-in-paint might be a better term – carry the same appeal as genre paintings like van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” (1885), or even the works depicting peasants by the 16th century Netherlandish artist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Kirshenblatt’s repertoire includes works like: “Boy with a Herring” (1992), “Water-Carriers at Harshl Kishke’s Well” (1992), “The Bagel-Seller” (2002), “Chimney Sweep” (1999), “The Wigmaker” (1994), “The Only Jew in the Volunteer Fire Brigade” (1994), “Tombstone Carver” (1995), and “The Rope Maker” (1994).
Mayer Kirshenblatt. “Potato Harvest, Iłża” (2001). Acrylic on canvas.
All of the 381 illustrations in the exhibit catalog date from the past 20 years. But calling Kirshenblatt prolific of late would only get at part of the story. The artist, born in 1916 in Apt (Opatów in Polish), moved to Canada at age 17. He first started painting at age 73 upon the recommendations of his daughter and wife.
The young Kirshenblatt was a bit of a rebel, who got into trouble in school, and the older painter’s best asset might be his remarkable ability to retain his youthful perspective (though his paintings lack perspective in the technical sense of the word). “I consider myself a storehouse of memories. My project is to paint prewar life in a small town in Poland. That’s what really interests me,” he writes in the catalog. “The way I paint is important, of course, but the most important thing is to get a subject the subjects I decide to paint are those that have a story to tell.”
“Regrettably,” Kirshenblatt continues, “I have very little imagination. I don’t dream or, if I do, the dream is nothing I can paint. I can only paint what I lived through. I can only paint what is in my memory and in my head.” But he is being modest. His works, though presumably historical and sociological (viewers must take his word for it, ultimately), also reveal a tremendous imagination.
Mayer Kirshenblatt. “Boy with Herring” (1992). Acrylic on canvas. All works, collection of the artist. Courtesy of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. © 2009 Mayer Kirshenblatt.
“Boy with Herring” is a self-portrait, in which the young Kirshenblatt carries the fish in his right hand as he walks down the cobbled street. Kirshenblatt’s sense of detail is impressive. Two women watch from the side of the street, and all the windows, doors, chairs and porches are carefully rendered, as is the lettering on a sign affixed to the building. In his own words, Kirshenblatt describes his attire as “the unofficial uniform for boys from non-Orthodox homes who attended the Polish public school,” including a four-cornered, leather cap that religious Jews avoided wearing “because the seams on the top of the hat formed a cross.”
Kirshenblatt also wears a navy blue jacket, the Slowacki collar (named for a 19th century Polish poet), gray “plus fours,” which resembled skirts, and “red ski boots with brass eyes and wide yellow shoelaces,” which he and his peers considered sporty. “We looked pretty smart with those nice shoes and knee high socks,” he writes.
Since paper was expensive, Kirshenblatt carries the herring with only enough newspaper to cover the part of the fish his hand touches, while the head and tail remains exposed. (Kirshenblatt would lick the drops of brine from the head and tail.) Not only does the artist present an image of the herring-carrying episode, but he also provides a shopping list of the herring’s culinary prospects. Male herrings were ideal, the fish could be turned into sauce, the head was a delicacy for the head of the family, and one herring could feed a family of four or five.
Mayer Kirshenblatt. “The Black Wedding in the Cemetery, c. 1892” (1996). Acrylic on canvas.
“The Black Wedding in the Cemetery” depicts an unusual scene: a group of people dance in a cemetery; in the foreground are tombstones, which contain inscriptions identifying some belonging to Leviim and others to Kohanim. The wedding, it turns out, was a community-sponsored celebration for a young orphan and a young bachelor, both penniless, after a holy rabbi recommended a cemetery wedding to put an end to a cholera outbreak. “Perhaps the dearly departed will intervene with the Holy One to help,” was the rabbi’s reasoning.
Mayer Kirshenblatt. “Boy in the White Pajamas” (1992). Acrylic on canvas.
Another magical intervention surfaces in “Boy in the White Pajamas.” The boy, standing on the right side of the painting, was born to parents who had seven daughters and no sons. His father, who was called Der Shvartser Khiel (Khiel the Brunet, who was incidentally a redhead), was a poor cobbler, who implored his friends to buy low when the tax collector confiscated his tools (he hid the valuables) and auctioned them off outside his shop when he failed to pay. The scheme worked, and the friends purchased the tools for cheap and re-sold them to Khiel for much less than the taxes would have cost him.
But, as Kirshenblatt explains, every man wants a son to recite the Kaddish for him after he dies, so the man went to the rabbi and asked him how he could have a son. He had lost all his male children in childbirth, and could hardly afford to keep having daughters whose dowries exceeded his means. The rabbi recommended dressing the next male baby in all white (to confuse the Angel of Death and make it think the child was already dead) and giving him an amulet to wear constantly. Apparently, the plot worked.
If there were a Jewish museum like the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., it would be the perfect venue for works like Kirshenblatt’s. It reminds me (at least some of the acrobat scenes do) of Michael Gleizer’s paintings of Chassidim (reviewed in this column December 24, 2008), and perhaps would do well at The Chassidic Art Institute. But it also makes sense at The Jewish Museum, because Kirshenblatt was so persistent in his naïve approach that he may have earned himself a different sort of nickname than Mayer July: the Yiddishe Henri Rousseau.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.