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Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn Museum’

A Jewish Artist, Whether You Like It or Not

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008


         Miriam Beerman’s paintings have appeared in more than 100 exhibits, including a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, a first for a woman artist. Her works permanently reside at the San Diego Museum, the Whitney and Yale University’s Sterling Art Library and have made the usual Jewish rounds – the Israel Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Skirball and the Spertus. Her works appeared in the traveling show “Women of the Book: Artists’ Books on Jewish Themes” (1997-2000). But despite her prolific representation at Jewish museums, Beerman, 84, is the first person to question those who overplay her works’ Jewish significance.


         Beerman’s paintings, which center on trauma and brutality, are tough to pigeonhole. Some critics have called her an expressionist for her thick colors and bold strokes. Her monsters and demons have earned her comparisons to 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, infamous for his depictions of the Cinco de Mayo massacres and his “Black Paintings” of witches, battles and, perhaps most crudely, Saturn devouring his son. For many curators and critics, interpreting Beerman’s work as related to the Holocaust and Jewish suffering is simply too tempting.


         Over the phone from Montclair, NJ, Beerman called herself a “survivor of sorts” or “survivor spiritually,” though she grew up in Rhode Island. She estimated 90 percent of her works refer to the Holocaust. But she stressed her paintings “do not illustrate any aspect of Judaism . . . I’m not a Jewish artist – I am Jewish and an artist.”



Miriam Beerman. “Imaginary Portrait of V.G. #2.” 1985. Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.



         Still, Donald Kuspit, an art history professor at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, argued Beerman painted Vincent van Gogh as a Jew in “Imaginary Portrait of V.G. #2” (1985). There is no reason to believe that the Dutch painter, whose father was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, was Jewish, but Kuspit wrote in the catalog “Survival: Miriam Beerman” (Queensborough Community College, 2007), “Beerman is Jewish, and the hooked nose she gives to Van Gogh is proverbially Jewish.” Kuspit further referred to the “honorary Jew, a symbol of Jewish suffering and mortification, indeed self-mortification, for Van Gogh cut off his own ear, a prelude to the suicide which was soon to follow.”



Miriam Beerman in her studio. Photo: Menachem Wecker, 2006.



         In a review in The Jewish Press (“Beerman’s Plagues,” March 20, 2006), Richard McBee wrote of Beerman’s Plague paintings that “The first thing you notice . . . [is] that the plagues don’t happen to someone else, they just happen, like a permanent state of terror underlying the structure of the universe. The plague itself is dread; anguish and fear of exactly how bad the world can become. In these paintings we are faced with all of our worst nightmares.”


         In the column, McBee agreed that Beerman’s van Gogh portrays “a whole people as victims,” and the “stereotypical” profile’s “big nose and thick lips, ostensibly identify him as a Jew.” McBee – who compared Beerman’s van Gogh to Shylock’s soliloquy, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” – said over e‑mail, “I think [Beerman] would agree with what I wrote, especially the quote from Shylock. She is immersed in suffering.”



Miriam Beerman. “River of Blood” – The Plague Series. 1986. Oil on Canvas. 98.25² x 63.75². Image courtesy of Queensborough Community College.



         But despite McBee and Kuspit’s confidence, Beerman denied the nose’s Jewishness. So did Kathryn Martini, collections manager at the Syracuse, NY-based Everson Museum of Art, which showed Beerman’s work in “Eloquent Pain(t)” (2007). “If Kuspit sees it as a Jewish nose and sees Jewish identification, I think it’s always possible,” she said, “not something I responded to strongly, but I wouldn’t argue his take.”


         Dominique Nahas was not so generous. “Kuspit is hallucinating,” said Nahas, an independent curator, professor at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and critic-in-residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He diagnosed the hallucination as “psychic projection and identification . . . attending to external power agendas” and inadvertent “weak or bad curating.”


         Nahas’ own catalog “Bending the Grid: Compassionate Monsters/Wrathful Lambs” (Aljira, 2006) only referred to Beerman’s Jewish identity in three footnotes – two mentioning the Holocaust, and the third, Beerman’s appetite for “Buddhist, Judaic and Christian thought.” Nahas also cited Beerman’s reference to the Hindu god Vishnu, though Beerman said over the phone, “I don’t know at all about Vishnu.”



Miriam Beerman. “Gulag (Feeding the Muse).” 1990. Oil on Canvas. 58² x 103.5². Image courtesy of Queensborough Community College.



         Even the Holocaust images, which Beerman acknowledges, are hard to pin down. McBee believes Beerman’s Holocaust references are Jewish due to their emphasis on death. But the “primarily cultural and secular” elements show the artist “willfully ignores the vast and complex narratives and intellectual material found in Torah, Talmud, commentaries, mystical literature and large portions of Jewish history and cultural production,” he said. “She also ignores almost all of the contemporary Jewish and Israeli world.”


         Martini said labeling any of the paintings “Holocaust works” is “very limiting,” since the works address “myriad . . . interpretations of the human condition.”


         “I haven’t ever felt that Miriam identified or found necessity in being marked a Jewish artist,” she said. “I think the fact that she is Jewish is actually not a very pertinent factor in her work. It only is curious for those who read her work as that of a Holocaust survivor.” Martini added that even Beerman’s series on the Ten Plagues could be seen as relevant to Christians and not strictly Jews.


         Despite downplaying the Jewish angle in his catalog, Nahas nevertheless argued that Beerman’s Old Testament references “can be said to relate to and infer her Jewish heritage” and are “classically inclined towards exploring the depths of suffering and its contours and its meanings, which is I think paradigmatically Jewish.” He added that it is fair to assume that religious and social culture has shaped the artist, who is Jewish by birth, “to a more than obvious degree.”


         Somehow, regardless of how one views Beerman’s work, it makes some sort of poetic sense that Beerman responded to questions about how to take her work by citing “artists who are more Jewish than I am.” Her example? “Richard McBee.”


         Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.  

Director Of The Jewish Image: Frederic Brenner's Photographs At The Brooklyn Museum

Friday, December 5th, 2003

The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey – Brooklyn Museum of Art.

200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY; 718 638 5000.

Wed.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.;

First Saturday of Each Month 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun, 11a.m.-6 p.m.,

contribution: $6, students and seniors, $3.

Until January 11, 2004.


Jews with Hogs (1994) is the first image one encounters in Frederic Brenner’s exhibition of
photographs of contemporary Jews from around the world currently at the Brooklyn Museum. In over one hundred and forty black and white photographs the exhibition seeks to document the “multiplicity of Jewish identities.” Throughout the exhibition diversity is the keyword. Diversity…hum.

Jews with Hogs is a large vertical photograph of 20 Florida Jews and their motorcycles (hog is American slang for a large motorcycle) posing in front of a Miami Beach synagogue, its name, Knesset Israel, proudly set over the entrance. The juxtaposition of synagogue and motorcycles sets the complex tone maintained throughout the exhibition. These individuals, each identified by name and profession in the accompanying caption: police officer, liquor store owner, real estate broker, accountant, etc, are in fact a perfectly respectable ”gathering” of middle class Jews.

The text panel that accompanies the image tells yet another story in which a professor of Judaic Studies, Julius Lester, questions exactly what common ground he might have with these Jewish bikers. He concludes that “they are Jews and I am a Jew but that we are not Jews in the same way…” And so the issue of diversity is explored…or is it? Perhaps the themes of appearance verses reality or confrontation and irony in photographic images are actually scrutinized. Diversity, if relevant at all, is but a starting point that very quickly splinters into
complex relationships between image, sign, caption, text and commentary.

In the next room the concept of Diaspora is explored in the text panel Lech Lecha: Go Forth. Diaspora is seen as a universal principle of the Jewish people. Perhaps the historical reality of Diaspora creates a disjunctive Jewish ideal even though it contradicts the Biblical text that commands Abraham to go to a specific homeland. For Brenner the Diaspora with its inherent
diversity (that word again) is the paradigm with which to understand the Jewish people. Perhaps.

Frederic Brenner, initially trained as a social anthropologist, has spent the last 24 years visiting 45 countries exploring and documenting Jewish life with his camera. His original impulse was to record simple social phenomena. We see here many beautiful photographs of Jews in Meah Shearim, Ethiopia and in Yemen. Documents. Then in the early 1990′s his methodology
shifted radically. As he observed he also began to interact with his subjects. He would do extensive research and conceive of an image he wished to create. He would then carefully craft each scene, posing his subjects to shape and determine a final iconic image after many preparatory shots. He became a director of the Jewish image.

For example, the first image, Jews with Hogs, becomes more understandable when we compare it with other images in the exhibition that are also concerned with a similar theme; Jews and their Judaism. The Jewish Community of Hong Kong Celebrating Purim (1998) are
all dressed in black Chinese costume, as they proudly pose in front of, peering out of and perched upon their three story jewel of a synagogue. This image brimming with people explores issues of costume, faith and social reality in the multiracial and devoted Jewish community nestled among seven million Chinese citizens of Hong Kong.

Other Brenner photographs also depict the complex theme of Jews and their Judaism. Jewish Arts Festival in Commack, Long Island panoramically shows seemingly secular Jews photographed in front of a backdrop of the Western Wall dressed up in faux Orthodox garb. Another series of photographs depicts Portuguese Marronos performing for the camera “secret” preparations for Passover in a hidden attic. Perhaps most movingly, two photographs show Lewi Faez taken 10 years apart at age six and 16, tracing his journey from a hut in Yemen studying with his grandfather to a bare new immigrant apartment in Israel with his young wife and infant child. Lewi tells us in the text panel how difficult the transition is to Israeli society and how he decided, after the last photograph, to cut off his peyos. For six months his parents didn’t speak to him and “It was hard…[but] I don’t act differently on the outside to what I really am.”

The theme of conflict and accommodation is central to modern Jewish life and one that almost all Jews must struggle with at one point in their lives, if not continuously. Brenner’s use of multiple images, textual captions and commentary along with shifts in time and location create a narrative that explores many sides of these fundamental questions. The issue of cultural
diversity pales in comparison.

Many diverse themes dominate and shape Brenner’s engagement with essential Jewish issues.
Contemporary anti-Semitism is pondered in the brilliant photograph of Billings, Montana, Citizens Protesting Anti-Semitic Acts (1994) while the chilling General David Abramovich Dragunsky, Head of the Anti-Zionist Committee, and His Wife depicts the conundrum of
Jewish anti-Semitism. The complicated history of Jews in relationship to Christianity is posed in Souvenir Sellers (1992) that arrays the exclusively Jewish peddlers of miniature saints and Catholic mementos in front of the Vatican. Additionally the deeply disturbing image of an
intermarried family in The December Dilemma finds no easy solution to the intolerable demands of two faiths in one house. Jewish Outsiders are explored in a prison Seder, Passover 5754, Maximum Security Women’s Correctional Facility while the heartbreakingly ironic Singles Weekend in the Catskills, Concord Hotel (1994) exposes the pain and longing in the search for a Jewish mate.

One can readily see that these images are artfully constructed under the careful direction of the
photographer and therefore are clearly not documents of any existing reality. Rather they are skillful compositions, fascinating tableaus that interact with other photographs in the exhibition to confront the viewer with themes great and small currently challenging the Jewish world.
The relationship between image, title and text defines the actual subject of each photograph.

Mourning and loss are paramount within Jewish life cycle events. Commemoration of Mourning for Deceased Son, Whose Picture is on the Wall (1990) encapsulates the tragic loss of a son in the context of an orthodox Russian family. Mother and father are inexplicably separated by the loss while the sisters standing behind them are drawn together. The departed surveys the scene from the back of the dinning room. We can understand their mourning and loss as they console each other. It is domestic. In a stark contrast the series on Argentinean mothers of “the disappeared” presents us with an inconsolable loss. Their  ”missing” sons and daughters, victims of the 1970′s military dictatorship, are in limbo, their fate feared but
unknown. Brenner depicts the mothers in white hospital gowns against antiseptically tiled institutional walls. Their blank stares and gestures of desperation make them seem insane, indeed they are insane with grief. Their mourning is endless and interminable. Brenner’s depiction compels us to comprehend their loss.

Frederic Brenner’s work is easily the most exciting and intellectually stimulating photographs around today. Coinciding with the exhibition is the publication of the two-volume Diaspora: Homelands in Exile, published by Harper Collins. The book juxtaposes his photographs
with provocative essays by André Aciman, Jacques Derrida, Carlos Fuentes, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Julius Lester, Georges Steiner, and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. His confrontational images are calculated to initially elicit shock and puzzlement. But once he has our attention, the subtle complexity of the images encourages a prolonged engagement with the meaningful content of each photograph. He asks us no more than to simply pay attention and care about the conflicts and struggles of our fellow Jews. There is a genuine diversity
of content in that enterprise.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to e-mail him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/director-of-the-jewish-image-frederic-brenners-photographs-at-the-brooklyn-museum/2003/12/05/

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