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February 22, 2017 / 26 Shevat, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘cultural’

Sotheby’s Judaica

16 Nisan 5764 – April 7, 2004

Important Judaica:  Exhibition: March 14-17, 2004
Auction, Thursday, March 18, 2004; 10:15 a.m.
1344 York Avenue, New York, NY. 212 606 7000



Jewish Art has always been burdened by Jewish history. Unlike most other cultural traditions, the vicissitudes of fate have been particularly harsh and have frustrated any attempt to establish a long-standing cultural tradition for the Jewish people in their far-flung habitations. Frequently, just as an art form began to take hold, an expulsion, pogrom, or oppressive decree would disrupt Jewish life and all chance of stability. Culture cannot be created on the run.

Therefore, simply as a matter of convenience, much Jewish Art depended upon pre-existing forms and motifs from the surrounding culture. It has yielded the benefit of a well-worn mold into which Jewish content is poured. In spite of the danger of an admixture of foreign content in the inherited forms, Jewish Art has yielded many riches of aesthetic pleasure, adding unexpected dimensions to non-Jewish form. This is evidenced by the highly discerning selection of artwork, some in traditionally Jewish forms and others not, currently on display at Sotheby’s in the current sale of “Important Judaica” shown between March 14 through the sale on March 18, 2004.

Sotheby’s has assembled close to three hundred objects of exceptional quality in a collaborative effort from both its New York and Tel Aviv offices. In what amounts to a museum style survey, there are almost 30 Ketubot from the 17th to 19th centuries. They
represent a wide variety of styles from the far reaches of the Jewish Diaspora including: Lisbon, Gibraltar and Bucharest.

Italy is well represented by the distinctive formats from Rome, Mantua, Florence, Lugo, Modena, Livorno, and Ancona. Additionally, there are distinctive Ketubot from Iran, particularly Meshed and Isfahan. The very large (36 x 33) Ketubah from Isfahan (1856) is a
tour-de-force of delicate floral decoration surrounding an image of two rampant lions with rising suns (a symbol of the Isfahan community) and florid peacocks, all of which surrounds the actual text. The impressive size and bold execution of this Ketubah express within the institution of marriage a fierce ethnic pride in the face of a frequently hostile Muslin majority.

Fifty Hanukah lamps compete as a historical survey of this art form in silver, pewter, and brass from Bohemia, Ukraine, Poland, Holland, Germany, Damascus, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco and India. The museum quality of the work is not surprising since many are from the collection of the Jewish Museum. The diversity of styles and invention from the 18th to 20th century provide an excellent introduction to this distinctive Jewish art form.

Shifting to non-Jewish art forms, a totally delightful surprise will greet all who discover the collection of three Marvadia carpets from Jerusalem. This workshop of craftsmen from the Bezalel School operated from 1920 until 1931 and produced carpets and rugs with a vibrant combination of Art Nouveau, Oriental and Judaic mosaic designs. The example in pale green with a stylized floral border that frames the central image of a spotted doe evokes the land of Israel, its fauna and flora in a masterpiece of pure poetry of textile design.

Reverse glass painting is a peripheral craft that Moshe ben Yitzach Mizrachi (1870 – ca. 1930) mastered and made his own unique form of expression. David Slaying Goliath, attributed to him, presents a folk image of incredible power. The prostrate body of the giant
Goliath with his severed head at a right angle is the focus of 70 figures of assembled Philistines and Israelites. King Saul observes the scene that barely notices the heroic David. The rendition of this scene with contemporary figures serves as a jolting reminder to the Jewish audience of the all too recent oppressive rule of the Turks. The lurid blood red of the figures against the neutral gray background further enforces the precarious nature of living in the Land of Israel.

The exhibition boasts many important manuscripts, including the earliest example of Sefer Mizvot Gadol by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy from 1288 and a rare Mishneh Torah of the Rambam form 14th century Italy. Among these important handwritten works the Haggadah
by the scribe and illuminator Yakov ben Yehudah Leib Shamash of Berlin from 1739 commands special attention.

After the invention of the printing press in 1455, the production of handwritten Haggadot declined precipitously as printed versions with woodblock and copperplate engravings became widely available. From the late 1600’s, a rebirth of handwritten Haggadot occurred in Germany and Central Europe as economic times and security improved for the Jews. These works were commissioned for the wealthy Court Jews and were frequently given as luxurious wedding presents. The extremely popular printed edition of the Amsterdam Haggadah (1695) was used as a model for all the illustrations.

The images from the Amsterdam Haggadah were the most copied in history (see Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi) and yet it is ironic that they were all derived from a Swiss Christian artist, Mattaeus Merian. Where necessary, they were changed to suit the Haggadah, and yet the
images bear the unmistakable imprint of a late Renaissance worldview. Our handwritten Haggadah from 1739 by Yakov ben Yehudah Leib Shamash used the exact same images with some very important differences.

His use of brilliant color is delicate and sensitive, lending a light and immediate touch to the subjects illuminated. The frontispiece has the traditional images of Moses and Aaron, transformed from the austere original figures to rather kindly depictions of recognizable Jews.
Especially charming is the artist’s rendering of Moses at the burning bush, removing his shoes. Moses is depicted as peasant shepherd kneeling on one knee, with one shoe prominently placed in front of him. He gazes with absolute simplicity and faith at the blinding light
behind the bush, a totally convincing depiction of a supremely unreal event.

All of the illuminations have the same down-to-earth quality, rendering the distant historical narrative as easily understood contemporary events. Moses Rescued by Pharaoh’s Daughter is another example where the artist has transformed the original Renaissance images. The simplified rendering of the distant city and bridge (over the Nile) unifies the composition so that the image of the ark floating in the river with the infant Moses is immediately visible. In a
compression of time, we simultaneously see the baby Moses presented to a shocked and worried Pharaoh’s daughter as other babies drown in the river behind her. The artist-scribe has clearly improved the original image, clarifying the event with stylistic simplicity that was impossible in the style of Christian Renaissance naturalism. Yakov ben Yehudah Leib Shamash redeemed this Haggadah’s images by breaking with Renaissance conventions.

In a similar and totally unexpected manner, the five paintings by Isidor Kaufmann (1853-1921) break with another tradition. In the late 19th century, Europe was dominated by two artistic movements. Impressionism and then post-Impressionism led the avant-garde towards the modernism of the 20th century, while conservative tastes clung to the vestiges of academic realism that was proving more and more irrelevant. Kaufmann, however, clung to the realism of his native Vienna. From 1894, he specialized in depictions of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, concentrating on portraits of unnamed pious Jews that found a market among wealthy Viennese Jews. Two portraits shown are probably from drawings done of the same sitter, a dignified Chasid in a streimel, gazing at the viewer with unequaled intensity. The emerald green background intensifies his gaze. A portrait of a young Chasid posed before a Torah mantle renders another kind of intensity as the lad engages our eyes in what amounts to a visual assault. The overwhelming impression we get is of absolute integrity.

The real masterpiece of the exhibition is Kaufmann’s portrait of a red bearded rabbi in front of a pale crimson Torah mantle. The rose colored background forms a flat visual field surrounding the unified shape of the pallid white tallis and kittel. His red beard fades into the
background as we are engaged by his piercing eyes and the equally intense ornate tallis attara and skullcap. This is not academic realism we are witnessing, rather, it is a radical application of modern compositional elements, stressing flatness and bold shapes in combination with the raw emotional power of the human face. Kaufmann, painting through the social and political upheavals of modernism and the First World War, has found in the integrity of these pious Jews a modicum of stability in a world undergoing profound changes.

In the examples above, Jewish artists have utilized existing non-Jewish forms, whether Haggadah illustrations or the conventions of academic realism, and have transformed them with creativity and a singular Jewish vision. Witnessing this process across the centuries
provides a breathtaking pleasure in Sotheby’s current exhibition of Judaica that should not be missed.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

A Glimpse Of Meaning Russian Post-Modernists At YUM

26 Heshvan 5764 – November 21, 2003

Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia –
Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History.

West 16th Street, New York, N.Y.;

(212) 294-8330

Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11a.m.-5 p.m.;

$6 adults, $4 children

until February 1, 2004.



The need to reassert a shattered cultural identity should be familiar to Jews. As a people, we are used to the historical rug being pulled out from under us every now and then. It’s G-d’s way of keeping us on our toes. After the Romans leveled the Second Temple, effectively
cutting out the heart of Judaism, we had to forge a new identity. Likewise, the trials and tribulations of the Diaspora have repeatedly demanded a reassessment of cultural definitions. We were highly cultured Spaniards until 1492 and then we were again cast among the nations.
The same experience of displacement was repeated in France, Germany and England over the centuries. Finally, our cultured homes and way of life in Western and Eastern Europe were incinerated and yet another cultural identity went up in smoke. The survivors and their descendents are still struggling to remake a viable Jewish culture in America and in Israel. This has been a numbingly constant Jewish paradigm for 2,000 years.

Therefore there is something familiar about the diversity, dislocation and postmodern chaos in the works of the 24 artists in Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia currently at Yeshiva University Museum. This exhibition by some of the foremost Russian artists of their generation displays their artistic lives hewn out of the ruins of the Soviet Empire. As critic Donald Kuspit surveys these works, he perceives “the problem of achieving an autonomous identity and strong sense of selfhood [that] haunts Russian art…”

Russian art boasts an illustrious history from pre-Revolutionary icons to the radically modern
Constructivist movement of the teens and early 20’s. Such abstract and highly conceptual works were finally crushed by Stalin’s Social Realism, which was the totalitarian norm, from the 1930s until the mid 1950’s. It was only after the death of Stalin in 1953 that the cultural climate began a slow thaw that was itself shattered by the catastrophic break-up of the Soviet
Union in December 1991. Most of the artists shown here are representative of this unique cultural transition from a tightly controlled society to what may be deemed contemporary cultural chaos.

Perhaps one of the most telling images that expresses what curator Alexandre Gertsman defines as “nostalgia for culture and for the destruction of culture; a longing for refinement and for vandalism…” is, I Saw Stalin Once When I Was a Child (1982) [in catalogue] by Komar and Melamid. The chilling vision of the Great Leader peering from the back of a black sedan
encapsulates the haunting presence of totalitarian authority and destructiveness that permeates the Russian soul. The exhibition is dominated by ironic images of Soviet relics that repeatedly attempt to deconstruct the terrible years and corrosive ideas that dominated their artistic youth.

Natalya Nesterova is represented by a number of works that considers multiple perspectives of cultural dislocation. Dream on the Shore (Reading Buber) (1999) transports us to a surreal scene of comatose relaxation while savoring a volume of Martin Buber in Hebrew. An
incongruous dragonfly against the leaden sky seems to illustrate the fleeting fragility of philosophical speculation in a world adrift from normative values. A similarly illusive image of Golden Angel (1999) attempts to take flight over a grim city below. The city may be burning;
the whole civilization in ruins, but the radiant angel cannot escape to its heavenly home. There is a persuasive hopelessness, a trapped spirituality that characterizes many of her works. The earlier Angel With Eyes Open (1991) anticipates this dread in a faceless angel that is paradoxically all seeing, all knowing and yet impotent to act. The entire winged figure is covered with eyes, a terrible presence that hovers against a gray threatening sky. Nesterova addresses a reinvigorated Judaism by a cautious exploration of the spiritually that was crushed, persecuted and denied in her nation’s recent past.

Likewise, Grisha Bruskin seeks a Jewish medium to exorcise Soviet demons. His background in Soviet Pop Art, called Sots-Art, and Soviet symbolism has flowed into an obsession with Jewish culture. Here a defining referent is the shared culture of “The Book.” His works, both paintings and flat silhouette sculpture tend to multiple series, echoing the multiple pages of books. Metamorphoses (1992) is composed of ten diminutive steel cut-outs painted in red or black enamel, depicting angels, demons, devils and a haunted Everyman that allegedly represents an 18th Century Kabbalistic text. These deeply disturbing images seem to emerge from a shared unconscious thousands of years old. In contrast to many other works in this show, there is a distinct lack of nostalgia in his works. Rather, because of his use of a stark modernist sculptural form, Bruskin’s works point to a vision of Jewish spirituality that is at once terrifyingly ancient and resolutely contemporary.

His paintings enlarge upon the textual motif by utilizing actual texts in a lined background against which his fantastic figures are painted. Message 5 (1989-90) [in catalogue] is part of a larger series that depicts a cosmic struggle that has been brought to earth and encased in a fragmented text. Snatches of Hebrew and Aramaic script surface in boldface, while the majority of the text remains unintelligible. The images seem to want to narrate, and yet an overload of information intrudes. One assumes that Bruskin mixes personal, political and
historical images with deliberately obscure texts to obfuscate the painting’s meaning. This tactic
unfortunately creates a cultural chasm that proves extremely difficult to cross.

These glimpses of meaning, attempts at construction even while acknowledging that reconstruction of a shattered cultural identity may be futile, represent but one response to the cultural dislocation so keenly felt by contemporary Russian artists. What is extremely intriguing about this exhibition is the particular way in which various echoes of Jewish themes, from disengaged angels to exploration of secular and sacred Jewish texts, have been utilized to address a problem that has a very real parallel in contemporary Jewish creativity.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Multiple Identities – Oded Halahmy And Russian Post-Modernists At YUM

12 Heshvan 5764 – November 7, 2003

Homelands: Baghdad-Jerusalem-New York: Sculpture of Oded Halahmy.

Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History,

West 16th Street, New York, N.Y.; (212) 294-8330.
Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.;

$6 adults, $4 children. Until January 15, 2004.


Who are you? Who am I? Questions of cultural identity among artists have raged from the
early twentieth century to yesterday’s memoir. Was Marc Chagall a Russian artist, a Jewish artist or a French artist? Crumbling social institutions, societal upheavals, and fluid opportunities in societies adrift from traditional moorings demand that artistic identity be parsed and minutely explored. Two exhibitions currently at Yeshiva University Museum examine this most postmodern of themes.

Oded Halahmy, working in New York’s Soho for the last thirty years, is showing an impressive retrospective of his works reflecting both the modernism he found in New York and his Middle Eastern roots. His identity shines forth as an Iraqi Jew marooned in New York in his retrospective: Homelands: Baghdad-Jerusalem-New York; Sculpture of Oded Halahmy.

Conversely, the twenty-four artists in Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia who have forged artistic lives out of the ruins of the Soviet empire treat identity as a borrowed shirt, an ironic garment within which to lash out at their past and present oppression. Identity for them is less a longed for homeland than a weapon with which to mock and attack multiple enemies, including a grandiose but dead Communism, avaricious capitalism, and artistic orthodoxies of the past hundred years. We will explore this complex exhibition next week.

While Oded Halahmy has at least three homelands: Iraq, Israel and New York, he has one
central artistic identity. Conversation (1996) establishes the framework of his aesthetic and cultural concerns. His whimsical and yet probing sculptures, almost all cast bronze, frequently utilize the powerful symbols of the palm tree and the pomegranate to create a dialogue between contrasting elemental facets of our personalities.

The palm is earthbound and yet continues to aspire to the sky, forever reaching even as it
shelters. It is a symbol of expansive freedom gently swaying in the wind. Frequently situated lower in the sculptural composition, the pomegranate occupies a distinctly different position that evokes our visceral nature. This luscious fruit, filled with seeds of fecundity and potential creativity, represents the earthbound nature of man bound to a life of flesh and blood. Its little crown even implies kingship over the earthly realm. In this sculpture, the dialogue is between the upper and lower aspects of our lives, with steps and ramps forming the base that we can metaphorically ascend.

Homeland (Study) (1987) moves these ideas into the realm of social identity. Halahmy
presents us with a tableau-like freestanding relief sculpture that could be mistaken for a group
portrait. The sculpture simultaneously operates as a series of universal symbols and as a landscape view of his remembered Iraq that he left as a 13-year-old in 1951. The majestic palm, curiously fractured, is flanked by the king and the humble, child like pomegranate. They in turn are framed by a star/sun symbol and an abstract figure on the viewer’s right. The skillful manipulation of size creates a scale and dignity beyond its actual height of only 48 inches.
Halahmy evokes for us a nostalgic view of a Middle Eastern childhood, perhaps representing his own family amidst the ever-present palms and life-giving sun. In the catalogue he writes that, “In my memories of Baghdad, everything is vivid, beautiful; people, friends, relatives, food… it was the most beautiful place on earth, a paradise.” It is a touchingly primitive portrait of a world long gone.

A more mundane realm of power and politics is referenced in Silver Pomegranate Moon
(1983). The sharp angles and rectangles contrast with curved gestures to abstractly describe a king seated in a palace attending to affairs of state while the moon rises above. Incongruously, a pomegranate is placed on its own stand next to his throne. Halahmy tells us that in the process of creating the work, he placed a real pomegranate on the abstract sculpture. The effect was a creative breakthrough.

The fruit is brilliant, reflecting the light differently from the surrounding burnished nickel bronze. It serves to remind the king that he too is but flesh and blood. His exercise of power, even
stern justice that might be seen in the jagged shape of his raised arm, needs to be tempered by
humility and gentleness as expressed by the soft light of the moon.

Halahmy frequently considers his work as playful. While that may be much of the time, still it is
a serious kind of play. His dalliance between abstraction, symbolism and a simple figuration reflects a life that he characterizes as nomadic. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he grew up in Israel, studied in London, and finally moved to New York in 1971. At one point he states that “my homeland is the place where I am working and living” and yet there are no palm trees in Soho.
His constant use of these symbols reflects a poignant yearning for the lands of his youth, a
cultural identity bound up with the Middle East and the home of his forefathers. An artistic identity is not so easily manufactured from surroundings, even three decades old. Uprooting the artist does not uproot the artist’s authentic identity. Strangely, it may actually make it grow stronger.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

The Outsider Complex Jewish Folk Artists Of Our Time

27 Sivan 5763 – June 27, 2003

Remembrance and Ritual: Jewish Folk Artists of Our Time

Andrew Edlin Gallery

529 West 20th Street, 6th Floor, NY, NY 10011.

(212) 206- 9723


Until June 7, 2003.



The outsider artist has become a fixture of the postmodern age. There are exhibitions, books, symposia and museums documenting artists who create outside the accepted norms of “fine art.” The French artist Jean Dubuffet along with Andre Breton first defined outsider art as Art Brut (Raw Art) in 1945 and collected examples of work they considered “uncooked” by either classical or contemporary cultural influences.

Individuals on the fringes of society, the insane, disturbed or simply eccentrics driven by their unique needs and personalities produced Art Brut. Their eclectic use of unorthodox materials and subjects often led to puzzling and impenetrable images. In 1975, Dubuffet donated his enormous collection to the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. Over the years, the increased exposure of Art Brut and other outsider art has had a definitive influence on mainstream art, nurturing the post-modernist culture of disjunction and dislocation. At the Andrew Edlin Gallery, Remembrance and Ritual: Jewish Folk Artists of our Time presents what may be one of the fundamental forms of outsider art, Jewish Folk Art.

Edlin defines these eight artists: Paul Edlin (his uncle), Aaron Birnbaum, Bernard Goodman, Etta Ehrlich, Paul Graubard, Malcah Zeldis, Rudy Rotter and Albert Hoffman as “outsiders” and rightly so. Traditional folk artists work within an established cultural tradition of craft and folk custom. Each of these artists is outside any recognizable tradition, Jewish or Gentile, creating their artwork frequently in isolation, marching very much to a tune of their own choosing. Here, the unifying distinction is that they are all Jews. Interestingly enough, many of them have decided to create their art using overt Jewish subjects that defines them conclusively as outsiders in the context of mainstream contemporary art.

Rudy Rotter’s (1913-2001) wood relief sculptures in mahogany have a massive strength that reflects the elemental subjects he has chosen: Moses, Adam and Eve, and Isaac Blessing Jacob- Rebecca. Rotter was a Wisconsin dentist and self- taught artist who sculpted in wood until arthritis forced him to retire in his eighties. His works, spanning a 40-year period, are created with a singular vision of Jewish subjects. Shema (1982) conflates two powerful images
to create a contemporary affirmation of Jewish faith. In a stark frontal image, a man in street clothes holds a small sefer Torah aloft. In this position, he simultaneously becomes the central branch of the synagogue menorah behind him and echoes the classic pose of Moses holding up the original two tablets. In this way Moses is seen here as a mid-Western Everyman.

Using a completely different approach, Malcha Zeldis presents Job (1999) as the metaphorical center of the universe. His enormous head surrounded by a blue-white beard halo pleads for understanding. Kneeling in an idyllic green landscape populated by his dead children, flocks of dead sheep and an especially awesome devil with red wings, Job is comforted and counseled by his wife and his erstwhile friends. Nothing is able to console him as he reaches up to a distant G-d. Job is in some ways the quintessential outsider, because he
is neither satisfied by G-d’s answers to his questions nor comforted by friends or spouse. He is the man alone struggling with meaning in a lonely universe.

The artist who effectively steals the show is Albert Hoffman. He is represented by seven mahogany sculptures and three mixed media paintings that distinguish him as a totally original artist capable of a wide range of riveting images. Ten Commandments (1971) is a normative image of Moses holding up the two tablets, one foot poised forward and the other braced to the side. The deep red mahogany combines with the squat forms of the figure to give this forty-one inch figure an fearsome authority, making us uncertain whether Moses is displaying the luchos for us or about to violently cast them down at our feet.

Tabernacle (1974) is a diminutive synagogue environment that alludes to the entranceway into the Second Temple. The scale, imaginative lions and tablets, symbols of the tribes, and massive but detailed woodworking elevate the sculpture into an elegant and transcendent testimony that each and every synagogue is a miniature Holy Temple.

The most mysterious of the works is a painted mahogany relief sculpture, Thirteen Men (1975). A solitary figure stands at the amud, leading the minyan in prayer. The men are arranged on the extreme edges of the panel. Two sifre Torah, rampant lions and menorahs become inadvertent members of this little congregation. Superficially, the sculpture is a simple depiction of a synagogue service while lurking beneath the surface are troubling questions that defy logical answers. What is the meaning of the “Thirteen Men?” Why are the pews empty and the men so distant from the ark and the Torahs? What is really going on here?

Each of these works and many others in this exhibition raise unorthodox questions from Jewish artists who find themselves on the fringes of the art world, not to mention the surrounding non-Jewish society. They have come in from the edges to present us with their unsettling visions. For our own good, we had best pay close attention to this Jewish Outsider Art.

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/the-outsider-complex-jewish-folk-artists-of-our-time/2003/06/27/

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