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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art’

The Twelve Tribes At The Bialystoker Home

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

A quiet monument to the courage and determination of hundreds of thousands of Jews sits vulnerable on the Lower East Side of New York City at 228 East Broadway. This location was the former home of the Bialystoker Center, built in 1931. For many years it was primarily operated as the Bialystoker Home for the Aged that finally closed in November 2011. In its heyday it was one of the most important Jewish benevolent societies, a landsmanschaftenfor generations of immigrants from Bialystok. A groundswell of protest has arisen over the proposed sale of the building to a luxury residential developer with the possibility of its demolition. They are harnessing support to appeal to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to save the historic façade that boasts an Art Deco gem, roundels representing the 12 Tribes of Israel under the proud Bialystoker name.

Bialystoker Center Building Façade (1931); Henry Hurwit, architect

While initially easy to miss, especially since it is now partially covered with scaffolding, the façade leads to significance in two different directions. First it testifies to an enormously important aspect of Jewish immigrant history and secondly reflects the complex relationship between tradition and modernity, still playing itself out in the 21st century.

New York City, and specifically the Lower East Side, was in 1910 the largest Jewish city in the world. Moreover, the Lower East Side was arguably the most densely populated place on the planet. These facts alone set the stage for a momentous transformation of the downtown Jewish population. The predominately Jewish Bialystok suffered terrible depravations and violence during the Russian Revolution, World War I and subsequent upheavals. Therefore a mass emigration occurred both before and after WWI that resulted in a diaspora of Bialystoker Jews in Chicago, Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Tel Aviv.

The first Bialystoker landsmanschaften was established in 1886 and the Bialystoker Center in 1919. The current building opened to great celebration in 1931 with the Forward declaring, “Bialystok is now on East Broadway.” As the Bialystoker Jews banded together they offered services and collected money – not only to help their brethren here in New York – but also to help rebuild Bialystok in what is now Poland. This strong sense of identity, “forever a Bialystoker,” entered the complex immigrant mix in 1920’s – 1930’s Lower East Side. Many Jews resisted American values and assimilation and did not even become citizens or learn to speak English. They dug in and lived as if they had never left home, while others attempted to adjust to modernity, sometimes even completely abandoning Jewish life. It was complex and bewildering for thousands of immigrants and their descendants and the Bialystoker Center was at the center of much of it.

Bialystoker Center Doorway with 12 Tribes Roundels. Henry Hurwit, architect

The façade of the Bialystoker Center expresses much of this complexity. The grand doorway boldly proclaims “Bialystoker” in Hebreicized English lettering. The pride of Judaic-Polish ancestry is proclaimed simultaneously as the English language, and all it implies, is asserted. Above the entrance doorway the stone façade is capped by a grand balcony. Art Deco stylized reliefs ascend between the three central windows for the eight floors of golden brick. In its time it was one of the tallest and grandest buildings on the Lower East Side. It is clear the architect Henry Hurwit wanted to send as inclusive a visual message as possible.

The recessed doorway is concise, assertive and revealing. The 12 Tribal symbols flank the doorway: 4 on the right, 4 on the soffit above and 4 on the left. The images are ensconced in roundels that approximate a Hebraic formulation (right to left) of Jacob’s “blessings” found at the end of Genesis. They start on the right with the first born, Reuben, travel up, cross the transept and down the left side to the final child, Benjamin.

Bialystoker Doorway Soffit. Henry Hurwit, architect

The exact order and most of the images actually follows the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 2:2 that expands on the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness; “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ household.” This midrash codifies the information from Jacob’s blessings (Genesis 49) and Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33) into a blueprint for the color and image for each tribe’s flag or symbol.

At the base of each side panel there are stylized representations of the Temple Menorah superimposed over a Star of David/pyramid design anchored by schematic sunrises. These images link this building on East Broadway with both the ancient Temple and the growing Zionist movement in Palestine. Reuben’s mandrakes, a gift of fertility for both his mother and Rachel, effectively sidesteps Jacob’s stinging castigation. Simon is represented by a massive city gate, alluding to the city of Shechem, while Levi gets off scot-free with a depiction of the High Priest’s breastplate, the Choshen HaMishpat that contained the Urim and Tumin. The right side panel is then completed with the Lion of Judah confirming Jacob’s blessing of kingship to his fourth born son.

Leah Ashkenazy: Jewish Artist

Friday, February 17th, 2012

We live in a wonderful time for Jewish art. The orthodoxy of 20th century High Modernism has given way to a chaotic but liberated postmodernism willing to try anything, even serious “ethnic” art. Jewish art can be done by anyone with a bit of gumption – just witness Anselm Kiefer’s 2010 exhibition “Next Year in Jerusalem.” And even though the commercial galleries generally still turn a blind eye, Jewish art by Jews is booming. More and more artists are coming out of the closet and admitting they have a genuine interest in Jewish subjects and ideas. This is evidenced by a least two national Jewish art groups: The Jewish Art Salon based in New York and the Jewish Art Initiative in Los Angeles. Scholar and author Matthew Baigell proclaimed last year in a lecture at the Jewish Museum that “we are in a Golden Age of Jewish Art.” And this renaissance has even penetrated Boro Park in the guise of a handful of frum artists including the tenacious Leah Ashkenazy, reviewed in these pages back in September 2001 and February 2006.

My Grandchildren (2010), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Ashkenazy’s path to making art is typical of what are often called “outsider artists.” After a lifetime of doing something else (for her raising a family and earning a Masters in Literature from Brooklyn College), then, almost by chance, in 1997, she discovered that making paintings was her passion. Not surprisingly, the subjects she draws upon are her own life – growing up in Romania during the Second World War, the Holocaust, the gnawing tragedies of our time in Israel and around the world including 9/11 and, of course, her grandchildren. Ashkenazy sees the subjects of her art as either tzuris or grandchildren. Either way, it is always deeply Jewish.

Sbarro Pizzeria (2001), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

On August 9, 2001 a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in the Sbarro Pizzeria at the corner of King George Street and Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. Fifteen Jews died including 8 children. 130 others were injured. In the devastated restaurant parents, infants, children and grandchildren died together. How could a Jewish artist, especially a grandmother, not react? Ashkenazy was one of the few who did that very year. Sbarro Pizzeria (2001) depicts a state of mind rather than a historical event. Blue lines create a three-dimensional grid that connects the viewer’s foreground with a scroll that spans the surface and the burnt sienna space beyond. In the center is a hinged object showing the time just before the bombing with a man about to enter a doorway. Above the scroll are 15 candles burning for the victims. Little figures are dotted across the scroll that reads only “Shema Yisroel.” The artist shows the painting accompanied by a text that enumerates our oppressors throughout history who wanted to exterminate us: “Today it is the nature of Ishmael who wishes to do the same. But with G-d’s help the result is always the same: Jews emerge to life and cannot be destroyed…The Torah is eternal, therefore so are the Jews.” It would seem the blue grid is the structure of Jewish life that will endure the tragedies of Jewish history. Today’s artists need to take note that contemporary Jewish history; its triumphs and tragedies as well, desperately needs our artistic reaction.

Spanish Inquisition – Voice of the Victims (2002), oil on canvas by Leah Ashkenazy

Jewish history is unfortunately rife with other examples, the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion being a prime instance. Ashkenazy’s painting of the same name is subtitled: The Voice of the Victims (2003). She depicts an imagined stage with the curtain pulled back to reveal a mise en scene of Spanish Jewish history. There are four figures “on a golden stage” made up of dots of Jewish silver and gold. One is King Ferdinand, one is Queen Isabella and another is the despised Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor responsible for the deaths of many Jews burned at the stake and fanatical supporter of the mass expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Paradoxically the fourth figure, smaller than the others and dressed in an elaborate purple costume, is perhaps one of the prominent Jews in the Spanish court still hoping for a reprieve. The ensemble is surrounded by ghostly figures with red threads floating and connecting one another. They are the “voices of the victims,” they are the anonymous witnesses of Jewish history demanding to be heard.

Why is Ashkenazy so attracted as an artist to Jewish tragedy? My guess is that while the majority of her adult life was lived comfortably in Boro Park as a dutiful wife, mother and grandmother, her childhood was poisoned by the hatred of the Holocaust that howled around her. And as an artist, sensitive to the beauties of the world, her own childhood experiences force her to react to the sufferings of not only her own people but others too. An artistic sensitivity carries with it an awesome responsibility.

Making Torah Manifest: Nathan Hilu

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Hebrew Union Collage – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum

One West 4th Street, NYC; 212 824 2205

Mon. – Thurs. 9am – 5pm; Friday, 9am – 3pm.

Free Admission (Photo ID required)

Until March 30

 

“Man must make the Torah manifest” in every action, speech and creative act. That is clearly the credo of Nathan Hilu, master-artist of the Lower East Side, Torah, Tanach, midrash, Gemara and beyond. There is seemingly nothing that doesn’t fall within the purview of his fertile, pious and creative visual imagination. Literally everything in his creative world is seen through the lens of Torah and Jewish sensibility. We get to peek into that world in the exhilarating exhibition “Nathan Hilu’s Journal: Word, Image, Memory” lovingly curated by Laura Kruger, director of the HUC Museum. Through her expertise and discerning eye she has brought to our attention a rare artist within the Orthodox world: one who is as immersed in piety as in celebration of the totality of Jewish life and thought. It is clear from the 44 works in this exhibition that he is the exemplar of the very modern and contemporary American Jewish artist. And he is only 87 years young.

The “Torah manifest” text appears in How the Rabbi Ties His Shoes; a depiction of the Maggid of Mezhirech leaning over to tie his shoelaces as Aryeh Leib Sarahs comments that it is in the rebbe’s everyday conduct that he will learn the deepest meaning of Torah life. The image is primitive, direct and dominated by the text that explains Hilu’s image. While the integration of text, image and color is typical of Hilu’s approach, this is only one of many motifs that dominate his work.

The Biblical narrative is a natural for Hilu and at least eight works here testify to that. In Pharaoh’s Dream the text of Parshat Miketz is detailed with Genesis 41: 47 – 49 describing how in the “good years there was an abundance of food and Joseph gathered it in.” The bottom of the image depicts three Jews leining this parsha in shul at the bimah with the English translation surrounding them. In the top third of the image are ancient Egyptian harvesters illustrating the text. Contemporary Jewish practice, holy text and ancient history combine to create a biblical painting.

Hilu freely dips into the midrashic sensibility throughout his biblical works and a prime example is God Braiding Eve’s Hair. His simple image of a woman in profile with two hands grasping her hair from the sky is framed by the text that tells us the source is the Avos D’Rabi Nosson. The image again demands that we consider the textual and pictorial as an equal means of Torah illumination. In Chapter 4 Rabi Natan celebrates the honor due to a bride and comments that the Holy One, blessed be He, did so with Eve, fixing her hair and dressing her to bring her to Adam, her betrothed. I dare say no other artist has ever made an image of this concept.

Noah and his Family; mixed media collage by Nathan Hilu. Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum

Noah and his Family reveals a good deal about Hilu’s methodology. It is clear that the original image was simply an ark floating on the water with a mountain behind it. As is the norm in Hilu’s work the English text would have to be inserted and so it was, surrounding the image. But then we see numerous cut-out additions pasted on the bottom of the original image. There are a bunch of animals and figures attached to the lower edge; Noah and his family are labeled as such. In the middle of the image the word “haTeivah” (The Ark) is slapped on the front of the ark and next to it a short quotation from Parshas Noach; Genesis 8:4, “And the ark rested in Mount Ararat,” is imposed on the now complex image. It is a pictorial summary of the terrifying travail of months of uncertain survival.

Serach Tells Jacob; oil patel on paper by Nathan Hilu. Courtesy Herman Lowenhar

Perhaps the most evocative image within the biblical/midrashic archetype is Serach Tells Jacob. Two figures dominate the image: Serach, the daughter of Asher chosen by the shamefaced brothers to convey the news to their father Jacob that, indeed, Joseph was alive! But here the texts battle; the bottom text tells the basic midrashic story while between the figures another tale unfolds; Jacob sublimely blesses Serach with eternal life for her kindness. By what right does our patriarch exercise this power? We have no idea. And yet it becomes true! This is the textual background explicitly enumerated as the image explodes it; positing a frantic little girl playing the violin (midrashically, a harp, but who cares?), red hair flying above her flowered dress, casting musical notes at her grandfather. They are pictorially joined in the flowered patterns of both her dress and his black bekesheh – a motif that speaks volumes about the intergenerational love and respect of the Jewish family life. They are a perfect duo, both rosy cheeked and him clapping along with her as she fiddles away.

Old and New: Podwal’s Altneuschul Paroches

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History 15 West 16th Street, NYC; 212-294 8330 www.yumuseum.org Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11am-5pm; $6 adults, $4 children Until January 15, 2012

Mark Podwal is a busy, busy man. When I wrote that in these pages in September 2010 it is now clear I didn’t know the half of it…witness his current exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum. In what is effectively a love song to his adopted city, Prague, Podwal has had the delicious opportunity to give her Jewish community a spanking new Chanukah gift; the new Torah curtain, shulchan covers and Torah mantles. For a Jewish artist and lover of Prague like Podwal it doesn’t get any better than that.

Curator Zachary Paul Levine’s exhibition brilliantly contextualizes Podwal’s textile creations, both within the artist’s own work and the historical background of the ancient Jewish community. Additionally, Levine produced and edited “Steps Closer to Prague: Mark Podwal,” a 9-minute video companion on YouTube that not only includes considerable commentary by the artist himself, but also explores the working relationship he developed with the New York custom embroidery company Penn and Fletcher. From Podwal’s original drawings to digital transfers and computer driven machine-made embroidery finally appliquéd on the final textile, each step is lovingly documented. The combination is a captivating and intense course in Jewish visual symbols, Czech Jewish history and contemporary Jewish art.

Touching Heaven (1981) pen and ink by Mark Podwal Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Podwal’s interest in Prague and its Jewish community dates back to the late 1970s when he was researching material for a book with Elie Weisel on the mythical Golem of Prague. His fascination at first centered on the old Jewish cemetery, used from 1439 until 1787, and home to an estimated 12,000 tombstones and perhaps as many as 100,000 burials. This eerie hodgepodge of Jewish history, piety and life prompted many drawings and paintings by Podwal, often morphing into fantastic visions of multiple golems and claustrophobic ghetto houses. His drawings of the cemetery are the beginning of the exhibition’s tale that traces many of the visual elements of these current textiles back to his earlier work.

Golem and cemetery images surround an open model of the seven hundred year-old Altneuschul to familiarize us with the new home of Podwal’s textiles. We see how the shul is effectively divided into three sections by two massive pillars, reminiscent of legendary columns Boaz and Jachin found at the entrance of the First Temple. The front section was for the holy, i.e. prayer, while the remaining rear sections were utilized for communal affairs, dominated by the enormous medieval guild banner, proudly bearing the Star of David, evidently the earliest use of this symbol in a synagogue. Also noted on the accompanying text panels are the numerous symbolic references throughout the shul; the 12 grapevines on the valance over the Aron symbolizing the 12 tribes; the 12 windows to the outside world reflecting the same; and the abbreviated quotations of Psalms emblazoned on the walls. Echoes of all these elements are found in Podwel’s Altneuschul textiles.

The Old New Synagogue (1980) pen and ink by Mark Podwal Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Prague’s Jewish community has been on Podwal’s mind for decades. Two drawings exemplify his curious meditations. Touching Heaven is brazen in its assertion that the Jewish community of Prague is somehow elevated over all others in their city by the mere fact of their Judaism. Towering over a multitude of spires (Prague is known as City of a Hundred Spires), Podwal has shown the little Jewish ghetto, itself dominated by the Altneuschul, ensconced on a massive menorah towering over the city. This audacious image leads one naturally to Podwal’s more localized Old-New Synagogue that exposes the real agenda in these images. Here we see the Altneuschul in realistic profile with hundreds of Hebrew letters ascending to heaven. In itself not at all surprising since we believe that all of our prayers, especially those uttered in shul, ascend to heaven; nonetheless, here Podwal touches on a particular piece of Prague Jewish belief. According to legend the Altneuschul was itself built with stones from the Second Temple and in the time of the Messiah is destined to eventually return to Jerusalem. It is therefore especially connected with Jerusalem and the Heavenly realm.

Torah Covers (2011) by Mark Podwal Fabricated by Penn and Fletcher Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

As audacious a belief as this seems, it actually is understandable in light of another legend (claimed to be ancient but probably a 19th century creation) of the Golem that was created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, chief Rabbi of Prague. The legend describes a deeply pious Jew mystically giving life to a creature crafted from earth to defend the threatened Jews of Prague. Much like God created Man, this human creation is deeply rooted in the holy and depicts man as potentially God-like as a mere mortal could possibly become. Hence Prague’s closeness to Heaven itself.

Jewish Women and Chanukah at Sotheby’s

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Important Judaica; New York Sotheby’s Auction

On view Friday December 9 until Tuesday December 13

(Open 10am – 5pm except Sunday; 1 – 5pm & Tuesday; 1pm – 5pm)

Auction: December 14, 2011 – 10am

1334 York Avenue, New York City

212 606 7000  – sothebys.com

 

Something serious is going on here…regarding Jewish women.

Sotheby’s current auction of Judaica is a concise offering of 106 items that provides a tantalizing glimpse into Jewish art and image making over the last 500 years.  Of course this is nothing new since that is exactly what Sotheby’s Judaica auctions normally offer. What seems to be unusual in this exhibition is a subtle focus on the role of Jewish women, reflected even in at least one wonderful antique menorah.

Detail of Judith with the head of Holofernes German Parcel-Gilt Silver Hanukah Lamp by George Kahlert, the Younger, Breslau 1760 Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 12

This is not to diminish the surfeit of other fascinating Judaica offered.  The three early 19th century Torah crowns, each sporting miniature bells to announce the movement of the Torah as it is removed from the ark and taken to be read, are distinctive in the creative use of Rococo motifs such as lion arches, fanciful birds, winged cherub heads and silver filigree.  For Torahs not blessed with crowns there is a selection of seven pairs of silver finials ranging from the 18th through 19th centuries, likewise adorned with silver and gilt bells.  One of the four Torah shields (Lot 32) offered is composed of a gilt central portion of three colored paste-set crowns framed by elaborate columns and a Rococo arch.  This ensemble dating from the early 18th century is set on an equally elaborate silver backplate topped with a regal three-dimensional gold crown.  The Crown of Torah, the Crown of Priesthood and the Crown of Kingship has seldom been so convincingly portrayed.

German Parcel-Gilt Silver Hanukah Lamp by George Kahlert, the Younger, Breslau 1760 Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 12

Additionally there are a host of menorah favorites.  The contemporary copper Hanukah lamp by Manfred Anson (Lot 4) celebrating Americana with multiple models of the Statue of Liberty holding all nine lights vies with a brass Bezalel classic (Lot 6).   Detachable branches with drip pans and prickets to secure candles distinguish an 18th century Polish design in brass (Lot 8).  Of course “bench” style menorahs are represented from Poland, the Ukraine and Galicia.  Of special note is a German parcel-gilt (partially gold leafed over silver) silver Hanukah lamp from Breslau, 1758-60 (Lot 12).  Its ornate design and depiction of a menorah crowned by a conch shell is enhanced by two figures depicting Judith and her maidservant in their triumph over the evil general Holofernes.  The servant holds a pitcher, presumably for oil, and a long torch for lighting giving her an important role in the mitzvah of proclaiming the miracle.  Across from her stands Judith, beautifully dressed, who proudly holds an enormous sword in her right hand and dangles the head of Holofernes in her left.  The sumptuous design and execution proclaims the joy of the holiday almost as much as Judith’s beaming smile.  Her smile is the first overt expression of a woman joyously triumphant I can recall in Jewish art.

Normally I don’t comment on non-art items, nonetheless I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the first edition of the Shulchan Aruch by Rav Yosef Caro (Lot 79), printed in Venice in 1565.  The sheer historical importance of these volumes (missing unfortunately Orach Chayim) is closely matched by the siddur used by the Ba’al Shem Tov, a manuscript of the Siddur Tefilla me-ha-Arizal(Lot 91) written by the scribe Moses ben Joseph of Luboml in 1750.  The historical significance as well as the sanctity of this volume make it all the more remarkable that it is being auctioned to the public at Sotheby’s.

Woman’s Prayerbook (Seder Challah) (1721) scribe Meshullam Zimmel ben Moses of Polna. Courtesy Sotheby’s New York Lot 90; folio 14v

Another manuscript with an equally important history is the tiny (3 1/8 x 2 1/8”) Woman’s Prayerbook (Lot 90) created by scribe Meshulam Zimmel ben Moses of Polna in 1721.  Working mostly in Vienna, Zimmel was well known in the renaissance of handmade decorated Hebrew manuscripts, which in the 18th century were crafted mainly for the Court Jews of Central Europe. Among its 32 parchment pages there are ten illuminations, each headed with the subject at hand: Seder Challah, Seder Niddah, Seder Hadlikah, etc, followed by either the blessing or the appropriate statement of intention.  The delicate line illustrations show the women beautifully dressed in period costume.  One woman sits on the edge of a bed about to recite the bedtime Shema, another prepares dough while another lights Shabbos candles.  Each is sensitive, modest and a priceless glimpse into a Jewish woman’s life almost 300 years ago.  Remarkably, an owner piously added her own annotations that included supplications (techinos) for her family’s health and the Prayer of Hannah (Samuel 1:1 – 2:10).   Perhaps rivaling the beauty and sensitivity of this prayerbook is the story of how it survived Nazi Europe.  The excellent exhibition catalogue describes when “…it became apparent that German Jews were no longer able to emigrate freely nor export valuables…the matriarch of the family took matters into her own hand.  Taking this exquisite miniature prayerbook, as well as a ring and an amulet, she baked [them] into a challah loaf, which she then shipped to her son, a Zionist youth leader in Denmark.  Thus was this invaluable artifact saved from certain destruction, eventually arriving in the Land of Israel.”

Shapiro’s Midrash

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Paintings from Midrash by Brian Shapir0

Chassidic Art Institute

November 6 – December 8

375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn (718) 774-9149

Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday

 

The midrashic world is a dangerous place to inhabit.  It delves into our sacred texts to fathom their deeper meanings, solve vexing textual and conceptual problems and, finally, make sense of the holy words in contemporary terms.  Midrash is passionate and deeply creative, like the current midrashic paintings of Brian Shapiro.

Sea of Reeds (2010), oil on canvas, 12x12 by Brian Shapiro.

Shapiro is no stranger to Jewish themes; his enormous canvas, Generations, a tour-de-force of Jewish history, was reviewed in this column in August 2010.  Since then, the artist has become increasingly mesmerized by biblical subjects seen through a midrashic lens.  The lure of midrashic interpretation satisfies the need to know the details and specifics of many biblical narratives, i.e. the precise textures of how and why events unfolded in the devastatingly spare Torah text.  For a figurative artist like Shapiro, the multitude of midrashic exposition is a reassuring link with a tangible reality to anchor the text in this world.

Jacob and the Angel purports to depict the epic struggle between Jacob and a mysterious being who is either an emissary of God or the protecting angel of Jacob’s dangerous brother, Esav.  Based on a midrash in Beraishes Rabbah the artist shows the angel holding Jacob’s hand over a roaring fire.  While the midrash expounds that the angel stuck his hand into the earth and a volcano of flames erupted threatening Jacob, the painting doesn’t simply illustrate that event.  Rather, if we observe closely, both figures are indeed struggling not only between themselves, but are significantly repulsed by some unseen force off the left edge of the painting.  In fact, both angel and Jacob are aghast at what they perceive.  Indeed it is the mutual recognition that this primeval sibling struggle will reverberate throughout the millennia.   It seals the fate of soon to be named Yisrael and the nation who will descend from him with a terrible and bloody future.

The theme of sibling rivalry and conflict is of course central to many Biblical narratives, most especially that of Joseph and his brothers.  Shapiro’s Joseph and Brothersis terrifyingly on target.  The brothers, all turbaned except one, appear to be engaged in what in contemporary Israel would be called a “lynch.”   Most of the eleven have staffs that are used to threaten, push and drive the helpless half-naked Joseph off the edge of a precipice.   What is extraordinary is the ferocious compact energy of brotherly hatred revealed in bright daytime clarity.   A lone bareheaded brother is at the extreme left, looking away in concern as he holds Joseph’s many-colored cloak.  In this one bald figure is all the cunning and unacknowledged guilt of fratricide.  This figure represents none other than Reuven who pleaded with the rest not to murder Joseph and yet finally fashioned the vicious lie to his father with Joseph’s bloodied coat.  Here the artist has, by thinking midrashically, actually summoned the literal biblical text most evocatively.

Moses and the Rock (2010), oil on canvas, 24x30 by Brian Shapiro.

While much ancient midrash traditionally has the textual authority of the oral tradition transmitted by the Sages, it also must be seen in the dual contexts of the original textual “problem” and actual date the collections were finally redacted.  Nonetheless, regardless of date, all Torah commentary remains a vibrant source of contemporary understanding of sacred text.  Even a contemporary artist, passionate about the complexities of Torah narrative, can offer unique insights into the stories our tradition celebrates.   Sea of Reeds is an example of Shapiro’s contribution to midrashic exposition.  Significantly, in this exhibition the artist has explicitly offered his midrashic sources and explanations for each of the paintings.

Leonard Everett Fisher’s Challenge

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Hebrew Union Collage – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum

One West 4th Street, NYC;  212 824 2205

Mon. – Thurs. 9am – 5pm; Friday, 9am – 3pm. 

Free Admission (Photo ID required)

 

Just look at the expression on Yonah’s face.  It combines fear and incomprehension at his terrible punishment of floating in the belly of the great fish. So too Noah peering out of the ark, perched on the edge of understanding that there might be a future for mankind.  Both works point to the genius of Leonard Everett Fisher as an artist and interpreter of biblical narrative.

Noah (1964), acrylic on Masonite by Leonard Everett Fisher. Courtesy Bellarmine Museum of Art, Fairfield University, CT.

Leonard Everett Fisher is one of the master American illustrators of the last 50 years.  His work is found in both adult and young adult publications, counting approximately 260 books since 1955 with at least 90 of those authored and illustrated by him alone.  A native of the Bronx, in his youth he studied with Moses and Raphael Soyer in addition to Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League in New York.  After a stint as a topographer during the Second World War he went on to Yale University for undergraduate and graduate degrees and then plunged into a successful commercial book illustration career.  What is unique about his success is that he continued to make solely artistic works, simply driven by his own creative desire.

The current exhaustive exhibition at Hebrew Union College, beautifully curated by Laura Kruger, exploits both aspects of his 70-year career.  In the spacious three interior exhibition rooms his mind-boggling exploits as a book illustrator and more recent creative works are explored.  A sampling of his illustrated books of Jewish interest, many authored by Fisher himself, include: The Wailing Wall, The Dybbuk, To Bigotry No Sanction (Touro Synagogue), The Seven Days of Creation, Moses, The Wicked City (Sodom) and David and Goliath.  Additionally we see some examples of his bestselling and masterful series “The Colonial American Craftsman.”  These may be Fisher’s most successful work, a 19 volume series, published between 1964 and 1976, that is aimed at young adults and visually explores the material culture of our country’s foundation. The series includes volumes on glassmakers, architects, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, weavers, tanners, cabinetmakers; virtually every imaginable 18th century trade that was essential to building our new country.

Noah (detail) (1964) by Leonard Everett Fisher. Courtesy Bellarmine Museum of Art, Fairfield University, CT.

Furthermore there is more recent artwork by this now 87-year-old artist. The Center Fielder (2010) is a large meticulous study of a baseball player about to catch a fly ball; poised between expectation and accomplishment.  It is wonderfully odd in that the player’s baseball cap is pulled down so that he cannot actually see the ball he is about to catch. Added to this conundrum is the odd insignia of his uniform, Sigma Phi, which does not correspond to any known baseball team.  It is mysteriously significant that these Greek letters represent the second oldest Greek secret fraternal organization in the United States, founded in 1827. Suddenly to expound upon the mysteries of baseball, here revealed in one enigmatic image, is yet another facet of Fisher’s creativity.  The suspended ball flying towards the player’s mitt is an example of what Curator Laura Kruger identifies as a major motif in Fisher’s work. Again and again we see suspended objects and concentrated depictions of flat vertical surfaces; i.e. walls, that explores the tension between objects in motion and concrete backgrounds.

Job (detail) (1964), gelatin tempera on board by Leonard Everett Fisher. Courtesy John Tucker Collection.

Notwithstanding this lifetime of artistic accomplishment, it is the large series of biblical figures he created between 1963 and 1964 that has the place of honor in the main HUC exhibition space.  Eight large paintings dominate the wall with heroic depictions of Biblical characters.  Diptychs of Yeshayahu, Yechezkel, Daniel and Yermiyahu respectively ponder the different characteristics of these prophets in relation to one another.  Job is a tall muscular figure with a fearsomely intense gaze, challenging the viewer in his provocative confrontation with God Himself.  There Came a Nation shows Avraham and Yitzchak in a vertical hierarchy with Yacov just beneath them representing the foundational generations of the forefathers.

Moses, Now (1963) India Ink, gouache on paper by Leonard Everett Fisher. Courtesy the artist.

 

 

 

Moses, Now is the quintessential image of Fisher’s style: dramatic, clear and powerful.  The great lawgiver is shown descending the mountain ready to smash the tablets in anger.  Three preparatory drawings are nearby and we clearly see the development of Fisher’s idea.  First he conceived of Moshe as a poised Renaissance character, then a dramatic Baroque figure in motion, clenched fist and stylized tallis swirling around him.  In the final painting Fisher concentrates the drama and simplifies the emotion into a monochromatic black, white and red.  Suddenly Moshe’s anger has become more reflective, his hand now open in determined gesture and his face contemplating what he is about to do to God’s holy law.  In his way, Fisher saves Moshe from the sin of heedless fury.

Echoing Vishniak: Ahron Weiner’s Photographic Pilgrimages to Uman

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine


Photographs by Ahron D. Weiner


Through August 15, 2011


The Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, Congregation Rodeph Shalom


615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia



 

 


At first glance, the chassid in Ahron Weiner’s “In Memorial” looks like he may be wearing an earring on his right ear, which is framed by his dark brown side curl. Further inspection reveals the ear is in silhouette, and the “earring” is indeed white light cast by one of the many memorial candles he contemplates – tributes to the tens of thousands of Jews of Uman murdered in the 18th century and nearly two centuries later by the Nazis.

 

The ear of the chassidic man with the white knitted kippa is not literally pierced, but it might as well be. The photograph is one of 29 by Hewlett, N.Y.-based artist Weiner, who first visited Uman, the central Ukrainian city and burial place of chasidic master Rabi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), with his father in 2004. Weiner, who was raised modern orthodox and “borderline yeshivish,” says he was a teenager when his father took an interest in Rabi Nachman’s teachings and traveled to Uman twice in the 1990s.

 

            

 


In Memorial. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.

 

 

        A lover of travel and curious to see what the Umani scene was like, Weiner agreed to accompany his father in 2004. “The experience was nice,” he says. “I didn’t think I was planning to go back until I developed my film and saw images that echoed what Vishniak shot in his travels across pre-war Eastern Europe.” He returned for Rosh Hashanah pilgrimages for the next five years and documented his trips. Weiner’s gallery titled “Next Year in Uman: A Journey to the Ukraine” on his website contains 129 photographs.

 

Weiner has described the pilgrimage experience as “”Mount Sinai meets Woodstock,” and his photographs corroborate that characterization.

 

           “Overhead” shows about 75 people packed into the picture frame like sardines. Umani pilgrimages, it would seem, are not for the claustrophobic. But they are for just about any other type of person, as Weiner explained to Ezra Glinter and Nate Lavey of the Forward. In the picture, Weiner said, all sorts of Jews can be found, from those wearing black hats to baseball caps to those with bare heads. (One has to take his word for it; everyone in the photograph seems to have at least some kind of head covering.)

 

 

 


Overhead. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.

 

 

Weiner’s perspective, quite literally and figuratively, is laden with religious meaning. Some of his bird’s-eye-perspective photographs were taken from an enclosure meant to keep Kohanim safely away from tombstones. Weiner and his camera were peering out from a space reserved to keep priests holy into places of death and sad memories. Talk about echoing the works of Roman Vishniac!

 

He also framed the project with a quote from Rabi Nachman, said to have been delivered on his deathbed. “Whoever comes to my gravesite [in Uman], recites the 10 Psalms and gives even as little as a penny to charity,” he translated the chasidic sage, “then, no matter how serious his sins may be, I will do everything in my power – spanning the length and breadth of creation – to cleanse and protect him. By his very payos [sidelocks], I will pull him out of hell!”

 

 


Pastoral. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.

 

 

“This promise has since echoed throughout the generations, compelling tens of thousands of Jewish men from every continent except Antarctica to leave their wives and children and undertake a costly, difficult, annual pilgrimage to Uman,” he writes.


If “Pastoral” is any indication, those men encounter stunning scenery. But as the men and boys lounge on the riverbank and glide in a rowboat, there is an ominous reminder that the Jewish presence in Uman has not always been a joyous one. A young boy on the far left holds a toy gun, and faux weapons can be found in other photographs in the series.

 

Weiner explains that it’s a Breslov custom for fathers to bring their young sons. “The Ukrainians sell lots of plastic toy guns, so yes, there are lots and lots of kids running around with plastic replica guns, shooting plastic BBs at each other,” he says. “All in good fun.”

 

“Dance” is certainly an image that is all fun, however intense the dancers’ gaze is. Four men lock hands and dance, though it’s worth noting the asymmetry of their dance. One dancer holds a prayer book in his hand, which sets the tone for the other dancers – more of a single file chain than a circle. The fourth man might not even be dancing.

 

 


Dance. Ahron Weiner. Courtesy of the artist.

 

 

Though the dancers’ movements are blurred, the shadows they cast are clear. One gets the sense that what Weiner is after – and perhaps all the pilgrims too – lies in shadows rather than solid form.

 

William Rimmer’s gorgeous and troubling painting, Flight and Pursuit (1872), which is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows a man with a cloak and dagger running through what the MFA website describes as “shadowy and mysterious labyrinth of a chimerical Near Eastern temple or palace.” Although it initially appears as if the man is fleeing his reflection (which appears in the middle of the canvas), there is a large and ominous shadow cast by a form outside the picture frame. One shadow is chasing a second shadow which is chasing a man.

 

The same formula might work for Weiner’s Uman. The shadows in “Dance” are sharper than the dancing figures, and the same is true of other photographs in the series. For the period of high holidays, tens of thousands of Jews descend on a land of shadows. Like Vishniac, Weiner has done a masterful job of negotiating the boundary where the shadows end and the people begin. Often, it seems, the shadows are cast by such monumental sources that they seem to take on a life of their own, and promise to outlive those who cast them.

 

 


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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/echoing-vishniak-ahron-weiners-photographic-pilgrimages-to-uman-2/2011/06/22/

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