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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Art’

The Jewish Gallery

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

The Jewish Gallery


147 Front Street, unit 305, Brooklyn, New York

Sunday to Thursday, 2 – 7 p.m. or by appointment

718 852 5100, Lionsgallery.com

 

 

        Something is blooming in Brooklyn that promises a dramatic revitalization of Jewish visual culture. While it has been a long time coming, nonetheless it is cause for heartfelt celebration, and, most importantly, your support. On May 9th Aryeh L. Wuensch and Isaac Gross opened The Jewish Gallery, an art gallery in Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) totally devoted to Jewish Art. This relatively modest space is located on the third floor of 147 Front Street in a trendy upscale building smack in the heart of the cutting edge gallery district. Considering its location, the gallery clearly looks forward to attracting a sophisticated clientele imbued with an interest and openness to Jewish art in all its myriad forms. These facts alone begin to fulfill some of my wildest dreams for a resurgent Jewish visual art.

 

         While it is true that metropolitan New York has three museums devoted to Jewish culture, the actual opportunities for the exhibition and sale of contemporary Jewish art are distinctly limited. Additionally, these museums have tended to be rather conservative in their exhibition choices and are unfortunately chronically under funded. The only other commercial Jewish gallery, the Chassidic Art Institute in Crown Heights, limits its exhibitions to Chassidic themed art. The Jewish Gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn intends to explore a much broader spectrum of Jewish pictorial experience.

 

         Aryeh Wuensch is a curator/gallerist based in Miami, Florida and this new gallery is his first foray into the New York gallery scene. His private gallery, Lionsgallery.com, is well stocked with both Jewish and non-Jewish works of art in all media; there are over a thousand works in all. Additionally, he has a wide range of connections in the art world with access to many different kinds of artworks. He is well poised to cater to a diverse variety of tastes. This new venture may also be the first to be undertaken by a gallerist who also happens to be a rabbi. From his initial selections, it is clear that he sees Jewish Art from the inside.

 

         The opening exhibition represents a middle of the road survey of 20th century Israeli, American, Russian and post-Soviet Jewish art. The 40 works, mostly paintings, range in subject from Israeli landscapes and street scenes, Jewish weddings, Hasidim, family portraits and lots of portraits of rabbis.

 

         The majority of the artists are not internationally well-known names. A good example is Yitzchak Frenkel (1899-1981), born in Odessa, Ukraine, and considered an important Israeli artist. He was a great-grandson of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. After making aliyah he traveled to France and became part of the Jewish School of Paris that included Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani, Mane-Katz and Pascin.

 

         Back in Israel, he founded an art school in Tel Aviv and, in addition to his extensive landscape painting, worked in set design at HaBimah, worked in stained glass and did portraits of the 120 members of the first Knesset. His expressionist painting of “Safed Sunset” is a gem of passionate impasto brushwork that seethes with emotion. Not surprising, considering that he made his home there from 1934 (well before it became a famed artist’s colony) until he died in 1981.

 

         Even more obscure is William Samuel Schwartz (1896-1997) who created “Shabbat Dinner” (1958). He is a mostly unknown painter who Wuensch nonetheless chose simply because he was drawn to the work’s singular view of a typical Shabbos experience. An electric table lamp supplements the Shabbos candles, already lit on the table. The challah is ready, as is the bright-eyed fish, and even the wife’s wine glass is filled.

 


Shabbat Dinner (1958), oil on canvas, by William Samuel Schwartz, Courtesy of The Jewish Gallery.

 

 

         What strikes one is that the master of the house, almost certainly having just made Kiddush, is staring out at the viewer with a most quizzical expression, surprised at what seems to be a photographic intrusion. His wife looks dutifully at her husband, as we seem to have intruded on a moment of domestic bliss.

 

         Their faces are sharply detailed photographic portraits, in contrast to the simpler rendering of the objects in the room, and are echoed in the ancestor portraits prominently displayed on the wall behind them. This painting reveals Shabbos as a deeply individual experience that reverberates through the generations through the fabric of a couple’s intimate relationship.

 

         “Rabbi in Prayer with Torah” by Jankel Adler (1895-1949) is another example of the profoundly eclectic approach of the gallery. While the artist is not immediately known, the image is easily etched into ones imagination as combination of mystery and rock solid composition. The triangular form of the rabbi in profile dominates the two smaller figures behind him who are sitting and learning at shtenders. But what is this figure actually doing with the Torah? We don’t normally prance around with the holy Torah, therefore this painting shifts into a symbolic mode, expressing our emotions not normally acted out in the physical world.

 


Rabbi in Prayer with Torah, oil on canvas, by Jankel Adler, Courtesy of The Jewish Gallery.

 

 

         At the well-attended opening the room was filled with Orthodox singles and couples chatting animatedly in front of the international array of paintings. Artists from Russia, Israel, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, France, Italy, Argentina, and America were represented on the walls. Two large paintings that hung near the door demanded my immediate attention. They set the tone for rest of the exhibition. Probably done within the last decade, these Hyman Bloom paintings, both titled Rabbi with Torah, dominated the room.

 

         Bloom, at 94 years of age, is a living legend. His early Jewish paintings of the late 1930′s including “The Bride and Rabbi” combined an expressionistic technique with a probing examination of their subjects. “The Synagogue,” representing a crowded bimah in shul during the prayer of Kol Nidre, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning considered Bloom “the first Abstract Expressionist in America” and after his 1954 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, his career was assured.

 

 

Rabbi with Torah, oil on canvas, by Hyman Bloom, Courtesy of The Jewish Gallery.

 

 

         But Bloom was determined to follow his own path and withdrew from the New York art world, instead pursuing paintings of séances, autopsies, lurid still lifes, fish and landscapes. In the late 1990′s he began painting rabbis in large-scale compositions that questions the very nature of the religious experience he had grown up with in Latvia in 1913. And how did these two paintings find their way to The Jewish Gallery? Aryeh Wuensch and Itchie Gross made a pilgrimage a few months ago to Nashua, New Hampshire to visit the reclusive Bloom to discuss exhibiting his work.

 

         They were successful and returned with a number of his late paintings of rabbis. This one, 48″ by 40,” explores the relationship between the Torah, central in its rich green mantle, the ancient seated Jew clasping it, and a sefer open on the shtender next to him. It’s a very special moment filled with wistfulness, a unity between a Jew and his holy Law that nonetheless is mediated by other texts that stem from the hand of man.

 

         Creating a gallery of Jewish Art means making critical choices. The quality of the artwork must relate equally with the quality of images and their meanings. The inaugural exhibition at the Jewish Gallery shows sensitivity to both quality and content, happily marking an auspicious beginning.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Does Being Jewish, American And An Artist… A Jewish-American Artist Make?

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Jewish Art in America: An Introduction


By Matthew Baigell


Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006


$29.95


http://rowmanlittlefield.com/


 


 


         Was Rembrandt a Jewish artist because he painted the Jewish wedding? Can Chagall’s paintings based on icons of other faiths be considered Jewish art? Should Max Jacob’s work be considered Jewish, in light of his conversion to Catholicism?

 

         These are all tough questions, without easy answers. As I write this wearing the hat of an art critic, I am tempted to set out a foundation for a Jewish art that sidesteps the questions of the artist’s faith and the content of the paintings. At least in theory, Rembrandt the non-Jew should have been able to mix a Jewish color if he went about it correctly. Even if Max Jacob did convert out of Judaism (and that is a big if), there ought to be enough vestigial elements of his Judaism left in him with which he could impart aesthetic form. But defining what those colors and forms might look like and what their nature is – aside from the “you will know it when you see it” argument – remains problematic.

 

         Matthew Baigell, who refers to himself as a historian of Jewish art who does not shy away from difficult questions, tackles these sorts of problematic definitions in his new book, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction.

 

         Although in the preface to the book Baigell calls the project a survey of Jewish art in America, he explains in his introduction that he finds nothing particularly Jewish about Jewish art, and recognizes no such thing as the “Jewish experience.”

 



“After,” by Richard McBee. Oil on canvas, 2002.


 

         “People cling to the notion that there is something Jewish about Jewish art, perhaps because they either consciously or unconsciously want to think that there is something special about being Jewish,” Baigell told The Jewish Press. “Even if they are not observant, they want to associate with a ‘special’ or ‘chosen’ group. It allows them a certain elevated identity. There is Jewish subject matter, but not Jewish art.”

 

         Baigell’s rejection of the term “Jewish” art in an introduction to a book on Jewish art might strike some readers as bizarre and sloppy. But even if he does reject the notion of Jewish art, Baigell’s book is full of Jewish Americans who make art. He cites several artists, critics and historians who do espouse such a view, like artists Peter Krasnow, who said, “Jewish art is a Jewish subject, by a Jewish artist, acquired by a Jewish collector,” and R. B. Kitaj, who insisted, “I believe my art is Jewish if I say it is.”

 

         Krasnow and Kitaj’s attempts to define Jewish art are not historical determinations, so much as personal efforts at identification. Baigell sees these identifications as possible, particularly in America, where Jewish painters confronted a situation where their choices “were entirely personal. All Jews could become, in effect, Jews by choice.” Within this context, Baigell swaps the vague question of what is Jewish about Jewish art, with a more specific one: “Why do many artists want to identify as Jewish and why do they choose to express Jewish experiences in their work?”

 



Book Cover, “Jewish Art in America.


 


 

         I will not even try to recap the many artists that Baigell addresses in his book. All readers of this column are clearly interested in Jewish art, and Baigell’s book is a must-read. His tale begins in the 17th century and carries straight through to contemporary art, including many artists whose work Richard McBee and I have covered in these pages. In fact, Baigell devotes a good amount of time to McBee’s art, which seems particularly relevant to this column.

 

         In the chapter, “The 1970s and After, Representative Figures,” Baigell refers to McBee, whom he calls “as sophisticated as [David] Newman in the history of recent art.” In a discussion of McBee’s “After” (pictured), Baigell observes, “McBee not only questions explicitly how Abraham in biblical clothes can reach out to Isaac dressed in modern slacks, but also he implicitly addresses the issues Isaac might have with the Jewish G-d as a G-d of terror and unknowability, with his (and our) relationship to G-d which might or might not be a happy one, and beyond that with the notion of where was G-d during the Holocaust.”

 

         Baigell further suggests viewing McBee’s painting as an exploration of an episode, which is “both an ancient and modern theme worth continued exploration for its complexities, its disjunctions, and its varying points of view, an appropriate postmodern subject, and, more importantly, a way to construct his own personal and religious identity.”

 

         To me, “After” does not only show the lack of communication between Abraham and Isaac and the after-the-storm view of the Akeidah - the text offers no hints of what conversation could have transpired between father and son after the near sacrifice – but it also shows a choreographed scene, set design and all, of how the tale might have transpired. In McBee’s view, Isaac has turned his back on Abraham (is he too furious to look his father in the eye? Too scared? Too confused?), and he looks back over his shoulder at Abraham’s beckoning hand. Isaac’s pants look baggy (almost “gangster” like, to use contemporary pop culture jargon) and rebellious, as Abraham is dressed in more classy, if not princely, attire. McBee has even charged the space separating the two characters with a flurry of ochre, white and black brushstrokes. If father and son are to reconcile their differences, they must fight their way through those chaotic and hazardous brushstrokes.

 

 



Matthew Baigell


 

         McBee’s examination of biblical texts through a contemporary lens typifies the post-1970′s period in Baigell’s book. I asked him by e-mail what he saw on the horizon for Jewish artists, who might soon exchange their brushes for mouse pads.

 

         “I do not know how Jewish artists will respond to digital art,” Baigell admitted. “However, I think there might be a divide between those Jewish artists who find inspiration in the religion, in things intrinsic to Judaism, and those who maintain a secular attitude, those who find a sense of social justice in their Jewish heritage as if no other religion also has a sense of social justice, and create works extrinsic to Judaism. The latter artists pass on attitudes that can be found among people with good social values whatever their background. Jews have no exclusive claim to good social values.”

 

         But however much the latter group makes interesting work “concerned with issues of, say, assimilation and social justice” and “generational issues, important as these might be,” Baigell added, “I think the future of Jewish American art lies with those committed to creating works intrinsic to Judaism.”

 

        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit opening March 25.

A Jewish Art Primer (Part VI) – Contemporary Jewish Art

Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

 We have documented 1,800 years of Jewish Art production in the preceding five sections of the “Jewish Art Primer”. These artworks, rich and varied, are creative expressions of Jewish life found in mosaics, murals, manuscripts, illustrated Haggadahs, micrography, papercuts, graphic arts and paintings. Contemporary Jewish Art, easily as vital, may be the most prolific in all of Jewish history. It is characterized by a number of different modes of Jewish artistic production: Traditional Judaica, Biblical art, Diaspora/Postmodern art and Holocaust art (which we examined in Part V).

 

Traditional Judaica


 


 Not surprisingly, Judaica production continues unabated. All conceivable forms of Jewish ritual objects continue to be fashioned by artists and artisans. The American Guild of Judaic Art (jewishart.org) boasts over 200 members. The Jewish Museum, Yeshiva University Museum and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum (all in New York City), along with many Judaica Museums and stores throughout the country periodically exhibit a vast array of Judaica. Many objects follow patterns first created in the 18th and 19th centuries while just as many reflect more contemporary designs. The Bezalel School in Jerusalem is a major center of contemporary Judaic design, as was the Jewish Museum in the 1970′s under the influence of Ludwig Wolpert.

 

Biblical Art


 


 Contemporary Jewish Art, utilizing the Torah as its subject matter, is created less frequently than might be expected. The vast richness of Biblical narratives, along with 2,000 years of commentary and midrashim, has yet to attract more than a few artists to mine its treasures. This artistic hesitation may be the result of a misplaced sense that these subjects are simply too sacred to adequately approach. This exposes a sad ignorance of Jewish art history recounted here. It is as if many contemporary Jewish artists have bifurcated lives. The Torah and its literature are shut in the religion box, while their artistic lives are segregated in their studio. The two interests seldom talk to one another. Janet Shafner, John Bradford and I are three artists who are the exceptions to this trend, and have devoted much of our work to the Biblical narratives.

 

 Janet Shafner has worked for close to 20 years juxtaposing the Talmudic and the Biblical in dramatic paintings that range from Adam and Eve to Mordechai and Esther. Among Shafner’s many paintings, Azazel – The Scapegoat (1994) provides a typically complex commentary on a piece of Torah. During the Yom Kippur service, the hapless goat sent to Azazel is seen tumbling down the rocky hillside, looking back at his executioner just before he is shattered to death by the fall. His gaze directs us to the lunette above that contains the solitary image of an electric chair. The goat sent to Azazel carries the sins of Israel into the wilderness, and through this avodah we find atonement for our sins against G-d, but not against our fellow man. But we must pay for those human sins through apology, repayment, punishment or even death – execution as punishment; execution as atonement; execution as vengeance. Shafner’s painting speaks of the terrible consequences of sin.

 



Azazel – The Scapegoat (1994), oil on canvas by Janet Shafner

Collection of Joshua Prottoas

 

 

 The unadulterated essence of the Biblical narrative is John Bradford’s quest, as he paints the archetypical stories in all their starkness and simplicity. His modernism shapes the narrative images into an elemental distillation of the Torah that, through the act of its creation, finds fresh insights into the history and development of monotheism. Jacob and the Angel (2003) at first glance seems to be a drawing on canvas until one realizes the monumental size, over six by eight feet, and the tremendous substance of the surface. This was patiently built up over months of pictorial struggle that were fundamental to finding just the right image, pared down to all that is necessary to convey the mysterious narrative. What exactly was the nature of Jacob’s struggle and how did he finally prevail? The stooped figure of Jacob is fruitlessly striding forward, caught in the embrace of a flying figure, one of its feet attached to the upper edge of the canvas. The painting tells us that the struggle will not end with dawn and, in fact, will characterize all of Jacob’s descendants throughout time. Our relationship with the Divine is what identifies us as Israel.

 



Jacob and the Angel (2003), oil on canvas by John Bradford

Courtesy the artist

 

 

 For the last 30 years, my artwork has been devoted to the Biblical narrative, concentrating on the Akeidah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Esther and Ruth. David Dancing Alone (1999) turns the traditional narrative into a meditation on the artist’s service to G-d. David dances totally absorbed in religious ecstasy, paradoxically alone and ignored by the crowd at the right while subject to the scorn of his wife Michal, who overlooks the scene from the upper left. The artist must serve Heaven, using the tools that G-d gave him.

 

Diaspora/Postmodern Art


 


 The 20th century was witness to yet another cultural revolution, starting sometime in the late 60′s and early 70′s. Where modernism is confident, iconoclastic, pure, high art, serious and prone to grand theory, postmodernism is questioning, kitsch obsessed, derivative, irreverent, ironic and subjectively non-committal. For Jewish Art, it represents commentary over text, questioning over received truth.

 

 R.B. Kitaj, one of the best-known contemporary Jewish artists, is obsessed with the role of the Jew in the Diaspora. He has written two Diasporaist Manifestos (1989 and 2005) – rambling, self-indulgent documents that explore the relationship of the Jew and the Jewish artist to modern society. “JEWISH DIASPORIST ART IS AVANT-GARDE (a Cosmopolitan trope I happen to like). This new art is often taboo in art circles, the way avant-garde used to be.” (This means that the mainstream art establishment refuses to recognize contemporary Jewish Art.)

 

 A painting from his March 2005 Marlborough Gallery exhibition, “How to Reach 72 in a Jewish Art,” explicates the notion of Diasporist Art. Three Famous Jews (2004) purportedly represents the classic formulations of the Ego, Id and Superego as three bold figures. Freud and his intellectual creations are celebrated as honored Jewish personages. Kitaj explores the experience of exile, especially in paintings like The Jewish Rider (1985). His image of a contemporary well-dressed Jew is based on the famous mounted figure in Rembrandt’s Polish Rider in the Frick Museum. Here, instead of a horse, the elegant traveler sits in a railway compartment, passing a distant landscape punctuated with a cross and smoking chimney. The all too familiar association of trains, Jews and exterminations turns the Rembrandt quote on its head to comment on the Wandering Jew, continually exposed to danger and uncertainty.

 


 The Jewish Rider (1985), oil on canvas by R.B. Kitaj – Marlborough Gallery, New York.

 

 One Jewish artist who constantly throws caution to the winds is Archie Rand. His latest ambitious series, 613, presents one painting for each of the Biblical mitzvos. He arrives at each image by a counter-intuitive methodology, by locating pop, comic, art history and photographic images that appeal to him and then finding a correspondence to the Commandment at hand. Through his visual intelligence and considerable sensitivity to Jewish knowledge, he frequently uncovers a new twist in the meanings already assumed. A perfect example of this is the 1992 painting of the Akeida in his “Sixty Paintings from the Bible.” These images are taken from a set of 17th century engravings by the Christian artist Matthaeus Merian. Rand appropriates the images as a mere scaffolding to “reassess the Tanach, get past the standard English translation, and find the ‘punch’ of the original Hebrew.” The comic book technique (invented and dominated by Jewish artists) allows the use of the word balloon, bold letters, underlining and italics, to simultaneously emphasize text and image and comment on both. We see an angel interrupting Abraham as he is about to slaughter his son. Abraham looks up shouting, “I’M HERE!” This response, textually true and yet visually impatient and impertinent, implies a fundamental challenge to G-d’s concept of a test.

 


Akeidah, 1992 (18 x 24) acrylic on canvas by Archie Rand – Courtesy the artist. 

 

 A legion of other contemporary Jewish artists demands comment, but a partial list must suffice. Tobi Kahn’s ritual objects and mysterious paintings demand Jewish sensitivity without admitting their Jewish content; Lynne Russell’s paintings over photographs reinterpret contemporary religious Jewish life; Miriam Beerman welds the 10 plagues into the woes of our century; Grisha Bruskin’s kabbalah-infused mythologies confound interpretation as Talmudic paradoxes; the traveling exhibition, “Women of the Book,” demands a feminist perspective to Jewish life; Ita Aber wields fabric and objects to uncover the uncertainties of gender relations in ritual objects and jewelry; and Itshak Holtz documents the genre delights of Israeli Haredi life.

 

 It should go without saying that this Jewish Art Primer is not meant to be an exhaustive study of Jewish Art. It is simply an introduction to some of the visual culture of the Jews. By necessity of limited space, it has excluded many artists, artworks and modes of expression (architecture, photography, music, textiles, decorative arts, genre and primitive painting). For these omissions, especially for contemporary artists, I apologize.

 

 We live in a time when notions of “Jewish Art” are persistently denied. I hope I have shown that not only is there a long history of Jewish Art, but also a vibrant contemporary group of artists who make Jewish Art, no matter whether they or their critics accept the term. This assertion is important because this thing I call Jewish Art is a part of the expression of the emerging culture of modern Jews. In an age of rampant assimilation and in the devastating shadow of the Holocaust, the Jewish people are growing strong culturally and religiously in a largely secure Diaspora and vibrant Jewish state. Our age demands a Jewish culture to stand next to our many other achievements. The artists are creating it; it is up to the audience to see it. The challenge is in your hands.

 

Bibliography For ‘A Jewish Art Primer’


 


 Jewish Art: Gabrielle Sed-Rajna; Harry N. Abrams, Publisher, 1997


 Encyclopaedia Judaica: Keter Publishing, Jerusalem, 1997


 Hebrew Manuscript Painting: Joseph Gutmann, George Braziller, Publisher, 1978


 Haggadah and History: Yosef Hayim Jerushalmi, The Jewish Publication Society, 1997


 Holocaust Art: Depiction and Interpretation. Ziva Amishai-Maisels; Pergamon Press, l993


 Exhibition Catalogues: Kestenbaum & Co. and Sotheby’s.

 

 Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

A Jewish Art Primer (Part V) – After The Catastrophe

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

Prelude


 


The Holocaust, dominating Jewish Art for much of the late 20th century, is arguably the first form of Jewish Art to penetrate the mainstream cultural dialogue. The division between Jew and non-Jew in the arts begins to be erased. This unique event aimed at the destruction of the Jews quickly became the universal symbol of intolerance, hatred and racism for modern culture.

 

Jewish artists, as early as Samuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908) in his painting, The Black Banner, (1905) (Jewish Museum), anticipated the Holocaust. The image of hordes of Hassidim fleeing in horror, bearing the coffin of a victim of Russian anti-Semitic violence, bears testimony to the relentless cycle of murder, rape and pillage against the Jews of Russia and Poland from the pogroms of 1881-82 to the Kishinev and Zhitomir massacres of 1903 and 1905. Equally prophetic is some of the graphic work of Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925). In one of his works, he fashioned a poster to commemorate the KishinevPogrom, in which a venerable sage is burned alive. Bound by ropes and his own tallis, the frail figure is comforted by an angel who rescues a Torah scroll from him as the flames consume him. While this image summons the famous Talmudic story of Rabbi Akiva’s death during the Hadrianic persecutions, it also references a contemporary event recorded in David Pinsky’s 1903 play, “The Last Jew.”

 

By thelate 1930′s, Marc Chagall could anticipate the impending catastrophe by utilizing symbols of suffering indigenous to Christian Europe. The Fall of the Angel (1923-1947) depicts a world coming unhinged by unseen forces, a universe in disarray. As a female angel falls from heaven followed by a grandfather clock (time is running out) a Jew flees with a Torah scroll off the left edge of the canvas. The Shoah was just beginning, and yet in this complex and disturbing painting Chagall sensed what was to come.

 

Behind The Wire


 


Amazingly, art was made in the wartime ghettos, frequently as a means of psychological self-defense. While the same dynamic operated in the concentration camps, the terrible logic of annihilation dictated that much of the art that survived was by non-Jews. Nonetheless, a substantial number of artworks by Jews survived the Holocaust as testaments to individual lives, documents of what occurred and as a kind of heroic resistance.

 

One example is Halina Olomucki (b.1921), who was a young artist when her family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. There she made numerous drawings, documenting deportations, the ghetto revolt and the liquidation of Dr. Korczak’s orphanage. She was deported in 1943, first to Majdenek and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she made over 200 clandestine drawings in the camps. She survived (as did many of her drawings) and eventually she immigrated to Israel in 1972. Fulfilling her fellow prisoners’ demand to “draw me, so that at least we will go on living in your work,” Smuggling Food, 1943 stands as a testament to a single human life.

 

 

Smuggling Food (1943) pencil on paper by Halina Olomucki


Yad Vashem Art Museum

 

 

After The Catastrophe


 


Mordechai Ardon’s Sarah (1947) is an early Israeli reaction to the Holocaust that harnesses the Biblical metaphor of the tragic outcome of the story of the Binding of Isaac. The events of the Shoah put religious belief under attack. In one Midrashic version of the story (Taanis 16a), Isaac is actually slain by his father Abraham at G-d’s command. Ardon depicts this movement of Sarah’s anguished scream over the body of her son on the altar. The shock kills Sarah, just as the horrible reality of the millions slain in the Shoah extinguished the faith of untold thousands. Nonetheless, with the exception of the figure of Job, the blameless righteous man tested by G-d, Biblical subjects have been underutilized in addressing the Holocaust.

 


 


Sarah (1947) oil on board by Mordechai Ardon

 

 

In America, Hyman Bloom (b. 1913) responded to early accounts of the liberation of the camps with a gut-wrenching series of paintings of dissected corpses and body parts. In a perverse reflection of the mountains of dead victims, Bloom chose not the emaciated figures of the first photographs. Rather, paintings like Female Corpse (1944-1945) depicts a kind of endless death, explicitly showing decay that simultaneously addresses the fetid rot of European civilization and the terrifying concept of death as an almost permanent presence in a post-Holocaust world.

 

Jacques Lipchitz’s Prayer (1943) offers a chilling parallel to Bloom’s dissecting room vision. A baroque figure of a Jew performs the kapporah ceremony, swinging a live chicken over his head (prior to contributing the bird to charity) as a symbolic expiation of individual sin through the sacrifice of the bird. What occurs here in Lipchitz’s sculpture is that the Jew is himself eviscerated, his guts ripped open by the futile attempt at repentance.

 

Ben Shahn (1898-1967) was one of America’s most prolific graphic artists (with a pronounced left-wing vocabulary). Nonetheless, he “created one of the most important bodies of religious Jewish art by any American artist through the 1950s and 1960s” (Baigell). In Allegory (1948), The Lion of Judah jealously guards a pathetic pile of bodies, pointing to both the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948. There is a deep irony in the image of the lion; ferocious, breathing fire, the timeless image of the protector of the Jewish people. And yet the king of the beasts is emaciated, ribs exposed even as there are so few survivors left to guard.

 

 


Allegory (1948) tempera on panel by Ben Shahn


Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

 

 

Survivors


 


Many survivor artists, also reacting to the conformist “melting pot” social norms of the post-war era, found it almost impossible to confront the Holocaust and for years suppressed these painful subjects. Zoran Music was arrested in 1943 and interred at Dachau. He did over 200 drawings there. Thirty-four survive. After liberation, he continued his art career in Venice and Paris. In 1970, he began a new series that was to become “We are not the Last.” While superficially they are simply a continuation of the harrowing drawings he did of the dead and dying while an inmate, the new series extends Holocaust representation to a more fearsome level. By the deliberate confusion between the dead, dying and those who might survive, Music accentuates and extends the factories of death to the killing fields, ethnic cleanings and genocides of the late 20th century. From a non-Jewish perspective, the issue in a painting like Head (1974) is not the subject of the slaughter, but the methodology itself.

 


 


Head (1974) acrylic on canvas by Zoran Music


“We are not the Last”

 

 

Samuel Bak (b. 1933) managed to survive the invasion of the Nazis, the Vilna Ghetto and a labor camp. By the 1970′s, the memories could no longer be suppressed. One major element in many of Bak’s paintings is the depiction of buildings. Ghetto (1976) is a portrait of an imagined cluster of houses set in a barren landscape. It presents an aerial view of a set of children’s building blocks that becomes a ghetto. The interior courtyard formed in the shape of a Star of David conveys the grim despair of this imprisoned life.

 

In a recent series of paintings, “Return to Vilna,” he confronts his return to his birthplace for the first time in fifty-seven years. A group of ten paintings of The Trees of the Forest Ponary is a haunting memorial to the victims of the mass executions outside Vilna. Under the Trees (2001) achieves a monumental scale and vivid impact as an image of a world radically displaced. Through the medium of straightforward realism, the image of trees that fly and float like awesome clouds is simultaneously credible and yet profoundly disturbing. The jagged boulders, bullet ridden and bloodstained, rise up in a doomed struggle to get free from the corpse-filled earth. This bucolic view, complete with pretty pink clouds at the horizon, seems to have captured the moment in time when nature was defiled by mass murder.

 

A similar survivor experience is seen in the work of Diana Kurz, born in Vienna, Austria, and who escaped with her parents. She became an artist, and it was a chance visit to an elderly aunt in California in 1989 that launched her on a 10-year exploration of the Holocaust in her art. Her work is primarily an act of documentation and testimony. Working from photographs of her family and other Jews, she constructs large scale painted memorials that include textual declarations. The somewhat awkward depictions, as if the tattered photographs were brought back to life through a colored looking glass, fill the image with a tender concern for the subjects. Kurz is painfully aware that the few photographs we possess of these people may be the only evidence that they existed. Even after their murder, they are on the very edge of obliteration and Kurz is determined to pull them back from the edge and make a memory, make us understand that a real human being once existed and was tragically murdered. Her work, such as Freedom Fighters (1999), frequently concentrates on women and children, and demands that we feel the loss even if we never knew the individuals. Her creative act claims that we are all family.

 

 


Freedom Fighters (1999) oil on canvas and paper on wood by Diana Kurz

 

 

 

Others


 


Art Spiegelman’s Maus; A Survivor’s Tale marks an important rupture in this particular lineage of survivor testimony. It presents the testimony of Vladek Spiegelman through the voice and eyes of his son, Art Spiegeman, in the unorthodox medium of the graphic novel, known as commix. A number of subsequent artists have utilized this medium in Holocaust Art. In this shift from authentic testimony to a profoundly mediated interpretation, we are twice removed from the event itself. The aging and eventual demise of the survivors makes direct access to living testimony a growing impossibility. If we in the late 20th century are to approach the Holocaust, the only access is via art. Maus, A Survivor’s Tale, is a two-volume book of close to 1,500 comic book-style frames and was published in 1992 after 13 years of drawing, interviews and research. It transforms the historical process of testimony into an artistic process in the search for a larger meaning.

 

Natan Nuchi, an Israeli artist living in New York, has been painting single figures that evoke Holocaust victims for the past 20 years. As a son of a survivor, his youth in Israel was dominated by the oppressive silence about the immediate past in Europe. The shame of Jewish victim-hood was unconscionable for most Israelis. In reaction, much of his creative life has been spent in trying to extricate himself from under the burden of the Six Million. Paradoxically, he has been continually drawn back to the victims by painting them one by one. There are no identifying marks or symbols to link them to the Holocaust, only the emaciated specter of suffering that proclaims our era. For Nuchi their anguish is universalized as an accusation against all because the evil that the Shoah unleashed continues to live in the soul of man. Once perpetuated, it is forever possible to be repeated and for Nuchi, that has changed everything. He has brought the millions unburied back to haunt our consciousness, refusing to mitigate the tragedy. His unflinching paintings tell the story that evil won and the majority of Europe’s Jews were murdered. He cannot avert his eyes.

 

There are many other artists who have made Jewish Art based on the Holocaust in the last 61 years. Some are famous like George Segal and Joan Snyder, others less known like Leah Ashkinazi and Yonia Fain. In a way, this subject has become a common language, a remarkable starting point to probe the conundrum of life in our times. From these events there can be no easy answers. And that fact challenges a multitude of cherished icons. Western rationality and the holiness of Heaven cannot escape its scrutiny.

 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

A Jewish Art Primer (Part IV) – The New Age Of Individuals

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Contemporary Jewish life has been dominated by the crisis of the Modern, shaping more than anything else the profiles of Jewish Art. Traditional society is challenged, pre-modern people are forced into colonial empires and nationalist aspirations spout across the globe. And nowhere else has the turmoil been more apparent than in the rebirth of Palestine. Jewish Art as a national cultural expression was reborn in the Land of Israel in the early years of the 20th century. The goal of many of these immigrant artists was to create a visual expression of the Jewish people finally ensconced in their land.


In 1906 Boris Schatz (1867-1932), a painter and sculptor, founded the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem. The school was to provide the foundation for a whole new class of Jewish artists who would create a new, national Jewish style. They would be steeped in ancient Jewish traditions and rooted in an appreciation of the Land and its indigenous people. Trained to be well versed in both the fine and applied arts, the artisans were uniquely poised to lead the cultural vanguard within the Zionist enterprise. By 1911 there were some 460 students at the school that was heavily influenced by the English Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris and John Ruskin. Reflecting the Eastern European socialist origins of many of the students, the school tended to be an anti-elitist, craftsman-oriented effort to create a “popular art” of the Jewish people. With a few superficial exceptions, early Jewish Art in Palestine turned its collective back on the dynamic world of 20th century Parisian Modernism, attending to the immediate task of nation building.


Able Pann (1883-1963) was one of the earliest teachers at the Bezalel School and espoused a vision of Biblical Art, using local Bedouin characters as his models. His early teachers in Paris were a study in contrasts: Bourgereau, the dean of 19th century academic conservatives and Toulouse-Lautrec, the “bad-boy” of avant-guard Post-Impressionism. Already successful as a painter and cartoonist, he went to Palestine in 1913 and created his magnum opus, “The Bible in Pictures.” The images are original costume tableaus capturing the Biblical narrative as if it was occurring to Bedouin tribesmen in a timeless Palestine. “Abraham and Isaac” depicts the robed Patriarch in a fantastic white headdress embracing his bound son, tenderly drawing him close with his arm that clutches the sacrificial knife. It is an unforgettably upsetting image.


Pann is singular in his use of Biblical subjects. All of the other Bezalel artists ignored the Torah and concentrated on Judaica crafts and sentimental local scenes of Jewish and Arab life. Reuben Rubin (1893-1974), also associated with the Bezalel School, created a vision of the Land of Palestine in countless landscapes studded with olive groves, Cyprus trees and Arab villages. Jewish settlements were integrated into his charming and somewhat primitive folkloric paintings that represent the early Zionist vision of Jewish immigrants living in peace with the indigenous Arab population. “The Road to Jerusalem, Ein Karem” (1925) is a typical expression of his love of the picturesque and romantic Palestinian landscapes.


As a national Jewish Art was struggling to be born in Palestine, a particularly Jewish vision was having a profound effect on Modernism in France in the person of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). In his long and prolific creative life, the old world and Modernism collide to spectacular effect. Chagall’s Russian Jewish roots are well known and yet the Jewish core of his work is frequently ignored, even though he was the only major modern artist to create significant works using Jewish and Biblical subjects. He declared in 1922, “If I were not a Jew, I wouldn’t have been an artist or I would have been a different artist altogether.” It follows that much of his work is based on that identification, frequently intertwining the Biblical with the contemporary world.


The Red Jew” (1915) is seated and yet towers over his house and the shtetl behind him, imposing a disjunctive Modernist vision on the viewer. The Jew’s universe is grounded in the Hebrew passages from the Torah that make up his textual background even as the violent colors, sharp angles and willful distortions thrust him into the contemporary pictorial world.


While Chagall’s oeuvre is laced with overtly Jewish themes, his masterpiece of Jewish Art stems from the 105 etchings he did of “The Bible,” started in the 1930′s and finally published in 1956. Many subsequent paintings and graphic work flow from this series that are totally unique in its engagement between a highly acclaimed Modern artist and the Biblical narrative.


Deliverance of Jerusalem” is based on Isaiah 52:1-7, that proclaims, “Awake, awake, clothe yourself in splendor, O Zion, Put on your clothes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city!” A circle of light offers the view of the fabled city on a hill, filling with the joyous and heralded by a trademark Chagall angel, twisted as its swoops down blowing a shofar. The angel’s long curly hair echoes the artist’s own locks while the tefillin on his head roots Chagall’s vision in the 2,000-year faith of the Jewish masses. Significantly, this motif informs the “Entry Into Jerusalem” tapestry in the Israeli Knesset.


The past and present are conflated in Chagall’s “The Flayed Ox” (1947) (echoing Rembrandt and Soutine) that was created in the shadow of the Holocaust and unflinchingly confronts the enormity of the European disaster. The schochet (an image of Chagall’s grandfather) floats helplessly over the flaming shtetl as the violently slaughtered beast laps up its own blood. Europe has killed itself along with its Jews.


Individual artists have dominated Jewish Art in the 20th century. Even the Bezalel School never really produced a collective style. The constraints of space have unfortunately forced me to ignore many other important Jewish artists. But another trend can be discerned in the works of artists who also happen to be Jewish. An argument can be made that even lacking identifiable Jewish subjects, certain artists were successful in inculcating Jewish ideas and sensibilities into mainstream Modernist culture. The work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) is emblematic of this notion.


Soutine was born in a village in Lithuania and soon developed a passion for drawing. He studied art in Vilna and in 1913 moved to Paris. He got to know other Jewish artists there, notably Amedeo Modigliani and Jacques Lipchitz. His subjects are portraits, still lifes, landscapes and depictions of dead and slaughtered animals. Soutine developed a signature, expressionist style that many credit as being a precursor and dominant influence on the New York School Abstract Expressionists of the 1950′s. The thick and violent impasto lends an urgent, troubled air in most of his paintings, as if the world the artist inhabits is being torn asunder, pulled in many directions by unseen forces. There is little that is stable and comforting in Soutine’s world between the wars. Even “Return from School after the Storm,” (1939) is fraught with terror.


Soutine’s status – doubly alienated, as a Jew in Paris and from the Judaism of his homeland – informs the insecurity and anxiety found in his works that are a prescient portrait of European society careening towards the abyss of the Holocaust. Out of that abyss, a very different Jewish Art will emerge into the contemporary art of our time.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

 

 

 

The Road to Jerusalem, Ein Karem (1925), Oil on canvas by Reuven Rubin. Courtesy: Sotheby’s.

 

 


The Deliverance of Jerusalem, (1956), etching by Marc Chagall. Courtesy: The Jewish Museum, New York.

 

 

 


Return from School after the Storm, (c.1939), Oil on canvas by Chaim Soutine Courtesy: The Phillips Collection, Washington.

A Jewish Art Primer (Part III) – Jewish Painting: The Past and Future Collide

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

As the Enlightenment marched across Europe in the form of the Napoleonic conquests, the effects on Jewish Art were unmistakable. Ghetto walls were breached and torn down, exposing the Jewish population and its artists to myriad Christian and secular influences. While traditional Judaica continued to be fashioned by artisans, synagogues ornamented and books and Haggadahs illustrated, many Jewish artists now became aware of another kind of artistic expression – the art object itself. Painting became a legitimate mode of Jewish cultural expression. In this outburst of artistic freedom, Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) is the undisputed father of Jewish painting in the 19th century.


Oppenheim was born in the ghetto in Hanau, Germany. Educated in cheder and Talmud Torah, he nonetheless made a quick transition to secular studies and art school upon the emancipation of the Jews in 1806. After studying in Frankfurt, Munich, Paris and Rome he returned to Frankfurt to pursue a successful career, painting society portraits (especially the Rothschilds) and academic visions of Biblical scenes. In 1865 he launched upon a series depicting scenes of 18th century Jewish life, much like the world of his childhood. This series, Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life, would become his most lasting contribution to Jewish Art. These images of Shabbos, Yom Tov, weddings and many other Jewish communal and family scenes were quickly reproduced in bound albums and were soon found in almost every German Jewish home. They were the encapsulation of the world that once was and was now slowly disappearing.


Oppenheim’s work represents the seminal encounter between Jewish tradition and the challenges of the modern world. The Pictures of Traditional Jewish Family Life became a visual anchor for many Jews caught in the sweep of emancipation, nationalism and modernity. Providing a sense of identity, even with a sentimental vision of a vanishing Jewish world, would help to keep Jews in the fold for at least another generation.


That next generation could be characterized by Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879), a singular artist from eastern Galicia (Drohobycz), who painted the masterpiece Jews Praying on the Day of Atonement in 1878, one year before he died at the age of 23. He was the child of progressive parents, studied at art schools in Lemberg and Vienna and quickly began painting subjects of Polish history, Shakespeare and the Bible, including some Christian scenes. In his brief career, he saw both his Jewish heritage and all of European civilization as his cultural birthright. While stillborn, his work seeks to thrust Jewish subjects and sensibilities into the heart of modern thought. Oppenheim looked to the past while Gottlieb yearned for the future.


Isidor Kaufmann (1853-1921) continues the movement of Jewish Art into the Modern through a wonderfully subversive methodology. Born in Arad, Hungary, Kaufmann took up painting in Vienna and was soon drawn to the mysterious world of the shtetl and Hassidic life in Galicia, Poland and Ukraine. In annual field trips, he would collect images; portraits, costumes, interiors and genre scenes that would be transformed into glistening narrative gems of Jewish life for his eager customers. These customers were assimilated, rich Viennese Jews. His best works, mainly portraits of young Hassidic men and women impeccably dressed for Yom Tov, are beautifully and simply composed paintings that reveal subtle psychological insights. A masterful sensitivity opens up the vibrant inner life of his subjects and transforms clich



és into a powerful combination of psychology and flat modern image-making. Kaufmann, always the realist bound to 19th century aesthetics, nonetheless brings Freud’s revelations to bear on a shallow modern pictorial space.


For Jews the leap into Modern Art was made in the cauldrons of revolution – Bolshevik Russia, Zionist Palestine and Paris, France. In the work of El Lissitzky (1890-1941), modernity subsumes tradition. Chad Gadya is his Jewish Art masterpiece. He grew up in Vitebsk, Russia, and after the 1917 revolution joined Chagall, teaching in the Vitebsk art school. Deeply involved in the movement to recreate Jewish culture in Russia – especially in the publication and illustration of Yiddish books – his Chad Gadya of color lithographs were published in Kiev in 1919. Soon after, El Lissitzky turned his attention to the most radical modern art movement of the time, Constructivism. Along with fellow Russian, Casimir Malevich, he created a totally abstract visual language, merging aspects of painting and architecture. The seeds of this new vision are clearly visible in Chad Gadya. Combining vivid imagery (such as the savage fury of the red cat leaping over the slain goat), a text border and bold abstract shapes, the artist breaks out of 19th century naturalism into the drama and uncertainty of a new age.


That new age is, in many ways, the world we still live in. Subsequent Jewish Art would continue to struggle between textual traditions and visual innovations we associate with Modern Art. We shall see, however, that this matrix, which seems superficially to create tension and conflict, actually is the source of much of the 20th century’s visual language.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

A Jewish Art Primer (Part II) Books To Papercuts

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Seldom has a people’s cultural expression changed in so short a period of time as the revolution that overtook the Jews with the invention of moveable type and the printed book. Johannes Guttenberg’s invention in the 1450′s quickly swept south and the first Hebrew book, the Aruch, a lexicon for Talmudic study, was printed in Italy in 1470. The illuminated Hebrew manuscript was obsolete within a generation and was replaced by the printed book. The hand had been supplanted by the press.


Haggadahs, (16th To 20th Centuries)




If synagogue floor mosaics characterized Jewish Art from the third to sixth centuries and the illuminated manuscript did the same for European Jewish Art between the 13th and 15th centuries, then the illustrated Haggadah is the fundamental Jewish Art expression from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Five hundred years. The Haggadah is the most reprinted Jewish book in history (over 3,000 editions have been collected) and is the most illustrated of Hebrew texts. The earliest printed Haggadah dates from approximately the first years of the 16th century and is quickly followed by 25 separate editions in the next hundred years, many illustrated with woodcut prints. Four prototypical editions influenced almost all illustrations that followed, up to the 20th century: Prague, 1526; Mantua, 1560; Venice, 1609; and Amsterdam, 1695.


The 60 woodcut illustrations, many with ornate Renaissance borders and found in the Prague Haggadah, became a template for most of the subsequent illustration depicting the preparation and celebration of Passover and Biblical scenes from the narrative itself. The Mantua Haggadah shifts the stylistic emphasis to the Italian Renaissance, even going so far as to include an image by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel as the Wise Son. In what may be the most moving image in the Mantua Haggadah, “Pour out Your wrath” the Messiah rides a donkey and is heralded with a shofar by Eliyahu HaNavi at the entrance to an Italian city. The yearning for the Messiah, a messiah now, to disperse those who oppress us is palpable; the integration of text and image is masterly.


While the Venetian Haggadah also creates a whole lexicon of images (the Abraham narrative, the Exodus and even the encampment in the Wilderness), it is the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695 that revolutionizes Haggadah images for the next 200 years. It was the first to use copperplate engravings and presents images by the convert, Abraham ben Jacob, who adapted the Biblical engravings of the Christian artist Matthaeus Merian. This extensive suite of images Judaizes late Renaissance notions of form and content, allowing 18th century European visual culture to be imbibed in the homes of countless Jews at Passover. The proliferation of the printing press, a mechanized form of writing, had democratized all areas of Jewish learning and consequently Jewish Art.



A rather curious thing happens to Jewish illustrated texts sometime in the 18th century. While the whole world produced printed books in hundreds if not thousands of copies, a small movement of Jews in middle Europe started to create (yet again) handwritten texts, frequently illuminated with watercolors and ink drawings. They were less narrative-oriented and favored a decorative ornamentation of the text. Haggadahs were created copying the aforementioned illustrated printed editions. But more importantly, there was a groundswell of individual works (many produced by sofers for their own use) that returned the care, love and handmade artistry to the Jewish book.


The Tikun Erev Rosh Chodesh Be’chadshoh (1728) from Rotterdam is a diminutive jewel, only 4″ x 6 1/2″ by the sofer and artist Nathan ben Samson of Mehzeritch. While the tiny book is laced with decorated letters, delightfully ornate with multi-colored inks and floral designs, the glowing masterpiece is the title page, graced with dedicatory cartouches framed by figures of Moses and Aaron in red- and blue-colored ink. The bold text surrounds color and image to produce a moving call to repentance, a cry for forgiveness carried up to Heaven in the form of Jewish Art.


An earlier example of this manuscript renaissance is the handwritten and decorated Siddur of Shimshon ben Yochanan HaLevi, chazzan of Gelnhausen (Hesse, Germany) in 1673. The principle parts of the text are ornamented in much the same filigree style of manuscripts 300 years earlier. The artist’s sense of drama, willfully creating title words in the center of the page and essentially redesigning with dramatically ornamented text design the flow of the prayers, sees the siddur as a fluid reservoir of religious emotion and artistic expression. The text of “Av Harachamim” before the Shabbos Musaf service alternates between red and black text, creating a funnel to concentrate the punishment of our oppressors. A brilliant red pair of eyeglasses surrounds the word “Av” to demand that G-d Himself closely examine and judge the actions of our enemies.



Another aspect of Jewish Art that concentrates on individual use, as opposed to public use (and in a way humanizes the printed word) is the twin, folk arts of micrography and papercuts. Micrography (the use of sacred text, written very small to create designs and images) originated in 10th century Egypt and Palestine, heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Hebrew micrography was the creation of the Masorah scribes of Tiberias and soon developed into a major element in illuminated manuscripts, embedding Masoric texts in architectural and abstract designs that surround sacred text. It was utilized in all kinds of illuminated texts: luxury Bibles, Haggadot, ketubbot, omer counters and amulets. And it easily made the transition into printed works. As it has developed into a medium to create full-fledged images of increasing complexity (depicting many Biblical narratives and Jewish-themed images) it has remained a predominantly Jewish art form.


While micrography is a scribal art form, papercuts are also primarily a male folk art. Starting with young boys in cheder who made the simple, cut out rosette designs to decorate windows for Shavous and to decorate the succah, the craft developed into much more sophisticated designs and themes. The earliest record of a Jewish papercut is in 14th century Spain. Actual examples, overwhelmingly from Eastern and Central Europe, are of course much later (the earliest from the 18th century) because of the inherent fragility of the medium.


The primary role of the papercut was to beautify the home interior, decorating walls with ornamented texts, such as mizrah, shivisi (also synagogue use), ushpizin for the succah, sefiras haomer calendar, menorah and hamsa, amulets (especially for the newborn), bris, yahrzeit, kettubot, blessings and commemorations – and even the Megillas Esther scroll. This art form essentially took important events and rituals and elevated them with skill and artistry as a hiddur mitzva (enhancement of the mitzva).


In the 500 years since the inception of Hebrew printing, the Jewish text has encountered and been enhanced by Jewish visual expression, both in the mechanical printed book and the handmade creations of later manuscripts and papercuts. This integration, evidencing a continual stimulation of the visual imagination, perhaps laid some of the groundwork for Jewish participation in the larger European cultural environment encountered in the traumatic changes of the 19th century. That century would see the birth of modern Jewish painting, an art form that continues to the present day.


Editorial Note: This Jewish Art Primer is dependent upon my own research and many published studies and monographs on Jewish Art. At the end of the series, a bibliography will be provided.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

A Jewish Art Primer (Part I)

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Jewish Art: Any cultural production that utilizes Jewish subject matter and content drawn from; 1) all material found in Jewish sacred texts and those secular texts that explore Jewish social life and history, 2) Jewish history, from Antiquity to the present, as well as Jewish ritual, music and synagogue architecture.



Jews, as well as non-Jews, can create Jewish Art. The essential factor in this kind of art is always the Jewish content – ideas and notions that can be called Jewish. The definition is not exclusive; rather it is flexible and changing, much as is all creativity. Jewish Art is most simply defined as the cultural expression of the Jewish people and their ideas over the millennia.


Murals And Mosaics





It is said that Jewish Art begins with Bezalel, the craftsman “filled with G-dly spirit, with wisdom, insight and knowledge and with every craft” and his assistant, Oholiab. They crafted the utensils, decorations and furniture of the Tabernacle. They were G-d’s artists. But the design and artistry of the Mishkan and First and Second Temples are known to us only in texts. It has evaporated in the mists of a violent history. Therefore, for us, Jewish Art begins in the synagogues of late Antiquity.


Jewish Art begins at Dura Europos [National Museum, Damascus] in 250 C.E. First uncovered in 1920-32, an extensive series of wall murals, arranged in three horizontal levels on all the walls of a synagogue, depicts explicit Torah narratives. On the western wall, the Camp in the Desert, the consecration of the Tabernacle and the Triumph of Mordechai are seen on the left, while the Exodus from Egypt, Solomon’s Temple, Moses being saved from the Nile and the Anointing of David are depicted on the right. In the middle of the wall, a painted Torah niche depicts the Temple, the Menorah and the Binding of Isaac. The south wall shows an Elijah Cycle, the north wall a vision of Ezekiel. Unfortunately, the east wall is too fragmentary to identify. This decorated synagogue in eastern Syria, along the Euphrates River, is the earliest datable example of Jewish figurative representation, notably in a synagogue context. It establishes, without a doubt, that Jews in the third century of the Common Era produced and used visual art.


This historical fact is further reflected by the extensive mosaic floor decorations in over 50 percent of the 36 ancient Israeli synagogues uncovered so far. These ruins of synagogues from the early third to the sixth century of the Common Era are found from Bar’am in the north to Gaza in the south, with at least ten in the upper Galilee. The enormous pavement at Hammas Tiberias (fourth century) features the ark, flanked by menorahs, a brilliant figurative Zodiac and personifications of the four seasons. Beth Alpha (sixth century) also has an ark, menorahs, ritual objects (along with lions and birds) depicted in the mosaic near the aron. An elaborate Zodiac – again surrounded by figures of the seasons – dominates the center of the floor. In the lower register, seen first as one would enter, is the Binding of Isaac featuring Eleazar, Ishmael, the ram caught in the bush, Abraham, Isaac and a fiery altar. This mosaic is one of the masterpieces of early Jewish Art.


The ark – flanked by menorahs, shofar and lulav – is also seen in the enormous Beth She’an synagogue floor mosaic. It is a frequent motif in many ancient synagogues that expresses the yearning for the restoration of the Temple and redemption of the Jewish people. This subject is more fully explored in the fourth century Sepphoris synagogue that includes the ark motif, the Zodiac, the consecration of Aaron, the daily offering, the showbread table and basket of first fruits (bikurim). In the next section two mosaic panels depict the Binding of Isaac and finally, nearest the entrance, the angel’s visit to Abraham and Sarah. The visual creativity of the Jews in the decoration of their synagogues from the third to the sixth century has seldom been surpassed.


Manuscripts



The next outpouring of Jewish artistic creativity is the illuminated manuscript. This art form flourishes for 600 years from the 10th to 16th centuries, starting in the Islamic Near East and moving gradually through Western Europe. In 895, the earliest surviving example of Hebrew illumination, a Book of the Prophets by Moses ben Asher, a Masoretist from Tiberias, shows us find 12 pages illuminated in gold geometrical patterns with a floral center and corner spandrels. Tiny micrographic text contributes to the lush design. These highly abstract “carpet” pages, so called because the design tended to be uniform over the entire page, dominated Jewish illumination for the next hundred years. Soon, illuminated Bibles (many Karaite) elaborated pure design into more concrete representations of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and its various utensils. Even more elaborate depictions of sacred vessels are found in a Bible in late 13th century Spain [Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris].


In the 13th century, Jewish illumination begins its Golden Age, especially with the extensive production of luxurious Haggadahs. At least 73 illuminated Haggadahs created between the 13th to 16th centuries have been studied. Over 20 survive from the 14th century alone. They were created across a broad geographical area from Spain, Northern France, the Rhineland and Southern Germany and Italy.


This production in Spain of luxurious Haggadahs is in addition to many works produced in the German lands and Italy. The earliest illuminated Jewish manuscript in Germany is a two volume Rashi from 1233, [Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, Munich] with miniatures in the initial word panels for each parashah. It was quickly joined by at least 20 illuminated Bibles, Mishneh Torahs of Rambam and many large and elaborate Machzorim meant for public synagogue use by the chazzan. Notably, a late 13th century French illuminated Miscellany (a collection of Machzorim and other religious texts for private use) [British Library] boasts some 41 Biblical miniatures.


There are many examples of Italian Renaissance Jewish illuminated manuscripts including Bibles Tehillim and halachic and medical texts. Perhaps the most famous Italian Jewish text is the Rothschild Miscellany (15th century) [Israel Museum] that has at least 300 textual illuminations. This art form was clearly custom-made for the Jews.


Nonetheless the Haggadah, especially those produced in 14th century Spain, triumphs in quantity and quality. The Golden Haggadah (1330) [British Library] prefaces the haggadah text with a series of 15 full page miniatures, depicting the Biblical narrative from Adam up to the Exodus. Each page has four episodes of the narrative and explicates not only the narrative but its commentators as well, utilizing a simultaneous conflation of various aspects of the story line. The juxtaposition of four stories on one page creates new narrative possibilities, frequently heightening the drama – as in the combination of the Death of the First Born, the Jews exiting Egypt with a high hand, the Egyptian army pursuing the Jews and finally, the defeat of the Egyptians at the Sea.


In contrast the Rylands Haggadah (also 14th century) [Rylands University Library, Manchester] is much more simple in its narrative and concentrates on the Passover story itself. It starts with Moses at the Burning Bush, moving through each of the plagues, and finally exalting in the devastation of the Egyptians at the Sea. This 14th century manuscript carries its visual enthusiasm into the Haggadah text itself with extensive illuminations, ornamented initial letter panels and embedded drolleries.


Because illuminated Jewish manuscripts were prized luxury items, many survived the ravages of violence and expulsions. Synagogue decorations and ritual items such as menorahs, kiddush cups and the like have not been so fortunate. But perhaps, since we so highly valued books, the next form of Jewish Art has survived, i.e. the Jewish illustrated book. We will explore them, along with a rebirth of illumination and finally the 19th century birth of Jewish painting, in our next article.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/a-jewish-art-primer-part-i/2006/04/19/

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