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September 30, 2014 / 6 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Museum’

Crossing Borders: Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Jewish Museum: 1109 Fifth Avenue @ 92nd Street www.thejewishmuseum.org – 212 423 3200 Until February 3, 2013

In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh Hashanah piyyut “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’s praise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God. The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.

Nearby another German Mahzor (14th century) is open to the same piyyut,here illuminated in a simpler manner: Isaac is on the altar ready to be slaughtered, Abraham heeds the angel and a collection of medieval grotesques, animals and men react to the horrible event. God’s strength is reflected in the ability to summon obedience to a deadly command.

Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded with Might”
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Two very different interpretations of the same piyyut probably created within decades of one another. And are both shown at the Jewish Museum’s “Crossing Borders,” an exhibition of medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. This extraordinary exhibition presents the vibrant cross-cultural influences in the creation of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the context of both Christian and Islamic cultural production. Additionally it explores the fascinating relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition opens with three radically different manuscripts. A Hebrew Bible from Tudela (or Soria), Spain by artist and scribe Joshua ibn Gaon of Soria, (c.1300) displays the overwhelming Islamic decorative influence in Spain at the time. The facing carpet pages brilliantly shows interlocking abstract designs, one framed by a textual border, the other a heavy gold-leaf frame.

Michael Mahzor (1258) piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Next is the earliest known dated and illustrated Mahzor (1257-1258) from Germany open to the page with the special piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim. The initial word panel is illuminated with an intriguing stag hunt scene featuring the two hunters whose helmets cover their faces. This sensitivity about depicting the human face is seen throughout this Mahzor and likely reflects a lingering concern over the second commandment that flourished in southern Germany in the 1230’s. But most surprisingly is the fact that the whole charming scene is depicted upside down! One reason given in the original catalogue essay by Eva Frojmovic for this singular depiction has been attributed to a Christian artist’s mistake, being unable to read the Hebrew text, and assumed it worked better upside down with the image centered at the bottom of the page. The curator of the Jewish Museum installation, Claudia Nahson, more plausibly explains that this upside down scene may be a reflection of the piyyut being recited right before Purim, when everything is “turned upside down,” especially in the narrative of the oppressed and hunted Jews.

Finally, the “Even HaEzer” (1438) from the Arba’ah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (the Tur) reveals sumptuous early Italian Renaissance manuscript illuminations. Gold leaf abounds amid peacocks, exotic birds and fantastic creatures surround the text “It is not good for man to be alone…” echoing the depiction of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam lies asleep as a winged Creator, complete with halo, kneels next to him, about to extract Eve from his side. On the right we see Adam and Eve poised before the forbidden tree and the tempting snake. The extremely unusual depiction of the Deity in a Hebrew manuscript reflects the highly acculturated nature of the Italian Jewish community almost certainly working with a Christian artist.

In these intriguing examples one can treat the visual as decorative and incidental to the text, thereby discounting the inherent and potentially disruptive meaning of the images. Or one can attempt to integrate image and text and see them in a creative relationship, effectively arriving at a new meaning of both text and image. Considering the enormous cost of illuminating manuscripts, the competition with surrounding non-Jewish elites, and the fact that manuscripts with such subversive images continued to be prized and used, I cannot believe for a moment such images were anything but intentional.

Crossing Borders: Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library

Friday, November 9th, 2012

Jewish Museum: 1109 Fifth Avenue @ 92nd Street
www.thejewishmuseum.org – 212 423 3200
Until February 3, 2013

In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh Hashanah piyyut “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’spraise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God. The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.

Mahzor (14th century) “King Girded with Might”
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Nearby another German Mahzor (14th century) is open to the same piyyut, here illuminated in a simpler manner: Isaac is on the altar ready to be slaughtered, Abraham heeds the angel and a collection of medieval grotesques, animals and men react to the horrible event. God’s strength is reflected in the ability to summon obedience to a deadly command.

Two very different interpretations of the same piyyut probably created within decades of one another. And are both shown at the Jewish Museum’s “Crossing Borders,” an exhibition of medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. This extraordinary exhibition presents the vibrant cross-cultural influences in the creation of medieval Hebrew manuscripts in the context of both Christian and Islamic cultural production. Additionally it explores the fascinating relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition opens with three radically different manuscripts. A Hebrew Bible from Tudela (or Soria), Spain by artist and scribe Joshua ibn Gaon of Soria, (c.1300) displays the overwhelming Islamic decorative influence in Spain at the time. The facing carpet pages brilliantly shows interlocking abstract designs, one framed by a textual border, the other a heavy gold-leaf frame.

Michael Mahzor (1258) piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim
Courtesy Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

Next is the earliest known dated and illustrated Mahzor (1257-1258) from Germany open to the page with the special piyyut for Shabbos Shekalim. The initial word panel is illuminated with an intriguing stag hunt scene featuring the two hunters whose helmets cover their faces. This sensitivity about depicting the human face is seen throughout this Mahzor and likely reflects a lingering concern over the second commandment that flourished in southern Germany in the 1230’s. But most surprisingly is the fact that the whole charming scene is depicted upside down! One reason given in the original catalogue essay by Eva Frojmovic for this singular depiction has been attributed to a Christian artist’s mistake, being unable to read the Hebrew text, and assumed it worked better upside down with the image centered at the bottom of the page. The curator of the Jewish Museum installation, Claudia Nahson, more plausibly explains that this upside down scene may be a reflection of the piyyut being recited right before Purim, when everything is “turned upside down,” especially in the narrative of the oppressed and hunted Jews.

Finally, the “Even HaEzer” (1438) from the Arba’ah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (the Tur) reveals sumptuous early Italian Renaissance manuscript illuminations. Gold leaf abounds amid peacocks, exotic birds and fantastic creatures surround the text “It is not good for man to be alone…” echoing the depiction of the creation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam lies asleep as a winged Creator, complete with halo, kneels next to him, about to extract Eve from his side. On the right we see Adam and Eve poised before the forbidden tree and the tempting snake. The extremely unusual depiction of the Deity in a Hebrew manuscript reflects the highly acculturated nature of the Italian Jewish community almost certainly working with a Christian artist.

In these intriguing examples one can treat the visual as decorative and incidental to the text, thereby discounting the inherent and potentially disruptive meaning of the images. Or one can attempt to integrate image and text and see them in a creative relationship, effectively arriving at a new meaning of both text and image. Considering the enormous cost of illuminating manuscripts, the competition with surrounding non-Jewish elites, and the fact that manuscripts with such subversive images continued to be prized and used, I cannot believe for a moment such images were anything but intentional.

Polish Billionaire Donates 20 Million Zloty to Jewish Museum

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Polish billionaire Jan Kulczyk’s company Kulczyk Holding has donated zł.20 million, or close to $6 million, for the construction of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, reports Gazeta Wyborcza.

The total cost of construction is expected to reach zł.320 million, or around $96 million, with the museum opening its doors in 2013.

“Life is not just a business, not just economics. We must remember what was,” Kulczyk said in a statement.

The sum donated by Kulczyk is the largest gift made by an individual donor to the museum project so far.

Edouard Vuillard, 1890-1940, at the Jewish Museum

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

“Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940″ has opened at the New York Jewish Museum and will run through September 23.

The exhibition offers a fresh view of the French artist Edouard Vuillard’s career, from the vanguard 1890s to the urbane domesticity of the lesser-known late portraits. The presentation focuses on the inspiration provided by friends and patrons whose support became inseparable from the artist’s achievement. Featuring some fifty key artworks in various media, the exhibition extends pioneering past projects of The Jewish Museum, New York, on the significance of collectors and patrons for the development of modern art.

The youngest of three children, Edouard Vuillard was born on November 11, 1868, in the town of Cuiseaux in eastern France. After the family moved to Paris Vuillard attended the prestigious Lycée Condorcet.

In 1891 Vuillard met the three Natanson brothers, Thadée, Alfred, and Alexandre, who had founded the progressive arts magazine La Revue Blanche. Thadée was in charge of art criticism and invited Vuillard to show work in the magazine’s offices that fall—his first one-person exhibition. Over the next several years the Natansons and their circle commissioned important works from Vuillard. Thadée’s wife, Misia, became Vuillard’s particular muse and appears in numerous works of the period.

After the turn of the century, the Revue Blanche ceased publication and the Natanson milieu began to fragment. Vuillard found a new supporter in the art dealer Jos Hessel, who began representing him and many of the Nabi painters after 1900.

After the end of World War I, Vuillard was a much sought-after portraitist; portraiture became the centerpiece of his life’s work between the wars. Chief among his subjects was Lucy Hessel, whom he painted innumerable times. With the German invasion of France, Vuillard fled Paris with the Hessels. He died in La Baule, Brittany, in June 1940.

Process, Loss and History

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Process, Loss and History

South African Projections:

Films by William Kentridge

The Jewish Museum, NYC

Until September 19, 2010

 

 

New York has gone through a William Kentridge craze this year. There have been scattered exhibitions in galleries throughout the cities, in addition to lectures and live performances.  From the blockbuster Five Themes show at the MoMA, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Kentridge’s directed-and-designed multimedia version of Shostakovich’s The Nose, the South African artist has been a dominant voice on the New York art scene. For those who missed the incredible MoMA retrospective-or for those who simply wish for another Kentridge fix-a final salvo can be caught at the Jewish Museum’s exhibition of part of Kentridge’s Nine Drawings for Projection series.

 

 Though all of the pieces in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition were on display at the MoMA earlier this year, there is something to be gained by seeing them again in this smaller, more intimate setting. The very broadness and inclusiveness of the MoMA exhibition could be overwhelming: though the overall impression was incredibly powerful, some of the individual pieces could get lost. The Nine Drawing for Projection are amongst the most personal and moving pieces in the artist’s oeuvre, and the concentrated focus of the current exhibition allows these works the time and space to make their impact. It is a shame, however, that only the earlier works in this series-”Johannesburg” “Mine” “Monument” “Sobriety, Obesity, and Growing Old”-are on view. While they are thematically cohesive, the series as a whole is severely weakened by the absence of “Tide Table” and “Stereoscope”-in my opinion, the mature culmination of the elements raised in the earlier pieces.

 

 

William Kentridge, Mine, from Drawings for Projection (video still), 1991, 16mm animated film transferred to optical disk.  The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, Fine Arts Acquisition Committee Fund, and Lillian Gordon Bequest.

 

 

The context of the Jewish Museum exhibit highlights different aspects of the artist than the MoMA exhibition. William Kentridge is seen primarily as a South African artist. He first came to international attention with his highly political works made in the wake of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indeed, the struggles of the emerging South Africa are in his blood. His paternal grandfather was a member of parliament; his maternal grandmother was the first female barrister in the country’s history; both his parents are attorneys who played prominent parts in the struggle against apartheid. Though most of his family has emigrated, Kentridge still lives and works in Johannesburg and his work is deeply affected by the landscape and history of his birthplace-as is evident in this exhibition. From “Johannesburg: Second Greatest City in the World after Paris” to “Tide-Table” (not on view in this exhibit),the short films are intertwined with references to his country’s saga. “I have been unable to escape Johannesburg,” the artist acknowledges. “In the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city. I have never tried to make illustrations of apartheid, but the drawings and films are certainly spawned by and feed off the brutalized society left in its wake.”[1] Yet within the overtly political content of the Nine Drawings, the Jewish Museum draws attention to the more sublimated-but equally important-aspect of the artist’s identity: his Judaism.

 

The Nine Drawings are in some ways the most overtly Jewish of the artist’s works. In this series of short films, he introduces his two invented characters – Soho Eckstein, business tycoon in a pinstripe suit and Felix Teitlebaum, bohemian dreamer, often depicted in the nude. These characters and the relationships between them become archetypes for the emotional and political struggle of the country as a whole, yet their names set them firmly within the South African Jewish community, of which Kentridge is a part. Indeed, the artist used himself as the model for both characters and they share his slightly portly build and “Ashkenazi Jewish nose”-to use Kentridge’s own, unselfconscious description.

 

 

William Kentridge, Monument, from Drawings for Projection (video still), 1990, 16mm animated film transferred to optical disk.  The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, Fine Arts Acquisition Committee Fund, and Lillian Gordon Bequest.

 

The presentation of Soho in the early films as rapacious, gluttonous, heartless and money-grubbing thus treads an uncomfortable line, sliding perilously close to Der St?rmer-like stereotypes of hook-nosed Jewish capitalists. In an interview with Lilian Tones, Kentridge admits that “initially [he] would always conceive Soho as an other, as an alien, very much based on images of rapacious industrialists from Russian and early Futurist propaganda drawings, of George Grosz and German Expressionism.” Yet the introduction of Soho’s anti-establishment antagonist, Felix, serves to counter the shadow of stereotype.  “I find that very disarming,” says Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator of the Jewish Museum. “You ‎see Jews play both roles.” ‎And as Soho and Felix engage in a primal struggle that evokes Goya’s powerful images of war, the film becomes about universal human dualities. Indeed, Kentridge ultimately came to see Soho and Felix as “two different sides of one character rather than two fundamentally different characters” -and both as doppelgangers of himself.

 

In interviews, Kentridge has openly questioned why his two characters have Jewish names, and whether they are meant to represent or comment on the Jewish community. Leaving the question open, he says that the characters-complete with their names-came to him in dreams months before he created his first film.  As such, their Judaism may simply be part of the artist’s familiar surroundings. As Kentridge’s alter-egos, they partake of his environment. Yet, in these most personal of the artist’s works, the political and personal are intertwined. As Kentridge says “the films are about space between the political world and the personal, and the extent to which politics does or does not find its way into the private.”[2] So on another level, these films can also serve as a personal, idiosyncratic metaphor for Jewish life in South Africa.

 

 The duality of Soho and Felix-one formally clothed, the other unclothed; one civilized, the other natural; one part of hierarchal society, the other an outsider; one a businessman, the other a dreamer-can be seen as embodying the paradoxical position of Jews in South African society. On the one hand, many Jews-Kentridge’s family included-arrived as refugees to South Africa. They came as the oppressed and felt the precariousness of their position. This drove many of them (Kentridge and his family at the forefront) to take part in the struggle to end apartheid. Indeed, one can sense the shade of the Holocaust in Kentridge’s presentation of apartheid, especially in the imagery of showers and barracks of Mine. On the other hand, Jews benefited from the racial hierarchy. Many were actually granted refuge because of their skin color: when other countries were closing their doors to Jews, South Africa was allowing them in to help boost the white population. Kentridge grew up in an affluent Jewish community that reaped the benefits of being part of the white elite minority. In Kentridge’s own words “a central irony exists for South African Jews. Our Passover ceremony every year commemorates the Jews as slaves in Egypt. And there was always an understanding that here we are in South Africa talking about having been slaves in Egypt, yet in the present we are certainly not slaves In the present, we are absolutely not part of those most oppressed. We are part of the privileged whose lives are made comfortable by an immediate sense of the society we are living in. That remains an uncomfortable irony to ‎ live with.”[3] Guilt and the weight of racial violence permeate the Nine Drawings, a sickness within.

 

William Kentridge, Johannesburg, Second Greatest City after Paris, from Drawings for Projection (video still), 1989, 16mm animated film transferred to optical disk.  The Jewish Museum, New York; Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, Fine Arts Acquisition Committee Fund, and Lillian Gordon Bequest.

 

Yet ultimately, with all the contradictions, tensions and discontinuities, these films are about the words that flash at the end of Stereoscope: “Give/forgive.”  They are united by a sense of hope and reparation. Kentridge’s idealism, expressed in political activism, is perhaps embodied most powerfully in his conception of drawing.  Kentridge sees “the activity of drawing [as] a way of trying to understand who we are.” Though he is primarily a draftsman, he stands in opposition to the carefully measured space and proportions of a Renaissance artist. Drawing for him is a chaotic, developmental process, in which an image arrives in the work. This is reflected in his favorite drawing medium-the impermanent, endlessly moveable and changing charcoal. His conception of drawing is emphasized in his stop-gap animations, where the process is extended through time, every change preserved in a moment of film. Even as history is recorded, the ephemeral nature of the material is emphasized: it is primarily the movement of the eraser that creates the animation, the images emerging, changing, transforming, the shadowy blots of the eraser’s former movement preserved in the changing frame. Each object contains its whole history, a falling woman embodying every stage of her fall.

 

Kentridge’s method of working dovetails perfectly with his subject matter: the animations are histories of changed drawings, with all their failures and resurrections, and they deal with the history of post-apartheid South Africa, with all its failures and possibilities.  Contingent, always on the verge of being erased-but therefore also preserved from the permanence of evil. “Everything can be saved, everything is provisional,” Kentridge says. “A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revived by the next drawing.” In conceiving of his art as process rather than object, in focusing on time rather than space, Kentridge’s work is hopeful. All failure and contradiction are subsumed within an ever-changing picture, a broadening understanding. 

 

              It is this unity of form and content, medium and message that gives Kentridge’s work its power. His overt politicism does not descend to propaganda because it is sublimated by his personal artistic language. History and loss, records and restoration: these are both the thematic and visual/material thrust of the work.

 

[1]As quoted in William Kentridge: Drawings for Projection, Four Animated Films. Johannesburg: Goodman Gallery, 1992, n.p.

[2]Interview with Lilian Tones, February 22, 1999,  http://artarchives.net/artarchives/liliantone/tonekentridge.html

[3]Interview with bell hooks, Interview. September 1998.

Is There Religious Significance To Man Ray’s African Obsession?

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens


Through January 10, 2010


The Phillips Collection


1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C.



 

 

Jews, and particularly Jewish kings of the biblical period, are not supposed to be too keen on horses. An unhealthy love for things equestrian, according to the admonition in Deuteronomy 17:16, will tempt the king to return the Jewish people to Egypt.  That being said, it must be admitted upfront that it is quite a stretch to ask whether a biblical prohibition against amassing royal stables of Egyptian horses applies to Jewish artists today. There are countless representations of the Genesis and Exodus narratives in Haggadahs and other Jewish books – some of which might even have been made by Jewish artists – so there was surely no ban on representing Egypt in art. Yet, if the bible espouses what we can only describe as an anti-Egyptian perspective, which anyone who attends a Passover Seder cannot help but confront, this could trickle down to artists.

 

So when Isaiah 31:1 curses “Woe (hoy) unto those who go to Egypt for help, who depend on horses” and fail to realize “Egyptians are men not G-d, and their horses are flesh not spirit” and Ezekiel 17:15 promises the Jews who send representatives to Egypt seeking horses and servants will not prosper, what, if anything, do they have to say about the Jewish artist Man Ray?

 

“Egypt appears most notably in Man Ray’s chess sets, in which he designed the king as an Egyptian pyramid. But I never considered the biblical connection to Egypt when thinking about those pieces,” said Wendy A. Grossman, curator of the exhibit Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens at The Phillips Collection, in an email. In addition to the show at the Phillips, Man Ray, born Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890 – 1976), is also the subject of an exhibit at The Jewish Museum called “Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention” (through March 14).

 

 

 

Man Ray, Comtesse de St. Exupery Modeling an African Hat, Mode au Congo, 1937, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADGAP, Paris, Baltimore Museum of Art.

 

 

According to Grossman, who specializes in Man Ray, the history of photography, early 20th century European and American Modernism, and the relationship between African and modern art, it would be “highly uncharacteristic” of Man Ray to have associated the Egypt of his chess board with the Egypt of Exodus. Indeed, on the website of the Museum of Modern Art, which owns a silver-plated and oxidized silver-plated brass version of Man Ray’s “Chess Set” (1920 – 26), the bible is not mentioned.

 

“Moreover, while Egypt is indeed part of the African continent, the avant-gardes’ embrace of African objects was focused on Sub-Saharan Africa,” Grossman said, “which was rarely considered in relationship to Egypt at that time.” Thus when Man Ray photographed African sculptures and masks, he embraced the objects for “the challenge they presented to Western culture as a whole and classical artistic hierarchies in particular,” according to Grossman, and “the taboo nature of such objects specifically for his Jewish peers was far from his conscious concerns.”

 

But even if Man Ray did not have biblical slavery in mind, there is actually quite an interesting Jewish narrative surrounding one particular photograph (Man Ray’s most famous, of the artist, singer and model Kiki of Montparnasse with an African mask) that appears in both the Phillips and the Jewish Museum shows, according to Grossman. In the black-and-white image, Kiki’s white face with black hair sharply contrasts with the black mask, although there are similarities between the softly modeled features of the mask and the model. Though the two faces have many differences (cultural, ethnic, racial), they share a similar olive-shape and striking beauty.

 

 


Man Ray, Black and White (Noire et Blanche), 1926, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADGAP, Paris, Baltimore Museum of Art.

 

 

Writing in “Unmasking Man Ray’s Noire et blanche” (American Art, summer 2006) with co-author Steven Manford, Grossman notes that varied interpretations of Man Ray’s “enigmatic” photograph of the mask reflect the image’s “ambiguous and provocative character.” Instead of turning out to belong to “a phantom French collector of African art,” the mask, Grossman and Manford discover, belonged to the American George Sakier (1897 – 1988), a Paris-based art director for Vogue, which published the photograph.

 

“Although the relationship between these two individuals has been largely overlooked, they knew each other growing up in Brooklyn, where Sakier’s Russian Jewish family (then Sacken) had immigrated around the same time as Man Ray’s,” Grossman said. She says it is “anyone’s guess” whether Jewish artists at the time like Man Ray may have been more likely to have been sympathetic to art of other marginalized groups (like Africans) since they were considered outsiders themselves.

 

“But it is worth noting that a Jewish artist, Max Weber, was instrumental in bringing African art to the American avant-garde after his studies in Paris,” she said, “just as an artist of Jewish origin (viz., Man Ray) was instrumental in introducing African art to a large audience through his photographs.”

 


Man Ray, Untitled (Akan goldweight), c. 1933, © 2009 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADGAP, Paris, Private Collection.

 

 

Man Ray certainly tried to distance himself from his Jewish identity, which the Jewish Museum website calls “conflicted,” though it “was central to an artist who yearned to escape the limitations of his Russian Jewish immigrant past.” But he may have intentionally embraced props that were familiar to him since his father worked in a garment factory and ran a tailoring shop, and his mother was a seamstress: tailor’s dummies, flat irons, sewing machines, needles, pins, threads and fabric.

 

References to Egypt, biblical prohibitions against creating taboo idols and interest in marginalized art might amount to nothing more than a series of coincidences, but what is clear is that viewers seeking Jewish relevance to Man Ray’s work can find it not only at The Jewish Museum, but also at the Phillips Collection fantastic examination of the artist’s approach to African iconography.


 


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Is Abstracting The Holocaust The Same as Denying It?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Abstraction and the Holocaust


By Mark Godfrey


Yale University Press, 2007, $55


http://yalepress.yale.edu/


 


 


 


         When Mark Godfrey first stumbled across Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered European Jews in Berlin, he did not recognize it. On a walk, he found himself in “a huge space that I have since read is the size of two football pitches,” which was “cordoned off by a wire fence.” The space was “all pretty messy: the grass had not been cut back; there was the odd portacabin here, a small truck there,” yet Godfrey could tell “something was definitely happening: I could see, against the sandy soil, groups of grey concrete rectangular blocks.”

 

         Though he is a lecturer in history and theory of art at University College London, Godfrey can be forgiven for being confused when viewing the site of the Berlin Holocaust monument. It is abstract, after all, resembling the prehistoric structures of Stonehenge, if a mighty wind blew the tops off. But in a time where rogue world leaders are being charged with Holocaust denial, do abstract memorials which confound art scholars help or harm Holocaust memory?

 

         Godfrey acknowledges Eisenman’s work raises many important questions, “all of them difficult.” He asks: “What does it mean to memorialize Nazism’s victims in the centre of Berlin?” and “What, and who exactly is being remembered in this site?” But the aspect that caught Godfrey most off guard, which is the central subject of his book Abstraction and the Holocaust, is the way that “abstraction and Holocaust memory,” which has a bittersweet 50 year history of being ignored, “had come together in such a public way.”

 

 


Cover shot,  Abstraction and the Holocaust.

 

 

         The sort of inquiry Godfrey conducts navigates several complicated terms which require unpacking. To define abstraction, he cites Briony Fer’s definition, “a type of art which does not allow us to interpret it with reference to what is depicted.” Godfrey explains, “Abstract artists eschew depiction and figuration and sometimes, overt symbolism, but this is not to say their work refuses signification. In front of abstract art works, the lack of a depicted image tends to heighten our awareness of materials, of compositional (or anti-compositional) structures, of the process of looking itself.”

 

         The “process of looking itself” and “our awareness of materials” make for insightful conversations in museums and galleries, but does abstract art, insofar as it is divorced from subject matter, really convince the viewer of its content?

 

         When Picasso drew a Cubist painting, he surely saw the model sitting in front of him. He chose to leave viewers not with a mug shot of that model that would help identify her in the street, but with a work that had more to do with paint, color, line and perhaps time, than it did with a woman. This sort of representation (which is of course non-representational) can be viewed either as transcending realism and capturing something about the model that is more than skin deep, or as neglecting the model altogether. “If my husband ever met a woman on the street who looked like the women in his paintings, he would faint,” Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s second wife, once said. The same ought to extend to artists depicting anything abstractly, including the Holocaust.

 

         Godfrey briefly entertains the possibility that abstraction is the best form of representing “an event that is beyond representation.” He quickly rejects the model that the Holocaust is “sublime” or “unrepresentable.” Just because we cannot fathom the evil of genocide, does not mean we cannot discuss it in paint or words. If the reverse were true, only murderers could truly understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Julius Caesar.

 

 



Frank Stella. Chodorow II, 1971. National Gallery of Art. According to Godfrey, Stella’s “Polish Villages” series was based upon synagogue architecture.


 

 

        Abstraction and the Holocaust explores the works of several artists, including: Barnett Newman, Louis Kahn, Frank Stella and Beryl Korot. But Godfrey’s discussion of the work of Morris Louis, reviewed in this column on November 13, 2007, specifically the Charred Journal: Firewritten paintings, offers the most interesting perspective on the question of abstraction’s ability to engage the Holocaust.

 

         According to Godfrey, the “firewritten” aspect of Louis’ piece references Nazi book burning, as well as the original form of the Torah, which, according to Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts, consisted of white fire letters composed on black fire. Godfrey notes the sources “are extremely visual, describing the origin of the book through the distinction of figure and ground that occurs when white fire is seen against black, but also when black ink stands out against white parchment.”

 

         Further, “the white lines become suggestive of the renaissance of writing since the Jewish book, though destroyed by flames, was born as flames.” Louis’ work shows that the letters of the books burnt by the Nazis may have flown away like those of the 10 Commandments Moses destroyed, “since unlike the stone they were indestructible.” Godfrey speculates, “Perhaps Louis wished to suggest that like G-d’s letters, the writing burnt by Nazi fires would not be destroyed, but would fly away unharmed.”

 

         As a fair art historian should, Godfrey explores what he calls the “modernist” position, typified by renowned art historian Michael Fried, which holds the woks to be unconnected to any Jewish material. “Michael Fried, for instance, would never have looked at the title in order to explain the possible significance of the works; he would never have begun to read the white lines, even as unreadable or destroyed or proto-writing. He would have seen them simply as figures against a ground,” Godfrey writes. “It is possible to imagine another viewer before the paintings, at first considering associations and forming readings of the kind suggested in the last section of this chapter, and then suddenly halting, viewing the surfaces anew with the eyes of a modernist critic, and seeing them just black and white, paint and canvas, figure and ground.”

 

 


Joel Shapiro. Loss and Regeneration, 1993. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, DC. According to Godfrey, “From some perspectives, the shape appears as an angular tree, and from others, it resembles a falling ‘stick man’ whose ‘head’ tips downwards towards the left, and whose ‘arm’ is raised upwards to balance the fall.”

 

 

         Godfrey admits this sort of interpretation renders his analysis of Louis as a Jewish artist “extremely precarious,” but he has the insight to ask the further question: “what should be made of this precariousness?” The question is particularly potent given the fact, as Godfrey later discusses, that Barnett Newman’s widow claimed that his own “White Fire I” bore no Jewish or Kabbalistic relevancy beyond its title.

 

         Newman himself had written an angry letter to Hans van Weeren-Griek, then curator of The Jewish Museum in New York, about the 1965 symposium, “What about Jewish Art.” Newman wrote he wanted to “express my disgust at the Jewish Museum’s sponsorship of the debate ‘What about Jewish Art’ … What the Jewish Museum has done is to compromise me as an artist because I am Jewish. Please therefore notify all concerned not to ask me to cooperate ever with any of your shows since you have made it impossible for me to show my works in your museum.”

 

         In asking the question whether he has wasted his time interpreting abstract work symbolically, as Newman charged The Jewish Museum had done, Godfrey discovers that “There is surely something important about the unfixability of the references to the book burnings and to the renaissance of Jewish writing. There is something compelling about the idea that the paintings can encourage interpretations of the kind I have suggested and also of the kind made by the modernists.”

 

         If a “realistic” painting of Auschwitz approximates a literal photograph of the location, an abstract work, according to Godfrey, can include many levels of interpretation. As the joke goes, 20 Jews will undoubtedly voice 21 opinions, and an abstract Holocaust memorial can contain as many interpretations as there are people. This undoubtedly will cause some people to worry, for multiple interpretations can quickly degenerate into chaotic misinterpretations.

 

         But Godfrey returns to his experience of Memorial to the Murdered European Jews at the end of the book. Wandering throughout the different paths of the piece, he discovered “the memorial would exceed my attempts to fathom it. To walk within the memorial was to become at once conscious of the random nature of my own navigation, and of the uniformity of the directional choices available to me.”

 

         It might be better if we could forever continue to remember the Holocaust in a linear way, but as we approach the time where there will be no living witnesses of World War II, this sort of memorial will become the norm. As art lovers and as people interested in preserving Holocaust memory, viewers would do better to examine its potential than to bemoan its relativism.

 

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/is-abstracting-the-holocaust-the-same-as-denying-it/2007/12/05/

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