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July 25, 2016 / 19 Tammuz, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Museum’

The Un-chosen Artist

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007


Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life.


A Selection of Photographs and Letters


July 6, 2007-October 14, 2007


The National Museum of Women in the Arts


1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC


http://www.nmwa.org


 


 


 


         In a 1972 study, Stanley Milgram found that “familiar strangers” who share a repeated experience (like riding the same bus every day) are likelier to communicate when cast into an unfamiliar setting, than are two strangers with no such shared experience. Apparently, Milgram found, strangers recognize some form of “real” relationship in chance encounters, in which they do not communicate or even know each other’s name. Perhaps Jews who seek to claim celebrities like Chagall hope to share a similarly “familiar” religious experience with him. Many artists who are claimed as Jewish do not identify as such, like non-Jewish painters Paul Klee and Max Ernst, whom the Nazis denounced as Jewish “degenerate” artists. Indeed Chagall painted not only shtetl scenes, but also crucifixions, and many historians consider Chagall a Christian artist, as Rowena Loverance of the British Museum argues in “Christian Art” (Harvard UP, 2007).

 

         Klee and Ernst would have preferred that Hitler not identify them as Jews, but Mexican-born painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) happily celebrated her “perceived” Jewish lineage, at least in the narrative of the show “Frida Kahlo: Public Image, Private Life” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. According to the exhibit wall text, Kahlo, who was the third of four daughters born to “a German Hungarian-Jewish father and a mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian descent,” strongly identified with native Mexican traditions, though her public identity and personal reality were complex and multifaceted. “She was equally proud of her father’s German Hungarian-Jewish heritage, spoke perfect English, studied German, and was well acquainted with European intellectual currents,” the text claims. “Frida Kahlo’s identity, public and private, was a unique synthesis of influences, a simultaneous powerhouse of radical politics and traditional aesthetics.”

 

 



Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937. Oil on Masonite 30 × 24 in. National Museum of Women in the Arts.


 

 

         “I believe, without a doubt, that Frida Kahlo was a Jewish artist,” said Jason Stieber, archivist at the NMWA, through e-mail. But Stieber said other aspects of Kahlo’s identity played much greater roles in her life and work. “Frida was many things … and she embraced wholeheartedly everything that she was,” he said, noting that Frida “was proud of this lineage” and greatly delighted in “wheedling anti-Semites in America,” such as her famous inquiry put forth to Henry Ford of whether he was Jewish. Although she was an atheist, “she abhorred the Catholic religiosity of her mother,” and she “did embrace her Jewish ethnicity, if not the tenets of Judaic faith.”

 

         “So yes, Frida was a Jewish artist,” Strieber continued, “however, I think she would have been more likely to refer to herself as a Mexican artist. Mexico held a very special place in heart and in her art.”

 

         But Gaby Franger’s and Rainer Huhle’s new book Frida’s Father: The Photographer Wilhelm Kahlo (Schirmer, 2005) reveals that Wilhelm Kahlo was in fact German Protestant rather than Hungarian-Jewish. In “Frida Kahlo’s father wasn’t Jewish after all,” an article in the Jerusalem Post (4/20/06), Meir Ronnen observed, “Frida herself was probably the source of the claims to her Jewish connection.” Ronnen speculates that Frida’s identification with Judaism was an effort in distancing herself from the Nazis. “My guess is that German connections during the Nazi era were an embarrassment to her,” he wrote.

 

 



Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at home, 1941. By Emmy Lou Packard. Platinum/palladium print. Throckmorton Fine Art.

 

 

         Gannit Ankori, chair of the art history department at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and curator of the Jewish Museum’s 2003 show, “Frida Kahlo’s Intimate Family Picture,” also cited the position, that Kahlo sought to distance herself from the Nazis based upon the fact that testimony about Wilhelm Kahlo’s Jewish background surfaced most frequently between 1936 and the 1940s. But she said over email, “I think in light of the new findings, these issues require further investigation. What is of great interest to me is not Wilhelm Kahlo’s ‘real’ religion, but Frida Kahlo’s construction of her self-image” insofar as it “impacted Kahlo’s self-image as manifested in her art.”

 

         In a press release to Ankori’s show, the Jewish Museum promised to reveal important aspects of Kahlo’s “hybrid and multicultural identity, as the daughter of a European Jew and a Mexican Catholic mestiza (a woman of mixed European and Mexican Indian descent).” It also quoted Ankori, “Kahlo was interested in her Jewish roots and viewed them as part of her ‘genealogical identity.'”

 

         Ankori, who has not read the Franger and Huhle book (it is in German), readily admitted Frida was not Jewish. “Frida Kahlo was certainly not Jewish since Judaism is a matrilineal religion and her mother was a Catholic mestiza,” she said. “Moreover, as is well known, Frida was raised as a Catholic, later became a communist and an atheist, finally – towards the end of her days (as her diary indicates) she espoused oriental beliefs.” Ankori added that Kahlo testified “many times” about her Jewish identity, “stressing that her paternal grandparents, Henriette Kaufmann and Jakob Kahlo, were Jews from the city of Arad.” Further, many people who knew Frida and Wilhelm, such as Frida’s biographer, Hayden Herrera, and Frida’s husband Diego Rivera’s biographer, Bertram Wolfe, personally repeated this fact, Ankori said.

 

 


Frida Kahlo with pigeons, ca. 1940s. By Juan Guzmán. Gelatin silver print. Throckmorton Fine Art.

 

 

         To Ankori, the question is whether Henriette Kaufmann was Jewish, since her Jewishness would make Wilhelm Jewish “according to both Jewish Halakha and Nazi laws.” If instead Wilhelm was a German Lutheran (Ankori says Lutheran, while Ronnen wrote Protestant), “why would Frida Kahlo ‘create’ a Hungarian Jewish genealogy for him and for herself?” Ankori wondered.

 

         In her column “Draft Picks” at Nextbook.org  (5/18/06), Robin Cembalest, executive editor at ARTnews magazine, wrote of the claim that denies Wilhelm Kahlo’s Jewishness, “The revelation, if true, throws an awkward shadow on the multiplicity of efforts to tease out the Jewish identity of the multiply hyphenated artist, who famously got a kick out of asking Henry Ford if he was Jewish.” In her article, Cembalest cited the Jewish Museum’s show, which centered upon Kahlo’s 1936 painting, “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)” and a book from Kahlo’s library on the Inquisition’s torture of Mexican Jews. Over email, Cembalest said she interviewed Franger and Huhle, and they said no one had contacted them to contradict their book.

 

         “In my world the process of defining Jewish art, or what is Jewish in art, is both parlor game and intellectual exercise,” Cembalest wrote. “Either way, clearly it reveals as much about who is doing the assessing as it does about the figures we are claiming for our team.”

 

         Stieber of the NMWA phrased it a bit differently. “Sharing a common trait with someone of greatness brings us a step closer to that greatness. Jews can say with great pride that, as a people, they have produced some of the world’s greatest artists, scientists, musicians, and so forth. Cultural, racial, and religious pride contributes to cultural, racial, and religious cohesion.

 

         “To that extent, it is important to account for an artist’s religious/ethnic identity when examining his or her work,” he added. “Artists work within a constellation of influences, and it is one of the jobs of the art historian to discover what those influences are or were. More often than not, religious and ethnic identities are the most powerful influences in an artist’s life and work.”

 

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

Menachem Wecker

All Around The Town

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 13

         Anger’s Way Out – Helping Children Deal With Their Feelings. Join author and counselorKarin Biron-Deckel, as she discusses her new book Anger’s Way Out. 7:30 p.m. Friedberg JCC, 15 Neil Court, Oceanside, L.I. 516-766-4341 ext. 114. www.friedbergjcc.org.

 

         Rich Cohen, author of Sweet and Low, will speak as part of Jewish Book Month at the JCC, 411 E. Clinton Ave., Tenafly, N.J. 8 p.m. 201-569-7900 x 233.

 

         “The Last Days” – film screening at Rosenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, CUNY, 265 Fifth Ave., N.Y.C. 6:15 p.m. 212-807-1949.


THURSDAY, DECEMBER 14

         The Tanya: GPS For The Soul, by Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, introduces concepts of Chassidic spirituality in: “The Tanya: GPS For the Soul – Navigating Your Way Through Life”. 7 p.m. Chabad Lubavitch of Midtown Manhattan, 509 Fifth Avenue. 212-972-0770.

 

         “Beyond Eruv” – Winner, Best Feature Documentary. Screened at Makor, 35 West 67th Street (between CPW and Columbus Ave.), Manahttan. 212-601-1000. www.makor.org

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 15

         Russian Shabbat: Join RJeneration, a dynamic social network of young professionals with Jewish roots and Soviet heritage. Hear from journalist Boris Fishman, author of a recent article in The New Republic, “Glasnost Grows in Brooklyn.” 7 p.m. RSVP. Makor, 35 West 67th Street (between CPW and Columbus Ave.), Manhattan. 212-601-1000.  www.makor.org


SATURDAY, DECEMBER 16

         Shabbat Luncheon, with singing by Nachum Deutsch. Yorkville Synagogue, 352 E. 68th St., N.Y.C. Shacharit at 9 a.m. Divrei Torah by Rabbi J.D. Bleich. 212-249-0766.

 

         Sephardic Music Festival. Makor, 35 West 67th Street (between CPW and Columbus Ave.), Manhattan. 8 p.m. 212-601-1000. www.makor.org


SUNDAY, DECEMBER 17

         Chanukah Party. Friedberg JCC, 15 Neil Court, Oceanside, L.I.  11 a.m. 516-766-4241. www.friedbergjcc.org

 

         Dreidel House, featuring Small Wonder Puppet Theater. Chabad Lubavitch, 419 E. 77th St., N.Y.C. 11:45 a.m. 212-717-4613.

 

         Chanukah Art Fair, ages 3+. Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., N.Y.C. Noon; Gallery Tour, ages 8-12 at 10:30 a.m.; Concert, Hot Pea’s and Butter Celebrate Chanukah, ages 3+ at 2 p.m. 212-423-3271.

 

         Sephardic Concert and Scholarship Series. 8 p.m. Makor, 35 West 67th Street (between CPW and Columbus Ave.), Manhattan. 212-601-1000. www.makor.org

 

         The Menorah: Symbol of Truth – talk by Rabbi Eliyahu Kirsh. Beth Chaim Learning Center. 8 p.m. 718-851-1237. Call for location.


TUESDAY, DECEMBER 19

         The Bnai Zion Chanukah Party. 7:30 p.m. High Chai, 18 Avenue B, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. 212-725-1211 ext. 222.

 

         Rosh Chodesh program for women. JCC, 411 E. Clinton Ave., Tenafly, N.J. 7:30 p.m. 201-569-7900.


WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 20

         The Art of David Schwab – reception and talk at the Friedberg JCC, 15 Neil Court, Oceanside, L.I. 7:30 p.m. 516-766-4241 ext. 114. www.friedbergjcc.org.

 

         The Chai Center will “Light up the Night” with a giant outdoor menorah at the intersection of Deer Park Avenue and Vanderbilt Parkway.  501 Vanderbilt Pkwy., Dix Hills. 6 p.m. 631-351-8672. mail@thechaicenter.com

 

         Menorah Lighting at the Plainview Shopping Mall, Woodbury Rd. at S. Oyster Bay Rd. junction. 4 p.m. 516-682-0404. Town of Oyster Bay Chabad.


THURSDAY, DECEMBER 21

         Makor Dreidel Slam. Makor, 35 West 67th Street (between CPW and Columbus Ave.), Manhattan. 212-601-1000. www.makor.org

 

         All-night Chanukah bash featuring live klezmer by the Alex Kontorovich Trio, theater performances and ninja puppetry with Dov Weinstein. Latkes, jelly doughnuts and wine included. 7:30 p.m.

 

         Chanukah Party. Israel American Foundation. Workmen’s Circle, 45 E. 33rd St., N.Y.C. 2 p.m. 212-869-9477.


SUNDAY, DECEMBER 24

         Zionism: Yesterday and Today – talk by Rabbi Eliyahu Kirsh. Beth Chaim Learning Center. 8 p.m. 718-851-1237. Call for location.

 

         Jewish walk and talk of the Lower East Side with Dr. Phil. Meet outside Katz’s Deli, 205 E. Houston St., N.Y.C. 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. 888-377-4455.


MONDAY, DECEMBER 25

         Family gallery talks, storytelling and art workshops. 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., N.Y.C. 212-423-3271.

 

         Jewish walk and talk of the Lower East Side with Dr. Phil. Meet outside Katz’s Deli, 205 E. Houston St., N.Y.C. 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. 888-377-4455.


DECEMBER 25-JANUARY 1, 2007

         18th annual Yeshivas Yarchei Kallah of Flatbush. One Week Kollel at Congregation Bais HaKnesses, 1040 East 17 St. (near Ave. J). 9-5 daily. Call 718-998-5822 to enroll.

Dr. Ari Korenblit

What’s New With Jewish-American Superheroes?

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

Masters of American Comics


September 15, 2006-January 28, 2007


The Jewish Museum


1109 Fifth Avenue – at 92nd Street, New York


212-423-3200, www.thejewishmuseum.org  


 


 

 “Take a sock at Hitler! Sock your dough in bonds and stamps!” says one comic. Another shows Captain Marvel, Jr. defeating a Nazi and insisting, “Come on, you Nazi man, we’ve got a date with the American Embassy.” Another shows Captain America breaking into a Nazi lab to rescue a patient from an evil Nazi doctor (with a green face), who is performing unethical paralyzing experiments. A fourth one still shows Superman bending the gun of a tank with swastikas, rendering it harmless.

 

 The Masters of American Comics at the Jewish Museum is accompanied by a show by the same name at the Newark Museum. They differ in chronology (the Jewish Museum looks at the second half of the 20th century, while the Newark Museum looks at the first half) but both show a slew of comic book artists, many of them Jewish. Some of the names are familiar, while others will only prove recognizable to comic book “junkies”: Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Gary Panter and Chris Ware. Still others surface in the Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics section of the Jewish Museum show.

 



Jack Kirby, splash page from Fantastic Four #51 (published June 1966), comic book. Private Collection. FANTASTIC FOUR: ™ and © 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. Used with permission. (The character depicted, The Thing, is one of several Jewish superheroes.)


 

 

 Many of the artists have been reviewed in these pages, particularly Eisner, Joe Kubert and others in an exhibit on Jewish comic book artists a few years ago at the JCC in Manhattan. As I and Richard McBee have written several times, it was the children of Jewish immigrant parents that, in many ways, started comic books in this country. These teenagers created the superheroes that were mighty enough to defeat the Nazis.

 

 But what is new with Jewish comic book art? The Jewish Museum and Newark Museum shows are to be commended for their tremendous research and ability to collect comic books and strips. There are nearly 600 objects in both museums, according to the press releases, which is remarkable – even to those who see comic books as the domain of kids. Yet, unless the exhibits can add something vital to the discussion of American comic books and superheroes, they are doomed to just be a parking garage of once-significant strips.

 

 One strip that might offer some relevance is Still Life by Jerry Robinson. In the strip, a cannon addresses a nearby cannon ball. “What is a limited war?” the gun asks. “That’s one where the casualties don’t exceed the birthrate,” the bullet replies. Especially after the recent commemoration of the 9/11 horrors and with American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, this strip carries a significant message.

 

 The way we, as Americans, measure a failure in war often involves one or two soldiers killed in battle. This attention to each and every soldier as a human casualty rather than a statistic is just the sort that arises in the battle at the city of Ai in the Book of Joshua, in which 36 Jewish soldiers are killed by the soldiers of Ai because Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, stole from the siege. Thirty-six casualties are enough to lead Joshua to fall on his face and ask how G-d could have taken the Jewish people out of Jordan “to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us?”

 



Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts, newspaper, Sunday page (published October 13, 1968), pen and ink. Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center. PEANUTS © United Feature Syndicate, Inc.


 

 

 Joshua has not lost faith because of 36 casualties; he simply has the utmost respect for each and every one, which is why he responds to such a small number of casualties with such tragic concerns. (Consider that at war’s end, the casualties on the Ai side “both of men and women were 12,000, even all the men of Ai.”) Joshua ends up resolving the conflict in superhero fashion by catching the culprit with the use of a divinely inspired lot. But as the cannon strip ironically suggests, oftentimes the human element is overlooked at war.

 

 There is a lot at stake in the Robinson strip, which uses a somewhat juvenile form to convey a very mature narrative. Like blogs, comic strips were and are a medium that could be used for bolder and more honest tales than novels. In the show, a Peanuts strip by Charles M. Schulz further underscores this comparison. Charlie Brown is sitting on the floor drawing, when Lucy comes up and tells him that his drawing, which he describes as “a row of trees, and I’m going to color them green,” is not art.

 

 Disturbed, Charlie offers to add a lake in front of the trees to turn his drawing into art. “That still won’t make it art,” Lucy insists, to which Charlie offers to add a tiny log cabin beside the lake. And, so it goes, Lucy demands a waterfall, a sunset, the sun going down “sort of orangey,” some red streaks in the sky, smoke from the chimney and a forest with a deer to turn the drawing into art. “Now you have trees, a lake, a log cabin, a waterfall, a deer and a sunset That’s art!” she yells. As she walks off, Lucy mutters to herself, “Sometimes it takes a layman to set these people straight.”

 



George Herriman, Untitled (Krazy Kat), 1939, watercolor, inscribed with a dedication to Boyden Sparkes (in a golden Magen David). International Museum of Cartoon Art. © 2005 Reprinted with permission of King Features Syndicate.


 

 The Jewish comic book artists who drew superheroes beating up Nazis were laymen. They had a great imagination, and they managed to bring interesting technology and complex, secret military plans into their narratives. But like Lucy, they were just offering fairly unproductive, though imaginative, criticism.

 

 In the cover of the March, 1941, (No. 1) issue of Jack Kirby’s and Joe Simon’s Captain America,the issue is teased, “Smashing thru, Captain America came face to face with Hitler” On the cover, Captain America, while blocking Nazi shots with his red, white and blue shield, punches Hitler in the face, knocking him to the ground. In many ways, Kirby and Simon were just giving an image to their fantasies about accessing and reprimanding the Nazi regime. Many will find this immature and disrespectful to the victims.

 

 But stories were all that the young Jewish American comic book artists had – much as they are all we have now – as we face the threats of global terrorism, with much of it specifically targeting Jews. Masters of American Comics is so important because it not only stresses that in some ways nothing has changed and we are still in danger, but also because it teaches us to hope and dream for heroes and leaders who can set things straight by defeating evil.

 

 Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Menachem Wecker

A Gift From Tattie – A True Story

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

      Some may say that certain unlikely events and their timing are a matter coincidence, but we who believe that Hashem is the Eternal Mastermind of the Universe – know better.

 

      Mr. “Goodman” (not his real name) was a Jew who survived the horrors of the Holocaust. While many of his peers stopped believing in God, Mr. Goodman stood firm in his belief in His Creator and accepted all that had happened to him and his family will full emunah.

 

      Mr. Goodman and his wife, an aishes chayil in the full sense of the word, rebuilt their lives and established a family of several children. Both he and his wife worked hard to support these children, living a simple life without luxuries so that they would have the funds to send their children to yeshiva as well as ensuring they would lack for nothing. While their friends vacationed in Florida during the winter or updated their furniture or appliances, the Goodmans worked non-stop, squirreling away their money so that their kids would have what they needed.

 

      The years went by and, as it is the way of the world, both Mr. and Mrs. left the family they had created to join the families they had been born into – all of whom eagerly awaited them in the Next World.

 

      Yet even in death, the giving to the children continued.

 

       For ’round the time the Goodman children were emptying out their parents’ home – one they had lived in for over 30 years – a distant relative visited from out of town. She volunteered to join them one evening as they cleared the house that was full of old bills, magazines, Yiddish newspapers etc. As the relative took out some trash, she noticed a tattered folder in an open garbage bag. Curious, she opened it and found an identity card with Mr. Goodman’s photo with wording in German. There were several other documents all in German and she had no clue what they said. She mentioned the “find” she had rescued from the trash and was told to toss it. She decided to keep it and perhaps offer the documents to a Jewish Museum or even Yad Vashem next time she went to Israel, but she never got around to it.

 

      Later that year it was decided that a one-time payment be given to Jews who could prove that they were slave laborers in Nazi concentration/labor camps. Even though he was no longer alive, Mr. Goodman still qualified based on the deadline that had been established.

 

      The children, busy with raising families of their own and very aware that gathering documents that were over 50 years old would be time-consuming – if not futile – were not interested in pursuing the matter further. They did not have the time nor emotional stamina to visit that dark place in their father’s life.

 

      But their relative did. And so she sent in the ragtag documents in German with no idea what these documents meant. It was a long shot – one that would take years since the applications of the living Survivors, numbering in the thousands, were given precedence. Those of the deceased would be reviewed only after the living.

 

      Five years passed and the older Goodman grandchildren grew up. This spring, three became engaged. As their respective parents scratched their heads as they made a cheshbon – reckoning – of the wedding expenses, a check from Germany for thousands of dollars – Mr. Goodman’s “wages” – arrived.

 

      Even in death, this loving father and zaide was still looking out for his children.

Cheryl Kupfer

Circular Art: Two Eva Hesse Shows

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

Eva Hesse Drawing


Through July 15, 2006


The Drawing Center


35 Wooster Street, New York


212-219-2166



 


Eva Hesse: Sculpture


Through September 17, 2006


The Jewish Museum


1109 5th Ave. (at 92nd St.), New York


212-423-3200



 

 

Throughout her career, German Jewish artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970) was obsessed with the motif of the circle. In her diaries, Hesse connected her circular images with her own life. “I go in circles. Maybe therefore my drawings” she wrote. Indeed, her life followed a circular path, punctuated by pain and tragedy on both ends. At age three, Eva’s parents put her and her sister Helen aboard a children’s train from their native Hamburg to escape the Nazis. Eva and Helen successfully circumvented the war, and later were reunited with their Holocaust surviving parents.

 

The Hesse family moved to Manhattan and lived in Washington Heights. When Eva was 10, her mother committed suicide shortly after divorcing Eva’s father. Eva would graduate from Yale in 1959, and she married Tom Doyle, also a sculptor. In 1969, Eva was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died the following year at age 34.

 

Much of Eva’s work – currently on view at both the Jewish Museum and the Drawing Center – has the feel of commemorative monuments. “Repetition Nineteen III” (1968), on view at the Jewish Museum, reminds me of yahrzeit candles. The installation shows 19 oval forms made of fiberglass and polyester in a sickly orange that look like collapsed slinkies. Much of Hesse’s sculpture has the same feel as Matthew Barney’s work (which was shown in the “Cremaster Cycle” at the Guggenheim recently), grim, dark and dangerous. Aught” (1968) is an installation that includes hanging “curtains” of latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and “unidentified materials.” The canvases have borders and look from a distance (if viewers can overlook the creases) like faceted gemstones. To more cynical viewers, the canvases could be dangerous, like Samurai war flags.

 



Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III, 1968, latex and filler over canvas stuffed with polyethylene sheeting, rope and unidentified materials. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Charles and Anita Blatt, 1969. © The Estate of Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth Zürich London. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.


 

 

But Hesse refused to be pigeonholed, and she would surely take issue with the yahrzeit interpretation and the gemstones or war flags interpretations. Most art history textbooks refer to Hesse as a post-minimalist, or at the very least as a transitional figure between the minimalist and post-minimalist periods.

 

As the name implies, minimalism refers to the “breaking down” of art to its bare necessities. Hesse spoke and wrote of wanting “to get to non-art, non-connotive, non-anthropomorphic, non-geometric, non-nothing; everything.” Hesse wrote this in a 1969 catalog. “It’s not the new, it is what is yet not known, thought, seen, touched; but really what is not and that is.” In a sense, then, Hesse is the ultimate minimalist by expressing her desire to reduce art to not only the smallest components; but to none at all. In fact, this attempt to create nothingness sounds remarkably similar to Kabbalistic notions of meditation, in which the mystic would try to erase everything from his mind before focusing on Hebrew letters or various symbols to launch the meditative process.

 

But Hesse did not really make art that was empty and nothingness. Her work pursued notions of wholeness and completeness, especially through her circles. The audio guide to the Jewish Museum show includes a quote of Hesse’s: “I think the circle – it was very abstract. I could make up stories of what the circle means to man but I don’t know if it was that conscious. I think it was a form, a vehicle it wasn’t a circle representing life and eternity. I think that’swould be fake.”

 

Circles were simply too normal and regular to Hesse, so she had to do mischief to them. She once bore a hole in a circle and inserted a flexible surgical hose. “It was the most flexible rubber I could get,” she said. “And I would make it very, very long. I mean that was the extreme you could get from that perfect, perfect circle!” This time of damage done to the perfect circular form recalls the work (although clearly Hesse did it first) of Aliza Olmert (reviewed in these pages under the title “Repairing Tikkun Olam” on 6/29/05). Olmert took eggshells and subjected them to all sorts of makeovers from sticking them with safety pins to tying them with wires to smashing the shells to tiny pieces. Olmert then photographed them with dark black backgrounds, lending the photographs a feeling of renaissance paintings, which also used dark backgrounds to highlight the depicted objects or people. Just as Olmert’s shells carried feminist symbolism (such as birth), Hesse’s circles also seem deeply feminine.

 

Hesse’s “No Title” (1966), a black ink wash and pencil drawing, is one of many drawings on exhibit in the Drawing Center show. The image shows three circles – one large and two small. Each circle contains many circles that are increasingly smaller, which makes the work appear like tree bark rings. The forms seem to interact and play off each other, although they don’t touch, strictly speaking. Hesse writes of the absurdity of her circles, which seem to go on forever. “If something is absurd, it’s more absurd to repeat it.”


Circles, surprisingly, do not bear tremendous significance in Jewish symbolism. They appear in a few contexts. Circular forms can be threatening, as in Honi HaM’agel’s circle that he drew and refused to leave until rain was promised to the famine-plagued Jews. Circles suggest bereavement and life, as in the egg eaten during periods of mourning, symbolic of the continuous “circle of life.” Kippot are circular, reminding us to look up to the heavens for inspiration. Additionally, the Sanhedrin sat in a circle.

 



Eva Hesse, no title, 1966. Black ink wash and pencil, 11 3/4 x 9 in.


Collection of Tony and Gail Ganz, Los Angeles. © The Estate of Eva Hesse, Hauser & Wirth Zürich London.


 

 

But generally, Jewish symbolism takes the form of trajectories of movement and transcendence. Circular movement always arrives back at the point where it started, like the move G-d commands Moses to perform to deceive the Egyptians into thinking the Jews were lost beside the Red Sea. Although Jewish ritual objects – think lulav, Torah-reading yad, mezuzah, and many others -have a long history of interpretation, they do not seem to focus on circles. Perhaps these efforts were an attempt to get away from idolatry since much pagan imagery surrounds the sun, moon and stars. In fact, tefillin cannot be made in a circular form, although the rabbis account for this due to safety reasons.

 

It is therefore interesting that an artist like Hesse would be so fascinated by the circle. The Jewish Museum show focuses a lot on Hesse’s Jewish identity. The final room showcases many letters and other documents and photographs, including a diary entry of Hesses with the Hebrew words from the Seder (the word Pesach appears below) indicating “Now we are slaves; next year we will be free.” Hesse’s life was clearly one punctuated by exile, redemption and then more sadness and pain. But it is the liberating feeling of “next year we will be free” that surfaces in her circles.

 



Ruth and Wilhelm Hesse, Eva Hesse Tagebuch (Diary) 1, Hamburg, Passover 1936. Collection of Helen Hesse Charash; Ruth Marcus Hesse, “proud Mama with her two daughters,” Helen and Eva. The Hebrew headline reads, “This year we are slaves, next year we shall be free.” Wilhelm Hesse wrote, “Evchen’s [little Eva’s] first yom tov [holiday]. She doesn’t understand anything about it yet, but it concerns her that diet needs to be changed.” This is a rare entry, in that it was co-written by Wilhelm and Ruth Hesse. This was the last time Eva’s mother wrote in her tagebuch.


 

 

It might be most useful to think of Hesse’s circles as Hegelian in form. The philosopher Hegel conceived of history as unfolding cyclically, but he always saw history as progressing towards something. The image Hegel used was more one of a funnel that got increasingly great; it was a space of cyclic movement, but upward movement. Hegel was not a Jew by any means, but in Judaism, history progresses toward the messianic age, much like Hegel’s history progresses.

 

And in that sense, Hesse’s work can be viewed as Jewish. Hesse insists her circles are not symbolic of life. But rather than appearing stagnant, they are dynamic and they seem to be searching to break out of their paths. Hesse’s life was a vicious circle from which she couldn’t escape. But her sculptures and drawings managed, to some extent, to liberate her.

 

Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com 

Menachem Wecker

A Literary Review: The History Of A Myth – The Artless Jew, By Kalman P. Bland

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

While some ideas are foolish but harmless, others are not only incorrect but also corrosively destructive. The notion that “Jews don’t make art” is one very dangerous falsehood because it discourages Jews from seeing and appreciating their own art and most tragically, it hampers them from creating Jewish art themselves. The result is a crippling of Jewish culture.


Kalman Bland’s book, The Artless Jew, examines the history of this idea, revealing how recent and retrogressive it is. The historical record itself is unambiguous; we have documentary evidence and plenty of examples of Jewish art for more than 2,000 years. Nonetheless, even in the face of facts it is still the conventional wisdom that Jews did not and still do not make art. By examining the genesis of this idea, he goes a long way to allow us to see the historical evidence in a clear light and to ultimately encourage Jews to continue to make art, see art and, most importantly, make and see contemporary Jewish Art. Our modern Jewish culture demands no less.


This is not to say that the issue of Jewish aniconism (hostility to images and image making) is not complex. As Michael Avi-Yonah explains, “Judaism oscillated between periodic episodes of restrictive iconoclasm and lenient creativity.” The broad scope of Bland’s book can best be appreciated in a quote from Harold Rosenberg, distinguished critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism. In a 1966 talk at the Jewish Museum, titled “Is There a Jewish Art?” he quipped, “First, they build a Jewish Museum; then they ask, is there a Jewish art? Jews! As to the question itself, there is a Gentile answer and a Jewish answer. The Gentile answer is: Yes, there is a Jewish art, and No, there is no Jewish art. The Jewish answer is: What do you mean by Jewish art?” The unraveling of this conundrum begins in the understanding that the answers are “strictly chronological: pre-modern and modern.”


A superficial examination of the Second Commandment can immediately offer two interpretations; a comprehensive ban on all images no matter what the use, and a restrictive interpretation that forbids only a representation of G-d. One might even surmise that, “the second commandment theoretically licenses all visual images except one.” While the complexity of the differing views in the commentaries is explored, Bland maintains that, “As late as the 16th century, neither Jew nor Gentile ever noticed that Judaism was comprehensively aniconic. Secondly, as late as the 16th century, neither Jew nor Gentile ever understood the Biblical law to be a prohibition against the production, use or enjoyment of all visual images.”


He quotes a pantheon of Greco-Roman authors – Livy, Strabo, Tacitus, Josephus and Philo – who comment that the Jews were renowned for their prohibition against depicting G-d, not other images. It seems that as for other images, Jews could use or fashion as they wished. As for the Talmud, he maintains that the rabbis generally concur, quoting the famous passage concerning Rabban Gamliel bathing in the presence of a statue of Aphrodite. Additionally, the apparent contradiction between the prohibition on image-making and the command to craft the image of the cruvim and the copper serpent reflects the fundamental challenge for Jews to learn to be able to distinguish between an image and an idol – and not an outright ban on images.


Surveying the years between 1500 and 1800, Bland examines the works of Luther, Calvin and Voltaire, finding again that neither the pious Christian view nor the early Enlightenment saw the Jews as aniconic. Nonetheless, by the dawn of the 19th century the opinion of both Jew and Gentile had changed; suddenly, Jews didn’t make art.


According to Bland, the double-edged philosophies of Kant and Hegel were ultimately responsible for the birth of Jewish aniconism. Kant (1724-1804) maintained that, “Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish law is the commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” The fact that this powerful praise of the pure spirituality of Judaism flew in the face of the actual practice of Jewish art, did not hinder its force. Jews freed from the ghetto and breathlessly assimilating desperately needed the approval of European culture and happily agreed to dismiss their own cultural heritage.


Closing the conceptual trap, Hegel (1770-1831) condemned Judaism for exactly the same commandment. He maintained that, “Everything genuine in spirit and nature alike is inherently concrete and, despite its universality, has nevertheless subjectivity and particularity in itself.” Lacking images, according to Hegel, Judaism was therefore superficial and crass. These ideas were born into the fertile bed of 19th century Jewish emancipation and anti-Semitism. The “partisan opinion of anti-Semites who disparaged Jewish culture and diaspora Jews in Western Europe, and America who refused Zionist options”, both found the idea irresistible. Aniconism provided anti-Semites with a powerful weapon, while it provided an excuse, a way of fitting in for those Jews who “struggled to perpetuate assimilated Jewish life in the Diaspora.”


Ironically, in the early 20th century, as archeologists uncovered ancient Jewish art, and Zionist programs championed the creation of a new Jewish culture in the Land of Israel, the insistence on the impossibility of a Jewish art persisted. Included in a long list of intellectuals and writers who “should have known better” are: Bernard Berenson, Cyntha Ozick, Max Dimont, Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas and Jean Baudrillard. Even in the two most authoritative “history of art” books, Janson and Gardner, Jewish aniconism is thoughtlessly affirmed.


As Bland’s The Artless Jew documents, the momentum of an idea, once launched and nurtured by powerful social forces, takes on a life of its own. The only way to begin to effectively combat the dangerous notion that there is no Jewish art is to understand the idea of where it comes from and why people continue to believe in it. And believe in it they do. The venerable Jewish Museum in New York maintains that there is no such thing as Jewish art, only artists who happen to be Jews, objects used in Jewish ritual and subjects that are found in Jewish sources.


The notion of Jewish aniconism must be seen hand in hand with a full understanding of the actual history of Jewish art, exactly what our artistic visual heritage consists of and which artists are making Jewish art today. As we examine Jewish culture over the last 2,000 years, we will find a rich heritage that will prove the courage and resiliency of Jewish artists in the face of this pernicious myth.


Oh, yes, Jews make Jewish art.


The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations And Denials of the Visual, By Kalman P. Bland – Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2000.



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

Richard McBee

People Of The Book, People Of The Text: The Harry G. Friedman Society And Jewish Books

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006


Brad Sabin Hill was sitting in the Oriental Reading Room at the British Library. The Oriental Room served as home to the Jewish books, and when the collection moved to a new location, the last book to make the move was a small Jewish book that fell through the cracks and was discovered under a bookcase by the librarian in a search to ensure that everything was accounted for. As the dean of the library and senior research librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Hill was, of course, researching Jewish books. But the librarian who walked by and looked over his shoulder was hardly impressed. “Another boring Hebrew book with nothing but text,” she said.


Hill was one of four speakers at the Jean S. Moldovan Memorial Symposium of the Harry G. Friedman Society of the Jewish Museum on March 5. Under the title, “A Sacred Art: Hebrew Manuscripts & Imprints,” the symposium brought together four scholars who spoke about Hebrew paleography and dating, Italian women’s prayer books, Hebrew book art and first editions of classical Hebrew books.


Named for blockbuster Judaica collector Harry G. Friedman (1882-1965), the society has somehow managed to slip under the eye of the public and the press and carries a mysterious fraternity feel, not unlike the Freemasons. Once a month, the society of Judaica collectors meets at the Jewish Museum for bagels, pastries and coffee, followed by a lecture on some aspect of Jewish art. Then a show-and-tell period commences, where collectors showcase the pieces they have acquired since the previous meeting. The meetings are subversive at times, and the communicative currency is often based on machhloket, where battles ensue in dating objects and determining their origin – and perhaps more importantly, their worth. The society is an arena in which questions of Jewish art seem to carry cosmological implications.


This symposium was no different, interrogating what exactly we mean by “People of the Book.” Hill recounted the story of Rabbi Chananya, the son of Tradyon, who was brutally murdered – according to the composer of the Kinot – while wrapped in a Torah scroll and burnt at the stake. The letters of the Torah flew up to heaven, while the parchment burnt. This reversal of the image of the bush Moses encounters – “Behold the bush is erupting in flame, and yet the bush is not consumed” – points toward an interesting meditation upon Jewish books. After all, the physical scroll burns with Rabbi Chananya, and yet the text escapes, floating up to heaven.


Readers can comfortably infer that Judaism holds the text per se (that is, the theoretical “ideas” and “thoughts” to which the letters and words point) as more important than the actual physical parchment and ink. Surely, we are instructed to hold our sacred books dear. We bury Torah scrolls when they have outlived their usefulness. We all learn in kindergarten to kiss the holy book that slips our grasp and falls to the floor, just as we kiss the mezuzah when entering or exiting a room. But the holiness of the text seems to derive from the ideas of the text more than from the physicality of the text. Moses, after all, finds it necessary to smash the physical tablets when it becomes clear that the people violated the text of the tablets. Similarly, the parchment could have miraculously been saved with the words, and yet it burns with Rabbi Chananya. Just as his soul rises to meet its Creator, the soul of the text – the words – departs its bodily shell and leaves it to burn.


This all seems to suggest that Judaism values the text over the book. But does Judaism, in fact, value the physical text in its own right? When we are called the People of the Book, are we in fact a people who see its books as both physical objects and as texts?


There is a lot at stake in this question, to be sure. As our books become e-books, hypertexts and websites, the physical properties of texts disappear, and we approach a circumstance in which we are able to convey narratives purely (as in speech), without allowing ourselves to be bogged down by materials and actual codex (i.e. bound books) forms.


Online books are remarkable in their own right, and they represent one of the most revolutionary inventions in the history of books since the printing press. But as my professor, Paula Geyh, once suggested in a session of the course, “The Book: Unbound” at Yeshiva College, the codex form is one of the most amazing inventions in all of history. It can contain a tremendous array of information, and it is portable and wholly liberated from wires, plugs, or other such accessories.


Jewish books, Hill conceded, never reached the “dizzying heights” of non-Jewish printing. But he and the other speakers explored numerous examples of Jewish books that are striking in their own right.


Evelyn M. Cohen, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a talk entitled, “Illuminating Their Lives: Women’s Prayer Books in Renaissance Italy.” Cohen suggested that though the overwhelming majority of Jewish books were clearly made for men, some were made for women. Cohen explored the early sections of several siddurim that contain the morning blessings. Instead of the formulation, “Blessed are you G-d, master of the universe, that You have not made me a woman”, these prayer books invoke “that You made me according to Your will”, or even the more provocative “that You made me a woman and not a man.”


Not only did these prayer books invoke the feminine recitation of the daily benedictions, but they also featured illustrations of women performing ritual acts. One image from a 15th century hagaddah shows a man holding a bitter herb in his right hand, pointing at a woman with his left hand. This pun recalls the statement from Ecclesiastes, “I have found, bitterer than death, the woman.” The man suggests that he is surrounded by two bitter objects: the woman and the herbs.


This sort of pun is hardly atypical, and the same artist depicted David asleep in an illustration to accompany Psalm 34, “To David, in his ‘changing’ of his manner before Abimelech.” David pretended to be insane in an effort to protect himself from the Philistines, but the word “b’shanoto” (in his changing) can cleverly be rendered “b’shaynato” (in his sleep), a pun the artist invoked in the illustration. Cohen hypothesized that a later owner of the manuscript did not get the pun and attempted to erase the image.


But images that cast women in a fine light also preside, and Cohen explored one illustrating “ha lachma anya” (this is the bread of affliction), in which a couple – and not just a man, as was the norm in hagaddah art – holds up a basket of matzah and the man and woman gaze into each other’s eyes.


Though Cohen found that most hagaddot did not include the names of wives in inscriptions, many did feature the names of daughters. Menachem Schmelzer, professor emeritus of medieval Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, emphasized this aspect of the target audience for many Jewish books. Schmelzer explained that many books were declared “li u’lizari” or “lo u’lizaro” (“for me and my children” or “for him and his children”).


But even if we are taught never to judge a book by its cover, perhaps the greatest argument for a unique Jewish book form sits right on the title page. Hill identifies the idiosyncratic aspects of Hebrew books from the right-to-left orientation to Hebrew typefaces, oriental woodblock characters and the ornamental portal title (the gate image on the title page of many Gemaras and Jewish books) page design. Other Jewish icons include Levitical jugs, stylized temples, priestly hands and triple crowns on letters.


But Hill isolates a uniquely Jewish technique in what he calls “bloated text.” In a time where “hitting the highlight in yellow button” on Microsoft Word was unavailable to Jewish printers, printers often set off words, either by adding color or by enlarging the word. And yet, the words that were most enlarged on title pages of Jewish texts were the places (often where the book was originally published, while the actual publication area of the book is in smaller letters) and the word “sefer” (book). One book has the word “daz” enlarged (“this” from the formulation “this book is called”) leading librarians to erroneously list it under “daz” instead of the true title.


Hill sees the emphasis of the word “book” over the title of the book, the author, or the venue of publication to “clearly indicate an obsession with the book, unparalleled in non-Hebrew booklore.”


It would seem then, that although the librarian’s objection to Hebrew books as devoid of illustrations, does diagnose the unfortunate state of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, it is unfair in other ways. Jewish scribes paid careful attention to the surfaces upon which they wrote – to the ink, typography, composition and design elements. They created particularized title pages that carried their own unique aesthetic, from naming the censor to highlighting the word “book” and the printing location in larger type. These decisions suggest a body of Jewish book art that is certainly worthy of study and celebration.


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

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/people-of-the-book-people-of-the-text-the-harry-g-friedman-society-and-jewish-books/2006/03/15/

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