Art Through Time: A Global View
A 13-part series produced by Thirteen (WNET) for Annenberg Media
Premiered Oct. 10
Jill Peters (exec. producer), Suzanne Rose (series producer), Jennifer Hallam (managing editor, writer producer), and Eva Zelig, Arash Hoda and Gail Levin (producers)
Jewish art buffs might be disappointed by channel Thirteen’s new 13-part series, Art Through Time: A Global View. It takes two entire episodes (one half an hour each) and part of the third episode for a reference to Jewish art to surface. This comes in the person of Shimon Attie (born in Los Angeles, 1957), whose The Writing on the Wall (1991-3) projected pre-Holocaust photographs onto the walls of buildings in the Jewish quarter of Berlin, the Scheunenviertel. Attie’s projections, which were effectively before-and-after photos of particular buildings, are particularly haunting because they reveal how much the neighborhood has changed. Another work of Attie’s that is discussed in the episode is Portrait of Exile (1995), which involved submerging light boxes with portraits of Danish refugees (who fled to Sweden during the Holocaust) in a canal in Copenhagen.
There is nothing wrong with Attie and his work – though it’s not clear that he should be the first representative of Jewish art, as opposed to Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann, Amedeo Modigliani and a slew of more contemporary artists like Larry Rivers, R.B. Kitaj or Judy Chicago, though photographer Richard Avedon’s work appears (but is not discussed in a Jewish context at all). One might also argue that opening the discussion about Jewish art with works about Holocaust memory could give the wrong impression about the larger genre of Jewish art, which often deals with much happier and affirmative times in Jewish history and experience, as readers of this column are well aware.
But what is perhaps most troubling is that there was no room to discuss Jewish art in the first episode (Converging Cultures) or the second (Dreams and Visions), particularly since viewers hear about plenty of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Latin American, African, Asian and Indonesian Aborigine art in those two episodes.
Unknown artist, Haggadah, Spain, c. 1300. Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. From Art Through Time: A Global View.
After Attie, viewers can carry on watching the rest of episode three (History and Memory) – where Attie returns and gets the final word – four (Ceremony and Society, which offers a quick glimpse of a bar mitzvah amidst a larger mosaic of snapshots), and six minutes of five (Cosmology and Belief) before hearing from another Jewish artist, this time Vitaly Komar, of the Russian artist-born duo Komar and Melamid, famous for, amongst other things, teaching elephants in Thailand to paint.
Like Attie, Komar is hardly a representative of Jewish art worth complaining about. Komar’s work, which is very edgy, particularly in its politics, often draws upon Jewish (and other faiths’) symbols, as well as Kabbalah. “Art can create [an] image, which has no equivalent in language,” Komar says later on in the episode, which also addresses the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, showcasing the work of Jewish painter Mark Rothko. But Komar and his colleague Alexander Melamid, have a particular political criticism of the Soviet Union in mind, and is not necessarily the best work to choose if only two Jewish artists are going to be discussed in the entire series.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead from chapter six, Death. Credit:
Unknown artist, Egypt. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1567 BCE-320 BCE Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy. © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS, The Picture Desk Limited.
The next two episodes (Death, Domestic Life) do not address anything Jewish – though to be fair, one cannot address art and death without devoting significant air time to the Egyptian Book of the Dead – but episode eight (Writing) opens with Sharon Lieberman Mintz, curator of Jewish art at the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary, talking about a Haggadah. Mintz says Jewish illuminated manuscripts first emerged in the 9th or 10th century, in part because Jewish artists were excluded from the guilds, which held the secrets of mixing pigments close and literally did not know the trade secrets.
Though Jewish art is not discussed again in episodes nine (Portraits), 10 (The Natural World), 11 (The Urban Experience), 12 (Conflict and Resistance) or 13 (The Body) – and indeed seems mostly uninvited to the Art Through Time party – I do not believe that Thirteen or WNET should be criticized for negligence (or avoidance) for several reasons.
First, though viewers who do not realize that Jewish art is a stop on the train – and who erroneously think that the Second Commandment has effectively banned art making for Jewish artists for centuries – will not learn a whole lot more about the subject, there is a tremendous opportunity for Jews to learn about art of other faiths and from regions across the globe. One of the buzzwords of the series is “hybridity,” and as Ori Soltes (who would have made a great addition to the series) argues in Our Sacred Signs: How Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Art Draw from the Same Source, Jewish art must be seen in a larger context. Art Through Time provides that larger context and a sophisticated vocabulary with which to examine it.
Second, the directors clearly decided that anthropologists were going to be at least as much a part of the series as art historians and artists. This is a very good thing, in my opinion. The anthropological approaches to most of the works in the series ensure that the discussion transcends “inside baseball” references to art historical motifs, techniques and movements, and focuses on the cultural motivations that inform (and are simultaneously are shaped by) the works.
Art Through Time: A Global View. Pictured (clockwise from top left): HYENA, a work by Angelo Filomeno, featured in Death (episode 6); PINK AND BLUE CAR, a work by Sandy Skoglund, featured in Dreams and Visions (episode 2); detail of tapestry depicting Hindu god, Yama, featured in Cosmology and Belief (episode 5); detail of rug featured in Converging Cultures (episode 1).
This series is not only accessible to non-experts (which is why I haven’t picked it apart too much; I encourage readers to watch it for themselves, perhaps with this article as a guide), but it succeeds in teaching a lot about art and art history, despite its relatively short span of six and a half hours. Some of the sequences seem overly ambitious (like explaining Impressionism while standing on one foot), but the series is more an Art Through Time 101 survey than an in-depth seminar.
It would be interesting to see what the anthropologists would say about how Judaism and Jewish art are portrayed in the series, but I suspect it would be much more prudent to sincerely applaud Art Through Time for all of its successes, rather than dwelling on what is not there. There just might be a need to create a new series on Jewish art specifically.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.