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April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Joyce Ellen Weinstein’

Should We Feel Guilty For Enjoying Holocaust Art?

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008


Supporting Evidence


July 12-October 26, 2008


Florida Holocaust Museum


55 5th Street South, St. Petersburg, Florida


www.flholocaustmuseum.org/


 


Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation


By Brett Ashley Kaplan


University of Illinois Press, 2007, 240 pages, $35


 


 


Some of history’s greatest paintings have explored tragedy, from Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Son” and etching series on “The Disasters of War” to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” to John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed.” Claude Monet, hailed as the father of Impressionism, is generally associated with pastel colors and sunlight, but one of his most gripping paintings is of his late wife, “Camille Monet, on Her Deathbed.”

 

Some would accuse Monet of callousness for painting his dead wife and for somehow managing the concentration to mix colors, and to paint while his wife’s body was still warm. But however uncomfortable this makes us feel, Monet painted just one corpse. What if he had tried instead to depict six million?

 

Many have wondered whether it is appropriate for artists – and particularly artists who did not witness the concentration camps – to represent the Holocaust. These claims tend to center on some form of the argument that the Holocaust is non-representable, so artists need not even try – for fear of failure or irreverence. Worse yet, a successful Holocaust painting would not only carry the Holocaust as its content; it would also be aesthetically beautiful. Surely beauty does not apply in the least to World War II, so it must find no haven in art about the Holocaust.

 

 


Detail. “Wooden Synagogue Story II.” 26″ x 37″, mixed media on lupa paper. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.

 

 

Such is the dilemma that Brett Ashley Kaplan grapples with in her book, Unwanted Beauty. “I have been struck repeatedly by the fact that much prose, poetry, visual art, and architecture representing the Holocaust is beautiful, even though remaining mournful,” writes Kaplan in the introduction. She admits that this attraction and “illicit pleasure” sounds “counter-intuitive,” yet “because they are beautiful, these works entice our reflection, our attention, and our questioning.”

 

The viewer, it seems, can see a painting – even one that depicts genocide – as beautiful, insofar as she or he manages to intellectually appreciate the layers of meaning in the work. “In contrast to some notions of beauty as merely pretty or attractive, I use beauty to designate texts that offer ambiguous, diverse, complicated, open-ended reflections on the Holocaust,” Kaplan explains. According to this definition of beauty, even evil can be beautiful – so long as it is deep. Evil might even be directly proportional to beauty – the greater the evil, the more potential for beauty.

 

 



“Kovno Ghetto.” 22″ x 30″, watercolor/photo collage, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.


 

 

Kaplan’s book does not mention Washington, DC-based artist Joyce Ellen Weinstein, but it still proves an invaluable model for contextualizing and analyzing Weinstein’s work. Weinstein, whose Holocaust paintings and collages will be on exhibit next month at the Florida Holocaust Museum, readily admits she intends to create beautiful works despite the gruesome content, which surfaces in the form of illegible writing – as in “Wooden Synagogue Story II.”

 

The title refers to the once numerous European wooden synagogues created between the 17th and early 20th centuries. Today only 23 remain, according to Weinstein, who has visited many of the remaining synagogues, especially the eight that still stand in Lithuania. She was particularly fascinated by the “many layers of history” she found in the synagogues. They stand in remote villages, looking more like barns than places of worship, and in a hidden cemetery abandoned during the Holocaust and the subsequent Soviet occupation.

 

Layered over the painting (which includes a collage of elements from the synagogue), Weinstein wrote out her memories of the synagogue. If the writing looks sloppy it is not the quality of the photograph, for Weinstein wrote the text twice – one on top of the other. “It is my contention that no matter how we try to understand history and human behavior, it is impossible, since so much is left to interpretation and misunderstanding in communication,” she explains of the unreadable text. “Also it is always a mystery to me how history constantly repeats itself, albeit in different forms, because humans never seem to learn anything regardless of how much is written. All writing and interpretation is important, but relatively useless and often confusing.”

 

 



Joyce Ellen Weinstein poses in her studio. Photograph: Menachem Wecker.


 

 

This sort of writing – which carries form and content, but not lasting meaning – resembles the daily exercise of retired calligraphers outside the Summer Palace in Beijing. Even after retirement the calligraphers continue practicing their craft but, instead of deploying ink on paper, they write with water on the sidewalk. The “writing” quickly evaporates in the sun, but the act seems to be more about the act of writing than it is about communicating.

 

The same can be said about Weinstein’s texts. She explains that her works are “personal interpretations” and “sometimes conceptual,” and not literal. “I am very careful not to imply that I or any member of my family was caught up in the horror,” she says. “Although I am interested in learning about it, it is from a distance, a modern American woman searching for the past.” This distance can potentially create problems, as it did for Weinstein. In the beginning her work was “extremely sincere,” and she was “deeply immersed in the feeling of it.” But then the paintings started to become rote, so she had to stop making them. “I needed it to be totally honest,” she says. “I think there is a lot of exploitive art being done about the Holocaust.”

 

Weinstein sensed the importance of perspective traveling in Prague. She became so aware of being a tourist that she decided to stamp her pieces with a frame evocative of a camera viewer. Even as she admits she is not a survivor, Weinstein is a “Holocaust tourist” – an outsider whose every view is framed by the boundary of the lens.

 

 



“Old Wooden Synagogue in Lithuania.” Digital Photograph. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.


 

 

The camera viewfinder and the illegible writing-atop-writing are two techniques that Weinstein uses to situate herself within a larger historical context, which she says is sadly ignored today. Noting that older and mature artists have always chastised the younger generation for losing a sense of history, she nonetheless maintains that many young artists today are seduced by technology and pop culture, which causes them to lose their sense of art history.

 

“I believe that the foundations of art, like drawing skills, are essential to producing good art even if the artists are doing totally conceptual or totally formal work – because without drawing, for example, one loses the profound sense of observation and awareness of the world around them,” she says.

 

Without her sense of history, Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s art would just be the disoriented and selective musings of an outsider. But a tourist like Weinstein, who has done her homework and approaches her travels with a sense of history and research, can turn a disadvantage into a great strength. Precisely because she is an outsider, Weinstein is able to infuse her Holocaust paintings with beauty, and it is that blend of beauty and horror, of life and death, of light and shadow, that allows her to communicate with other tourists.

 

For more on Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s work, visit www.joyceellenweinstein.com.

 

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

Jewish Books Of Art At The National Museum Of Women In The Arts

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

The Book As Art: Twenty Years of Artists’ Books from the National Museum of


Women in the Arts


Oct. 27, 2006-Feb. 4, 2007


National Museum of Women in the Arts


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


202-783-5000,


http://www.nmwa.org/


 

 

 

        To honor its 20th anniversary, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which is devoted to bringing “recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities,” is presenting an exhibit of art books, which questions, “Is it a book, is it art, or is it both?”

 

         The museum admits that so-called “artists’ books” – which the museum defines as “art objects in the form of books,” which give “the content and form of a book” together “equal significance” so that “the book becomes more than a simple container of information” – are controversial. Yet the NMWA has been quite devoted to collecting artists’ books, with more than 1,000 volumes by 800 artists in its collection. The current “Book as Art” show draws 108 selected works by 86 artists who hail from 12 countries from the museum trove, and splits them up into nine sections: storytellers; autobiographers; historians; mothers, daughters, and wives; dreamers and magicians; travelers; nature; food and the body; and inspired by the muses.

 

 


Tatana Kellner. B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence. 1992. Silkscreen, cast handmade paper.

 

 

        “Perhaps,” the museum speculates, “women’s attraction to storytelling, intimacy and collaboration explains the tremendous contribution of women to the art of the book.” The books of the NMWA show include a variety of forms: the traditional codex (the sort of bound book you have on your shelves), “accordion” books, scrolls, “tunnel” books, boxes, pop-ups, fans and flag books.

 

         Within the exhibit, two works with strong Jewish content and themes immediately stand out. Tatana Kellner’s “B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence” is part of a two-volume set, which includes “71125: Fifty Years of Silence” (not exhibited at the NMWA show). According to Kellner, the aim of the set is to “preserve my parents’ memories of internment in several concentration and extermination camps during World War II.” The texts are handwritten in Czech – the artist’s mother language – and transcribed into English, all printed on top of photographs from concentration camps.

 

         According to her website, Kellner is a founding member and artistic director of an artists’ workspace in Rosendale, NY, called Women’s Studio Workshop. Her books immediately grab the viewer’s attention, as there is a paper-cast, flesh-colored “hand” inside each book. Each arm represents one of Kellner’s parents (the tattooed numbers are historically accurate), and Kellner has cut the shape of the “hand” out of each page, so that the viewers can see the “hand” regardless of which page they are reading. Viewers literally cannot forget the tattooed number as they read the book.

 

         “I’ve always known that my parents were Holocaust survivors, though this was never discussed in detail,” Kellner writes in the catalog. The only story she remembers her father telling her (when she was 10-years-old) was of his experience on a 10-day transport from Auschwitz to Brinnlitz, when he had neither food nor water. “He recalled hiding behind frozen corpses while other prisoners discussed who their next meal would be,” Kellner writes, noting “The only other reference my parents made to their suffering was the frequent reminder, ‘Eat everything; you don’t know how lucky you are.’”

 

         Kellner’s father lost 53 family members in the Holocaust, while her mother was the sole survivor in her family. “As my parents grew older,” she writes, “it seemed important to record their stories.” She traveled to Czechoslovakia to photograph many of the sites of her parents’ childhood for inclusion in the books. The NMWA book, which holds the paper-cast sculpture that represents her father’s arm, aims “to ensure that the person who bore the number will be remembered.”

 

 


Joyce Ellen Weinstein. Birds Head Haggadah. 1998.

Parchment, watercolor, ink, leather, brass, beads, velvet. Cover shot.

 

 

         A different sort of book, Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s Birds Head Haggadah, references the original Bird’s Head Haggadah, produced in southern Germany, circa 1300. In the catalog, Weinstein notes that the original book “curiously depicts humans with the heads of birds,” citing one theory that “the artist avoided painting human faces in obeisance of a Jewish law banning graven images.”

 

         Weinstein intends her own work to accomplish a different sort of thing. “Throughout history, Jews have been called the People of the Book,” she writes, and “this work is a reflection of that identity.” Within the context of an exhibit of books by women artists, Weinstein’s reflection upon the fundamental Jewish Exodus story of the Haggadah carries a certain authority − while redefining the general Jewish identity as People of the Book.

 

         The book employs photographs, photocopies and “found” objects – non-art objects introduced into a piece of art – and Weinstein has covered the book cover (see image two) and pages with a variety of abstract colors and forms to lend the piece an “unstable and mysterious” look, “as if it were an artifact from another time and place.” Like Coleridge’s “ancient mariner,” the book looks like it has experienced a lot and earned its stains and smudges; it is an old-looking book about an even older tale. To Weinstein, the piece meditates on the act of remembering. She views memories as “nothing more than hints about the past, and are neither concrete nor absolute.”

 

 


Joyce Ellen Weinstein. Birds Head Haggadah. Open book.

 

 

         In image three of the opened book, viewers can notice an Aleph form in the lower left corner, and a bird’s head peeking out from above the text. The bird is drawn in a cartoon-like style, which is true to the original book − in many ways, a very modern enterprise. The text on Weinstein’s page includes tourist guide-like entries for Tourgeman Post Museum, the Tower of David, the Wolfson Museum in Hechal Shlomo, Yad Vashem and others.

 

         “Within the context of the NMWA show, I find it extremely open on the part of the curator and museum that a piece that is so obviously Jewish was chosen for the exhibit,” Weinstein told The Jewish Press, “because in general I find secular institutions tend to shy away from exhibiting anything so blatantly Jewish.” Weinstein said she was moved by the “curious imagery” of the woman in the original Bird’s Head Haggadah, which she saw in Jerusalem. “And of all the pages from the book that could have been displayed, the page showing the woman was selected for the women’s show,” she said. “This, of course, is all very gratifying.”

 

         The tour guide aspect of the book, which lays out information about certain sites and their merits and strengths, is a good metaphor, not only for Weinstein’s Haggadah – the Haggadah, after all, is a how-to guide for the Passover Seder – but also for Kellner’s book about Holocaust memory. Books are perhaps one of humanity’s greatest inventions, as they are able to “house” a tremendous amount of information in a portable format, which requires neither electricity nor wireless connection. But despite their knowledge-gathering capacity, books can also be art objects, which not only tell tales but also (by virtue of the visual) convince readers of the messages.

 

        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/jewish-books-of-art-at-the-national-museum-of-women-in-the-arts/2006/12/20/

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