They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a
Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust
Through October 1, 2009
The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St, New York
As a matter of principle, I must begin this column by stating bluntly that in my opinion the column’s subject, Mayer Kirshenblatt, though he is a very talented storyteller, is not a very good painter by any means. Normally, that would present the end of the story. There are more than enough great artists who grapple with Jewish subject matter and themes that this column does not need to address work that is anything but first rate. That The Jewish Museum’s curatorial staff’s gave Kirshenblatt, the so-called Mayer July (which involves a Yiddish version of the nickname “Crazy Mayer”), his own exhibit is hardly enough of a credential, either. Yet, there is something unique about Kirshenblatt’s body of work, which merits further inspection.
Though he is an amateur, Kirshenblatt’s work features absolutely everything he saw in the shtetl. He might not have made art per se, but he was an artist. His work resembles Chagall’s, if one used a strainer that allowed the art to flow away and just the shtetl to remain. But most importantly, Kirshenblatt’s paintings – or illustrations-in-paint might be a better term – carry the same appeal as genre paintings like van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” (1885), or even the works depicting peasants by the 16th century Netherlandish artist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Kirshenblatt’s repertoire includes works like: “Boy with a Herring” (1992), “Water-Carriers at Harshl Kishke’s Well” (1992), “The Bagel-Seller” (2002), “Chimney Sweep” (1999), “The Wigmaker” (1994), “The Only Jew in the Volunteer Fire Brigade” (1994), “Tombstone Carver” (1995), and “The Rope Maker” (1994).
Mayer Kirshenblatt. “Potato Harvest, Iłża” (2001). Acrylic on canvas.
All of the 381 illustrations in the exhibit catalog date from the past 20 years. But calling Kirshenblatt prolific of late would only get at part of the story. The artist, born in 1916 in Apt (Opat?w in Polish), moved to Canada at age 17. He first started painting at age 73 upon the recommendations of his daughter and wife.
The young Kirshenblatt was a bit of a rebel, who got into trouble in school, and the older painter’s best asset might be his remarkable ability to retain his youthful perspective (though his paintings lack perspective in the technical sense of the word). “I consider myself a storehouse of memories. My project is to paint prewar life in a small town in Poland. That’s what really interests me,” he writes in the catalog. “The way I paint is important, of course, but the most important thing is to get a subject the subjects I decide to paint are those that have a story to tell.”
“Regrettably,” Kirshenblatt continues, “I have very little imagination. I don’t dream or, if I do, the dream is nothing I can paint. I can only paint what I lived through. I can only paint what is in my memory and in my head.” But he is being modest. His works, though presumably historical and sociological (viewers must take his word for it, ultimately), also reveal a tremendous imagination.
Mayer Kirshenblatt. “Boy with Herring” (1992). Acrylic on canvas. All works, collection of the artist. Courtesy of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.Menachem Wecker