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December 22, 2014 / 30 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Menachem Wecker’

A Jewish Palimpsest In Maastricht, Netherlands

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Three Medieval Jewish manuscripts
Regional Historic Center Limburg
Sint Pieterstraat 7, Maastricht, Netherlands
http://www.rhcl.nl/

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.) Pre-Gutenberg, books might as well have been worth their weight in gold, and even if peasants somehow managed to become literate (which they didn’t), they couldn’t just walk across the street and find a public library. It is within this context that one can begin to understand a palimpsest, or a manuscript that has been repurposed and retooled.

Due to the high price of vellum (animal skin used for book pages), some book owners would decide they weren’t too keen on the text they had inherited or purchased, and they would have the text scraped off the pages. A scribe would then write the new text on top of the old one, which might still appear ghostlike beneath the new text (not unlike a poorly erased Etch A Sketch). New technologies, which are far more effective and less invasive than their predecessors, have allowed scholars to decipher the old texts, although they are barely visible.

One particularly compelling example is the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, which focused on a mathematical work by Archimedes that had been erased by monks after it was acquired by a monastery. Perhaps unaware that he was defacing an otherwise lost work by Archimedes, the monk wrote a new religious text on top of the old one. The restored and carefully imaged text was part of the exhibit “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” which was open from October 16, 2011 to January 1, 2012 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

The palimpsest that Johan van de Walle, head of library at the Historisch Centrum Limburg on Sint Pieterstraat in Maastricht, showed me on my recent trip to the Netherlands had undergone something like the opposite kind of journey as the Archimedes book. Whereas the Archimedes text began as a scientific work and was then appropriated in a sacred context, the palimpsest in Maastricht was first a biblical text, and was subsequently turned into a tax register.

The Regional Historic Center Limburg, where Walle works, is itself a sort of palimpsest. Based in an early 14th century Franciscan monastery, which was turned into a state archive in the late 19th century, the archive—whose building has also served as a prison, a sauerkraut factory, and an artist’s studio, according to its website—still contains several tombs, and its documents span more than 11 miles.

First half of the 14th century. Leaf from a manuscript copy of Genesis 42:35 to 43:12. (“Membrum disjectum,” or disjointed element.) Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Walle showed me three Hebrew documents, all of which dated back to the 14th century. The first manuscript comes from a book of Genesis. Mislabeled in the archive as representing Genesis 42:35 to 43:27 (it in fact starts midway through verse 35 of chapter 42 and only goes until midway through the verse 43:12), the manuscript contains a few interesting elements. Whether a result of decay or scribal error, some of the letters are poorly formed (like the first line, for example), but more noteworthy, the scribe struggled with fitting the text on the lines.

On several occasions (for example, the last word on the third line of the right column), the scribe tried to fit a word into the line, only to run out of room and begin the word again on the subsequent line. Other times (such as the seventh line of that column), the scribe anticipated running out of room, so he extended a letter to fill out the rest of the line.

At the end of the first column, another interesting thing happens. The scribe, per usual, had to truncate the last word of the line, but instead of beginning the next line with a new word, he instead repeated the second to last word again. The truncated word, which is sandwiched between two iterations of the same word, isn’t even the correct partial word sequentially. And perhaps most atrociously, the scribe misspelled a word (he left out the final letter) 15 lines down the second column.

Marc Chagall At TEFAF Maastricht

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) March 16-25, 2012 (25 year anniversary) Maastricht, Netherlands http://www.tefaf.com/

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

“There is more Chagall than usual this year. I don’t know why, but each year there seems to be one artist who is the main artist of the year. Next year there may be only one or two,” says Anthony Brown, managing director of the London-based gallery Connaught Brown.

Ben Springett, manager and head of sales at Alon Zakaim Fine Art in London, agrees. “There do seem to be more Chagalls this year than perhaps before, although they have always been popular at the fair,” says Springett, whose gallery was participating in the fair for the first time. “Several people have said that the strength of the modern section at the fair has grown over the past few years.”

Marc Chagall. Autour de l'equilibriste. 1975-78. Oil on board. 24 x 16 ins / 60 x 40 cm.

Chagall’s “Les maries aux deux violonistes au cirque,” which was exhibited at the Alon Zakaim Fine Art booth, shows a bride and groom at the circus. The couple is surrounded by fiddlers, what might be a man with a donkey’s head, acrobats with wings, and flower bearers. In the top right corner of the piece, a painter (perhaps a self portrait of Chagall?) stands at an easel with a canvas depicting Jacob’s ladder with an angel climbing heavenward.

The conflation of angels and acrobats is an interesting move on Chagall’s part. At first blush, all of the danger and the excitement of acrobatics is lost if the performers have wings. Michael Jordan’s soaring dunks were so impressive because he is human; if he could suspend himself mid-air indefinitely it wouldn’t be nearly as arresting an image to see him pull off seemingly extra-human moves.

On the other hand, Chagall’s circus of angels—superimposed on Jacob’s dream of the ladder, so that the acrobat’s swing becomes a rung of a ladder—bridges the human and heavenly realms. That is after all what Jacob’s dream is about, and also the impression one gets from watching people flying on high wires as if they are birds.

Chagall brings the circus-Jacob’s ladder comparison full circle by depicting a sleeping (or dead?) figure lying on the ground in the circus ring. The figure, which seems to lie among red, orange, green, and blue petals, could be a dreamer imagining the Jacob’s ladder painting within the imagined circus, or it could be a fallen acrobat-angel. Just as some can soar, some remain earthbound and asleep, Chagall seems to say.

Marc Chagall. L'homme à la chèvre. 1950. Gouache, India ink and pastel on paper. 62.5 x 48.5 cm.

Another Chagall work at Alon Zakaim, “L’homme à la chèvre,” depicts a bearded man carrying a goat. A boy stands beside the man, as a purple village unfolds behind them. The blood-red moon and the red and orange sky almost suggest flames, which appear even warmer when juxtaposed with the cool colors in the foreground. A few figures can be made out in the shtetl in the background, but the most conspicuous character is a bearded man exiting stage left with a cap and a large sack slung over his shoulder.

According to an essay written by the Koller auction house, which previously owned the work, Chagall was influenced in “L’homme” by his childhood in Vitebsk, and “he often painted such dreamscapes as a dialogue with his hometown.” The man, according to the essay, may be Chagall’s uncle Neuch, who was a cattle dealer. “A young Chagall loved to accompany his uncle when he went to buy cattle from the peasants in the region, and once commented, ‘How happy was I when you allowed me to drive with you on the bumpy barrow!’” according to the essay. The young boy in the work, then, may be a self portrait of Chagall.

Marc Chagall. Over Vitebsk. 1915-20. Oil on canvas. 26 3/8 x 36 1/2" (67 x 92.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art.

Yet, the painting is also confusing, the essay continues, because the man’s intentions for the goat remain ambiguous, the sky is “threatening” due to the “intense and thunderous horizon,” and there is the man with the sack and the people lying on the streets. The scene could be one of figures fleeing the town, and it may record “the discriminations and pogroms of the Jewish people which took place in Tsarist Russia. Chagall once said: ‘If I weren’t a Jew then I wouldn’t be an artist,’” the essay concludes.

Jewish Medals At TEFAF

Friday, April 6th, 2012

The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) March 16-25, 2012 (25 year anniversary) Maastricht, Netherlands http://www.tefaf.com/

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Some of the most fascinating displays of wealth at TEFAF were small change, so to speak—or at least they used to be. Tucked away in display cases at booths are a trove of coins (used for currency) and medals (non-legal tender), that although less dazzling than the wall-dominating medieval paintings and life-sized contemporary sculptures, are no less worthy of close examination. In fact, four medals at two vendors (Nomos in Switzerland, and Tradart in Belgium and Switzerland) are of particular interest to those who are passionate about Jewish art.

A silver medal representing Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1801-1825), labeled “The Emancipation of Russian Jews,” shows Alexander on the front (obverse), wearing the eight-pointed star of the Order of St. Andrew, Russia’s patron saint. The tsar, identified by the inscription “Alexandro,” is shown in profile dressed in armor. On the reverse side of the medal, the Jewish community is personified by a bearded (and perhaps helmeted) man looking heavenward with his hands clasped in prayer—or, as the vendor, Tradart, describes it, “as a token of gratitude to the tsar for the laws of 1804 granting Jews relative emancipation.” A Latin inscription declares, “He freed the Jews from burden, February 9, 1805.”

In front of the figure, who is dressed in biblical rather than contemporary garb, is an altar of sorts, with laurel wreaths and a flame. According to Tradart, the medal is thought to have been struck outside of Russia, with a golden copy presented personally to Alexander I. “In that case, it would precede by many years any other issuance by the Jewish community of Russia,” according to the gallery. “Knowing that engraver, Paul Merker, came from Brunswick, it could substantiate the claim that it was commissioned by the Jews of Berlin.”

Another medal at Tradart’s booth is a rectangular bronze plate commemorating the inauguration of Frankfort’s synagogue. The Hebrew inscription, “house of prayer of the upright” (depending on how one translates the word Yeshurun), appears above a sun setting (or rising) over the Frankfurt synagogue. Some of the floral details adorning the arch over the Hebrew inscription and along the sides of the plate resemble the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, the first letter of one of the divine names and, therefore, many mezuzah cases and other Judaica objects. And beneath the synagogue representation, another Hebrew inscription offers the Hebrew date of the inauguration.

The composition of the commemorative plate evokes the title page of Soncino’s editions of the Talmud (among other secular publishing designs). Three steps (which could symbolize any number of Jewish things) lead up the synagogue, which is circumscribed by an arch and two columns. The synagogue is represented in remarkable detail, but the artist has devoted equal—if not more—attention to the borders of the piece and the inscriptions. It’s worth noting, though, that some of the inscriptions seem to be confused, as some letters are slightly more elongated than they should be, and others are imprecisely formed.

A silver medal offered by Nomos also contains Hebrew inscriptions, but doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the Jewish community. The king appears in profile, wearing what might be the Order of the Golden Fleece (it’s tough to make out, but the interlocking shapes in the chain appear to be the iconic Burgundian ‘B’). Henry VIII was hardly a friend of the Jews (there were taxes and pogroms, among other oppressions), although by some accounts, Henry VIII enlisted Jewish scholars and their biblical expertise to justify his controversial divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.

On the reverse side of the silver medal, inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek declare Henry VIII not only king, but “supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland,” according to Nomos. The Hebrew and Greek inscriptions, as the other two biblical languages besides Latin (which appears on the front of the medal), “affirm the legitimacy of Henry’s appointment,” according to the website of the British Museum, which owns one of two gold versions of the medal.

But a close inspection of the Hebrew inscription yields a different text. The word Messiah appears prominently, and although one can make out the term “community of England,” Ireland doesn’t appear. One term that is unaccounted for in the translation is Kush, and another 10-letter word doesn’t seem to be transcribed properly. More work can certainly be done on the inscription of this medal, although Richard Bishop’s Hebraica Veritas essay on the medal is very informative, particularly in its tracing of the humanism of the time and growing interests in Greek and Hebrew. A Hebrew font was developed in Venice by Teobaldo Mannucci in the very late 15th century, according to Bishop, and study of biblical Hebrew allowed scholars to understand the bible ad fontem (“at the source”)—although through a Christian lens, of course.

Max Ferguson’s Portraits Of His Father

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Max Ferguson: Painting My Father April 15–June 29, 2012 Hebrew Union College Museum One West 4th Street (between Broadway and Mercer) http://maxferguson.com/

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture. Viewers are literally obstructed in their attempt to “enter” the image, as Ferguson has cropped out the foreground and filled it with the deli counter. Yet every detail—from the hanging meats and the scales to the portrait of the man behind the counter and the ceiling tiles—is so carefully and lovingly rendered that one can’t help but want to linger despite the blocked entrance and lack of firm ground to stand upon.

Less well-known, but arguably even more visually arresting is Ferguson’s 2005 painting, My Father in Katz’s,which is part of his upcoming solo show at Hebrew Union College that opens next month. In the painting, Ferguson’s father, Richard (1912-2005), who wears a flat cap, sits alone at a table eating a sandwich. A Dr. Brown’s cream soda (with straw), ketchup and mustard containers, and a salt shaker look up at him from the table, and Ferguson, who cleverly scrawls his signature into the wall in the bottom left corner, captures an impressive array of textures. Ferguson finds common elements in the textures, though, and one of the wall patterns (which isn’t unlike a snake’s scaly skin) is echoed in the jacket Ferguson’s dad wears. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but the work is so realistic that one can practically smell the food.

Max Ferguson. “My Father in Katz’s.” 2005. Oil on panel. 16 x 20 inches. Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Even from a cursory glance at Ferguson’s personal website, it’s easy to see that he takes Jewish images seriously, since one of his headings under “portfolio” is devoted to Jewish works. They include Ratner (1996), a deli which is no longer in operation; Schapiro (1996), the no longer operating wine store on Rivington Street; Bagel Bakery (1998); Schindler (1995),which shows the marquee of the since closed Art Greenwich theater; Yonah Schimmel (1992), a knish bakery that is still in operation; Torah Scribe (1993), which depicts a bearded scribe writing a Torah scroll; and Matzo Bakery (1992). Works in other sections of the site—such as the drawing Butcher Shop (2003) and the oil painting Jerusalem Fish Vendor (2004)—could also appear in the section on Jewish art.

“Despite spending so much time in Jerusalem, I continue to paint primarily New York-themed imagery,” the artist notes in the Hebrew Union College press release. “I don’t want anyone ever saying about me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he was Jewish.’ With my Ellis Island name, people often assume I am not.” Ferguson adds that the exhibit, of 30 paintings he made of his father over three decades, coincides with what would have been his father’s 100th birthday.

Not all of the images of Ferguson’s father scream their faith as loudly as the other Jewish subjects. Saturday Night/Sunday Times, strictly speaking, has nothing Jewish about it, but the full-length portrait of Ferguson’s father receiving change from a street newspaper vendor after purchasing a New York Times certainly represents a New York ritual that will speak to many Jewish viewers. Ferguson often seems to treat props as seriously as he does figures, and this piece is no exception. The stacked copies of New York Daily News, Newsday, and New York Post are rendered with as much careful attention to detail as the texture of the figure’s skin.

Though it’d be a stretch (particularly in the absence of any indication on Ferguson’s part) to suggest that the artist was drawing upon a visual tradition of Annunciations or angelic appearances, it is interesting to note that the cropping of the newspaper seller’s arm—coupled with the spotlight that illuminates the two figures—conveys something more otherworldly than a simple monetary transaction.

Max Ferguson. “My Father on Fifth Avenue.” 2011. Oil on Panel. 9½ x 12 inches.

My Father on Fifth Avenue, by comparison, is hardly otherworldly. In the painting, Ferguson’s father, clad in comfortable shoes and a striped shirt, sits on a park bench reading the newspaper. Fallen leaves litter the ground at his feet, and the stone wall behind his back is an abstract mosaic of gray stones—perhaps the way one might envision the parted Red Sea. Many of Ferguson’s paintings, including this one, evoke the work of Edward Hopper, whose figures are often lonely and forlorn. But though Ferguson’s father sits alone without another soul in sight, he is so engrossed in his newspaper that he doesn’t seem to mind.

Thinking Outside The Tzeddakah Box

Friday, March 9th, 2012

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor? Having a beautifully decorated receptacle also seems to encourage the accumulation of coins rather than the regular dispensing of that money to the poor on an as-needed basis. In that sense, the difference between the miser and the selfless alms giver grows increasingly small; both become hoarders, and the only distinguishing factor is what happens to the money in the end.

Yet, given the double commandment of tzeddakah—a positive charge to give, and a negative prohibition not to abstain from generosity in Deuteronomy 15—why shouldn’t the commandment of hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the law, apply? Surely we all wish that poverty didn’t exist, but given the inevitability of there being needy, and thus the necessity of a receptacle to contain alms, it is only reasonable to adorn the box appropriately.

In this context, the American Jewish World Service’s new competition, “Where Do You Give? National Design Competition,” is a provocative project. The competition’s website refers to reimaging tzedakah for the 21st century and of “globally conscious designers,” who will “translate tzedakah meaning into compelling, relevant design.”

According to Aaron Dorfman, vice president of programs at AJWS, there have been 70 submissions so far, and the AJWS hopes for another 30. “Like a lot of Judaica, tzeddakah boxes get a bad rap as kitschy, but one of the reasons we’re hosting this competition is because we believe that Jewish material culture—the ritual objects with which Judaism is lived and practiced—has the potential to hugely influence our thinking about Jewish attitudes, values and behaviors,” he says.

It remains to be seen whether the AJWS submissions will be innovative and interesting or kitschy and derivative (AJWS didn’t provide images of the submissions by press time), but it’s worth considering some other examples of noteworthy tzeddakah boxes. For example, the pushkas of about a dozen artists can be found in Ray Hemachandra’s 2010 book, 500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art.

Toby Rosenberg. Tzedakah Box (2008). 9 x 3.5 inches. Hand-built stoneware. 24-karat gold; fired.

Toby Rosenberg’s Tzedakah Box (2008) represents an unusual interpretation of the pushka. Whereas the boxes that get passed around for donations during synagogue services tend to be durable, metal containers that often look like they could block a bullet, Rosenberg’s piece, which is covered with floral patterns, looks fragile.

On her website, the artist explains the link between the flowers and leaves and the function of the box. “This tzedakah box will fill your hands and remind you/ To make tzedakah is to plant a seed of Justice/ that will grow and blossom.” Not only is giving alms similar to seed planting, but the flowers and the delicateness of the box parallels the helplessness of the intended beneficiaries of its contents.

Just as the 17th century Dutch still life paintings of ripe fruit and cut flowers carried a memento mori (“remember your mortality”) component—the flowers and food might look good now, but they are doomed to decay and spoil with time—the beauty of Rosenberg’s tzeddakahbox can be viewed in a different context. Just as the fortunes and fate of the flowers is inevitable, so too is the inevitable cycle in which some people move in and out of certain tax brackets, as well as comfortable and more challenging living conditions.

Aimee Golant. Justice Tzedakah Box. 8 x 4.25 x 3.5 inches. Silver and tin alloy.

Aimee Golant’s tzeddakah box achieves the opposite effect—evoking Tobi Kahn’s abstract landscapes. Golant’s rectangular box stands on feet (that lend the sculpture a look that isn’t unlike a Torah scroll), and represents an enlarged Hebrew letter tzadik, the first letter in tzeddakah. “The round texture inside the Y of the letter looks like coins dropping into the box, or money flying up into the air like confetti. As we give to others, we all receive,” according to the artist’s website.

In one sense, the box conveys a generally sober response. It is monochromatic and largely minimalist in its composition. And yet the power of the ‘Y’ form—the upper part of the tzadik—is so arresting that it is clear that this is not just any old tzeddakah box. The ‘Y’ can also double as an illustration of a fork in the road, which could be one of two transitions—either the choice, or divergence of possibilities for the alms giver (and box owner) or for the person who will receive the tzeddakah. If the giver chooses the right path, so to speak, the destitute recipient might then suddenly have a second option where there was previously just one inevitable path.

The Purim Narrative At The Pardo Palace

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs. The palace was decorated with works of art that represented a variety of mythological and historical scenes, from Bartolomeo Carducho’s Agamemnon and Achilles to Francisco López’s Surrender of Boabdil, Sultan of Granada, to Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, January 3, 1492 (circa 1607-12).

Gallery of the Queen, Pardo Palace. Hall of the Biblical Joseph by Patricio Caxés.

But two series are particularly unusual. If one turns left immediately after passing through the ground floor’s main entrance, one arrives at the queen’s hall, which is decorated with a series on the biblical Esther by Patricio Caxés. And elsewhere on the ground floor, a series on Joseph by Jerónimo Cabrera can be found in the queen’s gallery. What was it about the stories of Esther and Joseph that was deemed so appropriate for Spanish queens? And why were subjects from the Jewish, rather than Christian, scriptures selected for the summer hunting palace?

The queen’s hall also contained individual works that portrayed Judith (with Holofernes’ head), Ruth, Deborah, Rebecca (or Miriam), Sara (or Naomi), Yael, and Rachel, but it’s clear that the program on Esther was given particular prominence. With Purim looming on the horizon, this article focuses on the Esther works and leaves Joseph for a different occasion. The Esther program, which appeared on the ceiling of the queen’s hall, includes the following scenes: Esther’s coronation, Esther reporting the assassination ploy to Ahaseurus; Esther standing with outstretched arms in front of other figures; Esther collapsing before Ahaseurus, Esther and Haman at Ahaseurus’ dinner, the insomniac Ahaseurus with attendants, Mordechai on the king’s horse, Haman pleading at Esther’s feet, and Mordecai counseling Ahaseurus.

Jerónimo Cabrera, Esther faints before Ahasuerus, Queen’s Room, Pardo.

Although a frequent scene depicted in biblical art, the only episode from Cabrera’s program that doesn’t appear in the Book of Esther is the fourth work—Esther falling before Ahaseurus. It’s reasonable to assume that Esther may have bowed before the king, but the biblical tale has Esther standing rather than prostrating herself. It’s worth noting that Mordechai had refused to bow before Haman earlier in the story, but clearly the bowing wasn’t the entire extent of the problem, as Joseph’s brothers bowed before him in Egypt.

Queen’s Room, Pardo Palace. Ceiling Frescoes of Esther by Jerónimo Cabrera.

In the most comprehensive English study on the subject of the Esther and Joseph works, “Old Testament images defined by the Spanish catholic empire: the story of Esther and the story of Joseph in the Pardo palace” (submitted to the faculty of George Washington University in 1996), Abby Krain locates Esther and Joseph within a framework of Christian symbolism. To Krain, Joseph and Esther represent ideal models for kings and queens, particularly for the patrons of the projects: King Philip III and his wife, Margaret of Austria. Esther, who epitomizes humility and obedience, is a stand-in for Mary, while Joseph’s honesty makes him a proxy for the Christian savior, Krain suggests. Although Krain makes a sound argument, it’s worth pondering whether there might have been something more colorful and provocative in the Pardo biblical commissions.

That the king and queen would have believed that figures from the Jewish Bible foretold the characters of Christian scriptures is undoubtedly true. But even if one concedes that point, Joseph and Esther are odd choices as regal role models. Joseph was clearly righteous, but he is also perhaps guilty of vanity, which, according to rabbinic traditions, one of the reasons he deserved to spend time in an Egyptian prison. And although Esther also emerges as a heroine in the Purim narrative, Mordechai rebukes her for seemingly caring too much about her own regal station rather than her people. This is not to incriminate Esther and Joseph, but there might have been more apparent role models that would have made more sense in the Pardo Palace.

According to Krain, the Persian King Ahaseurus selected Esther “for her beauty and, more significantly, for her obedience and loyalty to both her people and her adopted kingdom.” And not only would Phillip III have seen Esther as a role model for Margaret, but Krain also observes that there were political reasons why the arranged marriage between Esther and Ahaseurus was a parallel to the king and queen’s marriage, which “reinforced the exclusive control of the Spanish Empire by the Hapsburg family.” With Protestants questioning whether the divine endorsement of monarchical lines was passed from father to son, Phillip III may have marshaled the story of Esther as a response to the Protestants; just as God had selected Esther for royalty, the argument would have gone, so was Margaret, Esther’s contemporary protégé, selected by God to be queen.

John Logan Approximates Mark Rothko

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Red By John Logan; directed by Robert Falls; starring Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews Jan. 20 – March 11, 2012 Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. http://www.arenastage.org

 

One morning, Ken, Mark Rothko’s studio assistant, comes into the studio to fulfill his daily duties of stretching and priming his employer’s canvases. When he turns on the light, he sees Rothko lying on the floor, his arms and hands dunked in buckets of red paint. Rothko sheepishly admits that he had intended to paint, and presumably he fell asleep on the floor instead. Ken brings a wet towel and cleans Rothko up.

The scene, which comes toward the end of John Logan’s script for the play “Red”, is artificial. Ken (Patrick Andrews) is a contrived character, and as far as I know, Rothko (Edward Gero) never fell asleep on the floor of his studio with his arms submerged in red paint. But the scene is a brilliant foreshadowing of the artist’s suicide, when his real assistant, Oliver Steindecker, found Rothko dead on the floor early in the morning on February 25, 1970.

It’s impossible not to connect Ken cleaning Rothko up in the play—particularly after the former had compared one of Rothko’s palette choices to dried blood—with the artist’s real life and sobering suicide. The decision to literally keep the suicide obscene and to reference it metaphorically is both classy and compassionate. It’s just one of several great decisions in the play, which depicts the end of the life and career of Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Vitebsk, the same then-Russian province that produced Marc Chagall.

Patrick Andrews as Ken. Photo by Liz Lauren

At several points, Rothko directs Ken to look at his new works—the so-called Seagram Murals—which are evidently lining the fourth-wall of the theater. Ken silently stares out at the audience, and even as the impatient Rothko rushes Ken to tell him what he sees, Ken keeps pushing back and requesting more time. Sitting in the audience, it’s hard not to feel that Ken is judging both the invisible paintings and the audience. In fact, the silence that Ken temporarily achieves, coupled with the realization that the lights prevent the actor from actually seeing the audience, is arguably the most gripping part of the play.

Rothko’s paintings (the real ones, not those in the set) can be said to command silent attention—even adoration—and Ken’s silent absorption of the canvases becomes unsettling quickly, but it soon calls upon the audience to see itself through Ken’s probing eyes. Sadly, though, the rest of the play is too loud, from Rothko and Ken battling over the record player to Rothko’s incessant nagging and pontificating.

To be fair, Rothko is a difficult artist to interpret. On the one hand, his paintings—hovering clouds of brilliant color—are surely amongst the most sensual works of art, which can be experienced purely on the emotional level. But Rothko was also a careful student of philosophy and art history, evidenced by his posthumously published book, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art(2004), and his other writings, which included an article in the Brooklyn Jewish Center Review, the newsletter of one of the schools where he taught.

Edward Gero as Mark Rothko and Patrick Andrews as Ken. Photo by Liz Lauren.

There isn’t necessarily a conflict between academic and expressionist painting, and there’s no reason why Rothko’s art cannot and should not appeal to viewers on both an intellectual and an emotional level. But one can choose to emphasize one or the other when discussing Rothko’s work, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that the script of “Red” depicted a didactic and preachy old painter, whose artistic vision was simplistic at best.

The script devoted a good deal of lines to Rothko’s aversion to the color black, and his fear that it could overpower his red forms—which one got the sense were his favorites, particularly given the underscoring of the play title. But aside from throwing around the word “pulsating” a few times and using various metaphors for paintings being “alive” and “moving,” the Rothko character didn’t give a lot of insight into his artistic process and values that got much beyond clichés.

Audience members laughed knowingly and mockingly when Rothko questioned whether Warhol would still hang in museums 100 years later—although the jury must still be out, it’s hard to imagine Warhol disappearing in the next half century—and there were a few grunts of agreement when Ken denounced Rothko as a hypocrite and sell out. The sell out charge was in response to Rothko’s willingness to produce work for a high-end restaurant, and the hypocrite label was a reaction to Rothko’s refusal to acknowledge the value of the younger generation of rebellious artists even as he argued that it was necessarily for every generation of artists to “kill” their predecessors.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/john-logan-approximates-mark-rothko/2012/02/10/

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