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Posts Tagged ‘Miriam Beerman’

A Jewish Artist, Whether You Like It or Not

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008


         Miriam Beerman’s paintings have appeared in more than 100 exhibits, including a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum, a first for a woman artist. Her works permanently reside at the San Diego Museum, the Whitney and Yale University’s Sterling Art Library and have made the usual Jewish rounds – the Israel Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Skirball and the Spertus. Her works appeared in the traveling show “Women of the Book: Artists’ Books on Jewish Themes” (1997-2000). But despite her prolific representation at Jewish museums, Beerman, 84, is the first person to question those who overplay her works’ Jewish significance.


         Beerman’s paintings, which center on trauma and brutality, are tough to pigeonhole. Some critics have called her an expressionist for her thick colors and bold strokes. Her monsters and demons have earned her comparisons to 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, infamous for his depictions of the Cinco de Mayo massacres and his “Black Paintings” of witches, battles and, perhaps most crudely, Saturn devouring his son. For many curators and critics, interpreting Beerman’s work as related to the Holocaust and Jewish suffering is simply too tempting.


         Over the phone from Montclair, NJ, Beerman called herself a “survivor of sorts” or “survivor spiritually,” though she grew up in Rhode Island. She estimated 90 percent of her works refer to the Holocaust. But she stressed her paintings “do not illustrate any aspect of Judaism . . . I’m not a Jewish artist – I am Jewish and an artist.”



Miriam Beerman. “Imaginary Portrait of V.G. #2.” 1985. Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.



         Still, Donald Kuspit, an art history professor at SUNY Stony Brook and Cornell University, argued Beerman painted Vincent van Gogh as a Jew in “Imaginary Portrait of V.G. #2” (1985). There is no reason to believe that the Dutch painter, whose father was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, was Jewish, but Kuspit wrote in the catalog “Survival: Miriam Beerman” (Queensborough Community College, 2007), “Beerman is Jewish, and the hooked nose she gives to Van Gogh is proverbially Jewish.” Kuspit further referred to the “honorary Jew, a symbol of Jewish suffering and mortification, indeed self-mortification, for Van Gogh cut off his own ear, a prelude to the suicide which was soon to follow.”



Miriam Beerman in her studio. Photo: Menachem Wecker, 2006.



         In a review in The Jewish Press (“Beerman’s Plagues,” March 20, 2006), Richard McBee wrote of Beerman’s Plague paintings that “The first thing you notice . . . [is] that the plagues don’t happen to someone else, they just happen, like a permanent state of terror underlying the structure of the universe. The plague itself is dread; anguish and fear of exactly how bad the world can become. In these paintings we are faced with all of our worst nightmares.”


         In the column, McBee agreed that Beerman’s van Gogh portrays “a whole people as victims,” and the “stereotypical” profile’s “big nose and thick lips, ostensibly identify him as a Jew.” McBee – who compared Beerman’s van Gogh to Shylock’s soliloquy, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” – said over e‑mail, “I think [Beerman] would agree with what I wrote, especially the quote from Shylock. She is immersed in suffering.”



Miriam Beerman. “River of Blood” – The Plague Series. 1986. Oil on Canvas. 98.25² x 63.75². Image courtesy of Queensborough Community College.



         But despite McBee and Kuspit’s confidence, Beerman denied the nose’s Jewishness. So did Kathryn Martini, collections manager at the Syracuse, NY-based Everson Museum of Art, which showed Beerman’s work in “Eloquent Pain(t)” (2007). “If Kuspit sees it as a Jewish nose and sees Jewish identification, I think it’s always possible,” she said, “not something I responded to strongly, but I wouldn’t argue his take.”


         Dominique Nahas was not so generous. “Kuspit is hallucinating,” said Nahas, an independent curator, professor at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and critic-in-residence at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He diagnosed the hallucination as “psychic projection and identification . . . attending to external power agendas” and inadvertent “weak or bad curating.”


         Nahas’ own catalog “Bending the Grid: Compassionate Monsters/Wrathful Lambs” (Aljira, 2006) only referred to Beerman’s Jewish identity in three footnotes – two mentioning the Holocaust, and the third, Beerman’s appetite for “Buddhist, Judaic and Christian thought.” Nahas also cited Beerman’s reference to the Hindu god Vishnu, though Beerman said over the phone, “I don’t know at all about Vishnu.”



Miriam Beerman. “Gulag (Feeding the Muse).” 1990. Oil on Canvas. 58² x 103.5². Image courtesy of Queensborough Community College.



         Even the Holocaust images, which Beerman acknowledges, are hard to pin down. McBee believes Beerman’s Holocaust references are Jewish due to their emphasis on death. But the “primarily cultural and secular” elements show the artist “willfully ignores the vast and complex narratives and intellectual material found in Torah, Talmud, commentaries, mystical literature and large portions of Jewish history and cultural production,” he said. “She also ignores almost all of the contemporary Jewish and Israeli world.”


         Martini said labeling any of the paintings “Holocaust works” is “very limiting,” since the works address “myriad . . . interpretations of the human condition.”


         “I haven’t ever felt that Miriam identified or found necessity in being marked a Jewish artist,” she said. “I think the fact that she is Jewish is actually not a very pertinent factor in her work. It only is curious for those who read her work as that of a Holocaust survivor.” Martini added that even Beerman’s series on the Ten Plagues could be seen as relevant to Christians and not strictly Jews.


         Despite downplaying the Jewish angle in his catalog, Nahas nevertheless argued that Beerman’s Old Testament references “can be said to relate to and infer her Jewish heritage” and are “classically inclined towards exploring the depths of suffering and its contours and its meanings, which is I think paradigmatically Jewish.” He added that it is fair to assume that religious and social culture has shaped the artist, who is Jewish by birth, “to a more than obvious degree.”


         Somehow, regardless of how one views Beerman’s work, it makes some sort of poetic sense that Beerman responded to questions about how to take her work by citing “artists who are more Jewish than I am.” Her example? “Richard McBee.”


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

Beerman’s Plagues

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Why was it necessary for us to be taken out of Egypt? Why didn’t the Jewish people leave as part of a spontaneous slave revolt, led by our fearless leader, Moses, and with the help of our G-d? The answer, sadly obvious, is that we were so assimilated into Egyptian society that we wanted to stay, even as slaves. But something convinced us otherwise: “Hashem, on that day, saved Israel from the hand of Egypt and Israel saw the great hand that Hashem inflicted upon Egypt and the people feared Hashem, and they had faith in Hashem and in Moses, His servant.” (Shemos 14:30-31). Simply put, the plagues were overwhelmingly for our benefit. They were the first hesitant steps of our liberation, our liberation from ourselves.


In order to fully understand this, we must reconsider the plagues as lessons in terror; lessons at the expense of the hapless Egyptians that were meant to inculcate in us a fear of G-d, so that we might come to believe in Him and our own destiny. And this terrible message is what motivates Miriam Beerman’s paintings, “The Plagues.”

The first thing you notice about her paintings – completed in 26 days in 1986; most over five by six feet and some larger – are that the plagues don’t happen to someone else but they just happen, like a permanent state of terror underlying the structure of the universe. The plague itself is dread, anguish and fear of exactly how bad the world can become. In these paintings, we are faced with all of our worst nightmares.

“Rivers of Blood,” an eight by five foot oil painting, is a hallucination of blood. The red viscous fluid contains five dying fish, their eyes rolling and mouths locked in a grimace of death. They stare out in stupefied shock as their natural environment is contaminated by a nature gone terribly wrong, a curse on all life that depends on water for sustenance. Their innocence counts as no merit against their suffocation. As they twist and flop in a dance of death, we can imagine their fate becoming ours.

Who is this Miriam Beerman to summon such tragic images? She is an artist of considerable renown, boasting 27 solo exhibitions since 1965 and represented in over 45 public collections. She was a Fulbright Fellow from 1953-55 in Paris, France and was given the first one-woman exhibition in the history of the Brooklyn Museum in 1971. Her wide-ranging works on canvas and in the graphic arts take modern literature and art as a foundation upon which to build a skeptical and existential view of contemporary society. Never illustrative or topical, she is always sensitive to the injustice and madness in the world around her. “Imaginary Portrait of V.G #2″ (1985), in the permanent collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio, is a perfect example.

Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe,” is a severe study of the artist done in 1888, soon after he infamously mutilated his right ear in a moment of madness over a woman. He looks out at us in a calm oasis of momentary sanity, casually smoking his pipe. Beerman’s take on the individual artist’s anguish is to raise the ante, casting a whole people as victims of such suffering. In her painting, the artist’s features, seen in profile, take on stereotypical characteristics. His big nose and thick lips ostensibly identify him as a Jew, while bloodstains seep through his bandages. He glances at us in a kind of resigned angst. Is it his fault? Is he responsible for his wounds, even those he inflicts on himself? His expression seems to echo Shylock’s lines from the Merchant of Venice: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Revenge, or more politely stated as retribution, is frequently cited as the reason for the plagues against the Egyptians. But revenge against our oppressors never seems to remove oppression. Rather, the meaning of the plagues is most useful to us as a warning of the awesome power of G-d. Beerman’s “Hail” creates a universe in which the spectacle of hail, combined with fire, is made horrifyingly human. Each of 13 round hailstones, falling from the top of the canvas through the turbulent night sky, contains a terrified death head. Three horned devil heads preside at the top, gawking at their creations. The night sky, thickly painted in chaotic swirls, becomes a canvas for the dark forces of death that so often can easily descend upon us.

While it is to be understood that these “dark forces” also emanate from G-d (as we know from the euphemistic blessing “who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all”), when they descend we suffer all the same. These sufferings, known to the truly righteous as “afflictions of love,” haunt our consciousness. In “Gnats,” Beerman depicts a terrified individual lying face up, seemingly paralyzed in a blue fog, as a raucous horde of insects descends from the sky above. These winged black creatures have intense little heads with human faces, somewhat like the memorable Vincent Price movie “The Fly” – a man trapped in an insect’s body. They buzz and hover above the face, threatening to flood into his nostrils and open mouth, finally to consume him. Faced with tragic sickness of a loved one, the needless death of a child or the seemingly random destruction of nature, don’t we all feel just this helpless and terrified in the face of G-d’s power?

Terror is how we learn fear of Heaven. It is how we learned it in order to find the courage to leave the comforts of Egypt and it is how we learn it now. At least part of the reason, we believe, is because of G-d’s power, “O, King who causes death and restores life.” Each drop of wine spilled out at the seder should be seen as our blood that, but for the grace of G-d, would be taken from us. This is the lesson learned from Miriam Beerman’s paintings, “The Plagues.”

Miriam Beerman’s work can be found at miriambeerman.com. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/beermans-plagues/2006/04/05/

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