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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘paint’

The ‘Energizer’ Aesthetic Bunny: Still Painting

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

Jules Olitski: Works on Paper

May 10, 2006-July 14, 2006

Luther W. Brady Art Gallery,

George Washington University (GWU)

http://www.gwu.edu/~bradyart/


 

“When my husband sells a painting, he gets down on his knees and thanks G-d,” Kristina told me of her husband, Jules Olitski, at an opening of his work in Washington, D.C.


Talking with Olitski at the opening, I was struck that the artist, who was hailed as “the best living painter” by art critic Clement Greenberg over 20 years ago, was so humble. He showed up to the GWU opening modestly dressed in jeans with a black blazer and shirt, and he declined to address the audience, save thanking his friends and family who came from afar. His smile is at once enchanting and intense, and he responded to my questions – which he has fielded countless times from far better-informed reporters – in a friendly, attentive fashion.


Olitski, 84, has not been seduced by the big money lining the pocketbooks of postmodernist art that currently plagues the museum world. He hasn’t floated sharks in formaldehyde like British sensation Damien Hirst, nor has he devoted himself to crude video reels that would take viewers days to experience, like American blockbuster “artist,” Matthew Barney. He hasn’t abandoned good drawing for slickness like John Currin, nor has he assumed a bohemian approach to his celebrity status.


Instead, Olitski comes from a generation of painters who were passionate about paint, who had a childish naïveté about their handling of paint, and who didn’t feel the need to make “high art” by turning their paintings into ideas. Olitski’s newest body of monoprints (prints that are unique, not serial) is a sequence of decisive enterprises: paint applied simply in beautiful colors, without too much fussing around and “prettying” up the surface.



The monoprints evoke the kind of cake icing that frosts pre-teen birthday cakes: gooey, sweet, tempting and beautiful. A large part of their appeal is nostalgic. Olitski has childlike fun making his work, which is about the highest praise I can conceive of to pay an artist. Whenever I see the works, I am reminded of kindergarten projects with wax paper and finger paints.


Born Yevel (or Jevel) Demikovsky in Snovsk, Russia, Olitski is most renowned for his involvement with the Color Field School of painting. His work was (and is) revolutionary for the use of thinned paints that literally stain the canvas, creating a misty atmosphere.


Olitski’s works (like the artist himself) don’t try to “do” anything; they simply “are”, in a classy way.


This distinction is not to be taken lightly. “Amid Sailboats An Angel” perfectly typifies this trajectory of being, not doing. The palette is a study in sweet-sixteen party design: pink, purple, yellow, orange white, and light blue. The sailboats and angel employ darker colors, but they are rendered out of focus, almost like the famous “picture” of the Loch Ness Monster. Like in many of Olitski’s works, the viewer can never feel absolutely certain of the content of the work, but only of the temperament.


The piece offers no explanation as to what business the angel has with the sailboats. Perhaps the angel was sent to save the sailboats, which appear on the verge of sinking in a whirlpool of orange, pink and yellow. But it seems as likely that the angel was sent to sink the boats for some irreparable sin committed by their crews, in a sea all the more terrifying and ironic for its soothing pinks and yellows. Or it’s likely that the whirlpool is not a whirlpool at all, but a sea of divine light raising the boats to the heavens – alive, like Elijah.


Like the angel and sailboats, “Jakim’s Dream“- which reads as a landscape with a yellow sunset reflecting upon green, blue and pink water – is complicated in its content. Jakim probably refers to the king Jehoiachim (a.k.a. Elyakim, Jehoiakim or Yehoyachim), who is called evil in G-d’s eyes and who dies for his sins. Although Jehoiachim was the son of King Josiah, he was not the favorite to assume his father’s throne upon his death at Megiddo. The Judahites selected Josiah’s younger son Jehoahaz (or Shallum), as king. Jehoiachim gained the throne with the blessing of the Egyptian conqueror, Necho, who stole Jehoahaz away to Egypt. Jehoiachim was thus a foreigner in a sense, imposed upon the community from without. (Necho demanded a heavy tribute for his pains).


However an insider, Jehoiachim was happy to abandon his patron when the new Chaldean Empire under Nebuchadrezzar II conquered Egypt. He would remain by Nebuchadrezzar for three years before rebelling. He eventually died a brutal death when Nebuchadrezzar put down the Judean rebellion. The Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin, reveals two important components of the Jehoiachim story. No matter how many attempts were made to bury the king’s skull, it kept resurfacing. The Talmud accounts for this rejection of the body by the earth by explaining how very evil Jehoiachim was – so evil that despite the promise to Noah to never again destroy the world, G-d was prepared to return the world to “emptiness and nothingness” (to’hu va’vohu) on Jehoiachim’s account.


And yet, however fascinating Jehoiachim’s story, the monoprint has nothing to do with any dream of the king’s, mostly because the Bible records no such dream.


Regardless of whether Olitski’s image is really a reference to Jehoiachim (and it is my guess that other works from the show are also biblical, like “After the Fire” referring to Elijah in 1 Kings, “Dancing Hannah” and “Reumah Waiting“), Jehoiachim is a perfect metaphor for the piece. He was powerful, yet a stooge imposed from without. He was hated by G-d, and yet, his death and the absence of a proper burial somehow atoned for his sins.


The monoprint image shows a powerful tension. It draws viewers in with its seductive colors (it appears trustworthy) but upon further inspection, many of the lines that appeared soft and curvaceous emerge jagged and dangerous. The motion that appeared circular and rounded before is instead meandering. Like Jehoiachim’s skull, the forms constantly seem ready to be swallowed up by the ground, but they are spit back up and rejected. I am reminded of what Indian Jewish painter Siona Benjamin told me about her work, which embeds dangerous, dynamic images within beautiful forms.


In this work, as in “King David’s Letter 3” (1974), reproduced in Karen Wilkin’s and Bruce Guenther’s indispensable work, “Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection” (Princeton University Press, 2001), Olitski produces images that are at once beautiful and dynamic. On the accompanying page, Wilkin and Guenther record a quote from Olitski. “Good art,” Clem would say, “gives me a lift,” I told him of Nicolas Poussin’s remark that “the goal of art is delight.” Clem nodded in agreement but said he preferred the word pleasure. Pleasure, he maintained, is a value in itself. High art gave him pleasure.


King David’s Letter 3” is dominated by an ochre palette (like a king’s golden crown?), but the brushstrokes are not of equal weight. Some parts thicken, some thin out. Some strokes are timid, passive and indecisive, while others are bold and almost angry. The work undoubtedly refers to King David’s letter, secretly calling for Uriah’s death so that the king could marry Bathsheba (or could it be any number of other “letters” he wrote, like his Psalms in note form to G-d?) Like David’s personality, the work shows decisiveness and direction at times, yielding to passivity and decline at others.


But what is most unique about Olitski – the man and the painter – is his kindness. The lines that Wilkin and Guenther record about Greenberg could apply equally to Olitski’s painting. “He was extremely generous with his time and energy, always prepared to make studio visits [to see artists' work] He always put out (no matter how exhausting) always found something within himself to give the painter or sculptor, so that they came away having received help and feeling hopeful He felt that one should never leave an artist’s studio without finding something useful to say, something to give encouragement, to open a path.”


Olitski’s work is always fun to look at, always beautiful. If you look deeper and deeper into the work as a viewer, you may find more troubled subterranean springs, but you always return to the beauty of the work, never able to discern whether they are your own invention, or truly lurking in the work.


Menachem Wecker is a painter and the assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com





NOTE: I gratefully acknowledge the background information for this article gleaned from the Encyclopedia Britannica online. The encyclopedia is accessible online (by subscription) at www.britannica.com


 

 

 

Jules Olitski. “Amid Sailboats An Angel” (2004). Monotype on all rag paper, 16 x 19 3/4. All photos courtesy of Knoedler & Company, New York.


 

 


“Jakim’s Dream” (2005). Monotype on all rag paper, 13 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches.


 

 


Jules Olitski. “After the Fire” (2004). Monotype on all rag paper, 14 3/4 x 14 7/8 inches.

 


 


 

 

The Power Of Paint: Paintings By Motke Blum

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

Vacillating wildly from slashing abstraction, moody evocations of Jerusalem to complex meditations on the Shoah, Motke Blum presents a conundrum. One wonders where his artistic heart lies. Could he be moved by the entire spectrum of subjects he has chosen?


“The Accusing Finger II” is a gestural abstraction – black paint on white canvas (albeit with a grayish blue stain to the left) that summons the heyday of pure Abstract Expressionism. Off center, with whites worked into the bold forms and drips, the painting is as easily about the arc of the painter’s arm, brush in hand, as it is about any kind of accusation. Many of Blum’s paintings in the 1990 book, Jerusalem: Reflection of Eternity (in collaboration with Eliane Wilson) have this expressionistic quality.


Jerusalem, the main subject, is depicted in great masses of impasto, situating the viewer outside the city looking in at a vast horizontal collection of houses and walls. The colors tend to be monochromatic, a gray-white sky above and a curiously reflective ground below. The earth becomes water-like, insubstantial. Then the artist takes us inside the city, hemmed in by a jumble of houses that encounter the towers and walls in a thick maze of perspective that shoots out at the surprised visitor.


As a collection, Blum’spaintings are about the joy and energy of moving paint around, sticky impasto animating the surface that frequently emphasizes the painterly presence of the foreground, to the detriment of a thin atmospheric sky above. While they are surely handsomely picturesque, it is surprising that the human figure is seldom found therein. Perhaps it is because the city seems alternatively icy or feverishly hot, overwhelmingly physical and stony.


Then in the middle of the book, all this expressionism changes in an austere composition that, while still devoid of figures, compels us to reassess what we thought we knew of the Holy City. A frontal eye-level view of the walls yields three rock-solid horizontal strata rising up. A double arched gate, still sealed shut, pierces the bottom wall. The ground below falls precipitously to the bottom of the painting, creating an abstract shape, echoed by the black rectangle in the lower left and the severe geometry above. The sky is possessed of a curved geometry, a vast arc that simultaneously unifies the shapes below and rises above them in a gray-blue splendor. But now, look closely and take in the fact that there is absolutely nothing on the Temple Mount. It is empty of mosque, as well as of Temple. This view of Jerusalem is able to accommodate both the Jewish repulsion at its contemporary desecration and the aching for a new Third Temple, so terribly absent now. This pain of absence reflects the world as it is, as well as the youth Blum was forced to pass through.


Motke Blum was born in Romania, from which he emigrated in the midst of the Holocaust’s fury in 1944, to the land of Israel. It is not surprising that the work he has done on the Shoah has particular power. The Holocaust works utilize different strategies to approach their subjects. The classic symbols of barbed wire, hunched figures as hunted victims, and shattered lives, are contrasted with semi-abstract verticals reaching for the sky as gestures of hope and resurrection. Hope reaches up, hatred is convulsed into a knotty ball and even Job’s suffering is twisted in a frustrating tangle of limbs, lines and paint. Here, the expressionism is not bound to paint; rather it is encased in pain.


Allegory has a particularly powerful role in a number of these works, especially a singular series of conceptual sculptures. An uneven row of tiny coffins containing white shrouds is a chilling apparition of the finality of each individual’s death, while a simple black box, titled “Six,” with three compartments containing six sets of teeth, is enough to grimly summon the death of the Six Million.


The extent of what happened is so enormous and inconceivable, that a distanced approach is often necessary. “Monster” slowly reveals a horned bull striding along the barbed-wire perimeter of a camp, looking in hungrily. The blinding light in the center can just as easily represent a floodlight, as a more natural source of illumination. What is most frightening is that the monster, ready to consume human life, is outside; a terrible reminder that the killing did not stop with the liberation of the camps.


Artists are always confounded by an internal contradiction when attempting to make art about the Holocaust. In a way, approaching the Shoah is like our approach to G-d; ineffable, inscrutable and ultimately unknowable. And yet, we are driven to understand both, and artists are always in the vanguard.


In an exhibition titled, “Man and The Beast,” held last year at the Great Neck Arts Center, the ineffable nature of brute violence is explored. A long- robed man strides toward us, pointing back at a framed image of a beast. The animal is dumb, unthinking and cumbersome and fills most of the canvas. The frame is unsubstantial, literally made of corrugated cardboard. We would not connect the beast with the Shoah, except in the context of Blum’s other works. And then there is the frantic scribble of black lines etched in the space behind the frame, threatening to spill its chaos onto the rest of the painting. The rabbinic-like figure is teaching his lesson in a precarious classroom, a mere figment of paper pasted together. He patiently explains, “Now you see, this is a beast, he is simply dumb and unfeeling.” Alas, it is never that simple. The dumb and unfeeling are dangerous. The very instability of Blum’s image, transient and yet profound, warns us that we must always be on guard; that after the Shoah, we can never relax our vigilance.


For Motke Blum, his subjects are all interwoven. The beauty and tactile reality of Jerusalem becomes the foundation upon which we can begin to probe the mysteries of the Shoah. His heart, it seems, is indeed that encompassing.


For further information, contact Motke Blum at 02-623-4002.


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


Painting The Void Joshua Meyer At Hebrew College Gallery

Wednesday, November 17th, 2004

Tohu VaVohu
Paintings By Joshua Meyer
The Goldman Gallery At Hebrew College (Massachusetts)
(Exhibit Ran From June 6 – October 15, 2004)


Shakespeare’s King Lear – furious, embarrassed and downright stunned at his daughter Cordelia’s refusal to flatter him as her sisters did in an effort to figure prominently in his will – yells, “Nothing comes from nothing!” In doing so, he proves rusty on his reading of Genesis.

As we navigated the Creation stories on Simchas Torah, we learned that Creation occurred ex nihilo – something from nothing, order from chaos. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the difference between the roots yatzar, bara and ahsah, but the reader should note that all three figure prominently in the account of Creation as verbs delineating G-d’s creative role, and all three refer to artistic processes. G-d is the paradigmatic Creator, the One Who “blows breath (the soul of life) into man’s nostrils” and Who is never the mannerist, creating imitative art, but forever the Prime Mover.

Joshua Meyer, in his exhibit “Tohu vaVohu” at Hebrew College, creates his art in the spirit of imitatio Dei. Rav Soloveitchik calls this “creative imitation” – “walking in His ways”).

In his artist’s statement in the catalog, Meyer explains that, “Like the Biblical creation story, I am telling you more than ‘And then there was man.’ The whole process of making is recounted sequentially.” Meyer sees in “The stepping back and evaluating, the gradual building, the way that G-d makes things by creating in pairs,” an aesthetic process that he copies in his own creative method. He has thought the chaos through as well: “Gray is the painter’s equivalent of Tohu vaVohu. The more you mix into it, the grayer it becomes… but messy, inescapable gray refuses to be pinned down and named as a proper color.”

Quite small in size – mostly eight or twelve inches squared – the forty paintings are messy. One wants to call them expressionist, but they seem to want to be figurative. They employ a storm of thick paint, visible brush strokes (actually palette knife strokes) and semi-narrative content.

Number 16 (the paintings are all untitled) shows a man centered on the canvas whose body is painted in warm colors (reds, pinks, browns) offset by a cool background (greens, blacks, grays). The colors exist as localized shapes. The painting is executed in a seeming combination of the styles of figure and abstract form. The flurry of activity seems only surface deep; internally, the paintings are static.

Though slightly less of a narrative painting, the colors in Number 102 appear haphazard, and they prefer an isolated existence that turns the painting into a series of random marks. The marks are interesting, to be sure.

Boston-based painter Tom Barron compared the paint application to “putting on makeup or playing bingo” in the energy of the embossing, but ultimately Meyer’s paintings seem to make chaos out of order, rather than the intended alternative. They recall the works of Adolphe Monticelli (French, 1824-1886) and some of Claude Monet’s (French, 1840-1926) paintings of Saint-Lazare Station in atmospheric temperament. But, where Monet – and Monticelli to a lesser extent - builds his movement and composition from the disorderly to the orderly, Meyer seems content to allow the second law of thermodynamics full rein. He builds up a figure (the order) and then proceeds to cover it with a shell of motion and color (the chaos).

In this manner, he has managed to reverse the Creation process. Barron describes the work as “a dead bird, with occasional flutters, but not taking off. Or a bird not yet ready to fly, with no body and no wings with which to take off.” Meyer’s paintings want to fly. They beg much larger canvases and the energy proves caged in their tiny proportions.

With such a rich Biblical narrative in the Creation story, Meyer could have used this series to build chaos with paint, to literally sculpt the void and then, to tease the order out of it. But he has placed the chaos atop the canvas.

This begs the question of how he treats canvas, to begin with. If canvas itself is a void – a tabula rasa – then every mark imposes order on the emptiness. Alternatively, one may conceive of the pictorial space as a form in its own right, like a large white molecule upon which every dark is not making a mark, but erasing a white. This underlines the difference between the artist who sees his/her role as imposing him/herself on the materials, and the one who feels strongly about stepping back and allowing the materials to develop naturally.

By leaving parts of Creation unfinished so that man/woman can actively partake in the process, G-d does not force life, but leaves it open to a partnership, where Adam and Eve can be subjects and not objects. When we recognize this distinction, we can reevaluate the whole Genesis process. G-d creates light from dark (yotzer ohr, u’vorei choshech), which is in a sense placing black on white, rather than the opposite.

The question becomes one of intent – kavanah – as it does in many Jewish matters. With the proper tools and the knowledge of how and where to look, the painter can discover order. The Creation story teaches us that chaos is an act of will. Meyer chooses to impose that chaos atop his works, where the Divine model involves the opposite trajectory.



For more information on Joshua Meyer, visit his website at http://www.joshua-meyer.com/. For more information on Hebrew College, visit http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/. As usual, I acknowledge my art teacher, Tom Barron’s helpful suggestions and his company at the exhibit.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

Painting 9/11 With Whiskers And A Tail (and a Cigarette): Art Spiegelman’s ‘In The Shadow Of No Towers’

Wednesday, November 17th, 2004

Perhaps far more important than the question of “why paint tragedy?” is the question of how to paint it. The importance of remembering and commemorating calamity dictates monumental art, but this realization yields no technical vocabulary on how best to accomplish this in a considerate, respectful manner without veering to the trite or the patronizing and offensive.

Previously in this column, in an essay on MAUS, Richard McBee cited Elie Wiesel’s questioning of the inherent stuff from which monuments derive. He argued that certain holocausts are simply too horrific for aesthetic investigation. James E. Young has presented a similar critique of memorials, though he distinguishes between the literal sort and a more post-modern ilk that crumbles in an act that depicts the catastrophe, rather than creating a mimetic structure that merely impersonates it.

Art Spiegelman is no stranger to these provocative discussions. In “MAUS: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History,” Spiegelman drew a comic of the Holocaust with rodents for protagonists, and in “MAUS II: Here My Troubles Began” he did it again. His new graphic novel, “In the Shadow Of No Towers” is a pictorial study of the events of September 11, 2001, told with falling shoes and boots, and characters who wake up in the middle of the night yelling, “The sky is falling!” The mice from MAUS are back, and the main character is Mr. Spiegelman himself, always with a cigarette in his mouth.

The pages of The Shadow are big, thick slabs of cardboard, suggesting a children’s book configuration, but even a cursory read reveals a very complicated meditation on storytelling, trauma and disorientation that demands a sophisticated readership.

Not only does The Shadow insist on politically perceptive readers, it also assumes that readers are literate in classical, comic book forms. In a series of seven plates at the end, Spiegelman reproduces old comic books pages from George Herriman’s provocative 1913 comic Krazy Kat to Gustave Verbeek’s 1904 cartoons in the Sunday New York Herald called Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo. Spiegelman offers little in the way of comprehensive guide for comic book amateurs; his two page manifesto which seeks to explain the history of comic books while standing on one foot will help jog the memory of experts, but will prove fairly useless to the beginner.

The move of insisting on familiarity with the vocabulary of comic books in general and certain characters from MAUS in particular is one associated with much of post-modern and creative non-fiction literature. In Moby Dick, Melville delivered a text that simultaneously explored a fictive narrative and a scientific meditation on whales and whaling that embedded entire chapters of encyclopedic trivia about marine biology.

Joyce’s Ulysses rallied a similar strategy, and it necessitated absolute familiarity with all of Joyce’s books: the character Stephen returns from a funeral in Ulysses that he has set out for in Dubliners. This Melvillian and Joycean mode of reading proliferated in the literary scene in the middle and late part of the century, and it is very much at play in Spiegelman’s novel.

In his introduction to The Shadow – which interestingly enough was serialized in the Forward and the German newspaper Die Zeit – Spiegelman records his predisposition to allegations that the sky is falling and general conspiracy theories, but then he writes, “Only when I heard paranoid Arab Americans blaming it all on the Jews did I reel myself back in, deciding it wasn’t essential to know precisely how much my “leaders” knew about the hijackings in advance. It was sufficient that they immediately instrumentalized the attack for their own agenda.”

Spiegelman told Alana Newhouse at the Forward that, “I grew up being told by my [Holocaust] survivor parents that the world is an incredibly dangerous place, and that I should always be prepared to flee.” In his mind, September 11 came as less of a surprise than “the hijacking of September 11 the Bush cabal that reduced it all to a war recruitment poster.” Spiegelman says, “I never wanted to be a political cartoonist. I work too slowly to respond to transient events while they are happening.. Besides, nothing has a shorter shelf-life than angry caricatures of politicians.”

Incidentally, Honore Daumier’s and Thomas Nast’s political caricatures have lasted quite long on their shelf in the comic book pantheon, and I think David Levine’s will join them, as will Spiegelman’s, and here is why.

Spiegelman’s book is very political. It throws difficult images in the viewer’s face, and bombards the reader from page to page, without providing much time for catching one’s breath. It is deep and heavy, and it tells you wide-eyed that the sky is falling. It asks the questions: who gets to tell a story, how much leeway does s/he have to tell it, and what does it mean to “own” a story? This meditation on trauma and narrative finds its voice in visual form.

Page four features a cartoon wherein a Bush figure and a Rumsfeld figure ride a flying eagle that sports a red, white and blue striped Uncle Sam hat. Rumsfeld has cut the eagle’s neck with his box cutter, while Bush offers, “Let’s Roll!” in a manner that suggests a derivation of “giddy-up!” The eagle asks, “Why do they hate us? Why?” This image floats atop a picture in the left margin of a shimmering, stippled tower – resembling a Seurat or Pissarro painting in temperament – that crumbles into a sea of red, blue, purple and ochre dots. A parenthetical statement offers, “(Amazing how time flies while it stands still.)”

As if that is not enough information, Spiegelman manages to cram in the Two Towers personified as crying infants with towers for hats, and a rescue mission to save his daughter Nadja. At the bottom of the page, Spiegelman tells his wife, “Y’know how I’ve called myself a rootless cosmopolitan, equally homeless anywhere on the planet? I was wrong… I finally understand why some Jews didn’t leave Berlin right after Kristallnacht!” He then passes a painter working on a picture of the burning towers: “They passed some guy on Canal Street painting the towers. Glancing south, they could only see the billowing toxic smoke. The model had moved.”

I quote at length to show both the author’s tremendous style and mood, and also to underscore a new narratorial voice from MAUS. Here is Spiegelman thinking of 9/11 in Holocaust terms, finding himself so attached to a place (he lives in the Village mere blocks from Ground Zero) and a culture – while so resistant to wearing I Love NY tee shirts – that he can relate to German Jews who couldn’t run, but also could not hide. He is disoriented, and every attempt to draw himself out of it recalls a baseball player who simply cannot drag himself out of a slump.

And ultimately, that is why Spiegelman gets to tell the story. He has no answers, and he can barely keep the questions at bay. He takes the confusion and the paralysis and casts it as mice and shoes and ostriches. They are entirely tasteful and deep meditations that convey an almost un-conveyable sense of raw emotion. In that world, like that of Steinbeck, the boundary between mice and men slowly dissipates.

 


Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

Jewish And Non-Jewish Landscape Isaak Levitan, Thomas Cole And George Inness

Wednesday, October 27th, 2004

Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy.

June 23 -  September 12, 2004.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.  

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk

 

George Inness and the Visionary Landscape.

September 17 – December 28, 2003.

The National Academy of Design, 5 East 89th Street, New York

http://www.nationalacademy.org/

 

 

 

He sits somewhat accusingly atop a stamp issued in Russia, remembering the 50th anniversary of his death in 1950. His eyes look tired, if not depressed, and his shoulders slouch. He looks, perhaps, as if he just lost a punishing boxing match. In an essay entitled “Lithuanian Jews on Postage Stamps” posted at jewishgen.org, Vitaly Charny says, “It seems strange that a Lithuanian-born Jewish artist who worked in Russia during the time of the pogroms and at the height of official anti-Semitism would become the most quintessential Russian painter.”

He refers to Isaak (sometimes Isaac) Ilich Levitan (1860-1900), whose portrait, painted by fellow Jewish Russian painter Valentin Serov, adorns the 1950 stamp. His works hung with 14 other artists at the Russian Landscape exhibit in London. The exhibit hung across the ocean and is no longer on display, but Levitan serves as a wonderful launch pad for discussing Jewish scenic painting and its relation to the secular landscape scene, and his work relates to a large extent with the recent exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York that showcased George Inness’ work.

The National Gallery exhibit, “Russian Landscape In The Age of Tolstoy,” featured works of 15 nineteenth century Russian landscape artists which the museum called, “70 of Russia’s Best Known and Loved Paintings.”

“Landscape plays a central role in the Russian imagination,” said the National Gallery’s Curator of 19th Century Paintings, Christopher Riopelle. “The emptiness of the country’s vast reaches, the rigours of its climate, the difficulties of transportation, and the intense isolation that long winter months impose, all contribute to a specifically Russian sense of nature, different from – perhaps more fatalistic than – that found elsewhere. In the age of Tolstoy, the landscape simply dominated the lives of most Russians.”

I am not sure I completely agree. Take “The Vladimirka Road” (1892) by Levitan. Seventy-nine by 123 inches, Vladimirka is large, and it features a horizon line set just below mid-painting. The painting depicts the road that routinely led prisoners into Siberian exile, and though it now evokes cheerier images of “Fiddler on the Roof,” it carries dangerous undertones. But the critics see no Fiddler; instead, they have described Vladimirka as “philosophical,” “mature” and a “meditation on man and the world.” It is cast as a paradigm of the genre called “mood landscape.”

The viewer can focus on the ominous clouds and the dark, shadowy horizon, telling tales of fate and doubt. Careful analysis exposes brown, earthy shades that tone down all the pure colors and mute the whole effect. Yet, the painting simply represents a pretty picture, and all lyrical explanations provide externally imposed narrative. The composition is fairly expected, and reminds us of a postcard we might purchase as tourists on the road to Siberia. It is strangely dead. In this sense, Levitan recalls much of the Hudson River School’s work.

Founded by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the Hudson school forged the first real American school of painting, and it sought to parade the beauty of the virgin American landscape in a grand marriage of nationalistic public relations and painting. A student of Englishman John Constable and the French landscapist Claude Lorrain, Cole popularized the landscape genre, previously a second-class citizen behind historical and mythological scenes and portraiture. Long before the Impressionists, Cole studied how light unfolded across nature, and though he lacked the paint tubes which allowed Claude Monet to paint in “plein-air” – outdoors - Cole studied the actual landscapes vigorously, only later adding stylized, symbolic details.

Where Levitan’s landscapes buckle and seem immobile, Cole’s prove very much alive and seem to have a perpetual energy machine for a heart. Whenever possible, Cole opts for rainbows, lightning storms, waterfalls and whatever natural explosion of color he can discover – and he records every detail. But both Cole and Levitan paint pretty pictures that only yield superficial interest. Like the stage, landscape painting must be judged by “believability of form.”

By this, I mean that a character on stage fails if the audience cannot conceive of what he or she does offstage. Hamlet can “be or not be” all he wants, but if the actor does not convince me that Hamlet eats breakfast every day and gets headaches, then he is not a believable character, even when he is on stage.

The landscapes of Levitan and Cole do not convince the viewer that they extend beyond the picture frame. In her essay in the catalog to the National Gallery exhibit, Henk Van Os writes, “Generally speaking, painted nature has something reassuring about it… After all, it’s only a picture. And however inhospitable or overwhelming painted nature may be, it’s always placed inside a frame.” I agree with her estimation of Levitan, but not of landscape painting in general.

George Inness (1825-1894) manages to paint outside the frame. “Art is a subtle essence,” he wrote, “It is not a thing of surfaces, but a moving spirit… like the humanity of G-d, it is personal only to love; unknown to the wordling; a myth to the searching intellect.”

“For every hour that Inness spent painting,” says Adrienne Baxter Bell, in the National Academy of Design’s catalog – George Inness And The Visionary Landscape – he seems to have spent another hour harvesting metaphysical problems and ideas.”

Inness recognized this himself when he declared, “Then I take to theology. That is the only thing except art which interests me. In my theory, in fact, they are very closely connected. That is, you may say it is theology, but it has resolved itself gradually into a scientific form and that is the development which has become so very interesting to me.”

Although much of his thought seems to border on the cultish and draws heavily from Swedenborg, Inness manages to capture a moving spirit in nature and to combine the theological and the aesthetic, happily. “Evening Landscape” (1862) features a horizon line set about where Levitan sets his in Vladimirka, and the road converges in a similar triangle. But how different are the tones and the movement! Inness’ composition works like a machine: every part functions to better the whole. Motion extends beyond particular shapes to rally multiple objects as vectorial movement. In short, the structure has a soul that breathes life into the work and achieves a religious context that Levitan and Cole never could. Though he is not a Jew (nor is Cole), Inness manages to paint much more Jewishly than does Levitan, who is hopelessly lost in the world of iconography.

Thus, whereas Anton Chekhov writes in 1891 that “Compared with the landscape painters I have seen here, Levitan is king,” I only find Levitan king of the nostalgic. He demonstrates tremendous technical skill. But Levitan says, “I wish to discover and locate in my own country the most simple, the most intimate, the most commonplace and the most emotionally moving, that which often causes a sense of melancholia. The spectators should be touched in the depths of their souls.” That he surely does, but his work focuses on narrative and feeling, and not on relationships of forms and color and line.



Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

Gleizer’s Paintings: From The Heart Of The Beast

Wednesday, March 17th, 2004

Chassidic Art Institute – 375 Kingston Avenue,
Brooklyn, New York 11213; (718) 774 9149.

Noon – 7 p.m.; Sunday – Thursday

Zev Markowitz, director.

 

 

Mikhail Gleizer was born at the end of the Second World War in the Soviet Ukraine under the reign of the dictator Joseph Stalin. He grew up in the totalitarian state of Khrushchev and first attended art school in Leningrad while Premier Leonid Brezhnev ruled the one-party state of the Soviet Union. The prospects for free and uncensored creativity were sparse during those years, and yet Gleizer slowly built a career. He exhibited his paintings, watercolors and graphics in many of the official exhibitions that the Party bureaucracy allowed, in addition to scattered independent and international venues. It was not easy to be an artist in those years,
especially since a growing body of his work concerned Jewish themes. Yet he continued to make paintings throughout the 1980′s and achieved a certain success in book illustration, including Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman.

Additionally, he created many prestigious theater and costume designs. Not surprisingly, the nuclear disaster at nearby Chernobyl in 1986 cast a pall over his artistic success. Finally, in 1991 Gleizer left his homeland and immigrated to the United States. Now in his new home in Brooklyn, he is showing a collection of 22 paintings from the 1980′s at the Chassidic Art
Institute. Remarkable works on their own, the context in which they were created infuses them with a passionate urgency that we cannot ignore.

Three interrelated subjects, all detailing Jewish life set in small Ukrainian villages, dominate the exhibition. A collection of ten lyrical depictions of Jewish tradesmen from fishmonger and grocer to the local butcher establishes an honest and simple tone to the paintings. A set of four paintings from 1985 presents a village intersection lined with a jumble of houses from an aerial
perspective. Finally, eight paintings done in the early 1980′s focus on the people of the village as they observe Yom Tov, Shabbos and a genuine Jewish life.

Each tradesman dominates the center of his painting, surrounded by his place of business and
occasionally confronted by a customer from the village. The straightforward, folksy and rather programmatic depictions belie the complex paint handling. In The Glazier (1987), the stock, peasant figure is deceptively centered while the shifting planes on the ground around him expressively push and pull the figure as he carries newly glazed window frames. They form a kind of picture within a picture, gently reflecting the workman as he trudges through the village. There is more here than meets the eye.

Gleizer’s pictorial narrative becomes more complex in the paintings of the village streets. The intersection, seen from a slightly elevated perspective, tilts dangerously up towards us. At times, the houses veer off to each side threatening to slide off the face of the earth. In one painting, we see a horse and buggy careening up a street as a bicycle plummets down another in a dizzying dance. This unnerving perspective is rooted however in the simcha that follows.

In The Orchestra (1985), a three-man klezmer band approaches from the bottom of the canvas, announcing a wedding that appears in the next painting. The heavily impasto-paint builds a passionate joy that seems to infect the streets, houses and finally, the very heavens themselves. The subtle shades of white, cream and pinks of the streets and sky impart an otherworldly glow to the joyous village celebration.

Zev Markowitz, curator of the exhibition, explains that these images accurately depict Jewish life as it was in some small Ukrainian villages in the 1980′s. While what we see here seems normal for Russia of 100 years ago, can it really be true, a mere 20 years ago? Evidently so,
and that is why these simple paintings take on the force of a revelation. Gleizer clearly understood how important it was to capture the Jewish life that refused to be obliterated under the relentless heel of Communism. Making these paintings as the Soviet Union was collapsing under the weight of its own oppression, was an act of resistance celebrating the Jewish communities that tenaciously remained.

The final set of paintings provides a glimpse into the substance of their lives that afforded so much resistance. Succos seems to come alive as men prance through the streets with lulav and esrog on the way to shul on Chol Hamoed. The joyous procession of a Sefer Torah through the streets confirms the spiritual heart of the community. While such public displays of Jewish
piety might provoke comment and perhaps even censure in many of the streets of America, one can only wonder what risks these Jews braved in Communist Russia.

One of the more tender paintings depicts a young family on a Shabbos or Yom Tov outing. Dressed in their finest, but simple clothes, they stroll alongside a river with the village peacefully seen behind them. The wife is a picture of modest beauty while the husband, who
seems to be startled at being viewed by the artist, shelters his young daughter against the black of his bechesheh.

A gentle spring shower of white blossoms magically dapples the bucolic scene. This is a picture of the simple Torah life lived in harmony and peace we could all aspire to.

Piety is a notoriously difficult emotion to convey without lapsing into sentimentality and emotionalism. The very vulnerability that it exposes to the world demands that its expression be modest. Torah 2 (1980) captures the simple act of honor towards a Sefer Torah being carried through the streets, possibly to a house of mourning. On the right, a man bends over, bowing to kiss the mantle of the crimson Torah. Behind him, ghost-like figures pass to and fro while the shul guards the scene from the far side of the street. Piety blossoms into a humble expression of honor as the painting seems to suggest to us that there is no place that the sacred cannot be acknowledged. Our job is to simply recognize it.

Zev Markowitz, the director of the Chassidic Art Institute, tells me these paintings depict scenes from little villages, shtetlach in the Vinnitza and Jetomir region of the Ukraine that Gleizer would visit to paint and draw. Considering the oppressive world that these villages
existed in, they seem a universe removed from the freedom that we take so much for granted here. And yet I recognize the people, their lives, passions and their faith. They are my people. For Gleizer to make that leap from oppression to freedom, across what amounts to a veritable chasm, is a testament to a unique amalgam of personal courage and creative faith in the Jewish People. These humble paintings are illuminated by his courage.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Do They Never Stop?

Friday, September 28th, 2001

We rather thought that the text of an obituary was supposed to paint a picture of the life of the departed and its headline to capture the essence of the person. And this would be all the more so with great personages. So we were dismayed by the headline of an article on the passing of Rav Avrohom Pam, zt''l. The headline read, “'He Represented Integrity'/Rabbi Avrohom Pam, Torah sage and leading critic of corruption in fervently Orthodox community, remembered.”

Was the centerpiece of the rich and multi-faceted life of this Torah giant his calling the Orthodox community to scrupulous adherence to the rules of integrity? He spoke about many issues. To us, this is one more example that the folks over at The Jewish Week will never miss an opportunity to engage in Orthodox-bashing, whatever the premise.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/editorial/do-they-never-stop/2001/09/28/

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