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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia Museum’

Philadelphia Museum Exhibit Showcases Chagall’s Jewish Circle

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Paris through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle


Through July 10, 2011


Philadelphia Museum of Art


26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway



 

 


Although the subject matter of Marc Chagall’s 1910 painting Resurrection of Lazarus clearly comes from Christian scripture, the artist put his decidedly Jewish mark on the image twice over. Chagall depicted both a Star of David and two hands – signifying the priestly blessing – on the tomb from which the haloed Lazarus has emerged. Although Jewish burial traditions tended to represent the priestly hands with the index and middle fingers touching and the ring and small fingers touching and a gap in between, Chagall, perhaps forgetting the convention, elected to spread all the fingers out evenly.

 

“Chagall reminds the viewer that the tale concerns a Jew,” writes Michael Taylor, Muriel and Philip Berman curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the catalog essay. “A key transitional work, Resurrection of Lazarus anticipates the haunting series of Jewish cemetery paintings that the artist would begin later that decade.” Taylor’s final point about Chagall’s cemetery works is amplified by Chagall’s decision to call attention to the above-ground vault that Lazarus has emerged from, whereas the New Testament refers to the tomb as a “cave, and a stone lay upon it.”

 

That Lazarus (possibly from the Hebrew name Elazar) was Jewish is beside the point. Chagall’s choice to cover the tombstone with Jewish symbols has everything to do with his view that even, and particularly, Christian stories – like the crucifixion, which he depicted many times (see Richard McBee’s excellent and informative June 5, 2011, article in these pages, “Chagall and the Cross“) – are about Jewish themes as well.

 

The Lazarus painting is one of several works in the Philadelphia Museum’s exhibit “Paris through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle” that has strong Jewish content. The doorpost to the extreme right in The Smolensk Newspaper bears the three-letter divine name that one would expect to see on a mezuzah. Though a podcast on the Philadelphia Museum website misidentifies the door post as a mezuzah - unless the door post features a six-foot tall mezuzah, which would be unheard of – but Chagall has clearly used the divine name (shin-daled-yud) to identify the men, who are looking at a copy of the Smolensk newspaper with the headline “War,” as Jewish.

 

 


Marc Chagall. “The Smolensk Newspaper.” 1914. Oil on cardboard, 14 15/16″ x 19 3/4″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

 

The two men depicted in the painting are clearly distressed by the article headline. The younger mustachioed man lifts his hat as he wipes his brow with “a mixture of terror and disbelief,” perhaps fearing being called up for military service, as Taylor describes it in the catalog. “Dressed in traditional Jewish peasant garb, the older man is beyond the age for active service but may be a veteran of previous wars, especially given the compulsory conscription that Czarist regimes had imposed on the Jewish population in the 19th century,” Taylor writes. The ominous green light cast by a lamp on the table mirrors the green yud in the divine name. The shin and daled (spelling the Hebrew word for “demon”) are rendered in red. One wonders why Chagall includes the vowel under the first letter but neglects the vowel under the second letter, but, as I have shown previously (see “Did Chagall Know Hebrew” in these pages, December 10, 2008), Chagall’s seemed to make a lot of mistakes in his Hebrew inscriptions.

 

According to Taylor, Half-Past Three (The Poet) might contain another reference to Chagall’s religious upbringing. The portrait contains an upside-down portrait of the Russian poet Mazin, who was one of Chagall’s best friends. In Mazin’s head, where his forehead touches his shoulders, while his chin faces the heavens, “Chagall may have intended the illogically upturned head as a visual expression of the Yiddish idiom fardreiter kop (turned head),” Taylor writes, “which denotes a state of giddiness or disorientation bordering on madness, an appropriate description for such a delightfully tumultuous image of the poetic inspiration that-as the painting’s title suggests-flows like wine at half-past three in the morning.”

 

 


Marc Chagall. “Half-Past Three (The Poet).” 1911. Oil on canvas, 77 1/8″ x 57″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

 

A Yiddish expression might also be behind Chagall’s Over Vitebsk, which shows a Jewish man with a sack and a cane floating over a snowscape with an Orthodox church in the background. The painting plays on the Yiddish expression genen iber di heiser (going over houses), used to describe beggars’ door-to-door supplications. “This whimsical turn of phrase allowed Chagall to transform an otherwise naturalistically rendered scene of Vitebsk in winter through the addition of a strange airborne character,” Taylor writes, “whose presence imbues the composition with a dreamlike otherworldliness.”

 

 


Marc Chagall. “Over Vitebsk.” C. 1914. Oil, gouache, graphite, and ink on paper. 12 3/8″ x 15 3/4″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

 

The Jewish content in Purim is far more readily apparent. The work, titled in Hebrew in the top right corner, shows a man and a woman delivering mishloach manot, while hidden away in the top left corner (reminiscent of the gallows 17th century Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp depicted in his paintings of Kampen) are three hanging (or impaled) effigies of Haman. Chagall’s Purim was a study for a larger mural series commissioned for a school that was part of the Petrograd synagogue. The Russian Revolution, which broke out in 1917, sent Chagall and his wife Bella back to Vitebsk and precluded finishing the mural.

 

Taylor speculates that the “gruesome” figures might have been intended to serve as “chilling reminders of the pogroms inflicted on Jewish populations in recent times” for the school children.

 

Although possible, there are accounts of medieval Christian laws designed to prevent Jews from crucifying effigies of Jesus on Purim (for more information, see my article “Why Crucify Haman? Artistic representations of the Purim villain shed light on medieval Jewish and Christian interpretations of the holiday” on the website, MyJewishLearning.com), so there is precedent for such effigies on Purim.

 

Purim itself underwent a tough journey. It was one of several of Chagall’s works confiscated by the National Socialist authorities and sent to Munich. It toured 12 other cities as part of the exhibit on so-called “degenerate art” and was seen by more than 3 million people, according to Taylor’s essay.

 

 


Marc Chagall. “Purim.” C. 1916-17. Oil on canvas. 19 7/8″ x 28 5/16″. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

 

It’s a special treat to see all the Jewish content and themes packed into the Philadelphia Museum’s exhibit, but it’s also worth paying attention to the work Taylor and his colleagues have done on Chagall’s circle of friends and fellow artists, many of whom were fellow Jews – most prominently Leon Bakst and Amadeo Modigliani – and immigrants, who were attracted to the religious tolerance of Paris.


 


           Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Landscapes for Humanity: Paintings by Batya F. Kuncman

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

Congregation Rodeph Shalom

615 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19123

Monday – Thursday 10 – 4pm; Friday 10 – 2pm (215 627 6747)

info@rodephshalom.org  Until November 22, 2010

 


The world is complicated.  Surely it seems that Divine justice is elusive.  God’s role is frequently masked and our human situation is terribly fragile. Yet according to artist Batya F. Kuncman our condition is “most promising.”  Her optimistic artwork is designed to illuminate this shadowy nature of our existence and strives for clarity and ultimate closeness to God.  In “Landscapes for Humanity,” currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, images of infants are the tools she uses to explicate her belief.


In this highly original series of 12 paintings, created over the last four years, she has explored the vicissitudes of the human condition through the dual lens of Torah and human infancy.   Her exploration has been shaped by the narrative of the Garden of Eden and a belief that each baby she depicts is a unique being, echoing the Torah view that “each soul is an entire universe.”  The very nature of an infant is that it has unlimited potential that, once applied to a specific conceptual premise, can generate an extremely fruitful artistic expression.

 

 


Offering (2010) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

 

 

The complexity of each image is immediately apparent in the signature painting of the exhibition, Offering (2010).  The reference is to the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) with the emphasis on Isaac’s strength of faith and courage, in conjunction with Abraham’s quality of kindness which he seemingly forced himself to overcome to obey God.  We find these notions in the kabalistic structure of the s’firot and the artist relies on them to contextualize her paintings.  This amazing child-Isaac is seen from above reaching up toward us and the heavens beyond, filled with optimism and strength.  What is immediately apparent is the disjunctive scale of the giant baby in relation to the islands and turquoise green seas behind him.  He looms gigantic in size, and in importance, as this 4 x 6 foot painting demands our understanding that this most primal offering defines all subsequent attempts to draw close to our Creator.

 

 



Believer (2010) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

 

Initially more modest, Believer (2010) lures us into a child-like view of the universe.  A little babe is standing chest-deep in what appears to be a river, transfixed by an orange butterfly fluttering just out of reach.  The innocent child reaches up attempting to grasp at the elusive creature or perhaps to set it on its journey of freedom.  And therein lies the tension and mystery of Jewish prayer.  The artist maintains that we must see this image as an expression of Hannah’s seminal prayer (1 Samuel: 1:10).  Indeed the methodology of “service of the heart” is her gift to us, captured in the image of a child grasping at the wonder of a fleeting creature.  Our attempt to connect with the Divine is elusive and filled with wonder, just as this child grasps and yet does not connect.  Prayer is mysterious.


While these oil paintings are extremely realistic, the children and their surroundings rendered with startling detail, they are actually highly conceptual works of art deeply dependent upon biblical texts and explanations to properly contextualize the images.  Their meanings are only discernable in the interplay between text, image and concept as supplied by the artist along with her artworks.

 

 


The Great Communicator (detail – 2006) oil on canvas by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art

 

Kuncman ups the ante in The Great Communicator, a startling image of a full figured infant on a sandy seashore.  His hands are held together in concentration as he tilts his enormous head to glance at the viewer. Behind him is a rich green ocean as the presence of Divine authority that supports this powerful infant.  This child, surely inarticulate and yet intrinsically filled with wisdom and strength, represents no less than King Solomon, the paragon of all human wisdom.  And yet, this child carries his kingly burden without a care, filled with humility. In his dream Solomon responds to God’s offer of limitless bounty with modest insight; “I am but a little child therefore give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people, to distinguish between good and evil (1 Kings 3:7).”  More than any of the other images, this brown-eyed child looks us right in the eyes, his penetrating gaze searching out our understanding and intentions.  Will we respond to his needs as he grows and assure that he reaches his full potential?  The answer and outcome is surely in our hands.


As is more than obvious, the Israeli born Kuncman’s work as a conceptual artist is far-reaching.  She considers herself a multidisciplinary artist and two works she is currently showing in the Hartford, CT exhibition “Seduced by the Sacred” (Charter Oak Cultural Center, www.charteroakcenter.org, until November 22) validate that claim.   These manipulated photographs introduce Torah texts into the very fabric of life.  Sacred Ground is simply an image of an Israeli beach that fills most of the rectangle, surmounted by a thin strip of sea and a narrow expanse of cloud-filled blue sky at the top.  Then you notice the text faintly written in the sand, the first two paragraphs of the Shema written in formal Torah letters.  Once you understand what the text reads the artwork leaps alive; image, text and title percolating into a new meaning of how Eretz Yisroel is literally infused with the holy script.

 

 


LeAhava, photograph by Batya Kuncman

Courtesy Charter Oak Cultural Center

 

Her companion photograph, leAhava, reveals a similar meaning in a shockingly personal way.  We see a close-up of one person’s left eye.  The eye is open looking straight at the viewer, framed by its upper and lower lids.   Irregular eyelashes punctuate the exposed eyeball.  Only once you notice the Torah letters inscribed neatly across the light brown iris does the image become considerably more than a portrait of one eye.  Indeed in making out the text one can only see a cropped view of three lines of the second paragraph of the Shema.  While leAhava is legible as is most of naf’shehem only a bit of d’ganechha appears around the lower edge.  Somehow this bizarre image concretizes the realization of how we indeed internalize the words of Torah and how deep within us our acceptance of mitzvos should and can be.  Here the text operates as an engine of meaning, proclaiming that the commandment to love God (l’Ahava) must infuse our very souls (nafshehem) and to do so results in our sustenance (diganechha).  The experience of realizing what the artist is getting at is electrifying.  In one image she has restated the fundamental meaning of this essential Torah passage.


By insisting on linking the power of the visual image with complexities of sacred text, literally brought into the image, Kuncman has raised the dialogue between the observant community and the visual arts to a new level of sophistication.  Once the text operates this way, as partner to the visual, it cannot be relegated to the role of ancillary reference.  Similarly the visual cannot operate as mere illustration of sacrosanct holy writ.  Both elements are forced to work together, commenting on and strengthening each other in a powerful visual/textual partnership.  The new and exciting meanings that come out of this union are part of the inspired future of Jewish art.


 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/landscapes-for-humanity-paintings-by-batya-f-kuncman-2/2010/11/03/

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