Art Through Time: A Global View
A 13-part series produced by Thirteen (WNET) for Annenberg Media
Premiered Oct. 10
Jill Peters (exec. producer), Suzanne Rose (series producer), Jennifer Hallam (managing editor, writer producer), and Eva Zelig, Arash Hoda and Gail Levin (producers)
Jewish art buffs might be disappointed by channel Thirteen’s new 13-part series, Art Through Time: A Global View. It takes two entire episodes (one half an hour each) and part of the third episode for a reference to Jewish art to surface. This comes in the person of Shimon Attie (born in Los Angeles, 1957), whose The Writing on the Wall (1991-3) projected pre-Holocaust photographs onto the walls of buildings in the Jewish quarter of Berlin, the Scheunenviertel. Attie’s projections, which were effectively before-and-after photos of particular buildings, are particularly haunting because they reveal how much the neighborhood has changed. Another work of Attie’s that is discussed in the episode is Portrait of Exile (1995), which involved submerging light boxes with portraits of Danish refugees (who fled to Sweden during the Holocaust) in a canal in Copenhagen.
There is nothing wrong with Attie and his work – though it’s not clear that he should be the first representative of Jewish art, as opposed to Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann, Amedeo Modigliani and a slew of more contemporary artists like Larry Rivers, R.B. Kitaj or Judy Chicago, though photographer Richard Avedon’s work appears (but is not discussed in a Jewish context at all). One might also argue that opening the discussion about Jewish art with works about Holocaust memory could give the wrong impression about the larger genre of Jewish art, which often deals with much happier and affirmative times in Jewish history and experience, as readers of this column are well aware.
But what is perhaps most troubling is that there was no room to discuss Jewish art in the first episode (Converging Cultures) or the second (Dreams and Visions), particularly since viewers hear about plenty of Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Latin American, African, Asian and Indonesian Aborigine art in those two episodes.
Unknown artist, Haggadah, Spain, c. 1300. Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. From Art Through Time: A Global View.
After Attie, viewers can carry on watching the rest of episode three (History and Memory) – where Attie returns and gets the final word – four (Ceremony and Society, which offers a quick glimpse of a bar mitzvah amidst a larger mosaic of snapshots), and six minutes of five (Cosmology and Belief) before hearing from another Jewish artist, this time Vitaly Komar, of the Russian artist-born duo Komar and Melamid, famous for, amongst other things, teaching elephants in Thailand to paint.
Like Attie, Komar is hardly a representative of Jewish art worth complaining about. Komar’s work, which is very edgy, particularly in its politics, often draws upon Jewish (and other faiths’) symbols, as well as Kabbalah. “Art can create [an] image, which has no equivalent in language,” Komar says later on in the episode, which also addresses the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, showcasing the work of Jewish painter Mark Rothko. But Komar and his colleague Alexander Melamid, have a particular political criticism of the Soviet Union in mind, and is not necessarily the best work to choose if only two Jewish artists are going to be discussed in the entire series.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead from chapter six, Death. Credit:
Unknown artist, Egypt. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1567 BCE-320 BCE Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy.