Writings

Reading Szyk’s Cards
Heroes of Ancient Israel: The Playing Card Art of Arthur Szyk

Written on November 12, 2012

Trumpeldor’s Defense of Tel Hai (1936) by Arthur Szyk Courtesy The Robbins Family Collection

Finally the King of Diamonds fittingly is represented by King Hezekiah.  Quite beyond his courage in resisting the brutal assault of the Assyrian Sennacherib on Jerusalem, it was King Hezekiah’s determined religious reforms and return to the worship of Hashem that earned him the praise that he: “trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him” (2 Kings 18:5). 

Crossing Borders
Masterpieces from the Bodleian Library

Written on October 28, 2012

Tripartate Mahzor Bodleian Library & Jewish Museum

In the eyes of the ram lies the artist’s commentary on the Rosh HaShanah piyyut; “The King Girded with Strength.” From the Tripartite Mahzor (German 14th century), this illumination simultaneously echoes the piyyut’s praise of God’s awesome power and expresses the terror of actually being a sacrifice to God.  The ram is but a reflection of Isaac. It is all in the eyes.

Chagall Redux

Written on October 15, 2012

Descent Towards Sodom (1957) hand-colored etching by Marc Chagall Courtesy Haggerty Museum of Art, Gift of Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Marc Chagall © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Chagall’s reputation needs no burnishing and yet refinements are always welcome. Indeed the Nassau County Museum of Art has mounted a wonderfully extensive survey of Chagall’s works with a unique emphasis on his 1957 Bible series of hand-colored etchings that significantly casts many aspects of his work as uniquely Jewish.  Amid the complexity of Chagall’s entire oeuvre, this is deeply significant in the exhibition history of non-Jewish institutions.

Rosa Katzenelson: Paintings
Beyond Hasidic Expressionism

Written on October 15, 2012

Eye of the Fish, (18 x 14), Oil on linen by Rosa Katzenelson Courtesy Hadas Gallery

Passion of belief can certainly lead to passion of expression, especially for an artist.  Rosa Katzenelson’s paintings and digital artwork currently at the Hadas Gallery in Brooklyn could easily define the very essence of religious expressionism.  As a Chabad devotee, every aspect of her work exudes a passion for both the Chassidic subjects she depicts and for the visceral act of making a painting.  Nonetheless, upon closer inspection her work yields considerably more complexity.

Jacqueline Nicholls: New Works

Written on September 25, 2012

Mourning Kittel (2012) cloth, wire by Jacqueline Nicholls Courtesy JCC Manhattan

Jacqueline Nicholls, a Jewish artist from England, presents us with a formidable challenge.  Namely; what is the role of a contemporary Jewish Woman artist and how does one confront patriarchal dominance? She presents her response to both queries in her current exhibition at the JCC Manhattan beautifully curated by Tobi Kahn and organized by Tisch Gallery director Megan Whitman.  The results are breathtakingly forceful, subtle and insightful.

Bill Aron’s Time Machines
Forever Young, Forever Old: Panoramas of Israel

Written on September 07, 2012

Tallit Steps Revisited (19 ¾ x 13) digital print by Bill Aron Courtesy 92nd Street Y

Photographs seems like cruel little slices from the past, frozen images of what will never be again.  Since we assume that the photographic image is, by and large, a factual view of some reality, it is inherently believed and trusted.  But now be forewarned.  It ain’t necessarily so.  Bill Aron’s new images at the 92nd Street Y betray and beguile so as to force us to reassess the meaning of what we see.

Finding Moses: Part I

Written on September 03, 2012

Moses (1515) marble by Michelangelo Courtesy San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome Italy

As the year draws to a close we have the book of Deuteronomy before us week after week, reviewing many halachos and reminding us of our harrowing trek through the wilderness. Moshe Rabbeinu is the stern narrator, guiding us to the very edge of the Promised Land, a final step he will never take.  He pleads with God to let him enter the Land to no avail.

Portraits of Remembrance:
Paintings by Diana Kurz

Written on August 13, 2012

Zora and Michael Kurz (1990) 75 x 60 x 7, oil on paper on linen by Diana Kurz Courtesy the artist

Reaching back in time to reclaim a family for herself and, in a yahrzeit moment, to rekindle lives snuffed out, Diana Kurz’s paintings stand as testaments to victims of the Holocaust, one by one.  After a successful 20 year career as an artist and teacher, (with a strong feminist bent), in 1989 Kurz happened upon a few surviving photos of her own relatives “who disappeared during the war.”  Suddenly her past opened up and possessed her.  Recently this spring (April 4 – May 2, 2012) a series of these paintings was shown at the Art Gallery at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY.

Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context

Written on July 31, 2012

Plague of Locusts & Plague of Darkness (ca.1330) Tempera, gold, ink on parchment: Rylands Haggadah Courtesy The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester, England

The Rylands Haggadah, created in Catalonia Spain sometime around 1330, is a towering masterpiece of Jewish Art.  In addition to pages of piyutim surrounded by ornate decorative and figurative micrography, richly decorated Haggadah text and blessings, there is a 13 page miniature cycle depicting the Exodus story from Moses at the Burning Bush to the Crossing of the Red Sea.

Bartolo’s Sacred Narrative

Written on July 25, 2012

Adoration of the Magi (with predella) (c. 1375-1385) Tempera on panel by Bartolo di Fredi Courtesy Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena University of Virginia Art Museum and the Lindenau-Museum

The Museum of Biblical Art in New York has mounted a remarkable exhibition with Bartolo di Fredi’s 14th century masterpiece, “Adoration of the Magi.”  This small but powerful exhibition, but one of many in the 7 year history of MOBIA, is an exploration of exactly how a “painter of faith” narrates adoration.  MOBIA is the only scholarly museum celebrating art and the Bible in the United States and, while has major support from the American Bible Society, is fully independent of any denomination or religion.

Podwal’s Lamentations
The Book of Lamentations: Illustrated by Mark Podwal

Written on July 12, 2012

Cardinal (ca.1600) oil on canvas by El Greco Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1974 Mark Podwal, noted author, illustrator and physician, created a spare, illustrated Book of Lamentations.   This complete English translation is graced with 28 black and white illustrations, or more correctly, reflections, on the tragic text. Podwal maintains Jeremiah’s alphabetical acrostic of each chapter containing 22 sets of lines, reflecting aleph to tav, denoting each English set with the appropriate Hebrew letter.  According to Sanhedrin 104a “ R. Johanan said: Why were they smitten with an alphabetical dirge? Because they violated the Torah, which was given by means of the alphabet,” representing the tragic reality that the Jews of his time transgressed the Torah fromaleph totav, beginning to end. Eicha!

Holzman’s Torah For the Eyes

Written on June 25, 2012

This Blessing Deut 34:4 (2007), digital woodcut by David Holzman Courtesy the artist

Earlier this year I was presenting my survey of Jewish art, “A Jewish Art Primer,” in a West Hartford, Connecticut synagogue and during the intermission a local artist, David Holzman, introduced himself to me.  He relayed his rich and fascinating artistic background and then produced a portfolio of 8 black and white prints that he generously gave to me as a gift. As a tantalizing glimpse into recent work, they are truly amazing and I would like to share them with you.

Itshak Holtz Drawings

Written on May 25, 2012

At the Newsstand (1971), felt pen and marker on paper by Itshak Holtz Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bentzion Zeitlin

Examining a choice selection of drawings done by Itshak Holtz over 30 years ago is a rare pleasure that allows for the appreciation of his unique sensitivity and insights.  I was afforded that pleasure at the inaugural exhibition of the Betzalel Gallery in Crowne Heights on Thursday, May 17, 2012.  Although the this modest selection of 25 drawings and watercolors of this paradigmatic frum artist ranges from 1963 to 1999, the majority of the works is from the 1970’s and reveals a special aspect of his inner artistic soul.  Easily this selection of images could narrate the fabric of ordinary Jewish life.

Christie’s Mahzor
At Home in Florence?

Written on April 29, 2012

Mahzor; “Kol Nidarim” illuminated manuscript (ca. 1490s) Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd, 2012

The auction at Christie’s in Paris this May 11 of a Tuscan Mahzor, created and illuminated in the 1490’s, will be an extraordinary event.  This rare example of illuminated Jewish art has never before been seen publically in over 500 years and, aside from tantalizing internal suggestions, is lacking conclusive identification of the scribe and illuminators.

Golden Haggadah: A Unique Methodology
The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination

Written on April 12, 2012

Golden Haggadah, fol. 14v, (ca.1320-1330) illuminated manuscript London, British Library Courtesy “The Medieval Haggadah” by Marc Michael Epstein Yale University Press, 2011
The Golden Haggadah was created in Catalonia, Spain sometime around 1320.  So named because all the illustrations are placed against a patterned gold-leaf background, it is a ritual object of incredible luxury and expense.  In light of Marc Michael Epstein’s analysis found in his recent book “The Medieval Haggadah,” this tiny masterpiece of Jewish art easily ranks among other towering works of complex narration including Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in Rome. With his exhaustive analysis in hand we can now ‘read’ it with the same intense multifaceted interpretation as accorded scripture itself.