THE SARAH PAINTINGS OF RICHARD MCBEE
Traditionally the family has been a narrative institution: It was the past and it had a tale to tell of how things began, including the child himself; and it had counsel to give.
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), p. 139.
Written by Judith Margolis
For the body of work called “Sarah’s Trials,” Richard McBee, artist, writer and Orthodox Jew, transformed his examination of the dysfunctional marriage of Abraham and Sarah into sixteen large oil paintings, arranged as eight diptychs, each more than twelve feet across. In order to present the narrative from Sarah’s point of view, McBee delves into traditional sources, including many of the midrashim that, for Orthodox Jews, are almost inseparable from the biblical narrative itself. Pairing the paintings with texts emerging from these sources, McBee creates an imagined paraphrase of Sarah’s observations. The resulting images become a visual midrash on the subversive and creative role played by the two women in the triangular relationship joining Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.
Nothing is left out. For starters, McBee pictures the idols that Abraham is said by a well-known midrash to have smashed in his father’s shop as female fertility goddesses. “For Abraham,” says McBee, “the primitive, sensual feminine had to be destroyed.” McBee’s paintings take a critical view of the narrative, including the akedah—the story of the Binding of Isaac—and what McBee calls “the ultimate insult to Sarah’s memory,” Abraham’s bedding down with the woman who had made her miserable for so many years.
According to McBee, it was his prurient interest in the scandal of the narrative that drew him to it. Then, fascinated by other aspects of the story, he devoted several years to studying the text and making art about it. The dysfunctional family drama has not ceased to smolder.
Abraham, who perceives Sarah’s legendary beauty as a liability, puts his concern for his own safety above hers and subjects his wife to the danger of rape and adultery. Sarah gives Hagar, a younger servant woman, to her husband. Abraham absconds with Isaac without informing his wife about his intention to sacrifice their beloved son.
McBee’s appetite for iconoclastic discourse might surprise anyone with conventional notions of what an Orthodox man—the president of his congregation—might think. His view is that sexuality in the Torah is often pivotal, propelling narrative lines forward in ways that might seem counter-intuitive in a theological text. And yet, the more one examines these matrixes in McBee’s provocative paintings, the more the crucial role of feminine sexuality becomes apparent.
“We are trained not to notice or hear the women,” he says. “But when I start looking, they aren’t in the back seat. They are the engine; they energize the story and drive it forward!” “Quite frankly,” he continues, “I believe we don’t have a misogynous religion, but we have a misogynous history.”
For McBee, whose understanding of these topics is evidenced through his paintings, there could be no King of Israel (David) or Messiah without the incest of Lot’s daughters, which produced the ancestors of Ruth the Moabite, King David’s great-grandmother. Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into having relations with her and thereby conceived David’s forefather Peretz, stands out as an individual who struggled to fulfill her destiny within the familial system, and once frustrated there, used transgressive means to achieve her sacred purpose. Without Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar’s lust, the Jewish people would not have emerged and been redeemed; Ruth’s uncovering of Boaz’s feet again brought us to King David; and Esther’s beauty and sensuality saved the Jewish people. A sense of humor both heightens and defuses McBee’s provocativeness, as apparent, for example, in his title for a painting about Lot’s daughters: “Hop on Pop.”
The “Sarah’s Trials” exhibit, reproduced herein in its entirety, allows viewers to join his investigation into these issues. Meanwhile, the artist is at work on another sixteen-canvas series that will continue his thoughtful parsing out of the story through Hagar’s eyes.
Sarah’s Trials (2006–2008)
The stories of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac are the biblical narratives that lay the foundation for the creation of the Jewish people. Upon close examination of the marriage of Sarah and Abraham, we see that their relationship is not what most would call normative. Sarah introduces another woman, Hagar, into her marriage bed, seriously complicating their relationships, and Abraham as a husband seems at best self-centered and non-communicative with his wife Sarah.
In these sixteen paintings (oil on canvas, each 6′ X 5′), eight diptychs, I have attempted to understand some of these complications by seeing the narrative from Sarah’s point of view. My commentary on the paintings is an imagined paraphrase of Sarah’s observations.
Judith Margolis Interviews Richard McBee
Since I first saw Richard McBee’s paintings in his Long Island City Studio, and then again in an exhibition, we have dialogued and corresponded about his creative process and about the issues raised by a religiously observant male artist attempting to give voice to a woman’s story. Here follows some of our discussion.
JM: I find it interesting for a male artist to try to tell a woman’s story. What moved you to devote huge amounts of your time and effort to study, think about and attempt to depict what a woman feels?
RMcB: I have been painting biblical work for the last 35 years, and I’ve realized that there is really almost no audience for my work and approach. Essentially, I paint for an imagined audience that will understand the multiple biblical, midrashic, cultural and artistic references.
When my mother died in 2006, it dawned on me that, as an orphan, I was next in line. I was determined to not “go gentle into that good night.” Having been ignored as an artist, I felt that, to spite the world, I had to do as many large, important and ambitious paintings as possible. Hence, the Sarah series. My conclusion that Sarah was the fatal victim of Abraham’s piety made this something that, for me, had to be addressed.
JM: Do you feel that you could really get inside Sarah’s skin? Is it possible for a male artist to really convey what a woman feels?
RMcB: I can never escape my gendered self. Yes, I attempt to provide the viewer some context for what Sarah might have thought, by offering the text of Sarah’s voice in each episode. These texts are combinations of the biblical/midrashic narrative with what I envision as Sarah’s emotions and thoughts.
True, it is still coming out of a man’s mouth. But I was not trying to create a woman’s voice so much as attempting to understand and express another person’s voice—that of an individual who had struggled with fulfilling God’s will and suffered for it. The male gaze, as a middle-aged male fantasy, is definitely present in “Abraham Takes Hagar.” It also happens to be lifted right out of the Torah.
JM: I’ve heard you say, “This is a cautionary tale.” How so?
RMcB: The caution it advises is twofold. First, a relationship with this Jewish God is fraught with uncertainties and inequalities. He is kodesh—distant and unknowable. Even if you feel you understand what He wants and attempt to comply, you can’t necessarily expect an intelligible response. Second, it cautions against excessive piety. Sarah’s pious attempt to fulfill God’s plan for Abraham’s progeny brought disaster into her home. Abraham’s rush to fulfill God’s command resulted in his wife’s death. A surfeit of piety keeps people from thinking.
JM: In her essay for your catalogue, Laura Kruger refers to your “operatic scale” and love for the Baroque.
RMcB: I’ve loved opera my whole life. I knew that this grand “operatic” story deserved a broad landscape in which the characters could act out their confusion and angst.
JM: While this work was on exhibit at Brooklyn College in 2009, it was discussed in various art seminars and panels. How did this discourse affect your views?
RMcB: The experience of having my work publicly acknowledged and discussed was exhilarating. The feminist panelists felt I had denigrated Hagar by picturing her as a sex object with miniskirt and matching luggage, and that made me more aware of how thorny it could be to try to approach both Sarah and Hagar in an evenhanded way. Thinking they were right encouraged me to continue with the Hagar series.
JM: While commentaries in the catalogue and by participants in various panels suggest otherwise, you say you have not looked at Diebenkorn or Max Beckmann or de Chirico. Who, then, are your influences?
RMcB: I once saw sixty New Testament works by Tiepelo at the Frick Museum Collection in New York City and was knocked out by his devotion to the material. I wondered: Why can’t Jews do that with our material, our holy texts? Those texts are operatic and Baroque! I wanted to set an expressionistic tone for the overall narrative, with painting that is visceral and expressive. De Kooning is huge influence on my work. Also, the Giotto chapel in Padua is my favorite place in the world. The way he composes and narrates! And, in the painting in which Abraham mourns, the silhouetted tree forms you see are right out of Goya.
JM: After Sarah’s death, according to the text and midrash, Abraham went on to father six children with his much younger wife. Yet you show him as a schleppy, hunched-over old guy. Can the couple you depict enjoy the sensual life that is a fact of the story?
RMcB: I don’t know how to paint heroes. That’s not the Jewishness I am comfortable with. Instead, I see them as contemporary, angst-ridden characters.
JM: Are you familiar with feminist work that’s been done on Sarah? Did you read any Jewish feminist interpretations of those midrashim that you encountered?
RMcB: I have read some Jewish and other feminist interpretations of Sarah, but none informed my approach to the paintings. It was the act of making these works that shaped their final conclusions. I did read Hagar, Sarah and Their Children  after I did the Sarah series. That text also influenced me to move forward with the next series, “Hagar the Stranger.” By selecting the narrative moments that center on Sarah and making an extensive pictorial narrative out of them, I was picturing Sarah as at least an equal protagonist to Abraham, and in many I depicted Sarah or Hagar as the protagonist. The first two paintings in the series function as a prequel, showing Abraham’s religiously based misogyny. I felt compelled to understand the motivation behind Abraham’s behavior, for which I blame the problem in their marriage—not Sarah. The last three paintings are concerned with Abraham’s reaction and actions after Sarah’s death, which does not end the need in Abraham’s and Isaac’s lives for the Feminine. The last painting depicts what I see as the posthumous tragedy of Sarah’s life: Abraham’s return to her rival. I hope that after viewing my paintings, people will read the Torah texts and commentaries very differently.
JM: How would you say your life as an observant Jew has affected your creative process regarding these paintings?? Does being president of your congregation, for example, influence your decision to make the paintings more or less explicit?
RMcB: I certainly don’t paint for my congregation; by and large they don’t look at art. I am an observant Jew who is comfortable with a wide range of Jewish sources and concepts. I would say that daily Torah learning has broadened my creative process.
JM: Although many of the midrashic and talmudic passages that your paintings reference contain sexually graphic details, your art is not explicit and can even be considered restrained. Could you say something about your inclination to downplay the raciness of the sexuality?
RMcB: I have no inclination whatsoever to downplay biblical sexuality. My earlier works on Lot’s Daughters, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, and Judah and Tamar are fairly graphic sexually. But after struggling with various explicit versions of Abraham having sex with Hagar, I felt that the glimpse of Hagar’s yellow dress draped over a chair next to Abraham’s horizontal back was sufficiently “racy” and conveyed that narrative moment quite nicely. Perhaps there is a potential series in the sex lives of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, but this series was about “Sarah’s Trials.” In my opinion, the main narrative here is the struggle with the divine imperative.
JM: You have said at times during our conversations that “this series does not deal with any spiritual views.” Yet you are religiously observant, and you state repeatedly that struggle with the divine imperative propels the narrative. Please explain this seeming contradiction.
RMcB: Though she believes that they were destined to become the founders of a great people through Abraham, Sarah is barren. She gives Hagar the Egyptian to Abraham to found the dynasty, but Hagar’s haughtiness and Ishmael’s wild nature unravels her plans. With the prophecy of the three strangers, she understands God’s will and realizes, with a laugh, that she will be the vehicle to fulfill God’s original promise to Abraham. When she finds out that Isaac was almost sacrificed at God’s behest, the terrible confusion and shock of not being able to comprehend the divine imperative ultimately kills her. Sarah’s trials are examples of humans trying to figure out what the Creator wants of us. God acts, commands and tests His human creations. The problem is that His desires constantly change. The many years of work I have done with the akedah  have led me to a similar conclusion: God is ultimately unknowable and radically distant. We relate to Him by observing His commandments as best we can. Even if we observe everything, terrible tragedy can still ensue. And still we attempt to draw close to the Divine. The paradox is that the quest for personal spirituality, whether in daily prayer, observance of mitzvot or earnest repentance, is ultimately divorced from understanding the Divine Imperative. In a deeply personal way, this narrative applies to ways I myself have struggled with issues of observance. That we attempt to relate to and comply with the divine imperative flies in the face of our alienation from God. I paint because I am an artist. It is how I understand the big issues of the world. Why make paintings about this? I have to. As a creative person, what other subject can I address?
1. Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell (eds.), Hagar, Sarah and Their Children (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
2. See Matthew Baigell, “Richard McBee’s Akedah Series: Reimagining and Reconfiguring Jewish Art,” Ars Judaica: The Bar Ilan Journal of Jewish Art, 5 (2009), pp. 107–120, with 14 illustrations.
NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues
Fall * Number 22 * 5772 / 2011