Written by Tom L. Freudenheim
Confronting Richard McBee’s series of paintings, Sarah’s Trials, is as much about engaging with the concept of Midrashic narrative and its multi-layered plotlines as it is about appreciating the paintings themselves. The duality of the painter’s deeply-rooted impulses, both reimagining and recreating stories, can be both enlightening and bewildering for the viewer, since we’re in the realm of ostensibly familiar legends. Tale-telling lies at the heart of much Western Art.
We see it in the magical 1st century B.C.E. wall painting of Polyphemus and Galatea in a Landscape from the villa at Boscotrecase (Metropolitan Museum of Art), from a tale by Ovid. Of course, we think: Polyphemus = the Cyclops; we know him from Homer’s (c. 850 B.C.E.) Odyssey. But he reappears in Ovid (43 B.C.E.-18 C.E.) and Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) tales as well, and one or another of those narratives serves as subjects for artists as varied as Raphael (1512), Annibale Carraci (1597-1604), Nicolas Poussin (1629), Jacob Jordaens (1635), Auguste Ottin (1866), Jean-Léon Gérôme (1890), Gustave Moreau (1896) and many others. Each depiction of the mythical characters is wonderfully accurate, and each is wholly at odds with the other. The artist sees the truth; the viewer learns that there are many truths. This occurs even more frequently in connection with the multi-layered extra-Biblical tales that relate to the Christian narrative, from the Nativity to the Crucifixion (and actually before and beyond both). A familiar example of this is the tale of the Three Magi (or Three Kings) bringing gifts to the Christ Child; but the actual text (Matthew 2:1) only refers to wise men and mentions three gifts, so while our familiarity with the concept and the imagery suggest that it’s canonical, it’s actually not. One could cite numerous reminders that embellishment is not simply the role of the visual artist; it might originate textually, and move into the visual realm, or (as in our clear sense of what those Three Kings look like in Western Art), may move in the other direction.
An understanding of these art historical basics is essential in understanding how McBee has arrived at the puzzling, if seductive, approach to his focus on the ur-matriarch, Sarah. She only comes to life sporadically in the Biblical stories, and anyone really interested in her would be frustrated by the textual snippets which never seem to coalesce into a real person–unlike so many other of the players in the Genesis narratives. It’s therefore easy to understand why Sarah takes on a rich “other” life in the Midrashic texts that embellish on her life and its difficulties. And from that it’s a natural step for the artist to visualize yet another life for the matriarch–one that relates to our potential for understanding a woman who must deal with both a competitive mate and competitive progeny, spousal pride and indifference, apparent barrenness (in this culture clearly the woman’s fault), threats to her only child, and all sorts of trials and anxieties which might plague any woman engaged in a complex marital relationship. It’s the artist’s job to make these stories somehow palpable, to let us in on the nuances involved in personal anguish, the roles played by various characters in these tales, and how we might ourselves relate to what’s happening.
McBee accomplishes this with imagination and panache. Sarah takes on some real personality in these paintings, and her story gains a layered complexity that radically changes our sense of the incomplete woman we know only from the Torah readings. It’s often an artist’s task to bring characters to life in a manner that encompasses but goes far beyond illustration. That’s the magic of McBee’s work here–taking us to specific moments (some of them clearly invented), moving us through time, and yet assuring us that these events in Sarah’s life are timeless. We remember that from countless Christological works of art in which Italian or Netherlandish Renaissance cityscapes serve as backdrops for stories that refer events of earlier centuries. In the age of Photoshop, all of this might look manipulative and gimmicky–after all, we can now reassemble all sorts of images to create any kind of visually anachronistic vision we want. That’s why it’s important to understanding McBee’s deep roots in and understanding of the tradition of European art. Lest we might not get the idea, he reminds us of these connections with hints as varied as a 17th century Dutch interior, bits of Madonna iconography, a suggestion of the Venus de Milo, tiny genre still-life vignettes, and more elaborately articulated references to evidently favored artists such as Édouard Manet, Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse, and Richard Diebenkorn. These rich allusions are mixed with very contemporary references such as a miniskirt and sunglasses, and even Abraham as a modern Hassidic young Jew.
But McBee is most interested in exploring the potentially hidden interstices of this Sarah narrative, even if the progress through the sixteen paintings isn’t precisely chronological. After all, if this story is timeless, we don’t really need to worry about details such as chronology. The Akeida (Binding of Isaac) is in some ways the conceptual core of Sarah’s story. McBee wonders what impact this might have had on her marital relationship. While Sarah never appears in the Biblical tale, her potential involvement in this pivotal aspect of her family life is implied in the paintings. McBee follows the lead of the Midrashic rabbis in puzzling over this and expressing the concern, perhaps unexpressed, we all share at wondering what this horror story–which will forever remain one of the Jewish tradition’s most inexplicable conundrums–must have meant to the relationship between Abraham and Sarah. In the same manner, McBee sees Hagar and Ishmael as far more complex persons than they are portrayed in the Biblical story.
McBee describes his approach as “playing on the extremely important Biblical device of absence, silence and lacuna in textual narrative”–in a sense inventing his own stories, filling in the perceived gaps in what will always be a perplexing tale, much as was done by the rabbis in the Midrash. Investigating how one might express the complex psychological interactions, the pains–both those inflicted and those borne–and the potential motives of the various players in this drama, the artist raises important issues about the limits of what we can and even should know about what might have happened to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael. He may be the first patriarch, but Abraham doesn’t get off easily here; he’s never really redeemed by McBee, who uses these paintings to express his concern about actions that, if carried out by others, would not be condoned. There’s an uncomfortably implied question: do we ourselves have the guts to pass judgment on our patriarch? This sense of both examining the details that might have been left out, and then realizing one is only really left with more uncertainty, combine to imbue these paintings with a kind of mystery.
Perhaps that’s only fitting, given McBee’s personal commitments as a modern orthodox Jew. But this is no story of Asher Lev, since the artist understands that painting can accomplish many things, and he’s not engaged in an act of rebellion. Quite the contrary, he obviously believes in the redemptive value of painting–both doing it and viewing it. For art can help us to see aspects of the world we might otherwise have missed. The ambitious scale of Sarah’s Trials, with its strong narrative thrust, leads us to a greater understanding of the humanity of the characters portrayed, and reminds us that most Biblical heroes (e.g., Moses, David) were complicated and flawed people, rather than supermen. It’s not really a homiletic exercise; rather, we’re left to intuit this from the visual hints–whether the props (the hint of sadomasochism in the whip) or the contemporary clothing mixed with something not quite identifiable, but somehow of another time, or even of many other times. This mix-and-match approach creates a visual tension that is borne out by hints of continuity in the relationship between each segment in this series of diptychs: color relationships, the anachronistic architectural settings and garb worn by the actors in the drama, the structuring of background, and even the very formal geometric organization of the picture plane.
Perhaps the most instructive aspect of this grand oeuvre is in its not permitting us to escape the demands made on us by the various texts McBee elucidates and extends. For he understands that the magisterial texts of our tradition–the Torah, the Midrash, which are the bases from which he operates–are not easily understood. Like caricatures of Jewish parents, they insist on repeat visits. Indeed, it is from his own repetitious reengagement with challenging and even contradictory texts that McBee has assembled these works; and they, in turn, dare us to engage in our own exercises in revisiting the narratives, as well as the complex interpretations of them that assert Richard McBee’s mastery of the nuances in Jewish textual tradition and their transformation to his grand vision in painting.
Tom L. Freudenheim