Just look at the expression on Jonah’s face. It combines not only fear but also incomprehension at his terrible punishment of floating in the belly of the great fish. So too Noah peering out of the ark, perched on the edge of understanding that there might be a future for mankind. Both works point to the genius of Leonard Everett Fisher as an artist and interpreter of biblical narrative.
Leonard Everett Fisher is one of the master American illustrators of the last 50 years. His work is found in both adult and young adult publications, counting approximately 260 books since 1955 with at least 90 of those authored and illustrated by him alone. A native of the Bronx, in his youth he studied with Moses and Raphael Soyer in addition to Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League in New York. After a stint as a topographer during the Second World War he went on to Yale University for undergraduate and graduate degrees and then plunged into a successful commercial book illustration career. What is unique about his success is that he continued to make solely artistic works, simply driven by his own creative desire.
The current exhaustive exhibition at Hebrew Union College, beautifully curated by Laura Kruger, exploits both aspects of his 70-year career. In the spacious three interior exhibition rooms his mind-boggling exploits as a book illustrator and more recent creative works are explored. A sampling of his illustrated books of Jewish interest, many authored by Fisher himself, include: The Wailing Wall, The Dybbuk, To Bigotry No Sanction, (Touro Synagogue), The Seven Days of Creation, Moses, The Wicked City (Sodom) and David and Goliath. Additionally we see some examples of his bestselling and masterful series “The Colonial American Craftsman.” These may be Fisher’s most successful work, a 19 volume series, published between 1964 and 1976, that is aimed at young adults and visually explores the material culture of our country’s foundation. The series includes volumes on glassmakers, architects, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, weavers, tanners, cabinetmakers; virtually every imaginable 18th century trade that was essential to building our new country.
Furthermore there is more recent artwork by this now 87-year-old artist. The Center Fielder (2010)is a large meticulous study of a baseball player about to catch a fly ball; poised between expectation and accomplishment. It is wonderfully odd in that the player’s baseball cap is pulled down so that he cannot actually see the ball he is about to catch. Added to this conundrum is the odd insignia of his uniform, Sigma Phi, which does not correspond to any known baseball team. It is mysteriously significant that these Greek letters represent the second oldest Greek secret fraternal organization in the United States, founded in 1827. Suddenly to expound upon the mysteries of baseball, here revealed in one enigmatic image, is yet another facet of Fisher’s creativity. The suspended ball flying towards the player’s mitt is an example of what Curator Laura Kruger identifies as a major motif in Fisher’s work. Again and again we see suspended objects and concentrated depictions of flat vertical surfaces; i.e. walls, that explores the tension between objects in motion and concrete backgrounds.
Notwithstanding this lifetime of artistic accomplishment, it is the large series of biblical figures he created between 1963 and 1964 that has the place of honor in the main HUC exhibition space. Eight large paintings dominate the wall with heroic depictions of Biblical characters. Diptychs of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel and Jeremiah respectively ponder the different characteristics of these prophets in relation to one another. Job is a tall muscular figure with a fearsomely intense gaze, challenging the viewer in his provocative confrontation with God Himself. There Came a Nation shows Abraham and Isaac in a vertical hierarchy with Jacob just beneath them representing the foundational generations of the forefathers.
Moses, Now is the quintessential image of Fisher’s style; dramatic, clear and powerful. The great lawgiver is shown descending the mountain ready to smash the tablets in anger. Three preparatory drawings are nearby and we clearly see the development of Fisher’s idea. First he conceived of Moses as poised Renaissance character, then a dramatic Baroque figure in motion, clenched fist and stylizedtallis swirling around him. In the final painting Fisher concentrates the drama and simplifies the emotion into a monochromatic black, white and red. Suddenly Moses’ anger has become more reflective, his hand now open in determined gesture and his face contemplating what he is about to do to God’s holy law. In his way, Fisher saves Moses from the sin of heedless fury.
Interestingly enough, more than thirty years later Fisher returned to the subject of Moses in an illustrated book of the same name. Here the lawgiver lovingly holds the tablets in a deep and tortured contemplation. We see the mountain behind him with the long mass of the Jewish people at its base. We immediately understand Moses’ concern that this people will not cherish the Law as he does. They are tragically fated to stray.
The figure of Jonah is seen from above, floating in an abstracted well meant to evoke the giant fish’s innards. His hands and forearms stick out from his sides in helplessness, defenseless against God’s judgment. But it is the absolutely stunned expression on Jonah’s face that cuts to the heart of Fisher’s vision. The artist has convincingly plumbed the soul of the prophet who momentarily thought he could escape God’s command. He is confronted by his own rebellion and terrified by its consequences. We can easily see from this how the sprout of repentance must grow and be nurtured.
The cleverest painting in the exhibition is Noah. He stands inside the ark peering out its window at a dove in mid-flight bearing an olive branch in its beak. As we have observed before the bird in mid-air is a hallmark of Fisher’s style complemented by the solid wooden construction of the ark. But it is the play between Noah’s hands and facial expression that truly animates the painting. His hands tell us that he is about to do something; either to grasp the bird or to formulate a thought. The notion of being on the threshold of action is then concretized by the concentrated thought in his expression. Pursed lips and intense staring eyes tell us Noah has just realized the meaning of the dove returning with the olive branch. The fact that somewhere on dry land there is an olive tree tells him that soon he will be able to exit the ark with his family and all the animals and begin the process of recreating earthly life. Fisher’s focus on this moment of revelation narrates into Noah’s story, telling us he didn’t know exactly how God would conclude the destruction of the world. The artist has uncovered the narrative of hope and faith in Noah’’s tale.
The distinction between illustration and art is that illustration describes what the viewer already knows. Its details, textures and visual delights confirms a well-known visual universe. Art does something totally different. Art tells us what we don’t already know. Art reveals the hidden and realizes a new truth, surprising and thrilling the viewer with discovery. Leonard Everett Fisher’s artworks do exactly that as he casts his insightful eye on biblical figures and the world around us alike.
Leonard Everett Fisher’s Challenge
Hebrew Union Collage – Jewish Institute of Religion Museum
One West 4th Street, New York, NY