Life of Jewish Art

Comments and discussion about the role of Jewish visual arts in Jewish civilization.

Thoughts and discussion from Myrna Teck, PhD, the founder and president of JAE.

Our Newest DVD: Art of High Holidays

I am delighted that the latest JAE DVD, THE ART OF THE HIGH HOLIDAYS, is now available in the JAE website Bookstore and on Amazon.com.  This DVD is a fully narrated one-hour program that brings Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur to life through art.

The presentation offers a chronological and topical overview of visual art objects and their symbolism related to these two holidays, with 60 art selections, ranging from more than 1,000 years old to contributions from some of our best contemporary Jewish artists. The artworks reflect historical Jewish experience in specific times and places.

The program begins with Before Creation and is followed by a 20th c. abstract painting titled, The Name (HaShem).  The Biblical sequence continues with The Command and two versions of Creation.  Another abstract painting, The Way (Halachah), moves us into the Jewish world and leads to the Beresh'it frontispiece of the 13th century Shocken Bible.  A synagogue stained glass wall in Chicago captures the light of God’s command in Genesis 1:3.  Other views of Creation appear from the Sarajevo Haggadah, an etching and a contemporary silverpoint, of gold leaf, and acrylic.Jews Praying on Kol Nidre -- Gottlieb

Two mid-20th c. paintings reflect two different visual interpretations to the Sh’ma (Listen!) prayer.  An early 20th c. Polish/German/Israeli painter documented Jewish men on their way to Selichot prayers, while a late 19th c. French Sephardi Jewish artist recorded the experience of the The Amida or Silent Prayer.

The artworks are organized by liturgy, as the Bet Alpha mosaic (6th c.) shows The Akeda or Binding of Isaac, from Genesis 22.  The custom of Tashlich (Casting Off of Sins) is portrayed in a 16th c, woodcut, a 19th c., engraving, and a 21st c. sculptural vessel.  Another custom, Kapporot, is related to atonement on Yom Kippur and is depicted in a 16th c. woodcut, two mid- 20th c. expressionist sculptures, and a late 20th c. naïve painting.

Shabbat Shuvah/The Sabbath of Return or Shabbat Teshuvah/The Sabbath of Repentance is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In Europe, rabbis did not give sermons regularly but often gave a sermon about repentance on that occasion. An 18th c. woodcut in a Minhogimbukh (Book of Customs) depicts just such an event.

An illumination from a 14th c. Mahzor (Holiday Prayer Book) used the two Hebrew letters that spell Kol, for the Kol Nidre (All Vows) service.  A contemporary papercut on this same theme is a special phenomenon.  An etching, and two paintings show different Frontispiece of Illuminated Transcriptaspects of Yom Kippur.

The technique of micrography was used to relate the story of Jonah in a 13th c. manuscript.

Two woodcuts and two paintings follow a series of Shofars from different times and places.

The program ends with a L’Dor V’Dor (One generation to another) tallit (Prayer Shawl) and Kippa (headcover) and an abstract painting, Onement, capturing a sense of equilibrium, balance, and peace.

Enjoy!

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What is "Art from the Jewish World?"

What is 'Art from the Jewish world?"  What is its connection?  Does it have to be in a particular media?  Style?  Do all the works of Jewish artists automatically become "Jewish art?"  What about works by non-Jewish artists?  Are they acceptable?  What makes them so?  Who decides?

I think that there are many different views about what is and what is not included in the designation of "Art from the Jewish world."  It makes for a greater challenge in trying to fit all the art into one neat category.  It also makes for richer complexity in trying to figure out what works.  What do you think?Pomegranate

Further, it seems to me that the Torah is the basis for the Jewish world and usually influences the art objects.  But not always.  Something the artworks are related to Jewish customs and traditions....and they are frequently influenced by mainstream aesthetic art concepts. I imagine that most customs and traditions evolved from the Torah or from Midrashim (Rabbinic stories of interpretation).  I also think that  the biggest influence on art, besides the artist, was where and when the art was created.

One of the most important and still controversial issues is the role of the Second Commandment.  You know, that's the one from Exodus 20: 3-5 and is all about prohibiting "graven images."  It appears to me that the influence of this commandment depends on who you ask--and when.

Still, I do believe that the 2nd commandment is important to consider in both the creation and acceptability of art objects.  Many rabbis have made pronouncements in the past about what was or was not acceptable.  That was true until a little over 100 yuears ago when German art historians began to include Verse 5 in their understanding of the 2nd Commandment.  Adding this to the traditional reading of verses 3 and 4 sheds a new light.  Now the objection seems to be not to producing an art object, but to its possible use as a God.  So, it's OK to make art---just don't worship it!Pomegranate

Looking at ancient art tells me that we humans felt an innate need to 'capture' something from our familiar and real world that would become a tangible symbol  It would be a reminder or a stand-in for the real thing.  The pomegranate became just such a symnbol; one of fertility and abundance (both in the barnyard and in the bedroom) in the Jewish world.

This object contains a mystery.  It is a pomegranate shaped container and one of the earliest extant works from the 10th-8th c., BCE (Before the Common Era).  We don't know who made it or why or even what it was used for.  It is a vessel, so it probaby held some kind of oil, ointment, or perfume.  Who knows?  Maybe you have something similar on your dressing table.  What do you think it held?

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Is There Such A Thing As Jewish Art?

Is there such a thing as Jewish Art?  If so, what is it? How do you know it when you see it?  Why does it matter?   

Many would argue “NO,” such a category simply does not exist.  There was/is no ‘Jewish’ country (although, since 1948, there is the State of Israel—but that’s a separate story); and in the past Jews have lived as a minority all over the world.  Further, there is no “Jewish” aesthetic or art style as Jews have ‘adopted and adapted’ to the prevailing aesthetic in the country where they lived.  And there’s no single “Jewish” media either, as there were and continue to be Jewish painters, sculptors, photographers, printmakers, video artists, etc., etc.

So, how can there be a ‘Jewish Art?’  I prefer to refer to this category of objects as “Art From The Jewish World.”  Why?  Here’s my thinking:

Traditionally, in the Western hemisphere anyway, the paradigm (which only came into existence about 250 years ago) for organizing worldwide art is built on an apex with “Dead, White, Male, Christian, European Artists.” And everything else is supposed to relate to that configuration.  White European males were the dominant and powerful class for many centuries, so it’s understandable how this structure came into being and how it was brought by them to America.  But, how does Native American art relate to this?  Or Eskimo Indian art?  Or Papuan New Guinea art?  They don’t…other than that all of their artworks were made by humans.

Looking at the entire world of art through the prism of a culture (beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes) offers an entirely different approach.  It encourages looking and attempting to understand at art in terms of what all humans share, such as life cycle events and annual observances (both memorials and celebrations).  [OK.  I know that in another 1000 years people may all be cloned, but for now this is what we have to work with.] Thus, “Art From The Jewish World” is organized around these events and experiences.

According to the late Professor Bezalel Narkiss (of blessed memory), [Founder and Director of The Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University] Jewish art is:

“Any object used by Jews to adorn their ritual, and any iconographic subject which enhances their understanding, their belief and ways of education.  In modern fine art it includes any work consciously created to express Jewishness by a Jewish artist. ….(Jewish Art) must be studied as an integral part of the Art of the World, influenced by and influencing the culture where it was created.” 

Kuhnel, B.  (Ed.) (1998).  The Real and Ideal Jerusalem in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Art.  Jerusalem: HaMakor Printing Ltd.

As an American Jew, I would only alter Professor Narkiss’ definition by removing the last four words: “by a Jewish artist.”

Myrna Teck, Ph.D., President

The Jewish Art Education (JAE) Corporation

 

 

 

 

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