Art for Jewish Sake

An occasional view of art from the Jewish perspective, as just one more to appreciate art and our Jewish identity.
Robert Barkin is Executive Director of Jewish Art Education and a specialist in nonprofit management.

Kaleidoscopic Auschwitz Art

Just a month ago, the Jewish people marked Yom haShoah, the day that we remember the Holocaust. The Dutch-Jewish visual artist Maarten van der Heijden (1947) focuses his modern artworks on his visceral reaction to the Holocaust, following a personal journey in which he embraced his Jewish roots after a visit to Auschwitz.

He uses photographs that Allied forces took at the liberation of the Nazi concentration-camps in 1945 as a base for his artworks. At first sight, his work is a beautiful kaleidoscope of color, but as you gaze into the work, you are slowly confronted with the horrors of the Nazi regime. It is simultaneously pleasing and disturbing.

These works almost made me angry. I felt that I had been "taken in" by such an underlying brutal image. But it leaves an impact and there's no question about its Jewish sensibility. Can we move past the Holocaust into a brigher world? Yes, we must, but not without remembering what happened.

He describes for us how he came to embrace this visual expression:

Image from Holocaust made into visual art"Growing up in an assimilated family, I always knew that I was Jewish, but that fact had hardly any meaning for me. About Judaism and about the war, we did not talk in our family. And in terms of faith, we were 'nothing'. I became a Baroque musician and played the Double Bass in orchestras with Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen and others, and I studied Clinical Child Psychology. In 1993 I wrote a doctoral dissertation and I graduated in Educational Psychology.

When I was 48 years, I hit a midlife crisis: job gone, wife gone, everything into question. I needed support, love and hope. And then I thought: I can go to the Baghwan, but I'm Jewish, so why not explore what Judaism has to offer me?

My search for my Jewish roots began with a course in Jewish Spirituality and ended, by the way of double-bass playing in a klezmer group and attending various Jewish rabbinical courses, with a second-generation support group on the impact of the Holocaust. Finally I made a trip to Auschwitz with the Auschwitz Committee.

Holocaust photo made into visual artI was speechless and I was quite perplexed: The history of Judaism was both outrageously beautiful (the Jewish mystical and Talmudic traditions) and at the same time unimaginably terrible (the horror of the Holocaust). This was almost unbearable for my tiny shoulders. And I asked myself: what can I do with these vehement and contradictory feelings? My answer was: the only possibility is to express these feelings in VISUAL ART.

I studied from 2005 on at Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy Amsterdam, where I graduated in 2010 with works that reflect my Jewish second-generation identity. In my artworks I use the photographs the allied forces took at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945.

I consider communication and dialogue on (the backgrounds of) my works very important. So recently I am combining my second generation life history and my artworks with psychological studies of obedience (Milgram) and group behavior (Zimbardo) in order to give Holocaust-, genocide- and human rights education to students and audiences of different ages.

Recently I gave two workshops for secondary vocational education students (age 16-20) at the ROC Amsterdam. The students were very much interested in how to make something meaningful out of the horror of the Holocaust; and it was their first acquaintance with conceptual art. Inspiring!"

Van der Heijden's art can be viewed on his website at has shown his works in The Netherlands (Borne Synagogue and Amsterdam), in Germany (Berlin), and in the USA (New York). Since his Holocaust work, he has Photo of Maaten van der Heitjden
moved into a number of other visual areas that are presented on his website.

Larger versions of these images are viewable here

Photo by Rene Bosch

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Susan Schwalb: Art Emerges from Jewish Identity

Though Susan Schwalb says she has never thought of herself as a religious person, she identifies with her Jewishness, even if her artwork doesn’t carry specific Jewish themes.

But some of her work emerges from personal experience. Creation #6 (left) covers a theme that has fascinated artists for hundreds of years. Clear references to the tablets of Moses are central to the artwork. As her inspiration, she points to the illuminated medieval manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was composed in Barcelona and carried into exile by a Jewish family in 1492 until it reached its final home in the Bosnian capital.

On her website, she describes the Creation series: “In general, I have stayed close to the symbolic imagery of this manuscript. Unlike familiar Christian portrayals of the creation, the image of God is not represented. But sun, moon, and earth are clearly rendered by circular forms; I interpreCreation as visualed by Susan Schwalbt the arc that encloses the picture as a symbol of the universe. The drawing within the large circle, though abstract, was intended to suggest something of land, sea, and sky.”

A series of works on paper and wood entitled Judean Desert is tied directly to her Jewish identity. First was a visit to Israel, when she drove extensively through the desert, in and out of sandstorms. A second influence was a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the training ground for rabbis of the Conservative denomination. While examining illuminated manuscripts, she says she realized that the spacing guidelines were done in silverpoint. These grids counterpointed with memories of the desert to become the basis for the series, including Sacred Land #3 (below).b2ap3_thumbnail_Schwalb.png

Schwalb has continued to work with silverpoint, an ancient technique of drawing with silver on a prepared surface, which was commonly practiced during the Renaissance. She has been using the technique since 1974 and it has been undergoing something of a revival today. Her Strata #227,1998, 9x9in, silver/aluminum/copperpoint on clay coated paper, was just used as the cover for The Luminous Trace, a just-published book on the history of metalpoint drawing by Thea Burns.

In an interview, Schwalb said she sees herself as an “experimenting person.” “Things change my work,” she says. “Things that I experience as a person. Things I read, see in a museum. Something strikes me, a color, an image, and it creeps into my work. I don’t always know where it comes from. Each work leads to another. Sometimes it involves a series and I make one from another.”

Schwalb grew up in New York City and b2ap3_thumbnail_Sacred.png had two residencies in Israel in 1994 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, and the Tel Aviv Artists’ Studios. “I am a spiritual person,” she says, “and I do believe in God but I am not terribly “observant”, although I do celebrate all the Jewish holidays and go to Sabbath services on an irregular basis.”

However she practices her religion, her artwork stands for itself. She cannot point out specifically what is “Jewish” in her work, but doesn’t hold back that her Jewishness is part of who she is. “I don’t start out any work with Jewish subject matter,” she says. “I identify myself as a Jewish person, as a woman, as an artist, as a feminist.”

Schwalb’s work is included in collections in museums around the world. Her Creation #6 was included in the JAE’s The Art of the High Holidays DVD. For more information on Susan Schwalb, visit her website,

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