Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Art and Memory

So, I grew up in a neighborhood, and within a larger network of Jewish immigrants, most of whom were either survivors of the Holocaust, or who were lucky enough to escape Europe before or just as things were falling apart over there. Everyone had stories of hardships relating to their travels, no one talked about whatever horrors they witnessed, however. But everyone had stories and memories of happier days in the old country (which could be Poland, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Germany, Austria, or any number of other nations). That's why this feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education (p. B14) caught my eye:

From the issue dated August 17, 2007

A Father Tells His Story

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett began formally interviewing her father, Mayer Kirshenblatt, 40 years ago, while taking a folklore course. He had grown up in Poland, before immigrating to Toronto in 1934, and he had many stories of Jewish life in his small Polish town before the war.

When he retired early, at age 59, after a serious illness, his daughterwho by then had written her doctoral dissertation on traditional storytelling in the Toronto Jewish communitybegan encouraging him to paint what he could remember of his childhood, to bring to life the detailed scenes he had been describing to her for so many years. He refused, trying instead hobbies like collecting clocks and repairing and refinishing antique furniture. But nothing held his interest, and he became depressed.

Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes a turning point in 1990, when she and her husband, Max Gimblett, and her parents were touring New Zealand. "While driving in torrential rain through a gorge, with the road falling away, our hearts racing and our knuckles white, I overheard my mother murmur: 'Mayer, why don't you paint the kitchen? Do it for Barbara. She'll use it in her work.' Doris knew that, of all the scenes Mayer had described to me over the years, my favorite was the kitchen. Little did we suspect that for the rest of the trip through New Zealand's alps and fiords and temperate rain forests, without saying a word to anyone, he was imagining, in his mind's eye, exactly how he would paint the kitchen of his childhood." The floodgates opened, and he started painting his memories of life in Apt.

As he painted scenes of the house where he grew up, the people he knew, the town's synagogue, streets, marketplace, and surrounding countryside, he and his daughter — by then a professor at New York University teaching courses on Jewish performance, folklore, and ethnography — continued to talk. The book that would become They Called Me Mayer July was emerging. "The voice of the text is the voice of our collaboration," Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes in the book's afterword:

"As I began to compile the manuscript from the transcribed interviews and Mayer's pithy writings, I decided that the book's text would be entirely in Mayer's voice and that its structure would arise from an internal logic ... in the tangled network of stories and images that he had created. What resulted is more picaresque than bildungsroman. They Called Me Mayer July is episodic: It is made up of spare anecdotes told in the 'realm of living speech,' digressions into the practical workings of the world. ... This is Walter Benjamin's art of the storyteller, 'the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.' "

And here are two examples of Mayer Kirshenblatt's artwork:

The title for this one above reads: "Boy in the White Pajamas: Fooling the Angel of Death"

And the title here is: "Nakhete: Washing the Floor in Wedding Gown"

The feature also provides a written excerpt from their book:

'Paint What You Remember'

I started painting in 1990, when I was 73 years old, at the urging of my daughter and my wife. They kept cracking the whip. My daughter would say, "My daddy can do anything." She is a folklorist, an anthropologist, and she would beg me: "Would you please, please paint what you remember?"

"What do you mean, paint?"

"Paint, just go ahead, Daddy, and paint. I know you can do it. Please do it."

So, on my 50th wedding anniversary, when she came to see me in Toronto, I had painted my mother's kitchen in Opatów (Apt, in Yiddish), the Polish town where I grew up. By then my wife had been urging me for 10 years to paint. My daughter's husband is an artist, and he kept buying me art supplies.

In 1981, we were in Boca Raton, Fla., for the winter. We were staying in Century Village, a huge complex, which was mostly for seniors. There were lots of activities: movies, lectures, swimming, and stamp collecting. I was bored, so I wandered into an art class. There were about 10 or 12 people and an instructor. She put a few things on the table, and we would draw. I drew a lot of green peppers. I call this my green-pepper period.

A few years later, my wife signed me up for a painting class, a life drawing class, at our local Jewish Community Center, where we did aerobics four times a week. She said, "It's paid for, whether or not you attend." So, I went, but I didn't last long because the model moved so quickly from pose to pose, I couldn't finish the drawing. My daughter told me to forget about the classes and paint from memory. The teacher also encouraged me to work on my own.

At the same time, in the steam room at the gym or in a corner of the health club, I'd get together with my buddies. Most of the people there are Holocaust survivors. Within five or 10 minutes of any conversation, whether the topic was politics, women, this or that, we would be back in the concentration camps, on the march, in the railroad cars, in the bush with the partisans. It was as if there were no life before the war, so overshadowed had their memories become by the pain they suffered. I lost many members of my family in the Holocaust, but God spared me from living through that horror myself. He also blessed me with a wonderful memory.

I consider myself a storehouse of memories. My project is to paint prewar life in a small Jewish town in Poland. That's what really interests me. The way I paint is important, of course, but the most important thing is to get a subject. I have to get a subject. I think about it. I remember. It just comes to me. The subjects I decide to paint are those that have a story to tell. I draw mainly from memory. I also paint stories I heard from my Apt friends or read in the Apt chronicles, the memorial book for my town. Regrettably, I have very little imagination. I can only paint what is in my memory.

The places I remember exist no more. They are only in my head, and when I die they will disappear with me. I paint these scenes as I remember them, as a little boy looking through the window.

And here's the blurb at the end:

Mayer Kirshenblatt is a painter, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a professor of performance studies at New York University. This essay is an excerpt from their book, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, to be published next month by the University of California Press and the Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley. An exhibition of Mr. Kirshenblatt's paintings will be at the museum from September 9 through January 13, 2008.

In the modern era, we tend to think of art as a form of expression, a means of making statements or of just playing with pure form or with popular culture. We seldom associate the art of painting with the art of memory.

Memory is central to the Jewish religion, and to Jewish culture, however. Of course, all traditional cultures value memory, going back to oral cultures that are completely dependent on collective memory for survival. But in Judaism it is a religious imperative, a commandment, to remember--that ye may remember and do all of my commandments, and be holy unto thy God--such powerful words from the traditional translation of the V'Ahavta prayer.

Painting and the visual arts, however, was not a part of our tradition, due to the Second Commandment, so we don't have all of the icons common to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and with it the long history of achievement in painting. Jewish painters are all but unknown before the 20th century, Marc Chagall being the most notable example. And I recall going on a class trip to the UN when I was in elementary school, and how impressed I was when I saw Chagall's stained glass window there. In case you're not familiar with it, here's a picture of it, but this reproduction really can't capture the majesty of the work:

To get a different sense of it, here's a view of a detail from the window:

And here's some explanation from the UN's cyberschoolbus website:

Chagall Stained Glass

In the Eastern side of the Public Lobby visitors can see a stained-glass window designed by the French artist Marc Chagall. It was a gift from United Nations staff members as well as Marc Chagall himself, presented in 1964 as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the UN, and fifteen other people who died with him in a plane crash in 1961.

The memorial, which is about 15 feet wide and 12 feet high, contains several symbols of peace and love, such as the young child in the center being kissed by an angelic face which emerges from a mass of flowers. On the left, below and above motherhood and the people who are struggling for peace are depicted. Musical symbols in the panel evoke thoughts of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which was a favourite of Mr. Hammarskjold's.
The window was recently restored thanks to the Maecenas World Patrimony Foundation. And there was a Dedication Ceremony almost two years ago, as part of the events celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Here's one more image from the restoration:

When I visited the UN as a kid, it was possible to purchase United Nations stamps commemorating Chagall's Window, and my friends and I were into stamp collecting at the time, so I bought a copy. I wonder where that stuff is now? Boxed up somewhere, I think. Ah, memory.

So, Mayer Kirshenblatt's painting does remind me of Marc Chagall's art. It's in the style, sure, but it's also in the power of memory to give meaning to art.


Robert Priest said...

Thanks so much Lance for posting this. My Father-in-law Harold Kirzner (also Jewish) is also a painter and also quite elderly. He's recently got internet access so i'm going to forward this to him and his partner. They will love it.

Harold (Huck) writes music, so over the past few years i've been giving him lyrics to put to music. I'm really pleased with some of them and sing them regularly. I'm not sure if this will take - but I've pasted 'love times two' here, sung by nancy simmonds. let me know if its lost in transmission and i'll send by email all the best. rp
/Users/robertpriest/Music/iTunes/iTunes Music/Unknown Artist/On-The-Go 2/love times two (Priest Kirzner)

Robert Priest said...

not sure if the message i just sent disappeared or not...

just saying that my father-in-law, quite elderly and also jewish and also a painter will love this. i'll forward to him.

i've been writing songs with him for years. I'll forward one by email because i think it won't graft on here

Anonymous said...

Mayer Kirshenblatt's work is brilliant! I gasped - for me, always a good sign. Blessings to his daughter for encouraging his work. Thank you for sharing.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said...

I was very touched to find this posting and comments and I know that my father will be delighted. We launch the book (please see http://www.mayerjuly.com) on Wednesday, which is also his 91rst birthday, kanehore. I feel totally blessed and most gratified that others see the value in what my father has created. Do please check our site for the traveling exhibition and book signings. Come and meet Mayer!