Mayer Before the Nightmare

Museum

The Power of White Pajamas: The Angel of Death is cheated by a wily rabbi.
JENNY ROMAINE/GREAT SMALL WORKS AND MAYER KIRSHENBLATT, COLLeCTION OF GReAT SMALL WORkS.
The Power of White Pajamas: The Angel of Death is cheated by a wily rabbi.

By Dan Friedman

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Born in 1916 in Opatów (Apt in Yiddish), Poland, Mayer Kirshenblatt was 73 when he began to paint, but his pictures have the sunny guilelessness of a peaceful childhood in Poland.

They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, currently at the Jewish Museum in New York, is an expanded version of the one accompanying Kirshenblatt’s 2007 book of the same name at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif.

Encouraged by his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, scholar of Jewish folklore and culture at New York University, Mayer Kirshenblatt began to put his memories on canvas to supplement the recollections she had elicited from him in two previous decades of interviews. He left Poland for Canada in 1934, so unlike other survivors of that community, Kirshenblatt can portray that world untouched by the horrors that were to follow.

Originally reluctant but finally persuaded (by being enrolled in a non-refundable art class!), Kirshenblatt began to paint using only the rudimentary art skills he had learned in high school. And he has continued to paint and paint. The result is hundreds of one-point perspective canvases representing pre-Holocaust Poland and providing, if not artistic innovation, profound anthropological insight into the daily life of the 20th century Polish-Jewish culture destroyed by the Nazis.

Kirshenblatt thinks, as he remarks in one of the two new videos on display, “Every canvas is a story.” But that’s not entirely true. The paintings provoke stories if you ask the artist more about them.

Each of his frames contains an insight into the practicalities and suppositions of a young boy’s life in 1920s Opatów but doesn’t reveal the story. The piece titled “Kleptomaniac Slipping a Fish Down Her Bosom” shows a glimpse of life, but the context is hidden until Kirshenblatt speaks. There is no clue to the identity of the kleptomaniac’s husband (Yumsha Levinstein, rich enough to pay off everyone) or the reason she, or others, were buying fish, no clue even that those things might be important.

Another painting, “Boy in the White Pajamas,” shows the eponym almost lost in the middle of a cobbler’s shop, leading us to a story that tells us volumes about contemporary life. A mother had lost previous children in infancy, so to foil the Angel of Death, the rabbi suggests that she dress the child in white so that it looks to have the burial shroud on already, and then the angel will leave. This worked until, so Kirshenblatt heard, the boy (now a man) was rounded up and killed in a camp by the Nazis in 1942.

Great Small Works, a collective dedicated to reinventing lost theater techniques, adapted this latter painting and its story into a puppet theater. Puppet theaters like this were common through the 19th and early 20th centuries as children’s entertainment and the form is perfect for Kirshenblatt’s art, which captures moments that are emblematic but not exhaustive of entire situations. Both the theater and the video of the puppet show are also on display, allowing the stories to tell themselves.

This exhibition is the graphic section of an extraordinary oral history, but like other oral history projects, it falls down when, as in the exhibition’s Section X: A Heavy Heart, it attempts to represent events beyond the scope of its experience. “The Slaughter of the Innocents: Execution at Szydlowiec” (I and II) shows the execution of Kirshenblatt’s father’s family eight years after the painter had left. Again the picture is an invitation to ask about the story but this time Kirshenblatt is neither a witness nor an artist like Goya (whom he cites as helping to “figure out how to paint this terrible scene”), who can evoke profound tragedy through art.

What works perfectly is the video of Kirshenblatt’s trip back to Opatów. As with the puppet theater the stories come to life, but unlike the puppet theater, the set is fully realized as a 21st century town. At a reception for Kirshenblatt, a woman leans over the table to whisper, “There are lots of people here who are a bit Jewish but they don’t want it to be said.” When they or their children are ready to know, Mayer has remembered their history for them.

Contact Dan Friedman at dfriedman@forward.com






Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.