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Famously, Warhol quipped that he selected these particular Jews because he “liked their faces.” But there’s more to it than that. The Jews he chose came from immigrant backgrounds; all of their parents or grandparents made their living by their hands; they were butchers, carpenters, mechanics, grain merchants (except for Martin Buber, who broke with the religiosity of his grandfather, a talmudic scholar, to pursue secular studies and moved away from his homeland). Yet these 10 (or 12 if you consider the three Marx brothers included in one portrait) forged new paths by creating for themselves a rich, creative life of the mind.
Warhol himself had Roman Catholic parents who came from Czechoslovakia and grew up in working-class Pittsburgh, Pa. As Kynaston McShine writes in “Andy Warhol, A Retrospective,” “from an early age, he seems to have been interested in adopting another identity, having experienced the problems of being himself — of being linguistically, culturally and religiously different.”
In his early works, he was drawn to “metaphors of metamorphosis and self-transcendence,” portraying Superman, who transforms himself from Clark Kent, and Popeye, who becomes a new man by eating spinach. Like Warhol, these 10 Jews were able to transform themselves on a remarkable level and create their own individual paths to fame by sheer intelligence and determination, not by inheritance.
Warhol’s attraction to Meir makes the Jewish Museum Milwaukee a fitting site to exhibit his prints. Indeed, Meir’s presence hovers over the entire museum like a floating figure in a Chagall painting. When you enter the museum, you first see an enormous hanging tapestry created by Chagall in 1973. On the upper right of the tapestry are two female faces. The museum notes quote Chagall: “In painting the woman, I have thought of the women of the Bible, of Madame Golda Meir, and of all the valiant women of the earth.”
The Chagall tapestry sets up surprising resonances for the Warhol exhibit. When you enter the room where the prints are displayed, you immediately see two windows, each broken into four squares or rectangles of bright blue, red, yellow and purple. These windows evoke Chagall’s stained-glass windows. In turn, the colors of Warhol’s prints (except for the austere grays of the Einstein portrait) mirror those that Chagall uses in his stained glass windows. In Warhol’s Buber portrait, the philosopher’s face suggests Chagall’s prophet figure.