Diane Arbus’s “Jewish Giant,” the second installment in the Jewish Museum’s innovative Masterpieces & Curiosities series, is an entire show dedicated to interrogating the competing meanings contained within a single photograph by Diane Arbus.
The photo itself, “A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y, 1970,” is mounted in a vitrine in the middle of the gallery, and it’s a remarkable work of art.
The first thing you notice is the giant himself, looming over the elderly couple in front of him. He’s not just huge — he’s grotesque in other ways too. Hunchbacked. Clubfooted. His shadow floats behind him like a dark aura. He’s unshaven, in need of a haircut, and his shirt looks like it hasn’t been ironed in years. If he weren’t so large you’d think he was a hobo, a grafter, a thief in the night. His head twists forward as though he’s too big for the room — or is he lurching, leering, using his size to intimidate?
The next thing you notice is the old couple standing before him. The stocky balding man in his three-piece suit, staring straight ahead as though he can barely endure being made to stand here. The plump woman with frizzy dyed hair, wearing her best shmata, trying to put on a brave face. They are Jewish. That’s obvious from the unfortunate glasses they wear as well as from the furnishings that could only belong to them. The lampshades wrapped in plastic. The drab but tasteful armchair and sofa. The Old World art on the walls. The curtains pulled shut against the world. This is their home. Note the scroll work on the walls, the crack on the ceiling that has been plastered over. A typical prewar apartment in New York City.
And here is this giant, stalking toward them and backing them into a corner.
The composition certainly implies this may be the story. The low angle of the camera gives the room the skewed perspective of a funhouse, the walls shrinking as you go deeper in, and there he is — an intruder, a monster — perched just off center. The only thing protecting the two old Jews on the short side of the frame is the space between them.
But look more closely. Notice how he presses all of his considerable weight into the handle of his cane. Notice the painful bend in his knees. The lift in the sole of his left shoe. Notice how pasty white his arm is. Notice, particularly, the soft, almost pleading openness of his expression, the need it projects. And the woman, his mother — is it possible that the fear on her face comes not from intimidation but from the burden of a Jewish mother’s devotion, from seeing her great hulk of a boy breaking down and growing feeble before her eyes?
Maybe we’ve misunderstood the meaning of the image. Maybe this photo is not about monsters. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe, as the title implies, it’s about Judaism. Might the woman in the photo not be wondering who will protect her son from the ravages the world may inflict on him because of the conspicuous difference embedded in his body, a difference that can’t be assimilated away?
Instead of building a narrative around an existing collection of art objects, as most museum exhibitions do, “Diane Arbus’s Jewish Giant,” curated by Daniel S. Palmer, has compiled artifacts and art works in an axis around this central image to explicate its themes.