Saturday, April 9, 2016

New Exhibit in Leeds Highlights Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe (1918-2006)

South Bend, Indiana. Temple Beth El. Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe, sculptor, 1947. Photo: Bigby Photo co. in Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art, 106

New Exhibit in Leeds Highlights Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe (1918-2006) 
by Samuel D. Gruber

A new exhibition at The University of Leeds (England) celebrates the work of American born and trained artist Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe. She was born January 1, 1918 and studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1930 to 1933 and then at Columbia University from 1935, where she received her M.A. in 1940 Read more about her life here.

Mitzi Solomon was already beginning a notable career in America when she married historian Marcus Cunliffe in 1949, and moved to England, her home for the rest of her long life. I assume Solomon Cunliffe was Jewish by birth, or that at least her father (Abraham Solomon) was (if anyone knows for sure, let me know). She was one of small group of American women sculptors who contributed modern art to modern synagogues, something she seems ot have done only before her move to England.

South Bend, Indiana. Temple Beth El. Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe, sculptor, 1947-1950. Photo: Temple Beth El website.

Cunliffe contributed a striking relief to the entrance area of Temple Beth El in South Bend, Indiana in 1947.  The synagogue, designed by architects Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett, was among the first modernist synagogues built after World War II.  The relief represents the roots and branches of a tree, with the branches intertwined into an abstract design over which is laid a much smaller, narrow set of stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, inscribed with the first letters in HebrewIn the words of Avram Kampf "It is quite possible that the artist attempted to evoke the sense and significance of the moral law at the roots of a civilized life and its specific places within the Hebraic tradition."Significantly, Cunliffe's synagogue relief work is much less well known than contemporary (and later) works by Herbert Ferber and Ibram Lassaw, about which I have written before.  The neglect is probably as much due to the location of the work in Indiana as to the artist's gender. But Cunliffe's work pre-dates synagogue sculpture by Luise Kaish, Louise Nevelson and others by more than a decade.

Leeds, England. "Man-Made Fibres," portland Stone. Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe, sculptor, 1956. Photo: University of Leeds

The pattern of tree is related to the type of patterning the Cunliffe developed in much of her other work through the 1950s.  In Egnland, Cunliffe got her first big break in 1951 with two major works for the Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank. She also was especially active in Manchester throughout her career. The Leeds exhibit specifically celebrates the 60th anniversary of her work  'Man-Made Fibres' at the University from 1954-56. But Cunliffe is best known in the UK, when she spent the second half of her life, for her BAFTA mask - the English equivalent of the American Oscar statue - presented to the country's leading film performers

The BAFTA award, designed by Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe

Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe continued to make art late in life, even as she suffered form Alzheimer's Disease. She died in 2006. Read her obituary in the Guardian here 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Happy Birthday Richard Neutra (April 8, 1892 – April 16, 1970)!

 Richard Neutra (1892-1970). Photo: Ed Clark
Happy Birthday Richard Neutra (April 8, 1892 – April 16, 1970)!
by Samuel D. Gruber

Today is the birthday of the great Austrian-born American modernist architect Richard Neutra. though not often remembered, Neutra's early career in Europe and America was very much a part of a broad Jewish modernist culture.  Many of his artistic and architectural influences and his patrons came from the educated and artistic - and often experimental -  Austrian and German-born Jewish intelligentsia of the interwar period, even - or especially - once he arrived in Southern California. 

There have been many fine books, exhibits and articles about Neutra's architecture, particularly his striking modernist houses which still delight, amaze and inspire today. In this post, I quote from a paper I gave at the College Art Association annual meeting in 2013 that  addressed only some Jewish aspects of Neutra's work.  This discussion was in the context of the careers and influence of about a dozen Jewish European immigrant and refugees architect to America.

This passage deal with the Jewish world in which Neutra worked. Most important in history of synagogue architecture, however, is Neutra's 1924 synagogue design for the Vienna-Hietzing competition. though unbuilt it presage - a probably had a direct influence - on the preferred form of the post-World War II (often suburban) American synagogue center.

For a more detailed examination of Neutra's work from the architectural perspective see Thomas S. Hines, Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) and the MoMa catalogue by Hines and Arthur Drexler  The Architecture of Richard Neutra: From International Style to California Modern, (NY: MoMA, 1982), and subsequent works by Sylvia Lavin, Barbara Lamprecht and others.

From "Newish and Jewish from Europe: Refugees, Survivors and the Spread of Modernism in the Post-World War II American Jewish Community," a paper delivered by Samuel D. Gruber at annual meeting of the College Art Association (February 2013) in the session 

"Richard Neutra had absorbed Wright's designs in Europe from the Wasmuth publication. But Neutra had also worked in Berlin for the Expressionist Erich Mendelsohn, and with Mendelsohn had contacts as early as 1922 with Jewish clients when the two submitted a successful proposal for a commercial center in Haifa, Palestine. 

Almost immediately upon arriving in New York in 1923 – hoping to work, like Schindler, for Wright; Neutra was engaged by an International Zionist committee, including Albert Einstein, Rabbi Stephen Wise and Modechai Kaplan, to design a library for the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The audacious building, which combines elements of Wright and Mendelsohn, was promoted by the committee but never built.
Richard Neutra. Unbuilt design for Jewish Library, Jerusalem, 1923. Drwg reproduced in The Architecture of Richard Neutra: From International Style to California Modern, (NY: MoMA, 1982), p. 34.
Moving to Chicago, Neutra found a job with Holabird and Roche, but took creative work on the side for the North Shore Temple, designing a new building – without pay, but for the stimulation. The unbuilt design, influenced by Wright, includes formal features not found in synagogues until the 1960s. In November 1924 he achieved his dream – and went to work with Wright at Taliesin.

Richard Neutra. Unbuilt design for Northshore Temple, Chicago, 1924
Sometime in this period he prepared the synagogue-center design submitted unsuccessfully to a Vienna competition. This also owes much to Wright and Mendelsohn, for whom Neutra was interpreter and liaison when Mendelsohn visited Taliesen for several days. Neutra continued to play this role throughout his career, interpreting and blending ideas from the two masters.  But even though many of Neutra's Jewish Center ideas were later picked up by other architects, including Mendelsohn, in America; none of the LA architects needed to, or chose to express, a strong Jewish identity. Maybe three rejections were enough for Neutra.

Vienna-Hietzing competition, 1924.  Richard Neutra project. Published in Menorah Nov-Dec 1929.
St. Louis, MO. Bnai Amoona. Eric Mendelsohn, architect, 1949. Model.
In any case, there is nothing Jewish implicit or explicit in their residential work. Still, many of their clients were Jewish; such as natural-living guru Philip Lovell and wife Leah; the German-Jewish painter Galka Emmy Scheyer; and the Pittsburgh Kaufmanns, patrons of the now-iconic Desert House. The professional and social world in which these architects and clients flourished had a strong German and New York Jewish presence.

Historian Gavriel Rosenfeld has grouped Neutra and Schindler as “Non-Jewish” Jewish Architects: Profiles in Evasion;” in his book Building after Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust, but I think the situation is more nuanced; even simple encounters with their buildings made other Jews more modern, and thus modernism more Jewish."
Los Angeles, CA. Lovell House,Richard Neutra, arch. 1927-29. Photo: Wikimedia.
Palm Springs, CA. Kaufmann Desert House.Richard Neutra, architect 1946. Photo: Barbara Alfors 2000

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Poland: Krakow's Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. How Should The Wall Paintings Be Presented?

Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Interior being prepared for nightclub. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, May 2013.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Interior being prepared (again)  for nightclub or restaurant. Photo: Tomasz Cebulski 2016

Poland: Krakow's Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. How Should The Wall Paintings Be Presented? 
by Samuel D. Gruber

I've been working lately on the history, art, and preservation of the 1910 mural from the Chai Adam Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont. This has led me to look deeper at other fragments of late 19th and early 20th-century synagogue wall painting; mostly re-discovered in recent years.

When I was last in Krakow, Poland, in 2013, I saw for about 20 minutes the remarkable paintings in the former Hevra Tehilim (Psalm Brotherhood) prayer house at 18 Meiselsa Street (and 13 Bożego Ciała St) in the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. This largely intact cycle of wall paintings, painted some time between 1896 and the early 1930s, was entirely unknown to scholars and the public just a few years earlier. The large ground floor prayer hall was inaccessible to the public, and when returned to the Jewish community was still undistinguished, since all the decoration remained hidden by later coats of paint.

Based on my brief visit and a series of photos taken of the mural in 2008 by Slawomir Pastuszka and shared on Wikimedia, I want to make these works better known, and to stimulate discussion about their history, iconography and future preservation. More photos by Vladimir Levin, taken at the same time as my visit, have been posted by the Center for Jewish Art. Please contribute any information on the background of the paintings, or your ideas about their long term protection and presentation.

Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Interior being prepared (again)  for nightclub or restaurant. Photo:Tomasz Cebulski 2016.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
At the time of my visit,  the space was being "renovated" for use as the "Mezkal" nightclub. Now, the nightclub has closed, and according to a report by Tomasz Cebulski earlier this year, new "renovations" are taking place for another tenant - perhaps a club or cafeteria.

In the 1990s, when I was investigating still extant former synagogues in Krakow, this building, while known, was not considered especially noteworthy.  Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka had taught us about the magnificence of lost wooden synagogues, but there was not yet an available typology for masonry synagogues. The Piechotka's own work on 19th-century synagogues was not yet published, nor had Eleonora Bergman yet taught us the importance - and former ubiquity - of the hundreds (or thousands) or seemingly unimpressive buildings and spaces that once housed prayer and study rooms - especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, we have only a small number of these spaces that recall in any way their former use. Of these, the former Hewra Thilim building is probably the best.

Krakow, Poland. Former Hevra Thilim prayer house (first floor), 18 Meiselsa Street (and 13 Bożego Ciała St). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.

The Hevra Thilim building was erected in 1896 under the supervision of Nachman Kopald, a well-known local Jewish architect. The building does not have the monumental appearance or exterior symbolic elements associated with many contemporary synagogues - especially Progressive the Tempel Synagogue located not far away, which was rebuilt in 1893. When built, 18 Meiselsa St. looked like a typical fin-de-siecle upscale apartment or office building, as it still does today.  Eli Valley included a brief mention of the building and the Psalms Society in his 1999 book The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe, but his comments are restricted to the congregation, not their space: membership in the Psalms Society "was no piece of cake; every day, each of the members would read the entire Book of Psalms, from cover to cover. They also paid a magid, or preacher, who would lecture them in this building every day after the evening prayer." (p 364)

In the post-war years the building housed the seat of the “Krakowiacy” Singing and Dancing Group (Zespół Pieśni i Tańca “Krakowiacy"), and only in 2001, under the 1997 law on restitution of Jewish property, was the synagogue returned to the Jewish Community of Kraków. At the time, the Community allowed the music group to remain, provided that it undertook repairs of the building. The group carried out renovation of the interior in stages with funds from the the city of Kraków. According to a report about the building by Miłosz Gudra on Virtual Sztetl, "The management board stated that it could not afford new windows and a thorough renovation of the roof; the city, on the other hand, refused to allocate money in this case because it was not the owner of the synagogue. The group ceased to occupy the building in 2006."

Then, in 2008, the brightly colored synagogue wall paintings were discovered. The images include vivid depictions a lion, a tiger, eagle (fragment) and a deer in ornamental frames on the west wall, at the women’s gallery level. These illustrate the favorite passage from the Mishnah, "Be as strong as a leopard, as light as an eagle, as swift as a deer, as brave as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven" (Pirke Avot 5:23). In these paintings, which seem to be copied from a nature calendar, the leopard has become a tiger and the swift deer is a stately buck.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008 
A recess for the Aron ha-Kodesh with surrounding fragments of a painted red curtain has been preserved on the east wall. The decorative program also preserved a Hebrew memorial inscription reading “A candle of soul,” and expansive floral motif decorationsJust below the ceiling is a floral frieze. The windows are surrounded with painted red flowers, and there is a vertical floral frieze set between pairs of windows.  A fragment of a view of Jerusalem is preserved near a platform in the rear - that may have been reserved for women, though it is hard to tell if this is original. On both the north and south walls are two series of empty square niches.

Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Painted curtains around Ark niche. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.

Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Interior east and south walls. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, May 2013.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Interior wall painting. . Hebrew: נר נשמה , ner neshama, meaning "soul candle". Photo: Tomasz Cebulski 2016.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
On the north wall, set within painted ornamental floral frames, are four pictures of holy sites - real or imagined. Other than an extremely damaged picture of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount  (Hebrew: "Kotel,") these differ from more common scenes. There is a view of the Tower of David ("Migdal David"), and another of ruins that is labeled (fragmentary inscription) "Tombs of the Kings of the House of David". Lastly, there is a view of a pavilion-like domed building flanked by cypress trees.  I can't decipher the fragmentary inscription. Is this also a tomb?  Or is it meant to be the rebuilt Temple - modeled loosely, as was often the case, on the Dome of the Rock?  If the Temple, it suggests a messianic theme, stretching from the ruined Temple, through the House of David, to Messianic times.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Image of the מגדל דוד Migdal David (Tower of David). Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Tombs of the Kings of the House of David. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Tomb or Temple? Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. In 2013, the inscriptions had bee covered over by protective (?) panels. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2013.
Krakow, Poland. Beit Midrash Hevra Tehilim. Fragment of view of Jerusalem. Photo: Sławomir Pastuszka 2008.
As Tomasz Cebulski notes in his post, there is no reason the space of this former prayer house should not be used, and even used to bring income to the Jewish Community.  But given its history and extant art, the adaptive reuse should be "with respect, care and adding new meaning and understanding to this important historical space." There should a better long term solution. While this may never be a synagogue again since the Community has already invested in the restoration or refurbishment of several other historic prayer spaces, it could and should serve some other purpose that would allow the murals to be viewed unobstructed on a regular schedule, and the space used in a low-impact, dignified manner. The room is ideal for performance, lectures, meetings, exhibits and related activities.