Monday, January 23, 2017

Women at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (As Seen in the 1929 Mural Cycle by Hugo Ballin)

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Four Matriarchs on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017. A better picture is here.
Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Sarah on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

Women at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (As Seen in the 1929 Mural Cycle by Hugo Ballin)
by Samuel D. Gruber

The Warner Memorial Murals by American Jewish artist Hugo Ballin are among the most spectacular works of synagogue art of the 20th century.  Ballin (1879-1956) was a classically trained painter who came of age in New York in the era of the American Renaissance (at the turn of the 20th century he was painting in the Donatello Studios in Florence, now used by Syracuse University).  In 1913 he gained fame for his extensive mural program at the Wisconsin State Capitol, but a few years later he began work as a designer for silent films, and soon moved to Hollywood and developed a successful career as art director, writer, and director of many silent films - often starring his wife Mabel Ballin. After the advent of talkies in 1927 he stopped making his own films and returned to fine art to become one of the country's leading muralists. In 1929, he was head of art at Warner Brothers and was hired to the task of decorating the new Wilshire Boulevard Temple. His  extensive historical, allegorical, and symbolic representation of Jewish history was financed by three of the Warner Brothers in memory of their siblings and parents, and was planned together with Rabbi Edgar Magnin. .  

I first saw and wrote about the murals for my 2003 book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community.  They hhave recently been meticulously conserved and restored by Aneta Zebala Paintings Conservation company as part of the larger restoration of the entire Temple, led by Brenda Levin, and the ongoing expansion of Wilshire Boulevard Temple facilities. The transformation is impressive and the murals are spectacular ... a unreeling saga in technicolor when films were still only in black and white.

Earlier this month, however, I was fortunate to have a morning to look at the murals in detail. Even more time is needed; the paintings are packed with historical vignettes, scenes, and symbols. They exhibit a wide range of design and painterly approaches and flourishes. The mural is brash and bold and executed with brio. The expressive, dramatic, and cinematic nature of the unreeling narrative was already remarked upon in 1929, and again most recently by Mackenzie Stevens, who sees the highlighting of the scenes as similar to the lighting techniques of the silent film era. New photos by Tom Bonner, published in the book Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Warner Murals: Celebrating 150 Years by Tom Teicholz (ORO Editions, 2013, allow attention to detail that is not even possible on site where visibility of the high lunettes is still hampered by original (and inadequate) lighting. Caroline Luce also explores some aspects of the mural in her informative website about Ballin's extensive mural work in the LA area.

I look forward to writing more about the murals and other aspects of Ballin's career elsewhere, but right now I want to draw attention to just one aspect of the mural which is rarely mentioned, and that is the inclusion of many images of women in the narrative. This includes a prominent depiction of the Four Matriarchs of Judaism, shown seated as a group on the sanctuary south wall opposite the Ark and bimah, and set beneath the balcony and over the main door through which one passes on existing the sanctuary.  To my knowledge this is the first such representation of the four Matriarchs anywhere in the history of art.


Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Rebecca on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Rachel  and Leah on south wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Today, among egalitarian Jewish congregations, the most widely accepted and popular  addition to traditional liturgy is the includion of the names of the  Matriarchs in birkat avot (the blessing of the ancestors), which opens the Amidah: "Praised are You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah], great, mighty, awesome, exalted God who bestows lovingkindness, Creator of all. You remember the pious deeds of our ancestors and will send a redeemer to their children's children because of Your loving nature."  But in 1929, I think this inclusion of the matriarchs in such a prominent prayer would have imaginable to only the most progressive Jews (perhaps one of my readers - more familiar with the history of Jewish feminism would know more about the early advocacy for this change).

The four women strike poses familiar from classical and Renaissance art.  Based on form alone, they could be Greek or Roman matrons, or even goddesses, muses, allegorical virtues, or sybils - as painted  by Ballin earlier in his career. There is nothing quite like this in Jewish art since Edward Bendemann painted The Mourning Jews in Babylonian Exile a century earlier in 1832 and now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which depicts too mourning Jewish women seated next to a chained Jewish man.

Edward Bendemann, The Mourning Jews in Babylonian Exile, oil on canvas, 1832. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.
Hugo Ballin, The Sibylla Europa Prophesying the Massacre of the Innocents, 1906. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Hugo Ballin, Window in Tomb, Brooklyn, NY. Architectural League Exhibition Catalogue, 1907.

Rabbi Magnin, who had much to say about many of the Patriarchs and Prophets, said nothing about the women. But Dr. Luce speculates about their significance and also finds Mabel Ballin's presence here:
Like the female figures in his early paintings, Ballin placed the Matriarchs in a pastoral setting, removed from the realities of everyday life.  Nevertheless, their positions and poses suggest aspects of their characters and experiences as "Mothers" of the nation Israel.  On the left, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, looks down, perhaps disconsolate over her long period of childlessness or over the near loss of her only child, Isaac, at the hand of his father. Rebecca, wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob and Esau, holds a pitcher representing her hospitality at the well.  Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob, opens her arms in an embracing manner.  On the right, Leah appears disconsolate as well, perhaps because she is the unloved wife of Jacob. 

Confounding any interpretation of symbolism of the women is the fact that each of the women also resembles Ballin's wife, Mabel, suggesting that this portion of the mural is in some ways an expression of his love and admiration for his wife. Indeed, soon after his marriage, some observers noted that “traces of certain singularly attractive feminine features [were] asserting themselves more and more in his canvasses,” guessing that it might be because he, “unconsciously reproduces her [Mabel's] features in his work."1 Ballin likely felt that Mabel embodied the qualities of each of these mothers and may have aimed to honor her contributions to his household by including the "Four Mothers" in his mural.
Mabel Ballin in Motion Picture Magazine (1920 or 1921)
Mabel Ballin in Judge (Dec 11, 1920)
Full human figures were not often represented in Jewish art, but there are many more examples than usually assumed. Images of women, however, are scarce. Before the turn of the 20th century we find representations of Judith on Hanukah lamps, but few other examples. This began to change when social artists such as Maurycy Minkowski, Abel Pann and others frequently included images of women (often holding children) in scenes of refugees from pogroms. 

Maurycy Minkowski, Po pogromie (After the Pogrom), 1905. Oil on canvas. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
At the same time, the first generation of Zionist artists more frequently included images of Biblical women, including Judith, often in heroic poses.  Boris Schatz created a number of relief sculptures with women subjects, and around 1908 Lesser Ury painted a striking representation of Rebecca at the Well (see illustration) which bears comparison to Ballin's Rebecca at Wilshire Boulevard Temple .

Boris Schatz, A Hebrew Mother, 1904, terracotta relief, 80x50cm. From Boris Schatz Father of Israeli Art

Boris Schatz, Judith, 1905, plaster relief.  From Boris Schatz Father of Israeli Art

Lesser Ury (German, 1861-1931), Rebecca at the Well, c. 1908, oil on canvas, Stiftung Jüdisches Museum, Berlin.

Teicholz notes that prominent placement of the matriarchs reflected attitudes within the congregation, where mixed seating of men and women was first adopted in the 1860s. Women were later counted in the minyan and before the 23rd amendment granted women the vote in American governmental election, women at Wilshire were made full members with an equal vote on synagogues matters.

These four are not the only women represented in the mural - there are several other generic women shown as wives and mothers.  Women are also represented in "The Messianic Age" in the western lunette.  In the spandrels over the east arches, there are scenes representing the sacred books, and the Book of Proverbs is shown with female figures, one weaving and the other giving drink to the thirsty, representing the passage about "A Woman of Valor." The Song of Songs is interpreted as a sensual love poem rather than an allegorical one, and it is represented by a beautiful and somewhat exotic woman seen in profile at the western end of the arches. With her feather headress, bangles, and chic loose outfit dropping in vertical folds to the ground, she might have felt as at home in a 1920s Paris nightclub as on the wall of synagogue.

Likewise, the image of Beruriah, the ancient Talmud-scholar wife of Rabbi Meir, is shown as a young and comely woman, looking over her husband's shoulder - either commenting upon or guiding his work. The large full-length image of Maimonides is shown before a supplicating woman and child.

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Bururiah and Rabbi Meir. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
In the spandrels over the west arches are scenes of Jewish festivals and women are shown at both the seder celebration and lighting the Sabbath lamp. There is a decidedly pre-modern feel to these. The hanging lamp is one of the German Judenstern type, widely recognized as a Sabbath standard by it frequent appearance in the scenes by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim in the 19th century.

Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of seder scene. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Los Angeles, CA. Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Warner Memorial Murals by Hugo Ballin (1929). Detail of Sabbath lamp lighting. . Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Germany: Berlin's Old Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str., A Good Example of How to Protect and Present a Despoiled Urban Cemetery

Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016)
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. with memorial sculpture installed in 1987.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. Preserved gravestones and historical signage in German, English and Hebrew in side entrance. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).

Germany: Berlin's Old Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str., A Good Example of How to Protect and Present a Despoiled Urban Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber

Even as many Jewish institutions flourish today, Berlin is a city steeped in Jewish memory. So much of the city's Jewish history and culture was truncated, and tens of thousands of the city's Jews were forced into exile or to death under the Nazi regime, that it is hard to conceive how the Jewish present can ever again eclipse the Jewish past. Through of the city there are scores of memorial plaques and stones, museums, and commemorative sites; and there are cemeteries. The largest of these is the last opened, the 43-hectare Weissensee Cemetery. But the oldest is the small and extremely poignant Old Jewish Cemetery  on Grosse Hamburger Str. in the dense urban are of Mitte, once an neighborhood also filled with living Jews and vibrant institutions. Today it is a peaceful and respected urban oasis, but it took decades to reach this solution.

The collective memorial also commemorates the destroyed Jewish community, its institutions, and 55,000 Berlin Jews deported to their deaths at the ghetto of Terezin, the Auschwitz Death Camp and elsewhere. Affixed to the wall of the cemetery facing Grosse Hamburger Str. is a plaque the states (my translation):

This was the first home of the Jewish Community of Berlin. In 1942, the Gestapo turned it into a collection point for Jewish residents. 55,000 Berlin Jews, from infant to the elderly, were dragged to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps and bestially murdered. Do not forget. Resist war. Embrace peace.
Berlin, Germany.  Grosse Hamburger Str.  Memorial plaque for Berlin's deported Jews. Note the commemorative stones set on a sill within the concrete wall.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

The cemetery was founded by the  so-called “Schutzjuden" (Jews with special protection from the state) who had come from Vienna in 1671 and been allowed to settle in the Spandauer Tor area, not far from the cemetery, which was in use between 1672 and 1827. Besides members of Berlin’s Jewish community, Jews from  Spandau, Nauen, Kremmen, Zehdenick and Oranienburg were also buried here.

Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Gross Hamburger Str. before destruction. Photo: Centrum Judaicum.
Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str., present state. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str., present state. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

Unlike the the large Jewish cemeteries on the periphery of Berlin's urban core which for complex reasons survived the Nazi regime and Shoah substantially intact, the old cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str. was completely devastated by the Nazis when in 1943 the grounds  were used for air raid shelters and gravestones were used to reinforced the walls. Then in April 1945, the area was the site of mass graves for soldiers and civilians killed during Allied air raids. An undated stone plaque, perhaps from the 1960s, is attached to a far wall of the cemetery and commentaries these burials - though not the fate of the city's Jews.

The exact number of Jews buried in the cemetery from the 17th through the 19th century is unknown, with estimates as high as 12,000. An inventory at the times of the cemetery closing in 1827 identified 2,767 graves. Today, no gravestones remain in situ, and only 19 gravestones are preserved at all - set against the cemetery's interior southern wall. In addition to Jewish burials there are 16 mass graves on the site for the non-Jewish air-raid victims and soldiers.  These and earlier diggings on the site for shelters disturbed hundreds, if not thousands, or earlier Jewish burials.

In 1948, a plaque commemorating of the cemetery's history was erected by the Jewish community and during the GDR era, the cemetery was declared a park complex under monumental protection. In the 1970s, East Berlin’s Department of Parks and Gardens removed the remaining Jewish gravestones as well as the wooden crosses marking the graves of air raid victims. Then the cemetery was used as a park.

Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Str. Preserved gravestones set against southern wall. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).
Berlin, Germany. Old Jewish Cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Str. Symbolic gravestone of Moses Mendelssohn. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
In 1988 the few surviving gravestones which had been set into the wall of an adjacent house (in the pre-war period?) were transferred to the Weissensee cemetery, but these were returned in 2009. A symbolic grave for Moses Mendelssohn was left at the spot, and even this has new been replaced by a more recent version, similar to the original gravestone of  Mendelssohn. The remodeling of the cemetery premises in 2007 was financed by the Berlin Senate and the Jewish community. The area can again be recognized as a cemetery. A ritual washbasin and a prayer board are affixed at the entrance and new signage presents the Jewish history of the site.
 
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Strasse. Plaque commemorating mass graves of German war victims. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.
Berlin, Germany.  Old Jewish Cemetery at Grosse Hamburger Strasse. Plaque commemorating mass graves of German war victims. The inscripton reads: "Auf diesem Alten Friedhof der judischen Gemeinde wurden im Jahre 1945 Zahllose opfer des Krieges Begraben /  "In this Old Cemetery of the Jewish Community, countless victims of the war were buried in 1945."  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016.

In the 19th century, after the cemetery was closed, the Jewish Old Age home was built adjacent to the cemetery. This building was destroyed by allied bombing in 1945. today, a memorial plaque on the exterior wall of the cemetery commemorates this institution.
 

Berlin, Germany.  Grosse Hamburger Str.  Sculptural memorial by Will Lammert, installed 1985. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2016).

In 1985, a bronze sculptural group of figures by Will Lammert (1892-1957) was installed next to this memorial. This is a model for a sculptural group originally intended for installation as part of the Ravensbrück camp memorial, but Lammert died in 1957 before he was able to complete the final project. Lammert was a leading German sculptor who because his membership in the Communist party and his Jewish was was exiled from Nazi German, where he was charged with High Treason, and spent much of the 1930s on the run until surviving in Soviet Union. He returned to Communist East Germany in 1951. From 1954 on he dedicated himself to creating the the Ravensbrück camp memorial. The thirteen figures arranged on a base in front of the Berlin cemetery were meant to be part of this work. Instead, installed in Berlin in 1985 (in an arrangement by Lammert's son), this became the first monument to the Holocaust created in East Berlin.
 
Berlin, Germany.  Grosse Hamburger Str.  Sculptural memorial by Will Lammert, installed 1985. Photo:
Jochen Teufel (Wikicommons)

While this might not be the most appropriate memorial for the history of this site, or to commemorate the tens of thousands of murdered Berlin Jews, it has became part of the accepted commemorative landscape.

Sources:

"Grosse Hamburger Strasse Cemetery," website of Jewish Community of Berlin.

Andreas Nachama and Ulrich Eckhardt, Jüdische Orte in Berlin, (Berlin: Nicolai Verlag,

"Will Lammert," Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Holocaust Memorials: Things Left Behind

Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Holocaust Memorials: Things Left Behind
by Samuel D. Gruber

Berlin is a city of monuments and memorials, celebrating Prussian power and now, in recent decades, Nazi crimes. The list of Holocaust commemorative sites, plaques, statues, exhibitions in continually growing. This is to say nothing of the more than 5,000 stolpersteine that have now been installed on pavements throughout the city, with many in the Berlin-Mitte neighborhood.  Having so many commemorative sites allows for great variety. Some are explicit and narrative; some conceptual and abstract. Some are generic and some precise. Some are collective, while some remember specific individuals and families. But even when taken together all these monuments cannot convey the enormity of suffering and loss; of astonishment, fear, violence, pain, and death.

Berlin, Germany. Examples of Stolpersteine commemorating former Jewish residents of Grosse Hambrger Str. 30. Photo: Sameul Gruber 2016
I've been to Berlin several times over the past twenty-five years - as this commemorative landscape has expanded neighborhood by neighborhood. Each time different memorials strike a chord.  On this visit, I was especially moved on the short walk up Grosse Hamburger Str. in Mitte, from the Old Jewish cemetery to Koppenplatz, the site of the bronze sculpture Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room), by Karl Biedermann, installed in 1996.  The work is a near-perfect example of a genre of monuments I call "things left behind." These works began appearing in Europe in the 1990s and continue to be made today. They rely on contradictions to convey their powerful message of abandonment and loss.

Examples are in Sopron, Hungary, where a 2004 monument by László Kutasis cast from real clothes to suggest the garments left by victims in the "showers" of Auschwitz. In Budapest, the 2005 memorial on the banks of the Danube of cast shoes and boots - to signify the victims who were shot and  thrown into the icy river in 1944-45 by Arrow Cross militiamen  - is another powerful example These Hungarian examples are more spricifc in the references than The Deserted Room which could equally have been installed in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels or any other occupied cavity from which Jews where Jews rounded up and deported. But it also speaks to any place today where refugees must run from their homes, never to return.

Sopron, Hungary. Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust from Sopron, László Kutas, sculptor, 2004. Photo: szoborlap.hu
Budapest, Hungary. Danube River Monument, 2005. Gyula Pauer, artist. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2009
While these works are conceptual at their core, they are also highly realistic - even hyper realist in their visible subject and form. They juxtapose the commonplace and every-day with the realization of the reality of unspeakable horror and inconsolable lose. Most powerful of all, these works encounter the view on high intellectual level but with personal immediacy.

Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The bronze sculpture is so natural - one can mistake the table and two chairs as the real thing - though in fact they are slightly bigger than normal and cast in bronze. And yet these cannot be normal - they sit on a faux-parquet floor in a room with walls and ceiling within a small city park. This represent a room on ordinary apartment or houses, that has been left in a hurry. Were the residents who so recently sat at the simple table arrested and deported? Or did they leave suddenly, saving themselves as refugees on the run? Sadly, we must think the former. Around  the edge of the floor are lines from the famous poem O the Chimneys by Nobel Prize Laureate Nelly Sachs. The lines of the third stanza:


O die Wohnungen des Todes, Einladend hergerichtet Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war – O ihr Finger,

Die Eingangsschwelle legend Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod –

O ihr Schornsteine, O ihr Finger, Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!

[O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest –
O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!]


Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
Berlin, Germany. Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room). Karl Biedermann, sculptor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The lines of the Nelly Sachs poem could have been used for the Sopron memorial, too.

I'll be adding more about the Berlin Commemorative landscape in coming weeks.