Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tom Freudenheim Remembers Tzali Narkiss

Tom Freundenheim Remembers Tzali Narkiss

Last month I wrote about the death of Bezalel Narkiss, founder of the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Here, I post the words or remembrance by my friend Tom Freudenheim, long active in the world of Jewish art amd museums, and member of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Jewish Culture:


The recent passing, on June 29, 2008, of Professor Bezalel Narkiss in Jerusalem reminds us of how the world of Jewish art has expanded in past decades. When I was working at the Jewish Museum (NYC) in the early 1960's, the field of Jewish art scholarship was relatively small, populated by European scholars who had moved to greener pastures (e.g., Richard Krautheimer) or Jewish scholars limited in the scope of their understanding of art history (e.g. Cecil Roth). The fingers of two hands would have more than sufficed for taking the census in this field. Tzali Narkiss is emblematic of how much changed in the intervening years. If ever there were yiches in this field, he carried them. His father, Mordecai Narkiss, was the first director of the Bezalel Museum, which ultimately became the extraordinary Israel Museum. And he carried the name of the eponymous first "Jewish artist" Bezalel (we read about him in Exodus), who was appointed by God to manage the building of the Tabernacle and its implements.

After studying at the
Hebrew University, Narkiss earned his doctorate at the University of London's Warburg Institute. In the early 1960's he helped found the Department of Art History at the Hebrew University, where he served as a professor for many years. training several generations of art historians -- many of them now working in museums and universities in Israel and throughout the world. He founded the Index of Jewish Art, the Journal of Jewish Art, and the Center for Jewish Art -- each of which now maintain a central position in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his many important appointments, he was a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Study in Washington, D.C., at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the CNRS in Paris. He was also a guest professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and at Brown University, Samuel H. Kress Professor in the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and a visiting professor at Princeton University.

Narkiss' many publications added immeasurably to the field of Jewish art studies, especially in the area of his special expertise, medieval and Renaissance Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. In 1999 he was awarded the Israel Prize. I last visited with him in
Jerusalem in April 2006, and thinking back on that day I realize all of the above doesn't really describe Tzali Narkiss. He was a friend of "everyone" in the field, warm and affable, with a sparkling sense of humor, generous in discussing art historical issues, and certainly one of the people who has helped secure Israel's world-wide scholarly prominence.
--Tom L. Freudenheim, Foundation for Jewish Culture, Board of Directors

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