Saturday, October 18, 2008
Exhibition: Arbit Blatas in New York
Exhibition: Centennial Exhibit in NYC of Arbit Blatas, Paris School Painter Known for Venice Holocaust Monument
An exhibition in New York at the Brookdale Center of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC – JIR) celebrates the Centennial of the birth of Lithuania-born Jewish artist Arbit Blatas (1908-1999), once a prominent member of the pre-World War II “Paris School” of painters, and in later life known for his series of bronze bas-reliefs that comprise the Holocaust memorial in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo in Venice, Italy (1980, 1993). The reliefs commemorate the night of Dec. 5, 1943, when the first 200 of the city's Jews were rounded up and deported to their deaths, but also retell in a more inclusive history of Holocaust suffering.
Blatas also prepared the black and white drawings used to introduce segments of the 1978 television series 'Holocaust,'' which changed the way the Holocaust was discussed in Europe, and also made Blatas’s work known to millions.
The HUC – JIR exhibition includes one of four castings of the The Monument to the Holocaust, which has been donated by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the permanent collection of HUC - JIR. With these, are also exhibited a series of large vividly colored and dramatically staged oil paintings mostly contemporary with the bronzes that represent similar scenes of oppression and destruction. An earlier painting from 1944, an immensely powerful painting titled “Babi Yar,” was done in a strongly expressionistic style and dramatically depicts the orgy of violence with a force equal to some of the medieval depictions of the Massacre of the Innocents (see photo).Besides being the strongest painting in the exhibition, it is a rare depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust made so close in time to the actual events. Most artists of the period (as has been described by Matthew Baigell and others) confronted the reported horrors with symbolic, mythological or historical language.
A Blatas, worked in Paris from 1919 until he was forced to flee Europe to America in 1941. In the last decades of his life he has a studio in Venice, a city where the light and architecture encouraged his rich glowing palette. A second part of the exhibition focuses on Blatas’s more exuberant work of happier themes – Venice and the Opera. Blatas was married to Regina Resnick, an opera singer and stage director. Together, in the 1970s and 1980s, they created sets and costumes for many of the world’s major opera houses. Paintings based on these designs are included, as well as cityscapes of Venice and elsewhere that are pictorial essays in saturated color.
Blatas’s Venice monument originated with the artist himself. As a Jew who lost his mother and many friends and relatives in the Holocaust he felt a special need to commemorate the events of suffering. As a lover of Venice, he conceived of the monument as a gift to the city. The monument is unlike most Holocaust monuments made up to that time. It is neither heroic nor symbolic. It has none of the heroic grandeur of the work of Nathan Rappoport (Warsaw Ghetto Uprisng Monument), or of the East German sculptors at Buchenwald. Instead, Blatos followed an the old tradition of a sequence of narrative reliefs – a tradition rooted in the triumphal arches of ancient Rome, and in bronzes doors of medieval (S. Zeno, Verona) and Renaissance (Baptistery, Florence). One sees echoes of battles scenes from the column of Trajan and the poignant heroism of Ghiberti’s Sacrifice of Isaac (Akedah). The finish is rough and battered, giving these panels a painful immediacy that links the viewer to the timeless scenes. In 1980, seven panels were placed next to the wall of the Casa di Riposo Israelitica (Jewish Old Age Home), near the spot where the Jews of Venice were collected before their deportation. A separate panel, the Last Train, was placed alone and was unveiled in the presence of the president of Italy in 1993.
Blatas made four sets of these bronze reliefs. He also provided one set for the Shrine of the Unknown Jewish Martyr in the Marais, Paris (1981). Another was made for the former site of the Anti-Defamation League in New York at Dag Hammerskjold Plaza (1982). These are in the exhibition. A fourth set was installed at the Ninth Fort, outside his native Kaunas, Lithuania, after his death in 2003.
For more views of the Venice monuments click here.