Friday, September 15, 2017

Lithuania: Exhibition of Mad Magazine Cartoonist Al Jaffee's Art Travels the Country

Portrait of cartoonist Al Jaffee at the beginning of an exhibition of his work, which is now at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania.
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, Sept. 2017


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Al Jaffee and his family arrive in the main square of Zarasai. From Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2010)
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, Sept. 2017
Lithuania: Exhibition of Mad Magazine Cartoonist Al Jaffee's Art Travels the Country
by Samuel D. Gruber

One doesn't expect to find an exhibition of work by Mad Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee in the Regional Museum of Ukmerge, Lithuania, but there it was.  This exhibit of cartoons made by Jaffee for his 2010 biography Al Jaffee's Mad Life: ABiography (HarperCollins, 2010), by Mary-Lou Weisman, for which Jaffee provided the illustrations, has been traveling the country since it opened in Zarasai, Lithuania last year.
  
Jaffee was born Abraham Jaffee, in Savannah, Georgia, in 1921, but he spent six years of his boyhood (1927-1933) in Zarasai, Lithuania (then known as Ežerėnai) after his unhappy immigrant mother took her four small children back to her home town in Lithuania. Jaffe's early life straddled the Atlantic. For six years he lived the life of an Zarasai Jewish kid, but his father in America still sent packages filled with the American newspaper comics that Al craved. Eventually Al and his three brothers returned to America for good, but his mother stayed behind and is believed to have been murdered with the other Jews of Zarasai and nearby villages in the Krakyne Forest northeast of Degučiai in 1941. Al never returned to Lithuania. Still, his memories remained strong.

In 2013 Phil and Aldona Shapiro of the organization Remembering Litvaks, Inc, donated copies of the biography to the historical museums in Zarasai and Rokiskis and the library of the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania. From this small act developed the exhibition in 2016, when the director of the Zarasai Regional Museum asked if posters of the images in the biography pertaining to Al’s childhood years in Zarasai could be made. Remembering Litvaks, Inc., obtained the necessary copyright approvals and sponsored the project, which grew into a larger traveling exhibition. You can read more about the exhibit here:
http://www.litvaks.org/projects/al-jaffee-exposition/

I read the Jaffee biography last year, thinking to add his work to my Syracuse University course "Jewish Art: From Sinai to Superman."  Jaffee, best known as a political and satiric cartoonist for MAD Magazine since the 1950s straddles several narratives important to 20th-Century American Jewish culture and art. As an immigrant artist, he is one of a large cohort of young American Jews who found their independent voices through both commercial and  fine art. Jaffee developed his art in the world pulp magazines and comics, ultimately landing steady (but always part-time) work in satire with Mad Magazine, where among other contributions he invented and sustained the back cover "fold-in." In sixty years only one issue did not contain work by Jaffee. All this history of Jaffee's work is probably lost on Lithuanian viewers, who've probably never heard of Mad Magazine.  Unfortunately, but for some obvious reasons, the exhibit does not cover the greater part of Jaffee's career, but only life looking back. Jaffee, now age 96, is still working.

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 Al Jaffee, Hawks and Doves from Mad Magazine. Reproduced in
Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2010)

Political satire and cartooning were old professions by definition done by outsiders, even more than much of the journalism to which political cartooning was linked. Jews, as quintessential outsiders, could work in this world. But immigrant Jews also flourished in the newer industries of mass-circulation pulp magazines, movies, comic books, radio and television. These were all new professions with no rules, and importantly, without gatekeepers. No degrees from Ivy League schools were needed, nor a profession of mainstream Christianity. 

Some Jewish cartoonists and writers like Will Eisner, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Stan Lee, Joe Kubert, Bob Kane and others gravitated to the world mass entertainment, and this gave us (super)heroes and villains. Others moved to political satire and caricature. William Gropper and other lefter artists were already adept at political cartooning before World War II, and this ultimately led in the 1950s to the work of William Gaines, Harvey Kurtzman and the Mad Magazine crew, but also Jules Feiffer, Al Hirschfeld, and Saul Steinberg.

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Al Jaffee. Al and his siblings lost at the Hamburg train station after arriving in Europe from American with their mother. From Al Jaffee's Mad Life: A Biography (HarperCollins, 2010)
Al Jaffee never returned to Lithuania, so all of his memories, and the images of his life which he created of his life inter-war Lithuania are unaffected by the destruction of the Holocaust or the imposition of Soviet rule. In this, his images retain a childlike innocence familiar in the work of many "memory artists," who in old age reach back to childhood to re-create through pictures or words a time long gone. In this Jaffee's illustrations to his "as-told-to" biography, recall the vivid and detailed paintings of inter war Polish Opatów by Mayer Kirshenblatt, whose 2007 book They Call Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust,  written with daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (and accompanying traveling exhibition) has received a great deal of attention in the past decade. Kirshenblatt was a self-taught artist with a remarkable memory (see short video here), who began to paint at age 73. Jaffee's work is more accomplished, but is also more self-conscious, and not surprising given his professional career, his scenes have more explicit humor. The two retrospective books go well together.

Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
When the exhibition first opened in Zarasai on September 2, 2016, the day of European Jewish Culture, Jaffee’s biographer, Mary-Lou Weisman, posted an open letter to the people of Zarasai which stated, “To me, the existence of this exhibition is a double-triumph – the re-creation by Al Jaffee through art and memory, of the rural Lithuanian town that has since been forever changed by war; and the determination of the museum director and the people of modern Zarasai and their leaders to embrace their history. In Zarasai, the book, at last, has found its true home.”  The exhibit has also been shown in Molėtai by the Molėtai Regional Museum.

Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
Al Jaffee exhibition at the Ukmerge Regional Museum in Ukmerge, Lithuania. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Sept. 2017
In 2015 the Ukmerge regional Museum presented an  exhibition of photographs on Pope Francis’s trip to Israel. There is also an exhibition about the Jewish history of Ukmerge at the museum, and several commemorative plaques commemorating notable Jews have been installed in the town.  There is a growing recognition of the vibrant Jewish history of the pre-Holocaust town, but still general amnesia or at least a reluctance to address the specific circumstances of the murder of Ukmerge's Jews in 1941.

Ukmerge, Lithuania. Part of the Jewish history exhibit at  the Ukmerge Regional Museum. Photo: Samuel Gruber Sept. 2017
Ukmerge, Lithuania. Commemorative plaques affixed to the outside wall of the former Great Synagogue, now a sports center. Photo: Samuel Gruber Sept. 2017
The museum exhibit devotes only one line to the deaths of the over 6,000 Jewish residents, and makes no mention of the German occupation and the Lithuanian participation in the mass murder.  It is stated only that "after nearly half a millennium of peaceful coexistence"  there were "6334 Jewish people killed." The history of this and other killings are well known and described by many sources, but specificity about brutal and often enthusiastic Lithuanian participation is still often a taboo subject.  In some places this is changing, but Lithuania still has to have its period of deep self-reflection as began in Germany in the 1970s and to some extent in Poland, too, in the 1990s. 

The Ukmerge Museum is in the process of moving to a different building. Presumably  exhibitions will be changed. Given a general receptivity among many in Ukmerge to include the Jewish past as a real element in the town's past, this may be an occasion - the occasion - for a more honest discussion. Who knows, maybe the childlike innocence of some of Al Jaffee's illustrations of life in pre-War Zarasai will stimulate more discussion of Jewish life in Ukmerge, and exactly what happened to all those Jewish residents, who made up almost 40% of the town?

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