When Beverley Jane Stewart uses a hot wire to burn details of a pre-Holocaust Jewish Galati in one of her works, she employs materials and elements once used to destroy Jews – barbed-wire fences and ovens – to tell their story. The painting, Trading Times, is currently shown at the Tel Aviv Artists’ House (until Saturday October 23) as part of 'Romanian Heritage – A Journey in Time.'
“People perished in the camps,” she said, “I took something so destructive and used it to tell a story.”
She credits curator Vera Pilpoul with giving her the confidence to make this exhibition.
The paintings, rich in detail, seem to expand in their attempts to describe Jewish history in its totality. From the destruction of the Second Temple depicted on the left side of A Jewish Historical Arrival in Alba lulia, to another work that depicts the Gluck family, wealthy Jews who built the Gisella Palace in 1905. Other paintings depict the Yiddish theater in Bucharest and Elie Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet, as well as the flags of the countries Jews had largely rebuilt their homes in – with Israel being the largest one.
This sort of didactic painting is rarely seen these days and, on some level, brings forth uncomfortable issues of acceptance and labeling. Lubaina Himid, the first black painter to win the Turner Award four years ago, deals with similar issues as they relate to black history and memory. Her works include such installations as A Fashionable Marriage and Naming the Money. Visiting the Tel Aviv exhibition, I could not help wonder why it is that, if Jewish artists do it, their works are taken to the Holocaust Museum in Houston or the Manchester Jewish Museum. Yet if others do it, their works are taken to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Is it just a matter of size? If a Jewish artist would make 100 life-size figures of those murdered at Babi Yar, for example, would that be shown at the Tate Modern?
“Black Lives Matter gave us a platform to engage with and understand minority groups in need of protection,” says Stewart. “Jews are not seen as a minority group. My passion is for us to matter as much as any other group. Yet I feel Jews are at times afraid; I think we should be engaged with the world as Jews.”
During her many study visits to Romania, she became interested in the animals depicted on the walls of synagogues and these details adorn the current paintings, showing the visual wealth of that lost culture. Hailing from a background of Jewish craftsmen who built barrels and furniture, she included splendid details of her Romanian roots. Near the top of the painting one can see, below the iron gate announcing this is the Cimitiru Israelit (Jewish Cemetery) one can see Jewish people at work, their tools hung behind them to be used as needed.
Her own grandparents are depicted at the center of the painting next to another, smaller painting, of herself painting them. In the smaller work she also attached the British Islands to Romania in a symbolic visual representation of the migration process her family had undertaken.
Jewish loss, especially that of the destruction of Jewish life in most of Europe during the Holocaust, is not always easy to understand. American Jews live far away from the Old World and Israeli Jews have been told for several decades that they are a new type of Jewish person – brave and bold, farmers and soldiers. It is also true that real pain can be manipulated into a sort of emotional blackmail or, over time, to become a sort of ritual the younger generations are hard-pressed to relate to. In his 1998 film Happiness, Tod Solondz has a Jewish-American mother tell her teenage son that had the Holocaust not happened, “We would have been Europeans.”
In the context of the film it is a satirical joke, even a crude one. Yet it seems to me that Jane Stewart is, on some level, a European painter. When I think about the large charcoal drawings of American-Jewish artist Marty Kalb and his Holocaust series, the difference cries out. In One by One or Killing Two Jews, Kalb takes on a position of Jewish justified rage and pain. This is a powerful vision of Hell, but it may leave the viewers alone when they wonder what moral responsibilities they have now, having witnessed it?
Noting that, at least in the UK, Jewish education is now in demand again and seeing a hunger to mark Jewish holidays and family traditions, Stewart said, “I do not like people telling me how to see things. I will follow my own instincts.”
Romanian Heritage – A Journey in Time can be seen at Tel Aviv Artists’ House at 9 Alharizi St. Hours are Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Site: artisthouse.co.il/en/