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New York: A Fresh Take on the Ancients and a Gathering of the Tribes

The Jewish Museum breathes new life into old objects with "Scenes from the Collection", while The Frick reunites Jacob and his twelve sons

"Scenes from the Collection" allows viewers to understand what, why, and how the Museum has chosen the objects it displays and what those choices say about the evolving identity of the institution within the context of world events. At the same time, The Frick Collection has Francisco de Zurbarán’s thirteen canvases representing the Old Testament patriarch Jacob and his sons.

As the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day this season, two New York art institutions – The Jewish Museum and The Frick Collection —  have serendipitously debuted exhibits that intersect art, Jewish culture, anti-Semitism and diversity.

Just steps away from these two remarkable openings, several Italian institutions participated on January 29th in an annual ceremony of the reading of the names of the 9,700 Jews who were deported from Italy and the territories under Italian control. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the promulgation of the Race Laws signed by Benito Mussolini and the King of Italy in the fall of 1938.

Among those commemorating the day were the Consulate General of Italy, the Centro Primo Levi, the Italian Cultural Institute, Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò at NYU, the Calandra Institute for Italian American Studies and the Italian Academy at Columbia University.

Amedeo Modigliani, Head, c. 1911, Black crayon on paper. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, Gift of Blaise Alexandre, 2001

The Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street unveiled one of its most ambitious undertakings in 25 years: the re-installment and redesign of its permanent collection, which spans more than 4,000 years through nearly 30,000 objects. On vies are 600 works of painting, sculpture, photography, decorative arts, ceremonial objects, antiquities, works on paper, and media.

Scenes from the Collection allows viewers to understand what, why, and how the Museum has chosen the objects it displays and what those choices say about the evolving identity of the institution within the context of world events. For those who are familiar with the museum’s previous permanent installation, the new iteration is truly a breath of fresh air. Whereas the earlier installation was dark, the dark walls were lined with giant glass cases of stunning objects, today the walls are bright white, canvases and photos speak large, loud and near.

Scenes from the Collection is divided into seven different sections or “scenes.” Constellations presents nearly 50 works exhibited as individual gems but with thematic connections to one another including works by Mel Bochner, Nicole Eisenman, Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, Camille Pissarro, Mark Rothko, Joan Snyder, and Kehinde Wiley. A selection of Hanukkah lamps and ceremonial objects—from the 3rd to the 21st centuries, and Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the United States—are also on view.

Personas depicts a female-dominated room with works by Nan Goldin, Louise Nevelson, Man Ray, Ringl + Pit, and Cindy Sherman, The feminist artists Hannah Wilke and Joan Semmel each rework the tradition of the nude to propose a self-possessed female sexuality. In works by Ross Bleckner and Deborah Kass, the self is evoked through the artists’ identities as queer Jews.

Taxonomies is organized as a contemporary Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Wonders) that include Torah ornaments made from ivory and a model of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem in a bottle to replicas of ancient sailing ships to a spice container by Lucy Puls. Signs and Symbols examines the particular iconic element such as the meaning of the six-pointed star of David as a motif in other cultures.

Masterpieces and Curiositites will focus on single works from the Collection. Featured through August 5, 2018 is a bracelet of charms assembled by Greta Perlman (1904-1975) in Theresienstadt, a camp-ghetto in the former Czechoslovakia that housed prisoners between 1941 and 1945.

Accumulations spotlights multiple examples of a given work such as the 100 stereoscopic photographs of what was then called the Holy Land, including such sites as the Western Wall and the Dead Sea.

And finally, Television and Beyond may carry the most relevance for a modern audience reflecting holdings from the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting, the largest and most comrephensive body fo broadcast materials on Jewish culture in the U.S. A selection of television clips that will rotate every six months, inspired by the archive, examine how Jews have been portrayed and portray themselves, and how mass media has addressed issues of religion, ethnicity, and diversity.

Zurbaran

The Frick Collection and Spain’s Golden Age

At the same time, The Frick Collection has Francisco de Zurbarán’s thirteen canvases representing the Old Testament patriarch Jacob and his sons, founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel on view as a complete set for the first time in the United States. On view through April 22, 2018.

To place the work in an historic context, it is recommended to view he short film narrated so expertly by Senior Curator Susan Grace Galassi in the room just next door to the exhibit.

Initially, Jacob and His Twelve Sons was purchased at auction by a Jewish merchant, James Mendez in 1720. By 1756, all but one of the paintings passed into the hands of Bishop Richard Trevor of Auckland Castle, County Durham, an advocate for the rights of Jews in England. Trevor was instrumental in the passage of the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 that extended voting rights to the 8,000 Jews who lived in England at the time. One year later however, the legislation was repealed.

Following the defeat of the bill, Trevor purchased 12 of the 13 portraits at an auction along with a copy he commissioned of Benjamin’s portrait since the original went to another bidder. Senior Curator Susan Grace Galassi characterized his purchase as “A sort of catechism illustrating tolerance,” in the castle’s Long Dining Room that served as a rebuke to the country’s leaders who gathered there.

The series thus settled into the Auckland Castle, in the town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, England, which served as the principal residence of the prince-bishops of Durham for nearly a thousand years. By 2010 however, the series was in was in danger of being sold off by the Church of England Commission. Two years later, Jonathan Ruffer, a philanthropic financier and native of northeastern England, acquired the paintings to preserve them for the nation, and he purchased the castle as well. The former bishop’s palace is now being transformed into a world-class heritage center as part of The Auckland Project.

The temporary closing of the castle for renovation has made possible the presentations of the Zurbarán series at the Meadows Museum and The Frick Collection, as well as the technical analysis at the Kimbell Art Museum.

The exhibit was aided in no short measure to the critical year-long technical analysis of the paintings by Claire Barry, Director of Conservation at the Kimbell Art Museum, and new perspectives on the iconography and history of the paintings.

The series depicts Jacob, who was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, the forefathers of the Jewish people. In Christianity, and his sons are seen as as anticipations of the Twelve Apostles. Jacob’s sons were the offspring of four women: his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. With Leah, Jacob also had a daughter, Dinah.

There is controversy as to whether the series was created for a monastic setting, a church, a wealthy client in Latin America where it was thought the indigenous people were descendents of the 10 “lost tribes.”

“The Blessings of Jacob,” the prophetic poem from Genesis:49, was Zurbarán’s biblical source for Jacob and His Twelve Sons, painted in the 1640s. In these verses, Jacob gathers his sons around him just before his death to reveal their destinies.

Each of them – from villain to priest to murderer to fisherman, laborer and the esteemed Joseph – are positioned to reveal their character and their stations in life.

The portraits are over lifesize as the canvasses are seven feet tall, the colors, though darkened over time remain luminous and Zurbarán’s eye for textures reflect his familiarity with textiles as his father was a haberdasher. Zurbarán took inspiration from sixteenth- century northern European prints for the poses and their exotic costumes.

The highly individualized faces, however, were most likely painted from live models or possibly even Zurbarán’s assistants who are credited with other elements in the paintings such as the landscapes.

Final Days: Modigliani and Murillo

At the Jewish Museum: Visitors have a last chance to view — through Feb. 4 — the never-before-seen works of Amadeo Modigliani, an exhibit that examines the themes of tolerance, anti-Semitism and multi-cultural identity and their impact on this rare talent who died so young.

Modigliani Unmasked focuses on the time in his life once he arrived in Paris in 1906, when the city was still roiling with anti-Semitism after the long-running tumult of the Dreyfus Affair and the influx of foreign emigres. Modigliani’s Italian-Sephardic background helped forge a complex cultural identity that rested in part on the ability of Italian Jews historically to assimilate and embrace diversity.

When he moved to Paris, he came up against the idea of racial purity in French culture — in Italy, he did not feel ostracized for being Jewish. His Latin looks and fluency in French could have easily helped him to assimilate. Instead, his outsider status often compelled him to introduce himself with the words, “My name is Modigliani. I am Jewish.”

As a form of protest, he refused to assimilate, declaring himself as “other.” The exhibition shows that Modigliani’s art cannot be fully understood without acknowledging the ways the artist responded to the social realities that he confronted in Paris.

At The Frick: Like Zurbarán, One of the most celebrated painters of the Spanish Golden Age, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo worked primarily in Seville where he was born in December 1617, until his death in 1682. Well-known for his religious paintings and his extraordinary depictions of street urchins, he was also an ingenious painter of portraits. This genre remains, however, the least studied aspect of his work. Inspired by the self-portraits in their holdings, New York’s Frick Collection and London’s National Gallery are presenting a show that marks the 400th anniversary of this great artist’s birth. Murillo: The Self-Portraits has been extended to Feb. 11.

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