Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Deep Waters

Joint Session 4/28/15 by Susan Weinberg
Our session began with a question posed by Rabbi Davis on doubt. Do we feel doubt as an artist? Many of us spoke of the self-doubt we experience when going public, when viewing the work of a talented artist or when seeking validation in a profession that doesn’t always get recognized as “real work”.

“How can we not feel doubt?” I thought. Artwork is so interwoven with who we are. It is not something that can easily be disassociated from its creator. While we savor the occasional success by whatever measure we define success, not everything we do achieves that level. I often remind myself that I’m in process as are my artworks. The mythical pinnacle that exists in my head is something that I may not achieve in this lifetime. Instead I must accept that doubt is part of the process.

We turned our attention to some midrashim that examine doubt. One explored the binding of Isaac and introduces Satan to sow doubts within Abraham on his journey to Mount Horeb. Satan turns himself into an old man, a young man and finally a wide stream that Abraham must cross on his way to Mount Horeb. Each time he tries to dissuade Abraham from following God's command to sacrifice his son, an argument that sounds quite plausible to modern sensibilities. As Abraham reaches the middle of the stream, the water rises to his neck and he calls out to God. “I am come into deep waters (Ps 69:3). If either I or Isaac were to drown, who will fulfill Your commands, and by whom will the uniqueness of Your Name be proclaimed?” (Midrash Tanhuma, Va-yera’22). It is at this juncture that God reassures him and causes the stream to dry up.

Even as we discussed this stream of life or death we were distracted by a stream of people gathering outside, a funeral. Nearby children played. Surrounded by streams of life and death, we live in the midst.

An 18th century Chassidic text is related by Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Effrayim, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. The Barriers to the Palace tells of a king who constructed a network of barriers to his palace. Illusions of walls, fire and rivers blocked the way, but disappeared when his son plunged into the river. What are we to make of these stories?

Our theme of water represents doubt, a barrier, and calls upon us to sink or swim or perhaps just float. We spoke of diving into doubt as a pathway. In any case we must confront it and work with it to get to the other side. It was observed that 98% of our body is water, yet we think of ourselves as solid, an illusion we live with daily. The divine is present in everything, even barriers to God or to our artistic path. There is holiness in doubt. It is the pause that forces us to reassess, to clarify our purpose and our direction. To question and reaffirm our path.

Alison being water
For the second portion of our session Liba proposed an exercise to talk about the work that we are creating for our exhibition. We broke into groups and were charged with speaking about our work as if we were our work, actually living within the piece. For example, I spoke of being a river of memory, constrained by my banks, layered, changing and a bit omnipotent as I flooded my banks, destroying the land mass that I had shaped. It was an interesting exercise in giving voice to our work quite literally. It reminded me a bit of dream analysis where you project yourself into the elements of your dream. In this case we took our work which is truly a reflection of ourselves and imagined what it would be to actually be the work.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Dealing with Drought

Lab 2.0. April 21, 2015 by Susan Weinberg

We began our lab on water with a discussion of its absence, drought. With California in its fourth year of drought, it is by no means a hypothetical topic. Diane Pecoraro introduced our topic by playing an excerpt from Tom Paxton's song Whose Garden is It which aptly addresses the loss of the natural world we so often take for granted.

Bonnie Heller then referenced the way in which the Torah addresses water within Deuteronomy 11:13-21 where rain is offered in exchange for faithfulness to God's commandments. This important passage is echoed in the daily prayer book. We discussed the concept of retribution implicit in this passage, a search for cause and effect by a people reliant upon agriculture and water. 

Rabbi Mychal Copeland offers a thoughtful response to this passage when she says, "When we stop being grateful for every sip of water, when we forget how blessed we are in whatever degree of bounty we receive, we are in danger of overuse and exploitation." A number of our group had lived in Israel at one point and spoke to how conditioned they became to not be wasteful of water. There were prayers for dew and prayers for rain that began to make sense in a climate that often lacked enough water. In fact drought can arise from greed and can be the natural consequence of failing to manage a limited and precious resource.

Bonnie introduced the story of Choni, the circle maker which intrigued many of us. The story is that when the people needed rain, they called on Choni who was the most righteous of people. He drew a circle around him and and petitioned God for rain. First he received a trickle and asked for more, only to receive a deluge. He protested once more and received the desired amount, neither too much nor too little. There is yet another story of Choni who fell asleep for 70 years. As he was falling asleep he saw a man planting a carob tree only to awake seventy years later to the man's grandson picking its fruit.

Bonnie shared a quote with us from President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Wilderness Act of 1964. "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it." It seemed as if it could easily have been said today over 50 years later. 

Diane then led us in a word exercise where we were asked to identify words or images associated with drought, both the lack of water and the drought of creativity that many of us can face as artists. We offered such words as bone dry, barren, parched, arid, dry spell, dessicated, dust cloud and cracked.

We turned our attention to several poems that touched on drought and saw many of the words we had identified. Diane took the topic deeper by reading two excerpts from her journal, one from a period of creative drought and the other from a later time when creativity flowed anew. It was noted that two words within her passages captured the difference going from "withered" to "juiced".

We were posed a number of questions. What does creative drought feel like? What causes it?
Many of us experienced it when we allowed ourselves to feel the weight of expectations, our own or the perception of others. To create we need room to fail and we need the freedom to play and experiment. When we let panic take over it shuts down the very playfulness we need to extricate ourselves from our drought.

What starts the juices going again? Some spoke of needing to leave room for periods of fertile emptiness before "the fields will come back". Often we find it when we aren't looking.

While Bonnie was in California recently she collected many newspapers that spoke of drought. She turned us loose with them to create a collage or poem of words that spoke to this topic. I quite like what we came up with.

We were left with a number of poems that address both creative drought and drought in the more literal sense. Some of their links are found below:

The Greening of Imagination by Rural Poet
The Drought by Gary Soto
Drought by Joan Colby
Bop After Hip Op by Sharon Olds

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Saga of Twists and Turns

Woman With Fan-Matisse
Joint Lab April 14, 2015 by Susan Weinberg

Both Labs gathered this week to attend a lecture at the Weisman Museum by Yehudit Shendar on the topic entitled The Insatiable Pursuit of Art. Shendar has retired from a seventeen year career at Yad Vashem in the course of which she served as Deputy Director, Senior Art Curator and Director of their Holocaust Art Museum. 

 She shared with us the details of her "retirement career". In 2013 a cache of 1400 works of art were seized from Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of an art dealer permitted to trade in modern art during the Nazi era. Shendar was appointed to an international task force charged with researching the provenance of the artworks. Given that it took them a year and a half to validate four works, this is likely a career for life.

Shendar has ties to the Twin Cities having received a masters in Art History from the U of M. She worked at the Weisman before it was the Weisman as we know it today.Shendar traced the unfolding of the Gurlitt case and its many twists and turns. It began as Gurlitt traveled from Zurich to Munich carrying 9000 Euros. The authorities followed the money and discovered the art. Originally it was treated as a tax evasion case and kept private for two years.Eventually it became apparent that this was a much larger issue and Dr. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, previously Deputy State Secretary of Culture in Germany was also pulled from retirement to head the task force. It was agreed that the statute of limitations would not apply to this work.

After the discovery of the Munich Trove, further discoveries arose. There were 238 works located in Gurlitt's Salzburg residence which previously had been searched and nothing discovered. Apparently the works were in an area that was not searched. Must be quite the residence! A separate team was appointed for the Salzburg trove. Still later a Monet was discovered in an abandoned suitcase at a hospital where Gurlitt had been. The artwork located thus far can be viewed at the lost art database.

In the midst of these discoveries the ownership was further thrown into question by the death of Cornelius Gurlitt. The foundation of the Kunst Museum in Bern was named as the sole beneficiary in a will written two months before Gurlitt's death. The museum accepted the bequest. A tri-party agreement was made between the Bavarian Minister for Justice, the Federal Commission for Culture and the Media and the Bern Museum of Art where it was agreed that the museum will retain anything where there is no claim. If there is inconclusive provenance the work will stay in Germany. 

Of course relatives protested the will and claimed that Gurlitt was not of sound mental health. Despite this competing claim the Bern Museum was declared the rightful owner by the German court. 

Documents from Gurlitt's art dealer father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, were found to have been removed from the Salzberg home before Gurlitt's death. Of course these documents would be very useful in determining provenance, but it was only now that the task force had access to them. They have since been digitized.

The looting of art by the Nazis was a well orchestrated operation at the highest levels. Hitler and Goering wanted to build a museum in Linz, Austria, the town of Hitler's birth. Goering had built a mausoleum named Carinhall after his late wife and moved many artworks to this location. Alfred Rosenberg headed up the ERR which was assigned the task of confiscating valuable cultural property held by Jews. At the Nurenberg trial Rosenberg claimed it was not looting as it was not taken privately, but at the behest of the state to protect cultural objects. Artwork was hidden at Aschbach Castle to protect it from Allied bombing. In 1945 when the Monument Men questioned Hildebrand Gurlitt, he reinvented himself as a victim of the Nazis. He claimed his grandmother was Jewish and he acted to save the art. In fact his grandmother was Jewish, but he was hardly a victim. Ultimately the Monument Men returned much of his art to him not fulling appreciating the scope of his involvement. Much of the confiscated art that Hildebrand Gurlitt worked with was sold to the United States to fund the Nazi war effort.

At this time Switzerland, Austria and Germany are working together with the German government playing the most significant role as they fund the task force and will have to release art to Bern. A few pieces have been cleared for release to descendants of survivors. Woman with Fan by Matisse (top of page) was found to belong to the art dealer Paul Rosenberg and has been released to his granddaughter. Max Lieberman's painting of Two Riders on a Beach was released to the descendants of David Friedmann, its prior owner. While Lieberman died prior to the war, his widow committed suicide prior to her deportation.

Guritt has occasionally sold artwork in order to fund his life. Amazingly he sold a Max Beckman for 200,000 Euros in the midst of this controversy.

The question was asked "Why Bern?" Shendar noted that Switzerland was the main agent for French art confiscated and sold to the US.

This saga with its many twists and turns promises to continue for years to come. The fact that seventy years have passed and knowledge has been lost means that it is likely that many paintings may not be returned to the descendants of the original owners.

For other reading on these topics please reference:
Lady in Gold by Ann Marie O-Connor
The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel 

Movies titled Woman in Gold and The Monuments Men have also been produced on both topics.