We talk with curator Sandy Saxon about our latest exhibition
The works you have chosen for this exhibition are by artists engaging with Judaism and Jewish history. Did you discover similar themes across the artworks, and what were those themes?
Yes, in a way. In terms of artists engaging with Jewish history, the works by Yosl Bergner, David Rankin and Felix Tuszynski process the impact of the Holocaust in different ways. Bergner’s prints depicting his memories of life in the Shetl seems like a sentimental longing for a certain time, perhaps a more innocent time. While Rankin’s prints deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust, trying to make sense of what happened, and also as a testament to what happened.
And then you have Tuszynski’s brightly coloured and dynamic painting in contrast. A survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, painting was a cathartic process for him. He writes, “Each night I dream of myself being killed by SS, I find myself amongst the dead bodies, I scream, I cry, I escape. … Yet my painting does not frighten; it does not show war or war related tragedies. There are no dead or dying in them. Instead I prefer symbols of peace: fish. Birds and animals.”
Although their expression of this particular episode in Jewish history differs, there is an aesthetic link. All the portraits in these works have large, dark, almond-shaped eyes staring straight at you.
On referencing the Kabbala in his work, Victor Majzner writes, “Art makes the intangible visible”. How does this manifest itself in the artworks on display, and in your opinion, is this true of all art?
The two prints on display by Victor Majzner are part of a larger suite of prints based on the Kabbalistic text, The Gate of Unity and Belief, also known as the Tanya.
In his essay, Images of Tanya, Mysticism and Jewish Art, Majzner says that the themes developed through these images deal with the Jewish concept of God as both the spiritual/intangible, but also as immanent – reflected through and existing within creation. His layering of landscape, Hebrew text and symbolic kabbalistic diagrams, metaphorically blends the intangible world with the material world.
In a broader sense, yes I do think art has the capacity to make the intangible visible. Art, in all its forms, has the ability to generate an emotional response to an idea, and to give form to concepts.
How many works are in the exhibition, and what was the selection process like for the artworks?
There are 16 works on exhibition. I wanted to create an intimate salon-type atmosphere for this space, and display a selection of gems from the Collection which will inspire and intrigue the visitor. Selecting works for this exhibition was also a way for me to ask myself, how do artists respond to both Judaism and Jewish history in their art work
Is there a piece that resonates in particular with you, and why?
Yes, although there are works which are very bold and have a strong presence, the small etching by David Rankin titled Poland. It’s very sparse, but you can just work out a small figure walking in the snow. To me it represents not only that ‘search’ to uncover what happened to your own family during the Holocaust, but that more emotional/spiritual search to work out one’s own Jewish identity.
You’re new to the Museum. Can you tell us a bit about your past experience, what it was like curating this exhibition and getting to know our collection?
I’m originally from Sydney. I have a curatorial and arts administration background, working in contemporary art spaces, museums and regional galleries across exhibition development and touring. However my most recent work has been in arts funding, working as a grants program manager at the Australia Council for the Arts.
I actually worked at the Jewish Museum many years ago, from 1998-2000, as the Assistant Curator. I loved my time at the Museum, so it’s been really exciting to come back, refamiliarise myself with the permanent displays, and the new works which have been acquired since.
Putting this small exhibition together was a good first project because I had to get straight into the Collection Store and go ‘hunting’. There are many treasures resting in the plan drawers, still waiting for me to discover and to connect with themes that resonate with the community.
Thanks Sandy! Works from our Collection is on display until 31 December 2018.
Tuszynski, Felix, Crying in my Dreams, Felix Tuszynski: a Survey exhibition of Painting and Drawings 1985-1995, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Australia; 1995. ISBN 0 646 24319 5. http://www.zchor.org/
Majzner, Victor, Images of Tanya, Mysticism and Jewish Art. This paper was presented during a seminar on the Mystical in Art at the Institute for Judaism and Civilization, Melbourne, 2008. http://victormajzner.com.au/