fig. 13: The Story of Ruth and Naomi
Etching, 11.75x17.75", 1991
© Ruth Weisberg
A Jewish Perspective
"I am nourished by the history of the Jews,
the history of art, and by the unwritten history of women."
The Story of Ruth and Naomi, which appears in Ruth Weisberg's etching and in the Bible, is a moving account of how two women develop a loving bond that can not be broken by differences in age or culture. It is also about the diaspora experience, and about "coming home" in the sense of finding one's place and one's people.
Ruth is a Moabite who marries a Jew, Naomi's son. Their family is living in Moab when Ruth's husband dies, which sets the stage for Naomi (who by then is past child-bearing age) to return to the "land of Judah." Ruth accompanies Naomi on her journey. When they arrive, Naomi thanks her and tells her to return home "to her mother's house," where she can remarry and build a family among her own people. Instead, Ruth pledges her loyalty to Naomi and says, "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried . . ." (Ruth 1:16:17).
Ruth has no blood bond and no filial responsibility, yet her devotion to Naomi is unconditional, like that between mother and daughter. In an important sense, Naomi becomes Ruth's mother, just as Judaism becomes her parent culture. Further, the union is productive: Ruth remarries one of Naomi's relatives and bears a son, who is likened to Naomi's own son and cared for by her as well. "'For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.' Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him" (Ruth 4:15-16).
The loving relationship between Ruth and Naomi is mutual and reciprocal. Its complexity is aptly conveyed in Weisberg's image, which shows the two women in transit. Time has stopped; space is ambiguous. Ruth and Naomi are enroute to their destination, literally and figuratively. They merge with the land and the sky, and therefore connect with each other, despite the intervening distance. Ruth appears to lead, but she looks back towards Naomi who steps towards her. Naomi's shadow brings her closer, but when Ruth's shadow comes into play, who leads, who follows, and even who is who is less clear. This image blurs distinctions and suggests union. Ruth, Naomi, and all that each represents for the other are unified.
One can only conjecture what personal meaning this story may have for Ruth Weisberg: as woman, mother, daughter, artist, teacher and Jew, living most of her life in Los Angeles. In a conversation with Robert Barrett, published in A Mid-life Catalogue Raisonné of Ruth Weisberg's Prints in 1997, she was asked how Judaism relates to her artwork: "Judaism provides an incredible pictorial vein to mine that few visual artists have utilized. Artists through the centuries have painted the crucifixion, but very few artists have addressed the Revelation at Mount Sinai. But more importantly, I'm interested in Judaism giving me a key to ways of thinking. Thinking about remembering, for example. Thinking about levels of interpretation, because when you get very deeply into Judaism, you realize everything is open to question. It is very intellectual and spiritual at the same time, which is a wonderful combination. It is this integrative combination that satisfies all different parts of me."
Ruth Weisberg's work is often autobiographical and always deeply personal, touching many facets of her life's stages and cycles. As Mac McCloud notes (in Weisberg's Mid-life Catalogue Raisonné), "Because she is an artist whose development directly reflects her inner personal reality, Weisberg's woodcuts, etchings and lithographs transport us on a journey over the passage of her life. Her work embodies her experiences as a child and her transformations as a woman. The prints chronicle her growth as a self-reflecting, maturing artist and reveal her deepening awareness and bond with her Jewish heritage."
fig. 14: Separating the Waters II
Monotype, 19.75x27.75", 1996
© Ruth Weisberg
Separating the Waters may refer to the parting of the Red Sea and the passage of the Jewish people to freedom, or to a woman's birth rite, and all the nuanced associations that it can imply. A naked woman is totally submerged in water; her hair spills out and her hands push forward from outstretched arms. She floats peacefully through the water, however; eyes closed as if in a dream. In Jungian terms, water can signify the unconscious and birth. Water can symbolize "woman" as well, and fluids figure in many stages of a woman's life, from when she is born and her mother's water breaks to when she cries, menstruates, is sexually aroused or gives birth herself. This image is more allusive than narrative, and its content is intensely female and personal.
When Weisberg was asked about "commemorating personal moments," and why she chooses reverance over satire in her work, she replied, "I discovered feminism. One of the wonderful things about being of my generation is that we were so integrally a part of the creation of feminism. We began to value our lives. Women's lives were so invisible, so devalued . . . If I'm celebrating my life, that by extension celebrates your life, celebrates the human passage through the events of life." Speaking of Judaism's place in her life, she said "I think ultimately, my view of life, although it encompasses a tragic sense, is redemptive. I'm a person who searches for meaning."
Perhaps Weisberg developed a tragic sense when her interest in Judaism led her to confront the meaning of the Nazi Holocaust. In 1971 she created a portfolio of etchings entitled The Shtetl: A Journey and a Memorial, in which she captured a way of life that no longer exists - daily life, including children at play in the small villages of Eastern Europe, where most Jews lived, worked and worshipped before the Nazis came to power.
"Memory, both personal and collective, serves in Weisberg's work as the vehicle which transmits the past, history, into the present where it must be confronted," writes Mac McCloud in his Catalog Raisonné essay, "History as Renewal." "The Shtetl Book becomes part of the collective memory of the Jewish people, an inspired tribute to a vital, nourishing and uniquely spiritual way of life now erased from the face of the earth."
"In speaking of the children of the shtetl, MacCloud adds, "Ruth Weisberg has observed, 'I might have been among them - but I was born in Chicago in 1942. I am a branch, a resting place for their souls."
Memory is the central motive for Alice Lok Cahana, who was born in Hungary in 1929. She grew up among the children of the shtetl, and like many of them, was sent to Nazi concentration camps while still a young girl. Although most of the children perished, she was able to survive and devote her art to their memory. "To make an artistic statement that would last as permanent testimony to her first-hand experience of the Holocaust was the task that Alice Cahana set herself," notes art historian Barbara Rose in From Ashes to the Rainbow, the major exhibition catalog of Cahana's work. "Determined to overcome the contradiction between aesthetics and mass murder, two irreconcilable opposites, she experimented with techniques, imagery and style until she felt she had the means to speak the truth she had witnessed . . . ."
fig. 15: And You Who Got Life Instead
Collage, acrylic, ink on paper, 40x31.5", 1978-79
© Alice Lok Cahana
With bold black marks and stained colors, Cahana speaks the unspeakable, naming it so that memory can bring the unconscionable into consciousness, the past into the present "where it must be confronted." Black grids recall cellblocks in And You Who Got Life Instead. A yellow star of David, the symbol the Nazis used to label and mark Jews for death, floats prominently in the foreground, along with a scrawled message which asks viewers ("you who got life instead "), "what will you do with the memories . . . ." The question may cause discomfort, but it suggests that memory affords both responsibility and opportunity. We have a responsibility to see that historical memory is not erased, that the years stacked like bodies behind bars are not forgotten. We also have an opportunity to learn from that memory, not just to prevent reoccurrence, but to preserve human dignity and justice as we live our lives now.
fig. 16: Selections in Auschwitz
fig. 17: Wasser ist Leben
Selections in Auschwitz is one of Cahana's darkest works. Its grid structure is oppressive; the black bars obliterate and prevent access; there is only one way in and no way out. Converging train tracks plunge the viewer center stage, into the midst of "selections," the exact moment when Nazis ordered inmates to the gas chambers. The terror of that moment is made excruciatingly real by the collage's central element, a photograph. It functions as historical document and psychological contact, to remind viewers of historical fact and shock us into recognition: what would have happened to us had we been there? Wasser ist Leben (or "Water is Life") shares the charged dark claustrophobic space and photographic veracity of Selections, but here the bars are thrown wide so the captives can burst forth. The center of the image is suffused with a golden light, and the shape of the open doors suggests a pyramid, with Raoul Wallenberg's head at the top. Wasser ist Leben is a shrine to Wallenberg and his heroic efforts to save Hungarian Jews (see Cahana's Biography), as well as a monument to human freedom. In this image the unremitting black tone of Selections transmutes to blue, the color of water when it reflects clear sky, suggesting that Selection's imminent death has been transformed into life. Although Cahana's collages employ literal documentary evidence, Barbara Rose clearly distinguishes her work from journalistic reportage and instead, aligns her within the metaphoric tradition of fine artists like Goya and El Greco:Rather than use sensationalistic imagery, Cahana chose to use the language of metaphor. In this choice she remains firmly within the conventions of fine art, eschewing the facile imagery of illustration. For her work does not illustrate the Holocaust: it conveys the feelings - the filth, the exhaustion, the laceration of body and mind, the ashes - of one who experienced this singular catastrophe. Because it is not illustrational, but metaphorical, her art continues to ally itself with poetry rather than journalism. To deal with such charged material in such a sensitive way through the use of metaphor, is an exceptional achievement. Thus the surface is subject to various processes: it is burned, scratched, stained with blood red pigment; the images are grafted, buried, partially eaten away. These processes duplicate the fate of human beings in the camps in aesthetic metaphor. The clouds of swirling dust are not the ashes of the crematoria; they are like the flaming images in El Greco's paintings that signify souls ascending into heaven.Memory is also a process, for Cahana and for viewers alike. To remember is not to relive, but rather to recall. In an important sense, to recall is to rename, and thus to give new meaning to what at first is incomprehensible. Similarly, Cahana's art reminds us and makes us mindful. Its truth is constant, and when memory grants us the ability to reflect, that process enables us to heal.
fig. 18: Sabbath in Auschwitz
Detail, acrylic on canvas, 42.5x85", 1985
© Alice Lok Cahana
Much of Cahana's art is devotional and refers to prayer. Prayer is a form of remembrance. As the Nazi's sought to break their prisoner's wills, so prayer became a means of remembering one's heritage and humanity; remembering in the sense of making oneself whole. In Pages From My Mother's Prayerbook (Gallery II) and Sabbath in Auschwitz (figure 18), Cahana pastes actual pages from Hebrew prayer books into her art. She distresses the works' surfaces with burns and blood red marks that have visceral and textual associations. Like the impress of a hand or a Hebrew letter, these works are acts of faith that use personal memory to preserve Judaism's collective traditions.
Sabbath in Auschwitz is a scroll-like image which Barbara Rose believes is "perhaps the culminating work of the almost colorless works dealing with the Holocaust . . . . Here pages from Hebrew prayer books are stuck together, unified by delicate calligraphic tracery suggesting Hebrew script, once again in a dark red that looks like blood." Rose goes on to describe how children in Auschwitz were able to pray in such dire circumstances:
The children in Auschwitz spoke many languages, but they had a common language in Hebrew prayers. When they realized they could hide in the latrine from the Nazis for a brief time and say their prayers together, they organized Sabbath services, to feel their common bond and remember their traditions. Through the traditional, ancient prayers, memory was retained, even in circumstances of psychological extremity.
Rose then affirms that it is in just such circumstances that memory becomes crucial, citing Man's Search for Meaning (Victor Frankel) and concluding that the "importance of memory, of a continuous historical memory that the various psychological pressures threatened . . . designed to destroy not just the body but the mind as well, has been seen as more and more critical to survival . . . ."
Of course, it is Cahana's work that is testament to this truth. It is the proof that memory will endure beyond the burning of prayerbooks, mass murder and the attempted genocide of a people. Barbara Rose articulates the impress of memory and eloquently summarizes the objectives of Alice Lok Cahana's art: "to make a beautiful, moving, aesthetic experience that nevertheless transcends the eerily esthetic to become a spiritual marker for further generations."
She continues, "Art incarnates in the present moments of past history in a physical and tangible sense. The events and experience that produced them are no longer a reality; yet their existence in the present and the future means that those who follow us come face-to-face with the meaning and continuity of history."
fig. 19: Vashti's Tale, A Modern Day Bestiary
from The Illuminated Manuscripts Series
Digital Iris print, 28x20", 1996
© Susan Ressler
Susan Ressler, an artist who calls herself a secular Jew, is searching for ways to find meaning and continuity in her Jewish history. In Vashti's Tale, the past and the present collide, setting off connections that imply history is cyclical, and that each new thread forms a spiral stitch with the past.
Vashti's Tale presents two parallel stories that take place on the Jewish holiday of Purim, one in ancient Persia and the other in contemporary Israel. The original story of Vashti is part of the Esther Scrolls which commemorate Purim (the version in figure 19 was recorded by scribes during the17th century). Vashti was the Queen of Persia and wife of King Ahashueras, whose wrath fell on both her and the Jews. According to the Bible, King Ahashueras arranged a lavish banquet for his men. After more than two weeks of revelry, he called Vashti to come before the men and display her "beauty." When she refused, he had soldiers cut off her head. When Esther, Vashti's successor, became queen, she fulfilled all his wishes and he thus spared the Jews.
Ressler became fascinated with Vashti's tale during Purim, March 1996, when she was "jolted" by a series of violent events that "unhappily resonated with each other." She recalls: "First, a young man was accused of sexually molesting several teenagers at a local 'home for troubled boys,' and then, in faraway Israel, 'suicide bombings' began to explode the precarious Middle East peace accords . . . ." That same week, while working on a new series of digital collages based on medieval manuscripts, she was "haunted by the picture of a woman screaming on the front page of USA Today." The woman had been injured by a terrorist's bomb, exploded in a busy Israeli shopping district filled with women and children. As in Vashti's tale, when Purim and politics mixed, the results were catastrophic. (A complete description of Vashti's Tale is available on Ressler's "Current Gallery" Website.)
In retrospect, one can see that Purim and politics have always mixed, and that religion and politics are inseparable. From an institutional perspective, church and state have been intertwined throughout history. And when the story of Vashti and its modern-day sequel are viewed as allegories, the moral issues become even more complex. Which victims "get what they deserve," and which ones are righteous? This territory is as shifting as that of Palestine and Israel today.
The aesthetic traditions on which Ressler's work is based also blend sacred and secular themes. Art historian Marian Hollinger notes that Vashti's Tale, as the central panel in a triptych of images, follows the 15th century tradition of Flemish religious painting. She says, "The original panels were containers for religious and political symbols and narratives that linked the paintings with the world of the artists and their viewers. As did the painters of the original triptychs imbue their objects with spiritual and worldly dimensions, so Ressler has given her viewers works that have layers of images and meaning that probe the spiritual and the worldly."
Ressler's work, like her relationship to Judaism, has always tried to bridge the spiritual and the secular. What makes her task so difficult is her emphasis on healing that split, a fauxsplit to be sure, but one predicated on longstanding oppositions. Few wish to admit that spirituality is permeated by politics and that as a corollary, religious traditions are not and have never been pure. But to turn this to one's advantage requires being open to new possibilities, and purity will be the first pillar to fall.
Ressler's digital work is crossover - it melds different spiritual traditions, historical periods, aesthetic mediums and technologies. Her life is crossover too - born on the East Coast, teaches in the Midwest, and for twenty-five years has commuted to New Mexico, her spiritual home. A vibrant Guatemalan weaving may shield her from snakes; lightning on a Native American basket may support her hand holding a stone, but her connection to the earth is what she most values.
fig. 20: In Order to Heal
Digital Fuji laserjet print, 30x36", 1986
© Susan Ressler
III Native Visions
All images © the artists.
All text © Susan Ressler.