Change your mood with color

When I start a decorating job for a client, one of the first questions I’m always asked is, “What color should I paint these walls?” That’s a tricky question, as it’s not just a matter of going through a stack of paint chips and declaring, “This one!”

To determine the perfect hue for a particular room, we need to start with how we want to feel in it. Do we want to be energized? Calm? Hopeful? Colors can affect our emotions, so it’s important to understand the psychology of color in the context of home decorating. Let’s look at some colors and how they can make you feel.


The color of passion, red is stimulating and energetic. It’s good for kitchens and dining rooms because it also stimulates the appetite. However, because it can raise blood pressure and heart rate, try not to use red in bedrooms, where you need your beauty sleep.


If you like red but are afraid it could be too intense, orange is a good alternative. Orange conveys enthusiasm and creativity, and also is ideal for kitchens and dining rooms. Orange is a friendly color, so you will find that many businesses use it in their corporate communications and interiors to suggest a more customer-oriented image.


The color of sunshine, yellow is joyful and optimistic. Its welcoming vibe is perfect for entryways and living rooms, but a little goes a long way. Too much yellow, especially when it’s a brighter shade, can feel oppressive. It does work well as an accent color, offering a happy contrast to cooler colors such as gray.


A popular choice for bedrooms, blue creates a feeling of serenity and peace. Light blues are particularly calming, but they run the risk of making you sad, or “blue,” if the room receives little natural sunlight. If that’s the case, try a deeper blue or balance it with some warmer shades.


The most prevalent color in nature, green is another calming color and is very restful for the eyes. It also helps you concentrate and stay focused, so it is perfect for home offices. Because it blends the serenity of blue with the cheerfulness of yellow, green works in almost any room.


Another color dominant in nature, brown offers comfort and security. Both the lighter shades such as beige and the deeper chocolate shades create warmth in any room. And even if you choose not to apply brown paint to the walls, you can get a similar effect with wood finishes on furniture and floors.


It’s no wonder purple is considered the color of royalty. Especially in its deeper shades, purple evokes luxury and sophistication. It adds drama to living rooms, even in small doses as an accent color. And in lighter shades such as lavender, purple creates a calming environment for bedrooms, but with more grandeur than blue or green.


Traditionally stereotyped as feminine, pink has very calming effects. In fact, researchers have shown that prison cells painted pink resulted in less anger and hostility among inmates. The University of Iowa even painted its visiting football team’s locker room pink to make the players less aggressive. Imagine the wonders it can do for your teenager.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Pain-free painting

A fresh coat of paint can completely transform a room, but painting walls is a job few home decorators relish.

I don’t mind it too much. Instead of hiring painting contractors, I’ve painted the walls in my house myself. Sure, it may not be as much fun as going to Disneyland, but with a little prep work and a few tricks, you can get through the job — with flying colors.


The color

Usually, the most difficult part of getting started is deciding on a color. There is more to life than Swiss Coffee, after all. Unfortunately, the little paint swatches from the store won’t give you an accurate idea of how the color will look when it’s applied to an entire room. If possible, purchase samples of the colors you are considering and paint 12-by-12-inch patches on your walls. Then see how the paint looks in the room at different times of day. If you don’t want to test the paint on the wall, paint a piece of foam core or cardboard.

The finish

For adult bedrooms and living rooms, a flat finish creates an even, non-reflective surface that hides surface imperfections. For higher-traffic, dirt-prone areas like hallways and kids’ bedrooms, select an eggshell or satin finish — the higher sheen makes it easier to clean. And for kitchens and bathrooms, a semigloss finish will withstand the frequent cleanings. Reserve high-gloss finishes for trims, doors and windows. Remember, these are suggestions, not rules. I prefer no sheen, so even my bathrooms have a flat finish.

The type of paint

Most paint contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are harmful chemicals. Look for low-VOC or no-VOC paint. Because of public demand, they have become readily available at paint stores. The cost may be $10 or $20 more a gallon, but this eco-friendly choice is worth it. Also, consider paints that include a primer in the formulation. They require fewer coats.


Paint roller covers

Roller covers are available in various thicknesses, or  “naps.” Covers with naps of 1/4 inch or 3/8 inch are ideal for most walls that are smooth. If you’re painting over exposed brick or other rough surfaces, a thicker 1/2-inch nap will give you better coverage. Also, have a miniature (4 inches wide) paint roller handy to help you get into tighter spaces.

Extension pole

Invest in an extension pole that screws onto your paint roller. It will add to your reach and get the job done faster.


To paint your trim, you’ll need a brush. Select a 2-inch brush with angled bristles, which will help you achieve a straight line.

Paint edgers

My secret weapon for paint jobs is the paint edger. It’s a plastic, rectangular painting tool with little wheels that glide against the ceiling or baseboards, allowing you to paint perfectly straight edges. There also are smaller edgers that work around window and door frames, and edgers that get into corners. I use all of them.

Canvas drop cloths

While it may be tempting to buy the cheap plastic drop cloths, it’s much easier to work with the canvas versions. They don’t slip as much, and can be wrapped around corners and furniture. Paint can seep through canvas, though, so invest in a heavier-weight canvas, and soak up larger spills with a paper towel.


Surface prep

With a damp cloth, wash the walls, ceilings and baseboard trim to remove dirt, dust and cobwebs. For heavier stains, or if there is oil buildup, you also may need to use an appropriate cleaner. Patch holes and cracks with spackle and sand them smooth when dry. When the walls are clean and free of cracks, you can apply a topcoat of primer. (You can skip the primer if your paint has primer in it already.)

Furniture and curtains

Move furniture into the middle of the room and cover it with drop cloths. Plastic drop cloths are fine for this purpose. Remove curtains from their rods and place them under the drop cloths or in another room. (Now also would be a good time to vacuum those curtains. Just saying.)

Masking tape

Apply masking tape to baseboards, window frames and door frames. This is the most tedious step in the whole painting process, so try to make it fun. Play music, invite a friend over and reward yourself with chocolate. And instead of putting masking tape around switch plates, just remove them.


What first?

Although there is some debate about this matter, I prefer starting with the ceiling, then painting the walls and finishing with the baseboards and window trim. It just makes sense to start at the top and work your way down, especially since you’ll be dealing with paint drips.

The outside in

Start by applying paint with a paint edger at the ceiling and baseboard. Then use an edger on the corners and the window and door frames.  You’re basically “outlining” the walls with paint. Once the edges are painted, use a roller to “paint within the lines.”


It’s impossible to paint an entire wall with one continuous stroke, so you are naturally going to be overlapping with your roller. To avoid overlap marks, try something called feathering. When your roller appears to be drying out, keep moving the roller, extending from the area where the paint is wet. The “feathered” portion is thin and does not have much coverage. After dipping the roller in wet paint again, you can paint over the feathered area. Move the roller perpendicular to the first layer to remove any overlap marks.


Refrigerating brushes

If you need to stop painting before the job is finished, wrap your brushes and rollers in plastic wrap and place them in the refrigerator. This way, you don’t have to wash your tools in the middle of a job.

Line your tray with foil

You can purchase plastic tray liners for your paint tray, but they move around a bit while they are being used, and they’re wasteful. An easier alternative is to line your tray with foil. When you’re done with the painting job, just remove the foil, throw it away and pat yourself on the back. But wash your hands first.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself  projects at

Persian-Jewish women keep tradition alive on canvas

In reporting on the Jewish community, I’ve learned about politics, schools, aging, race relations, religion and other matters. Few of these topics combine the complexity, creativity and history of a fascinating subset of Los Angeles Jewry, the Persian-Jewish women who paint.

The history, of course, goes back about 2,700 years, when the conquering Babylonians kicked the Jews out of the Holy Land, sending them to Babylonia. The Persians then conquered the Babylonians, putting the Jews in the Persian Empire. They were free to stay or to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple; many remained in Persia, now Iran.

The Persian-Jewish women who paint remind me of those ancient days — the art, customs and stories that go back to Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus and Haman of the Purim story. The women’s lives became part of modern Los Angeles Jewish history with the fall of the shah in the late 1970s. That event brought many thousands of Persian Jews to L.A., imbued with the ancient artistic heritage of their homeland. Many of them wanted to express themselves and to bond with other women, leading some to take up painting — enough so that this pastime became a distinct part of the many-faceted community.

“Painting is a way to remember, experience culture,” said Daniel Raminfard, who runs the Raminfard School of Arts on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. “A very common subject of the Jewish women in my classroom is the bazaar, a very nostalgic look at the old times.”

I said they must have mixed emotions about the old country. 

“Absolutely,” Raminfard replied. “Everyone knows there is nothing there for them, but they somehow miss it.”

I met Raminfard through my wife, Nancy, who studies with him. We had passed the studio on our morning walks, and Nancy was looking for a new painting teacher. Impressed with the work of the women who painted there, she signed up.

Not all of his students are Persian-Jewish women, but a substantial number are, about 40 percent. As I got to know the school and watched my wife develop friendships with some of the students, I thought her experience could provide a window on a community that tends to stick to itself and is something of an unknown quantity to the Ashkenazim, Jews of European ancestry.

Gina Nahai, novelist and Jewish Journal columnist, wrote of the divide between Persian and non-Persian Jews last year in an article in the Forward, “How Iranian Jews Shaped Modern Los Angeles.” In her article, Nahai said she thought of the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities” when she considered the divide because, “It reminds me of Jewish L.A. — the way I know it, and the way it must seem to the natives.”

Nahai wrote frankly of the prejudice in what she hears from some in old Jewish Los Angeles when they describe their immigrant Persian coreligionists: “There’s too many of them, they have too many relatives, their kids are spoiled, their wives too entitled, the men are too competitive in business, they’re all looking for a bargain … they’ve taken over Beverly Hills and Brentwood and Encino and Sherman Oaks and all the schools and synagogues.”

I emailed Nahai asking for help with this column. She replied, “My own mother is one of the original art hobbyists of Little Persia! By all means, let’s talk.”

She told me on the phone that her mother “had always wanted to paint, back in Iran.” In Los Angeles, she and other women who had come from Iran found painting helped liberate them from the rigid life of the Persian-Jewish community. It was, she said, “a way for them to do something with “their own talent and ability and get away from the rigid structure created for them.”

Shulamit Nazarian, owner of the Shulamit Nazarian gallery in Venice, said, “I think, from my own experience, art has been a very big part of our culture … the design of homes, architecture … poetry, books, drawing all have a huge influence in Iranian culture.” 

I asked her on the phone about the Jewish art hobbyists, like those who study with Raminfard. “Art is becoming a language for everyday people, a common language, an inspirational language,” Nazarian said. 

Raminfard’s studio, which occupies a storefront along an eclectic stretch of Pico, is a long room, with space for painters on both sides. Each student does her own project, with Raminfard and two other instructors giving individual instruction.

I talked to one student, Elizabeth Bolour, who has been painting for eight years and also gives art lessons to children. Before she started, she said, “I thought I couldn’t draw a line.” 

When Bolour is at her canvas, “It really takes over … it is a beautiful painting high,” she said. One of her paintings is of a man in biblical times blowing a shofar. “I’m Persian, I’m Jewish,” she said. The symbolism of the shofar “was powerful. I felt it. It has affected me tremendously.”

Bolour came to the United States in 1978. In Iran, her father and grandfathers dealt in antique Persian and European carpets. They gave her “a passion for art and expression,” she wrote on her website Lizas Collection. “As time passed canvases became my carpets.”

A couple of long blocks to the west is Little Persia, where we live. On Westwood Boulevard, a center of the Persian-American community, there are bookstores, clothing stores, beauty parlors, a language school, a synagogue, markets, restaurants and a store specializing in Judaica. An intersection south of Wilshire Boulevard has been named Persian Square.

A Westwood Boulevard storefront just north of Santa Monica Boulevard houses the studio-school of one of the Persian community’s most respected artists, Houshang Peyman. Raminfard studied with him, as did Nahai’s mother and Bolour.

Raminfard’s father was imprisoned by the Iranian government after receiving a letter from a cousin in Israel. The late shah, friendly to the Jews, was on his way out, and Raminfard’s father, who had served in the army, was beaten and tortured. The family emigrated on the last plane to leave Tehran while the shah still clung to
his throne. 

“After the treatment of my father, it became painfully evident [Jews] were not welcome there,” Raminfard said, as we sat in his small office in the rear of the studio, the walls covered with his paintings. “This was a universal decision among the Persian-Jewish community that this place could no longer be considered home. Many Muslims were very uncomfortable with the regime change, many thousands left; they thought the regime was oppressive and extreme. Anyone other than a devout Shiite got up and left.”

Raminfard, 37, graduated from Stephen S. Wise High School and CSU Northridge, where he studied marketing and philosophy. Since age 9, he had wanted to be an artist and began studying with Peyman. He worked in banking, but his heart was in painting and he began giving lessons in his parents’ garage, mostly to Persian-American-Jewish women. His clientele grew, and eventually he moved to his present studio. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and two children.

The family story is very similar to that of much of Jewish-Persian Los Angeles — flight from the old homeland, settling into a new one, bringing with them a life and traditions that enrich their new home. Not the least of these is the artistic tradition of the Persian-Jewish women who evoke the past and the present with their painting. Knowing more about their work and their lives will help bridge the divide in Los Angeles’ Jewish community. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

George W. Bush made a painting for Sheldon Adelson

Jewish casino magnate and political mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is now the proud owner of a painting by a reclusive artist whose works are rarely seen in public – and happens to be a former U.S. president.

The New York Times has reported that George W. Bush, who began painting amateur portraits in 2012, gave Adelson one of his original paintings at last month’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference in Las Vegas.

According to the Times, the painting is of Adelson’s Marina Bay Sands resort and casino in Singapore, which is one of the most expensive buildings ever constructed.

Since his sister Dorothy’s email account was hacked in 2012 and the world learned of his artistic exploits, Bush has focused mainly on portraits of world leaders, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has even painted former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The fiercely pro-Israel Adelson will likely spend tens (if not hundreds) of millions on the next Republican presidential candidate. Bush’s brother Jeb, who is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2016, has distanced himself from comments made by James Baker, Bush senior’s secretary of state, to bolster his pro-Israel credentials. Baker, who had tense relations with the Israeli government of the early ’90s, criticized Netanyahu at the March conference of J Street, which describes itself as a pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby.

So perhaps the gift was more than just a selfless gesture?

Either way, if the painting is comparable to Bush’s previous portraits, it will be, in the words of one art critic, of at least “high amateur” quality. The question is, which casino will Adelson display it in?

Decorating to improve your love life

Admit it. The first time you visit the home of someone you’ve just started dating, don’t you love to snoop around the place to get some clue about this potential mate? You might look at the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, maybe the style of furniture to get an idea of their interests and tastes. But a home speaks volumes more about a person than that.

A home reveals your personality. It says where you are right now in life. And it reflects how ready you are for a relationship.

So what is your home saying about you? Is it saying you’re a real catch? Or is it telling the world you’re stuck in the ’90s? 

Even if your home is sending out distress signals, you can decorate and accessorize to invite love into your life. Here are just a few tips to boost your home’s romance quotient. Because when you make a few changes to where you live, you’ll be making big changes to how you live. 

Get rid of white walls

If you ask people why they have white walls, they’ll probably say, “I don’t have time to paint” or “I didn’t want to pick a color and then see that it was a mistake.” Think about it. Don’t these excuses sound like reasons people avoid relationships? Write this down and put it in your fortune cookie: If you can’t commit to a color, how can you commit to a relationship? 

You’re probably a pretty good judge of color already, you just don’t know it. Go into your closet and pick out your favorite items of clothing. What do you wear over and over again? Which outfits do people always seem to compliment you on? If you look so good wearing these colors, you’ll also look good with these colors surrounding you. 

Sampling colors on your wall doesn’t have to be risky. Many companies like Home Depot sell little jars of their paint colors that you can try out. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. If you don’t like it, try another, and then another. It’s just like dating. If it doesn’t work out, just move on to the next one. And you don’t have to worry about hurting the color’s feelings because you didn’t call back.

Lose the clutter

Before you get into a relationship, you need to get rid of your emotional baggage. The same thing goes for the unnecessary physical baggage that’s cluttering your home. From the looks of all their out-of-date magazines, you’d think some people were dentists. Throw all the junk away. This goes especially for items that remind you of a past relationship. That stuffed bear your ex won for you at the arcade? Dump it. Those maracas from that party you threw together? Hasta la vista! From this day forward, you are starting with a clean slate, so let your home reflect that. Then you’ll be open to filling your home with new souvenirs, new memories and new relationships.

Get comfy

Male or female, everyone loves a softie. How inviting is your furniture? Does it allow people to kick their feet up and stay a while? Without having to make big purchases, just incorporating some pillows and throws with luxurious, soft textures can help make up for a lumpy sofa. Area rugs will warm up a space, especially if you have hardwood floors. And soft lighting not only makes you look better, it casts a glow that puts everyone at ease.

Buy housewares in complete sets

When you’re buying dishes, buy the complete set for eight with the salad plates and those cups and saucers you’ll never use. When you’re buying towels, buy the whole set with matching hand towels and washcloths. (And buy more than one set.) Why? First, it shows that you are now an adult. You’re not a college student anymore, so don’t accessorize your home like you’re still in a dorm. 

The most important reason, though, is because it used to be that people waited until they got married before they got these items (and usually they were gifts). But by owning them before you’re married, you’re telling the universe that you are comfortable as a single person. You have a life. You are not waiting to get married to feel complete. And, ironically, it’s usually when you accept that you’re already a whole person that you happen to find your other half.

We spend so much effort on new hairstyles, clothes and teeth-whitening kits when we hit the dating scene that we forget it’s our homes that are the true reflection of ourselves. So the next time a date comes over, remember that your home is an open book.

Make it a book with a happy ending. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls that Wow,” ”Flowers that Wow” and “Parties that Wow,” and host of “Style with a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on

Jack Bender’s lost and found

During his recent art show, “Junk Blessings,” at the Jewish rehab center Beit T’Shuvah, Jack Bender took the microphone and told the eclectic crowd that when he was a kid, “I’d throw paint up … and call it art. I sometimes feel like I’m still doing that.” 

It was a humble statement for a man who, though more well-known for his work directing and producing TV series such as “Lost” and “Under the Dome,” has a long history as an artist. But that’s par for the course with Bender, who seems, more than anything, to feel incredibly lucky for the success he’s found in life and for the spiritual journey he’s been on.

“I didn’t read much as a kid. I kind of learned everything I know from watching Abbott & Costello,” Bender said by phone, a couple of weeks after his Dec. 17 show benefiting Beit T’Shuvah. “The visual side of my brain was much more active, and that’s the way I learned.”

He started taking art lessons with Los Angeles artist Martin Lubner, who had a studio on La Cienega Boulevard in the 1960s. Bender would ride around town on his bike, picking up junk from alleyways and crafting it into artwork. At the same time, he was indulging his other love and sneaking into film studios. 

“I’d b——t my way onto the lot, and I’d hang out and watch movies being made, and television, which I was obsessed with,” Bender said. “I became an actor because it seemed like what I could do and make a living.”

But though he acted and later moved into directing, Bender never strayed far from his love of painting and sculpting. Over the years, he’s had five solo shows at galleries around town, by his account, and has another one upcoming in Detroit this year. 

“Junk Blessings” came out of a very personal place. Bender’s youngest daughter, Hannah Owens-Bender, spent time at Beit T’Shuvah after some well-publicized problems with substance abuse that landed her in trouble with the law during his stint on “Lost.” Bender credits the facility with having helped his daughter get her life back on track, and today she’s a successful costume designer in Los Angeles.

While Owens-Bender was at Beit T’Shuvah, Bender and his wife, Rabbi Laura Owens of B’nai Horin, became close with Beit T’Shuvah founder Harriet Rossetto and her husband and partner at the center, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. Bender even ended up writing a book called “2 Broken People,” about the couple’s incredible life stories.

“Junk Blessings” consisted of more than two dozen paintings and sculptures created by Bender and displayed around Beit T’Shuvah’s sanctuary space. The crowd was mixed, young and old alike, and many of them seemed deeply moved by the art. Among the works were portraits of Borovitz and Rossetto, as well as scenes depicting biblical figures, junkies and people from all walks of life. 

Bender’s paintings are notable for the asymmetrical faces of his subjects, and his use of texture, color and symbolism. Many of the paintings feature hamsas, which Bender said represent the hand of God to him. It’s an interesting turn for a man who was raised without much religion. 

“I grew up as an L.A. Jew with Christmas trees. My parents weren’t interested in being Jewish,” Bender said. “One of my earliest memories is of a black-and-white Abbott & Costello movie on a roof, and a big Christmas tree.” 

The image came from the fact that Bender’s father, who was a furrier to the stars, used to take him to Costello’s home in Toluca Lake around Christmas. Costello would project movies for the neighborhood children in his backyard as a seasonal treat.

When he was a kid, Bender said, his parents asked him if he wanted to go to Hebrew school or have more time to play around after school. He took the choice most kids would and never became a bar mitzvah. It wasn’t until his wife started studying to be a rabbi that Bender became more connected with his Jewish side. 

“She has opened me up to a lot of what’s just in my cellular memory,” said Bender, who now enjoys attending services even if he doesn’t know all the words to the prayers.

Bender was working on “Lost” at the same time Owens was studying at the Academy for Jewish Religion. When the opportunity came up to promote “Lost” in Israel, Bender jumped at the chance. 

“I loved Israel,” said Bender, before launching into a story about his trip to the Western Wall. He’d been promoting the show on TV there all day and finally made it to the wall just before Shabbat. As he was standing by the wall, he heard a voice. 

“The numbers. They’re in the wall.” 

Bender looked around and found an Orthodox rabbi standing near him. 

“The numbers, from your show, they’re in the wall,” said the rabbi, who then proceeded to show him that people had stuffed the mysterious series of numbers from “Lost” into the wall. 

It was one of a few times that Bender would be awed by the power of his TV work to reach people. Another time involved a combination of his two loves, art and directing. Bender was tasked with directing the show’s Season 2 premiere, “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” when two characters finally enter the series’ infamous “hatch.” Bender thought it would be interesting if the character living in the hatch had gone a little crazy and started painting. When he got the OK, Bender himself painted the mural, which became known as the “Swan Mural.”

The Internet lit up with reaction. Fans and journalists dissected the painting’s hidden meanings. There are pages upon pages on the Lost Wiki dedicated solely to interpretations of the mural. In reality, Bender said he just painted mostly what he felt like, incorporated a couple of numbers from the show and thought nothing more of it. To this day, he’s amused by the reactions people had to it. 

“At this point in my directing, I think I learned from painting how to let the spontaneity happen and be thankful when it does,” said Bender, who later went on to paint works for “Under the Dome.” “If a canvas is on the floor of my studio and my dogs walk on it … I always think it makes it better. There’s something about the ragged mistakes of making art, and actually film and television, the stuff you don’t plan on, that I actually think makes it better.”

Ultimately, that’s what “Junk Blessings” was all about — taking the twists life throws at us and making something of them. (Items from the Beit T’Shuvah show soon will be available for purchase on Bender’s website,, he said.)

“All of us have junk in our lives,” Bender said. “The world has junk all around us. How do we transform the junk in ourselves, the junk in our lives, the junk around us, into something that’s either useful or beautiful or positive for the world?”

Heirs of owner of Nazi-looted ‘The Scream’ want explanation on display

The heirs of a German-Jewish banker who claim the famous painting “The Scream” was looted from him by the Nazis want a New York museum to explain its history in its new display.

The 1895 work by Edvard Munch is set to go on display Oct. 24 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the New York Post reported.

New York billionaire Leon Black purchased the painting last spring at a Sotheby's auction for nearly $120 million.

Hugo Simon owned the painting in the 1920s and 1930s, but the banker and top art collector was to forced sell it and flee Germany after the Nazis came to power in 1933.

His heirs contested the sale before the auction in the spring, but now say it is a moral issue and are calling on MoMA to explain in its display the painting's “tragic history,” the Post reported, citing Rafael Cardoso, a Brazilian curator and Simon’s great-grandson.

Simon consigned “The Scream” to a Swiss gallery before he and his family left Germany for Paris. In 1940, after the Nazis invaded France, Simon and his family immigrated to Brazil on fake passports.

Palestinian TV features artist depicting Israel as child-eating monster

An artist who recently appeared on Palestinian Authority TV described one of his paintings that featured an ogre—wearing a skullcap with the Star of David—killing children on a bayonet before eating them, Palestinian Media Watch reported.

The painting shows two other monsters wearing similar skullcaps, as well as a pile of dead children.

“This painting is about the Gaza massacre,” Palestinian artist Abd Al-Hai Msallam said. “Here I show the people, the kids, and the Zionist enemy’s cruelty and savagery.”

Nazi-looted, then returned, painting selling at auction

A 16th-century painting that was stolen from its Italian-Jewish owner, sold by France’s Vichy government and recently returned to his heirs is being auctioned off.

Girolamo de’ Romani’s “Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue,” which was restituted in April to the heirs of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, is slated to be auctioned Tuesday at Christie’s Old Masters sale.

It is expected to sell for about $3 million.

The painting was seized Nov. 4 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, where it was on display with some 50 other paintings on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera Museum in Milan, Italy.

Giuseppe, who was living in Paris, died in 1940 shortly before Germany invaded France. Some family members fled France for England, while others were killed in Nazi death camps. The painting and more than 70 other works belonging to Giuseppe were looted and sold by the French Vichy government in 1941. His grandchildren filed a lawsuit in 1997 to have the paintings returned to them.

In 1999, a French court ordered the Louvre to return five paintings to the family.

Portrait of a Jewish family avenged

The victims of the Holocaust are most often recalled at their moments of agony and death. But it is also our duty to recall the richness of their lives before Europe fell under the shadow of Nazi Germany. What Hitler sought to destroy, after all, was not merely 6 million human lives but also the whole vibrant culture that they created and sustained.

That’s one reason why “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer’ ” by journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor (Knopf: $30) is such an illuminating and rewarding book. O’Connor focuses on a masterpiece painting looted by the Nazis that, many years later, was retrieved from an Austrian state museum by an intrepid lawyer from Los Angeles. O’Connor’s book is the chronicle of a Jewish family and its courageous effort to avenge at least one of the crimes committed against them, all of it reflected in the fate of a single iconic work of art.

Several strands of history are woven into the fabric of O’Connor’s book. She introduces us to Adele Bloch-Bauer, the beguiling young daughter of a Jewish banker whose face and figure are depicted on the Klimt canvas, and reminds us that the young woman moved in privileged circles: “Adele grew up as a member of a generation that viewed immersion in art as its birthright,” O’Connor explains, “and as an essential prism for understanding the world.”

We also meet Klimt, a successful artist who fancied himself an aesthetic revolutionary, a member of a movement of artists known as the Secession who aspired to achieve in tradition-bound Austria the freedom that Picasso and Matisse enjoyed in Western Europe: “As Klimt made drawings of a nude young woman for his painting of Nuda Veritas or Naked Truth — a visual manifesto of the Secession — he idly wrote on one sketch: ‘Truth is fire, and to tell the truth means to glow and burn.’ ”

But Klimt was also a hedonist who routinely seduced the women he encountered, not only the wealthy ones who sometimes served as his models, but even his washerwoman. His paintings were so suffused with his own insistent eroticism that the Austrian Ministry of Culture canceled its plan to send one of his paintings to St. Louis for display at the 1904 World’s Fair. So it was something of a scandal when Adele, young and unhappily married, announced that she would sit for a portrait by Klimt. “It was sometimes not ‘safe’ for society women, and their good name, to have their portrait painted by Klimt,” one critic observed.

Klimt himself did not survive World War I, and Adele died in 1925, but the famous painting later caught the eye of the former Austrian corporal who fancied himself an artist and a connoisseur of fine art. Once Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he and his cronies took what they wanted from the art collections of their victims, which they seized along with their bank accounts, houses, jewels, silverware and other assets. “Klimt’s mosaic of Jewish patrons and friends would be pried apart, piece by piece, by men incapable of creating beauty but determined to steal it,” O’Connor writes.

Ironically, Klimt was regarded as a “degenerate” artist by the Nazi regime, and when the treasures of the Bloch-Bauer family were seized and looted, they took Adele’s diamond necklace but left behind the Klimt painting. “The Führer wanted paintings that celebrated Jewish values, not portraits of decadent Jewish society women — who were now officially referred to by the ugly term Judensau, or Jewish sow,” O’Connor explains. What treasures the Nazi leadership didn’t want, however, were sold off to further enrich them.

Thus did “Portrait of Adele” end up in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. “The Nazis had smashed Adele’s world like a mirror,” O’Connor writes. “But Vienna still saw itself reflected in its shards.”  To disguise the fact that it depicted a Jewish woman, the painting was renamed “Portrait of a Lady With Gold Background.” After putting the famous canvas on display, the director of the Belvedere boasted that its collection had been greatly enhanced “by means of an uncommonly prolific acquisition policy,” a euphemism for acquiring the looted artwork of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Long after the end of World War II, the remnant of the Bloch-Bauer family took up the struggle to retrieve what had been stolen by the Nazis, including “Portrait of Adele.” Here begins the second and equally compelling story that is told in “Lady of Gold.” The heroes are Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann — a beneficiary under the will of the painting’s true owner — and her attorney, Randol Schoenberg — a friend of the family and grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Starting in 1998, these two Angelenos conducted a legal, diplomatic and media crusade to reveal the theft of the Klimt painting and to restore it to the family.

The whole effort was so full of what O’Connor delicately calls “unwelcome novelties” that Altmann began to refer to the ordeal as “the curse of the Klimts.” But “The Lady in Gold” has a happy ending of a kind. Thanks to a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 and the tireless efforts of Schoenberg, five Klimt paintings from the Bloch-Bauer family’s looted holdings were ultimately recovered from Austria and then, in 2006, loaned by Altmann’s family for a brief display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Portrait of Adele” ultimately sold for a record-setting price of $135 million to cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for his Neue Gallery in New York. “Klimt, once branded as a pornographer,” O’Connor writes, “was now the creator of the world’s most expensive painting.”

Far more important, however, was the historic meaning that can be extracted from the recovery of the painting. “What is the value of a painting that has come to evoke the theft of six million lives?” O’Connor asks. It’s a fair question, but I think that it answers itself. When Klimt first applied the layers of gold leaf that adorn “Portrait of Adele,” he intended to create an object of erotic opulence. Today, however, this same painting is an icon of moral justice.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Opinion: Artists’ ignorant use of the swastika

I have a pretty open sense of humor, except when it comes to artists utilizing the imagery used to kill more than 6 million of of my Jewish ancestors. Especially since I’ve volunteered with and met many Holocaust survivors who still have numbers tattooed on their arms, from when they were branded like dogs in concentration camps. So, the following article means more to me then you will ever know. And I think maybe only fellow Jews will understand the pain of it, yet I can’t help but try to express it to others.

Yes, the swastika was originally a symbol of peace, but the Nazis tainted it, and there is no way for anyone to bring it back. It’s like taking the knife that Charles Manson’s followers used to decimate Sharon Tate’s body and then cutting your birthday cake with it. Sure, it’s just a utensil, but no matter how well you clean it, it’s still the knife that ripped an unborn baby from its mother’s stomach.

And it’s not necessarily that artists are intentionally seeking to be anti-Semitic by putting swastikas in their paintings and sculptures. They just might not really know what the symbol means or are at least are ignorant to how it makes an entire nation feel. I mean, multiple branches literally stop on my family tree because a soldier laden in swastikas killed them off. And he didn’t just shoot them or give them the decency of a proper burial. He stripped them nude and shaved their heads and gassed them and burned their babies in front of their mothers and threw their bodies into unmarked pits and then urinated on their corpses. It’s hard to even think about it without breaking down into tears. And other Jews, like me, no matter how assimilated they’ve become, can’t help but subconsciously feel those things when they view the image of a swastika — whether it be from ancient China or, more recently, on the walls of a gallery­­­­ in Los Feliz.

We were innocent, we were poor, and we were just an easy target for an evil man with a mustache and failed art career to take power. And because of that,. we were hunted down in the street, forced to wear yellow patches that identified us as Jews, and then shipped off to concentration camps. So, artists may like the way the symbol aesthetically looks, but unfortunately it’s not the same kind of symbol as a stop sign or traffic cone. It’s dark, evil, and was used by a nation of people during World War II who asked helpless mothers to point at which of her two sons she would rather have shot or skinned alive.

So, the next time an artist wants to use a swastika in their work, I beg that he or she take a step back to think about all the children who starved to death. Think about the near genocide of an entire population. And think about all of the artists we would’ve never experienced — like Mark Rothko, Shel Silverstein, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Judy Chicago, George Segal, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Saul Bellow, Gary Baseman, and Mel Brooks. And at the very least,  either talk to a Holocaust survivor or visit Anne Frank’s house, where she lived in the walls silently with her family, hiding from the Nazis. Where she kept a journal of her memories written in the dark. Where the Gestapo ripped her life apart. And where a little girl who had done nothing wrong was hunted out like wild game and forced to live in fear. Go there and take it all in. Go there and attempt to feel what she felt before you just casually slap a swastika on a canvas.

Afterword:  Sometimes I wish we weren’t so afraid to make our stands as Jewish people in the art world, especially since there are so few of us. And every now and again, I also wish we were militant and unafraid to rip pieces featuring swastikas off the walls, tear them apart and light them on fire. But that isn’t our way, and we’re not going to ever stoop to such a bottom-feeding level as to kill a man for his images. Yet, we also don’t have to stand by the works and just let ourselves accept that they’re only art. We can ex-communicate galleries that actively choose to showcase anti-Semitic pieces. We can have a voice on forums and art Web sites. And we can make sure this ignorant use of such hateful imagery does not continue.

Please, if you see a piece of anti-Semitic art, whether it be on the street or in a gallery, send me an e-mail and I will do my best to make sure the right people are notified.

Daniel Rolnik is a Los Angeles-based arts writer. He can be contacted at

Jewish-owned painting returned to heirs

A painting sold under duress by its Jewish owners during World War II was restituted to his heirs.

The painting, “Madame La Suire” by Albert von Keller, was returned Tuesday to the estate of Alfred Sommerguth with the help of New York’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office. It was sold by Sommerguth under duress on Feb. 7, 1939 at the Hans W. Lange auction in Berlin. It was the fourth painting returned to the Sommerguth estate in the past three years.

Sommerguth, director and co-owner of the tobacco company Loeser & Wolff, was an official of the Ministry of Interior in Berlin in charge of city planning when the Nazis came to power. In the late 1930s he was forced to register all of his assets with Nazi authorities, including his art collection of 106 assorted Renaissance masterpieces and Impressionist works. Evading internment at a concentration camp, Sommerguth fled Germany to Cuba in 1941. He eventually moved to New York, where he died in 1950.

The painting, which was located in the Zurich Kunstgesellschaft Museum in Switzerland, will remain in the collection as a donation, with its provenance indicating that Sommerguth was deprived of the painting by the Nazis in 1939.

The Holocaust Claims Processing Office, created in 1997, is a joint venture of the New York State Banking Department and the New York State Insurance Department.

Paint by soul

The walls of Ora Tamir’s home are covered with color-soaked landscapes, masked faces and dystopian, dreamlike structures.

Just don’t ask her what any of it means.

“I don’t try to put a message in my paintings. Each piece evolves as I paint it — it just flows,” Tamir said, gazing around her dining room. When pressed to explain the significance of a flower with black petals or a one-eyed face that recurs in her work, she smiles and gives a sheepish shrug. “I have nothing to do with it. I am only a tool,” she said.

The modest Tamir might downplay her conscious role in her art, but she channels a potent subconscious vision that has propelled her name to the forefront of the contemporary surrealist movement. At 67, the painter has built a devoted, high-profile following in both the United States and her native Israel. And in the process, she’s turned her and her husband’s Newbury Park home into a de facto gallery where — to her own amazement — her vivid portraits tell an ongoing story about her roots, growth and inspiration as an artist.

Anyone who has beheld Tamir’s work at one of the galleries or national art shows at which she has exhibited might get a sense of her as a woman bonded to her family, yearning for her homeland and enthralled with the very process of creation.

Take her recent piece, “Imagine,” in which a young girl standing on a painter’s palette reaches out to touch an apple while a mature woman rises from the landscape, gazing across a sky of limitless potential.

“For me, to get into a new painting is like biting into a luscious apple,” said Tamir, a mother of three and grandmother of seven. “I can feel a physical reaction. When you taste something good, you salivate — that’s how I feel when I paint with color. Once I touch the apple, I get transferred, in my soul, to a place of imagination.”

“Imagine” by Ora Tamir

Tamir said she’s constantly “doodling” — although her sketches are far more advanced than the scribbles you might find in the margins of a notebook. If her pen traces a scene she likes, she commits it to canvas, rendering it in rich oil paints. But each piece’s progression is only loosely based on forethought.

“It really takes on a life of its own” during the painting process, she said. “It starts as a vague idea and slowly builds up into a story. It’s a lot like meditation — I listen to an inner voice that tells me what to do. I don’t see or hear anything else; it’s just me and the painting. As I work, I know in my heart if it’s right or wrong.”

A self-described “paint junkie” since the age of 3, Tamir honed her artistic eye at Kibbutz Gvar’am in southern Israel, where she was born. She moved to Tel Aviv with her father while still young, but the stark power of the desert landscape left in her a lasting sense of awe. Throughout grade school, Tamir bristled when art teachers tried to rein in her style. She much preferred taking trips to museums to learn from the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh.

After her stint in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Tamir traveled to New York City on vacation, where her life took a turn for the surreal.

On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the artist encountered the work of Salvador Dalí for the first time. Tamir was transfixed. That night, she had a vivid dream and sketched the image when she awoke — a child, tied to a balloon, grasping her parents’ hands. She knew she had crossed over into the world of surrealism for good.

Not only did Tamir pick up a new artistic focus in New York, but she also acquired a husband. An Israeli native, Eli Tamir, proposed to her in a supermarket just days after they’d met. The couple lived in Israel for nine years and then moved, with their three children, to Southern California. The Tamirs have now called the Conejo Valley home for more than 30 years, sharing their abode with an African Grey parrot that wishes them boker tov in the mornings. 

By the time Tamir moved to the United States, she was used to commercial success in Israel. She’d owned a gallery in Rishon LeZion and had scores of loyal clients. But surrealism in the 1980s had only “a very small niche” stateside, she recalled. Most gallery curators thought her style was too eccentric to sell. That, combined with her homesick longing for Israel, put her “in a funk” that kept her from showing her work for 16 years, she said.

“Passage” by Ora Tamir

Luckily for SoCal art fans, it didn’t last. Tamir went back to painting full time in 1998, and with Eli as her business manager, she took her work to galleries and art shows across the country, building a solid reputation and client base. Since then, she has exhibited at Artexpo New York, Palm Springs Arts Festival and dozens of other locales from Connecticut to Hawaii.

“I get the same reactions wherever I go,” Tamir said. “It’s either, ‘This is weird!’ or they fall in love with it. Some people, my art is just not for them. Others look at a painting and become totally immersed and emotionally involved in it. They say it won’t let go of them — they get mesmerized.”

Tamir’s unique works command $7,000 to $16,000. For the more casual art collector, her limited- edition giclée reproductions — which can be printed on canvas or hand-embellished — run $125 to $2,000.

In the decades since she left Israel, Tamir knows her name has faded from the art scene there. But her love for her homeland hasn’t dimmed, and it often finds expression in her paintings.

Many of Tamir’s poetic narratives play out against a desert backdrop that hearkens back to her years on the kibbutz. Sand dunes, shrub brush and the brilliant blue flash of the Mediterranean meander across her canvases like a continuing story line.

“I’m very proud of our [Israeli] heritage,” she said. “I feel an extremely strong connection to the land and its people and history. These are my people, who I come from — who I am.”

Half a world away, however, she’s still as enamored of painting as she was while young: “I jumped into the water head first, and ever since then it’s been fantastic.”

Getty Museum to return Nazi-looted painting

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles will return a 17th-century Dutch painting looted by the Nazis to the heir of the Jewish art dealer.

Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker left 1,400 works of art in his Amsterdam gallery when he fled the Nazis in 1940. He died during the escape. His gallery was looted by Hermann Goering shortly afterward. In 2006, the Dutch government returned 202 paintings from its national collection to Goudstikker’s sole heir, Marei von Saher.

In returning the painting “Landscape With Cottage and Figures” by Dutch artist Pieter Molijn, the Getty Museum becomes the first American institution to offer restitution to von Saher, who is the widow of Goudstikker’s son.

The painting never went on display at the museum, which purchased the painting at an auction in 1972 for an undisclosed amount, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Four other museums in the United States and Canada have been identified as holding Goudstikker paintings, according to the newspaper.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing


Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through November 2008


Fri., Sept. 12
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Angelenos can explore the legacy of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved popes in a new Skirball Cultural Center exhibition. Through artifacts, photographs and audiovisual recordings that first appeared at Cincinnati’s Xavier University only weeks after the pope’s death in 2005, visitors can explore the life of Pope John Paul II and the historical and personal circumstances that led him to aggressively reach out to Jews worldwide. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to enter a synagogue, recognize the State of Israel and formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of the Jewish people. The Skirball will also offer several public programs related to the exhibition: an adult-education course on “Jesus and Judaism” and film adaptations of biblical epics, among others. Through Jan. 4. $10 (general admission), free to all on Thursdays. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 13
“Speech & Debate.” The town is Salem, Ore., and, as in countless other American cities, teenagers are on the prowl for like-minded adolescents via the Internet. However, the three teenagers who find one another in “Speech & Debate” don’t just bond over music, books and movies, but are linked through a sex scandal that has rocked their community. The three adolescent misfits do what anyone else would to get to the bottom of the scandal: form their school’s first speech and debate team. Check out the West Coast premiere of the play, which critics are calling “flat-out funny.” 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Oct. 26. $22-$28. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-9827. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 13
Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival. Camarillo is offering visitors a one-day extravaganza filled with music, artists and gourmet food, all culminating in an evening concert under the stars. The 2008 Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival will include gospel and bluegrass music, a farmers’ market and more than 50 artists showcasing their work. By evening, retro-band Royal Crown Revue will warm the stage for a secret, Grammy-nominated headliner. 8 a.m. (farmers’ market), 10 a.m. (music and art walk). $20-$60. 2400 Ventura Blvd., Old Town Camarillo. (805) 484-4383. ” target=”_blank”>

Fri., Sept. 19
“Back Back Back” at The Old Globe. There’s nothing poignant about professional athletes using steroids. Or is there? Old Globe playwright-in-residence Itamar Moses delves into the controversial topic and takes the audience beyond the newspaper headlines and congressional hearings to the sanctuary of sports — the locker room. With humor and insight, Moses unfolds the stories of three major league baseball players who struggle to compete in the unforgiving world of professional sports, as well as balance their personal lives and professional images. The up-and-coming playwright has “clearly demonstrated tremendous talent along with a willingness to tackle complex ideas in his plays,” said The Globe’s Executive Producer Lou Spisto. Moses’ other works include “The Four of Us,” which won the San Diego Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award last year and “Bach at Leipzig.” 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Oct. 26. $42-$59. Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623. ” target=”_blank”>

Sun., Sept. 21
KCRW’S World Festival. A remarkable, eclectic lineup marks the last week of KCRW’s World Music Festival. Ozomatli toured the world, engaging audiences with its blend of Latin-, rock- and hip-hop-infused music, as well as its anti-war and human rights advocacy. The multiethnic group headlines this special night at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Michael Franti, a former member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his latest band Spearhead. Mexican singer Lila Downs as well as Tijuana’s premiere electronic band, Nortec Collective and its members Bostich and Fussible, will make it impossible for anyone not to get something out of the mix. If you haven’t had the chance to catch this spectacular summer concert series, don’t miss this last opportunity. 7 p.m. $10-$96. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. ” target=”_blank”>

Wed., Sept. 24
Brad Meltzer signs “Book of Lies.” The New York Times best-selling mystery writer is back with a riveting new thriller that links the Cain and Abel story with the creation of Superman. Young Jerry Siegel dreamed up a bulletproof super man in 1932 when his father was shot to death. It may sound like a strange plotline, but trust Meltzer, who has written six other acclaimed page-turners as well as comic books and television shows, to produce a great read. The novel is already receiving major buzz and you can get in on the action in a variety of ways: By watching the trailer on Brad Meltzer’s Web site (yes, the book has a movie trailer), listening to the book’s soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack) and by coming to a reading and book signing by the author. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 380-1636. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
“Skinny Bitch: A Bun in the Oven.” If there is one thing that doesn’t ever get old, it’s mocking our own culture. Authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do just that in their newly released “Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven,” a sequel of sorts to their best-selling cookbook “Skinny Bitch.” The book is a guaranteed laugh riot and today’s in-store reading and signing could offer a sassy twist as the two authors show up in the flesh to dish about expecting mothers. And don’t be fooled, just because the subjects of this book are in a more fragile state of mind, Freedman and Barnouin refuse to make any exceptions to their insightful and illuminating critiques. 2 p.m. $14.95 (book price). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
“Jack’s Third Show.” Long hair, dramatic eye shadow and electric guitars return for an ’80s afternoon. Billed as a benefit for autism education, radio station JACK-FM stages an edgy blend of retro and new wave rockers. Billy Idol joins Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and Devo for a musical bash that will have you dancing all day long. 2 p.m. $29-$89. Verizon Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (213) 480-3232. ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
Museum Day. Art and cultural institutions are hoping to attract folks from all walks of life by making them an offer that’s hard to refuse: free admission to museums across Southern California. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, this event gives art lovers and art novices alike the opportunity to visit venues from the Getty Center to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, free of charge. Natural history and science museums, like the California Science Center are also participating in the event. Regular parking fees do apply and advance reservations are recommended for some exhibitions. For a complete list of participating museums, visit ” target=”_blank”>

Sat., Sept. 27
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Season Opening Gala. L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s first musical director, Sir Neville Marriner, will conduct its current director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a piano solo to celebrate its 40th year. A symbolic bridge between the orchestra’s past and its future, expect to hear classical masters Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction for patrons. 6 p.m. $35-$125 (concert only), $750 (full package). The Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.

Calendar Girls Picks and Clicks Aug. 30-Sept. 5: Painting, a benefit, jazz, flies



East-West issues are the focus of Sundaram Tagore Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Dimensions of Color,” which showcases the talents of artists representing Korea, Japan, India and Uzbekistan, as well as Israeli-born artist Nathan Slate Joseph. Joseph treats squares of galvanized steel found in Asian urban centers with pigments and solders them together, creating a patchwork design that speaks to the interplay between man and the forces of nature. Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Through Oct. 5. Free. Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 9606 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-4520. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>sponsoring the fifth annual benefit dinner for Nefesh B’Nefesh, which eases the aliyah process by providing financial support, employment resources and social guidance for Jews from around the world who decide to make Israel their home. The fundraiser will include a presentation by L.A. Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan and entertainment by Cantor Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah. Sun. 6:30 p.m. $100 donation (includes dinner and program). Chabad of the Valley, 18181 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 349-2581. ” target=”_blank”> ” title=”hits the L.A. stage on Sept. 7″>hits the L.A. stage on Sept. 7, the American Film Institute, in partnership with the Los Angeles Opera, will screen David Cronenberg’s 1986 big-budget reboot of the 1958 sci-fi/horror classic. Just to recap: Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, is a brilliant research scientist who unknowingly shares a ride in his teleportation pod with a common housefly. Their merged DNA initiates a graphic — and gross — metamorphosis that ultimately dooms Brundle’s love affair with journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). A question-and-answer session with Cronenberg and Howard Shore, who scored the film and composed the music for the opera, will precede the screening. Wed. 8 p.m. $12. 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 856-7600. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>leaving behind a 6-year-old boy. On a quest to find the adorable boy’s mother — nicknamed Noodle for his adept noodle-sucking ability — the twice-widowed Miri discovers more than she anticipated. Full of biting Israeli humor, endearingly flawed characters and superb acting, the film garnered nine Israeli Film Academy nominations, including best film and best actress. Sinai Temple will be screening it at their program, “Lights, Camera, Israel!” followed by a discussion. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P (310) 481-3243 or


Gather all ye women for an enlightening afternoon with a fascinating female. Susanne Reyto, who survived two of history’s most harrowing periods — Nazi occupation and communism — and lived to write about it, will share what she’s learned about survival, gratitude and liberty. Her book, “Pursuit of Freedom: A True Story of the Enduring Power of Hope and Dreams,” will spark the conversational content of today’s luncheon, a program that will hopefully leave you inspired and encouraged. Thu. Noon-2 p.m. $20-$25. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>fascinating aerial movements for their fourth wedding anniversary. While dancing is the couple’s passion, their love for each other will also be on display with a real recommitment ceremony performed on stage as part of the show. Pairing with this dynamic duo, the Baker and Tarpaga Dance Project, a Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company that draws influence from West African and post-modern dance, will illustrate the tragic story of the assassination of Burkinabe journalist Norbert Zongo. The two groups join in the Ford Amphitheater’s “Sans Detour,” a show for anyone who appreciates dance, passion, love and creativity all rolled into one. Fri. 8:30 p.m. $5 (students), $25 (general). Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. ” target=”_blank”>


Kanye West sings: “That, that don’t kill me can only make me stronger.” He clearly shares a similar life view with Jewish singer-songwriter Charlie Lustman, who returns to the stage with an autobiographical pop music operetta, “Made Me Nuclear.” Lustman, a native Angeleno, uses music and humor to explain the turmoil he suffered while he fought cancer. Fri. 8 p.m. Also, Sat. at 8 p.m. Through Oct. 11. $25. Santa Monica Playhouse, The Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (866) 468-3399. ” target=”_blank”>


If we didn’t think Seth Menachem — the former Jewish Journal singles columnist who proposed marriage to his girlfriend in the paper — was a little crazy then, we definitely do now. Or at least he plays a mighty convincing schizophrenic in the world premiere of “Isaac and Ishmael,” a new play whose biblical allusion is not unintentional. It tells the story of two opposite-minded brothers — one a wealthy playboy, the other a schizophrenic patient in a psych ward — who are forced to reunite after the death of their father. From there, they struggle to reconnect after they spent years living worlds apart. Fri. 8 p.m. $15-$18. Through Sept. 21. The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (323) 960-7788. ” target=”_blank”>

— Jina Davidovich helped with this article

Celebrating Israel’s 60th, Skirball Style

There are many ways to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, and the Skirball Cultural Center is leading with its strength by offering a series of wide-ranging programs of art shows, music, film and lectures.

Two current shows pay tribute to the nation’s distaff side: “Ziva Sivan: Painting Is Her Home” and “Israeli Women: A Portrait in Photographs.”

The Sivan exhibition marks the first public showing of her paintings, drawings and sculptures in the United States, but she is relatively unknown even in her native country, though she was born in Jerusalem, rarely left the city and died there.

By her own choice, Sivan remained a nonpublic figure whose house was her studio. She rarely allowed a showing of her works and discouraged potential buyers.

Judging by the 33 works selected for the current exhibition by curator Barbara C. Gilbert, who also edited the handsome catalogue, Sivan’s expressive, colorful and large-sized paintings on canvas and cardboard varied in style during a 30-year career from naturalism to abstract and back to realistic.

Throughout, Sivan’s predominant subject was the female nude, to the point that her often Rubenesque models became part of her extended family.

Her smaller-sized bronze sculptures are again mostly female, with the exception of a particularly expressive figure of a seated old man.

Sivan lived from 1936 to 2004, during the last decade finding some relief from the pain of a malignant cancer through her art, which complemented, but did not overshadow, her domestic life.

As art historian Dalia Manor quotes Sivan, “I see myself, first and foremost, as a family woman. The home and the family are the most important things to me. The art — which is my more public persona — that’s very important for me spiritually, but still, my first priority is my family.”

In light of these sentiments, it was fitting that at last week’s opening of the exhibit, which closes June 30, Skirball president Uri Herscher introduced, as honored guests, Sivan’s husband, Uzi; son, Ehud, and daughter, Noa.

The companion photo exhibit of Israeli women represents an instant time warp, with tanned kibbutzniks plucking oranges in 1948 and their uniformed sisters somewhat unheroically bringing tea to male officers.

But, as the decades pass, there is also a suitably gowned Miss Israel 2000 and hip young Tel Avivians frolicking at the beach.

In between the two eras are some exceptional portraits by Moshe Milner of immigrant women from Yemen and Algeria, as well as contributions by Hollywood’s own Roman Freulich and from documentary filmmaker Zion Ozeri.

A total of 63 images by 18 photographers make up the display, which runs through Aug. 10.

Other upcoming Israel at 60 events include the multicultural Esta musical ensemble, which will perform May 15, and theater artist Sara Felder, starring in the play “Out of Sight” on May 21 and 23.

For additional information, call (310) 440-4500.

Ziva Sivan, Musicians, 1988.Acrylic on canvas.Photo by Oded Antman

The classic Szyk haggadah becomes a modern masterpiece of the digital age

There’s a 1,000-year-old haggadah, there’s an Internet haggadah, and now there is a new $15,000 Arthur Szyk Haggadah.

Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a Jew, a Pole, an American, and always an artist, whose brilliant paintings and cartoons could give new life to ancient traditions or eviscerate a Hitler and Mussolini.

Now, almost 57 years after Szyk’s death, antiquarian bookseller Irvin Ungar has come up with a new edition of the artist’s 1940 Haggadah, which, Ungar believes, gives new meaning to the term state-of-the-art, particularly in digital technology.

To create the new haggadah, Ungar said he assembled an international team of top-flight craftsmen, including a digital photographer, writers, designer, bookbinder, printer, boxmaker and film director. To provide the perfect paper for the haggadah, Ungar tracked down a mill in Germany, which had been in business since 1584.

Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894 and started drawing portraits of guests in his parents’ home at age 4. After studying painting in Paris and visiting Palestine in 1914, he was drafted into the czar’s army in World War I but deserted. Later, he fought against the Soviets under the legendary Polish Marshall Josef Pilsudski.

With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, Szyk became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that “the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter.” The Fuehrer allegedly put a price on the head of his nemesis.

At the same time, Szyk worked for two years on his haggadah, and, in 1937, took his 48 paintings to London, hoping to find a publisher who would do the work justice.

However, Szyk had injected his anti-fascism into his art, such as putting a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and a Hitlerian moustache on the Wicked Son. In the pre-war British appeasement days, every publisher turned him down until Szyk reluctantly deleted the Nazi symbols.

When the haggadah came out in 1940 in an original edition of 250 copies printed on calfskin vellum, it was one of the costliest publishing projects of the 20th century. Subsequent photo reproductions could not match the brilliance of the original.

The same year, Szyk immigrated to the United States, and, as a self-described “soldier in art,” his ferocious depictions of the Axis leaders soon graced the covers of Time, Colliers and newspapers across the country. Amazingly, his use of medieval techniques of manuscript illumination proved to be the right style for biting, contemporary satire.

After the war, he applied his talents to supporting Israel’s struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier.

Szyk, whose cartoons had attacked McCarthyism and racist prejudice against blacks, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in early 1951, and within a few months he died at the age of 57.

In the subsequent decades, Szyk and his art were largely forgotten, until a renaissance during the past decade — including a spate of documentaries, biographies and one-man exhibits — brought him to the attention of a new generation.

One of the early rediscoverers was Ungar, a Reform congregational rabbi in Forest Hills, N.Y. and then Burlingame, who had left the pulpit in 1987 to found Historicana, an antiquarian bookseller firm in the northern California city.

Once introduced to Szyk’s work, Ungar was smitten and, as president of the Arthur Szyk Society, is now devoting his life to the master’s legacy, he said.

“No Jewish artist has been more devoted to liberty and social justice than Szyk,” Ungar declared. “No artist has done more to translate Jewish values into art. His haggadah is the great book of freedom.”

The new Szyk Haggadah is being printed in a one-time edition of 300 copies, divided into 215 copies of the deluxe edition at $8,500 per copy, and 85 copies of the premier edition at $15,000 each.

Each copy, resting in a clamshell box, is accompanied by 248-page companion volume on Szyk’s art and life, with essays by such scholars as former museum director Tom Freudenheim (a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal) and Israeli historian Shalom Sabar. Also included is a DVD of the documentary “The Remaking of the Szyk Haggadah.”

For more information, call (650) 343-9578.

The Four Questions

Images reproduced with the cooperation of Historicana, publisher of the new edition of The Szyk Haggadah

R.B. Kitaj — an appreciation

Amnon Barzel, the prominent contemporary art curator who served as the first director of what is now the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, says he arrived in Germany as an Israeli but left as a Jew. It is as much a comment on current German philo-Semitism (I’ve always said “now they love you to death!”) as on its opposite.

The same kind of logic could be applied to American-born painter R. B. Kitaj, who spent much of his life in Britain and died last month in Los Angeles. Kitaj found his gradual self-definition as a Jewish artist through his connection to what came to be known (probably inaccurately) as the “School of London,” a term of his own invention.

Likely under the strong spell of Francis Bacon, the group counted among its other (sort of) Jewish “members” Lucien Freud, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. At a time when variants of abstraction were giving way to pop art, these artists remained committed to a very different, even traditional, sort of figurative painting mode. But Freud, Kossoff and Auerbach were, in their own way, legitimate Brits, and thus presumably not as put-off by the odd ways in which so many British Jews yearn for invisibility insofar as their Jewishness is concerned. Kitaj, like other contemporary American Jews, never quite felt that self-denial, even when he felt no strong Jewish attachments. Despite the Anti-Defamation League’s attempts to persuade us otherwise, American Jews have come a long way from the fearful 1930s attitudes that Philip Roth so brilliantly describes in “The Plot Against America” — when we hopelessly yearned to be perceived as undifferentiated Americans.

Two important exhibitions examining the Jewish content of Kitaj’s work will open in Los Angeles in January — “R.B. Kitaj: Passion and Memory — Jewish Works from His Personal Collection” at the Skirball Cultural Center and “Portrait of a Jewish Artist: R.B. Kitaj in Text and Image,” at UCLA’s Archive of Jewish Culture. These shows will offer the opportunity to calibrate just how “Jewish” Kitaj’s art really is — as distinct from his rhetoric about art-making in the diaspora. I doubt that Kitaj would have come up with his two “Diasporist Manifestos” (1989 and 2007) had he not lived so long in the comfort/discomfort of a London that in turns admired and reviled him as an artist — and, he felt, as a Jew.

Kitaj’s art’s connection to Judaism is not just that of a “diasporist” artist, however — always on the outside in some indefinable way, and yet also wholly celebrated as mainstream. After all, this is an artist who was long represented by the prestigious Marlborough Galleries, and his portraits of friends, even notable Jews such as Isaiah Berlin and Philip Roth, don’t necessarily suggest that his subject matter is Jewish — or do they?

Nevertheless, it should be noted that Kitaj was not the first artist to find relationships between the Shoah and the Passion of Christ, though his “Passion” works, which are included in the Skirball exhibition, reflect Kitaj’s intense need as an artist to anchor himself in the traditions of western art — which is largely dominated by Christian iconography — while also figuring his own way through issues that range from recapturing bits of Jewish history to working through Jewish ideas of thinkers, such as Martin Buber.

I first met Ron Kitaj in the late 1960s, when I was living and working in Berkeley and Kitaj came there to lecture. We became casual friends and remained so; I visited with him and his late wife, Sandra Fisher a few times in London, and then met up with him again much later in Westwood, where he moved after exiling himself from London. In 1965, I was blown away by Kitaj’s first New York gallery exhibition, at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, which I saw when I was still working at The Jewish Museum. My interest certainly had nothing to do with his being a Jewish artist (I doubt that I even knew he was Jewish), but rather, his obvious talent. Here was a serious painter — in the age of Pop/Op and post-AbEx Color Field and all the other “isms” of the day — who was a skilled draughtsman with a very sure sense of using images, a sensibility that leapfrogged from that of the early 20th-century abstractionists and colorists right over a slew of subsequent modes, and did so with extraordinary self-confidence. Kitaj may not have been the unmatched draughtsman of his era that he claimed to be, but he was an amazingly talented artist, with breathtaking control of line and a gorgeous sense of color. His work is filled with imagery both suggestive and elusive, and often confounding.

Critical reaction to Kitaj’s work was often problematic, ranging from high praise to the damning reviews that ultimately led to his 1997 departure from London. The fluctuations were probably more the result of his not being easily pigeonholed — art writers need comfortable categorizations no less than anyone else — than because of the evolution of his work. Indeed, given the many decades of Kitaj’s productivity, it’s astonishing to consider how consistent his work was — in style, if not in subject matter.

That steadiness, too, has been off-putting to some critics, conditioned as we are to save our highest regard

Books: The anti-Chagall offers a field guide to the shtetl


“They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust” by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (University of California Press, $39.95).

Mayer Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 in the Polish town of Apt. In 1934, when he was 17, Mayer, his mother and his three siblings immigrated to Toronto to join his father, who had made the trip six years prior. The family ran a paint and wallpaper store. In 1990, after a lifetime of selling paints, Kirshenblatt, retired and at loose ends, decided to pick up a paintbrush himself, and from its tip the world of his youth poured forth.

Kirshenblatt’s canvasses, together with a stunningly vivid text — the product of four decades’ worth of interviews with his daughter, noted New York University folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett — have now been reproduced in a handsome volume by the University of California Press, and the result is a marvel: With his scrupulously recalled images, Kirshenblatt has managed to do no less than create a new visual language for describing pre-war Eastern European life. In stark contrast to the black-and-white record that has made up our vision heretofore, Kirshenblatt’s paintings are untainted by the horrors to come. They offer a picture not of Polish Jewish life as it was before tragedy struck, but simply as it was. If Chagall was the shtetl’s mythmaker, then Kirshenblatt is his antithesis: a shtetl anthropologist.

The book — the product at once of scholarly rigor and a boy’s sense of wonder, respect for the dead and an even greater respect for the living, ethnographic exactitude and artistic style, a yearning born of loss and a synthesis born of collaboration — is a book like no other.

“They Called Me Mayer July” unfolds not in a grand narrative arc, but in small, bite-size anecdotes, often no longer than a paragraph or two. It is a style, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett writes in the book’s afterward, “more picaresque than bildungsroman.” Like his images, Kirshenblatt’s episodes can stand alone, but they offer more punch when taken together.

While the classic Chagall figure is ever floating skyward, its Kirshenblatt corollary is nothing if not earthbound. The only whitewashing that happens here is literal, as when one of the town’s rabbis repainted the study hall’s walls after a less devout soul had stenciled them with flowers and butterflies. Kirshenblatt’s town, which he often calls by its Polish name, Opatów, is a world of prostitutes and chamber pots, outhouses and broken wind. It’s a world of colorful nicknames: Simkhe the Scab, Avrum the Lump, Yosl the Little Square Noodle and Shmiel the Dog. Sometimes, Kirshenblatt writes, the nicknames sprang from no apparent reality, but in other cases the reason was all too clear. Kirshenblatt tells the story of his poor cousin Malkele, who one day fell into a latrine. Her nickname? Malkele drek.

The book’s title is based on the author’s own nickname, or at least a translation of it.

“Everybody in town had a nickname,” Kirshenblatt writes. “Mine was Mayer tamez, Mayer July, because July was the hottest month of the year. Mayer tamez means Crazy Mayer. People get excited when it is hot, and I was an excitable kid.”

Excitable indeed. Kirshenblatt was someone with his finger in every pie — boundlessly curious, mischievous to the core, a teacher’s nightmare.

“I failed one grade of public school because I played hooky,” he writes. “I was too busy watching everything that was going on in town. I would spend hours observing the blacksmith and the tinsmith, the ropemaker and the cooper, the mills and the carp ponds, and the town square on market day, when all the peasants came to town.”

Given the fact that he’s a painter without formal training, it’s temping to call Kirshenblatt’s work “Outsider Art,” but the label, with its intimations of a life lived on society’s periphery (or maybe even in the loony bin), doesn’t really fit. If anything, he comes across as the consummate “insider.” “He has often said of himself that he is a doer, not a watcher,” his daughter writes, “he likes to be a participant and active observer, not a voyeur.” It is a quality that he took with him across the Atlantic. In his adult life, Kirshenblatt became an enthusiastic camper and sailor, a collector of antique clocks and a restorer of furniture.

This spirit of “active observation” is apparent throughout Kirshenblatt’s book. He explains not only what his townspeople did, but how they did it. Indeed, so keen is his understanding of the inner workings of things that the book at points reads like a “how to” manual. He offers illustrated sections on how to make a dreidel, a whistle, a shoe, a brush, even a shofar from a willow branch.

Which is not to say that Kirshenblatt lacks a storyteller’s gifts. Like all good raconteurs, he is drawn to the bizarre and unusual: those in town who specialized in disabling people so they wouldn’t be drafted (one good at giving hernias; another, a specialist in lopping off trigger fingers) or the wealthy Winona Ryder antecedent who stuffs a live fish down her fancy blouse. But alongside this, Kirshenblatt also displays an understanding of the rhythm and texture of everyday town life: its trades, its politics, its religious diversity, its sounds and its smells.

“They Called Me Mayer July” is a memoir, but this too is a label that fits imperfectly. Kirshenblatt’s telling cannot really be termed a “confession.” As his daughter again helpfully points out, Kirshenblatt’s narrative mode, “because it is more concerned with the palpable world than with interiority,” can best be understood as “extrospective.”

Kirshenblatt will often end his stories with a nice little kicker. Sometimes, these are mournful. Of his uncle Yankl — a handsome ladies’ man who lived in Warsaw — Kirshenblatt writes, he “disappeared like the others.” But more often than not, these little codas are more wry and whimsical than they are elegiac. Never one for organized study, Kirshenblatt suffered in a JCC painting class; the model, he said, moved too quickly from pose to pose.

“My daughter told me to forget about the classes and paint from memory,” he writes. “The teacher also encouraged me to work on my own.”

This article originally appeared in the ” border =0 alt=”Mayer Kirshenblatt painting”>

Film: Child prodigy documentary spotlights director’s ethical struggle

Amir Bar-Lev began his documentary, “My Kid Could Paint That,” after he tired of creating television programs about pop culture for networks such as VH-1. He had previously won six international awards for his debut feature-length film, “Fighter,” a portrait of two Holocaust survivors, which Newsweek and other major publications named one of 2001’s top documentaries. He vowed to read the entire New York Times daily until he discovered a compelling subject for another documentary feature.

He found it in a 2004 article on Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old from Binghamton, N.Y., whose abstract paintings were selling for thousands of dollars. The child had first picked up a brush when she was in diapers; her father, an amateur painter, had let her daub canvases while sitting atop the dining room table. Newspapers around the world had picked up the story, labeling the toddler a “pint-sized Pollack.”

Within hours of reading The Times’ profile, Bar-Lev obtained the Olmsteads’ telephone number and they agreed to appear on camera. He said he initially intended his movie to explore society’s obsession with child prodigies, how the media creates celebrities and “how we choose to decide what is art and what is great art.” (New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman comments on this in the film.)

Bar-Lev said he did not doubt that Marla had created the vivid paintings — even after “60 Minutes II” aired a piece suggesting that her father may have helped created the work. “I felt I was onto what I used to call a ‘David and Goliath story,'” the 35-year-old filmmaker said over coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel. The Olmsteads appeared sincere. “[But] I started having my own questions, as I repeatedly failed to get footage of Marla painting in a way that I felt would debunk the ’60 Minutes’ allegations,” he said.

As Bar-Lev’s doubts grew, his film gradually became a study of reportage and ethics in journalism, including himself under the spotlight. On camera, he admits he wasn’t being “100 percent honest” about airing his growing doubts with the Olmsteads, who were expecting the movie to exonerate them. When he finally feels strongly enough about his misgivings to voice them, Marla’s mother sadly but sarcastically remarks that he has hit “documentary gold” — and promptly walks off camera. It was the last time Bar-Lev was allowed to interview the Olmsteads, who in a statement said they were “heartbroken by some of the choices he made in his portrayal of our family.”

Bar-Lev said, “I had to choose between my affection for the Olmsteads and telling what I perceived as the truth…. I don’t feel flip about what happened between me and them. It’s quite possibly the most painful interpersonal conflict I’ve ever had in my life.”

He said he included Laura Olmstead’s sarcastic remark in the film in order “to be self-critical and to allow her to point out the complicated dynamic that a filmmaker has with his documentary subjects.”

Reviewers have lauded the movie as fair and intriguing.

The New York Times called it “one of the most honest, enjoyable tutorials on media ethics out there.”

“The popular human interest story of a child prodigy becomes an engrossing meditation on truth, media exploitation and the value of art,” Variety said.

Bar-Lev’s first documentary, “Fighter,” also involved difficult choices for the filmmaker. It spotlights the emotional fireworks that ensued when two combative friends, the survivors Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig, retraced Wiener’s journey through war-torn Europe.

Bar-Lev said he was drawn to the titular fighter, Wiener, in part, because the survivor reminded him of his own grandfather, a Haganah veteran. He said he was dismayed when Wiener and Lustig became so enraged with each other on the trip that their friendship seemed at stake; production halted for three days as Bar-Lev and his partners waited to see if the men could mend fences.

“Fighter” and “Kid” have something in common, according to the director. “Both films are about the way in which stories can take on a life of their own,” he said. “In ‘Fighter,’ Jan’s story gets scrutinized by Arnost, who begins to ask him … ‘Is it possible you are mythologizing the events [of your past] and seeing them with a kind of heroic patina?'” And ‘Kid’ is about a story that got out of the hands of the [protagonists] and into the hands of the media — and became this juggernaut that rolled out of control.”

“My Kid Could Paint That” opens Oct. 5 in Los Angeles. For information about “Fighter,” visit
The ‘Kid’ trailer

‘Europa’ docupic tracks Nazi looting and the fate of art masterworks

The Nazi regime was not only the world’s greatest murderer, but the biggest thief as well. High on the list of loot were Europe’s master paintings and sculptures, with failed artist Adolf Hitler and his avaricious henchman, Hermann Goering, personally spearheading the plunder.

More than 60 years after the fall of the Third Reich, the fallout from the great Nazi robbery is continuing, with thousands of art works still missing or sought by their original, largely Jewish, owners.

The story, as meticulously tracked in the two-hour documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” is complex, but even those unenthused by visits to galleries or museums will find the plotline riveting.

Numbers alone don’t tell the story, but they are staggering. In total, the Nazis seized some 600,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures and Judaica artifacts during their 12-year reign, according to historian Jonathan Petropoulos of Claremont McKenna College, one the top experts on the subject.

As one small example, a detachment of the U.S. Army’s “Monuments Men” found 6,500 paintings and sculptures in one Bavarian salt mine alone and sent them to a collection point, which held 27 Rembrandt paintings.

Petropoulos said in an interview that up to 100,000 looted artworks might still be missing; some were destroyed but others may not be rediscovered for generations.

Hitler’s obsession with art was as monumental, and as fervently anti-Semitic, as his other manias. As a struggling young artist, Hitler was twice rejected for admission to Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. The film’s narrator ponders how the course of history might have been changed if Hitler had not been turned down by the academy’s heavily Jewish faculty.

Hitler’s revenge fantasy included the construction of a grandiose Fuehrer Museum in his hometown of Linz to house the greatest of his looted artworks. Up until his last hours in his Berlin bunker, Hitler reworked his delusional plans for the museum.

Following their leader’s example, his top honchos became avid art collectors, none more so than Goering, Hitler’s chief deputy and commander of the German air force. At the height of the Battle of Britain, which Goering promised would bring England to its knees through ferocious air raids, the corpulent field marshal found time to visit Paris 20 times and select paintings from Jewish homes and art dealers.

During the course of wartime battles and air raids, some of the great architectural landmarks of Europe were damaged or destroyed. In the fighting in Italy for Pisa, for instance, the Leaning Tower was spared, but the famed frescoes of the Campo Santo were heavily damaged.

As Nazi armies retreated, they vented their fury by blowing up Florence’s 13th century bridges and trashing the homes of Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy in Russia.

“Rape of Europa” opens and closes with shots of Maria Altmann, the 91-year-old Cheviot Hills resident who battled the Austrian and American governments for seven years to recover five paintings by Gustav Klimt taken from her Viennese family and valued at $300 million.

In one of the landmark cases in the history of looted art, E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s lawyer, took the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

The film is the work of three San Francisco-based veterans of PBS documentaries, Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham. Cohen is also the founder of Actual Films, which produced “Rape of Europa,” and she and her colleagues worked seven years on the documentary, basing it on Lynn H. Nicholas’ book of the same title.

The filmmakers have crammed a remarkable amount of information and historical context into their work, enlivened by vintage footage of Hitler and other Nazi art connoisseurs and the work of Allied recovery teams.

Among the most vivid images is a ghost-like Louvre in Paris in 1939, emptied of its 35,000 works of art in advance of the German onslaught. Another is the picture of cheering Florentines lining the streets to welcome the return, on U.S. Army trucks, of the city’s looted paintings.

The saga is not over yet. Many paintings will likely never be recovered, and the tedious work of returning others to their original owners is still continuing.

Schoenberg told The Journal that he is now involved in a suit by the descendants of a Dutch Jewish family to recover two life-size painting of “Adam and Eve” by the 15th century German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

“The Rape of Europa” opens Sept. 28 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Town Center 5 in Encino and Claremont 5 in Claremont.

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Abstract eye follows Dali in film at LACMA

Even by the standards of today’s overheated art market, few artists have been as excessively hyped and overexposed as Salvador Dali (1904-1989). There are museums dedicated to his work in Florida and Spain, and in London you can “be transported into a world of melting clocks and anthropomorphic sculpture” at Dali Universe. Add to that the endless reproductions in print and poster shops, lawsuits about fakes, and Dali’s own flamboyant personality, which gave him the notoriety we associate with Andy Warhol — indeed, Dali might well have served as a model for Warhol, with a shelf life far exceeding the cliché about 15 minutes worth of fame.

All this has made some of us tire of Dali’s overexposure, with knee-jerk reactions that make us roll our eyes when we note that Dali still serves as the quintessential modern artist for people who don’t like modern art. He is loved for making recognizable images for those who can’t handle abstraction, for those kinky twists that suck you into thinking this is really “far out stuff.” So, of course, there have been many Dali exhibitions at museums hoping to attract blockbuster-sized audiences, and now comes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Dali: Painting & Film,” opening Oct. 14.

Yet it looks like LACMA’s Dali blockbuster could make those of us who approach the artist with a sense of exhausted cynicism take a much more serious look at this artist whose work in film interacted with his work as a painter. The exhibition will surely interest those who care about film history, reminding us that the borders between media can be very indistinct for our most creative artists. That’s not news, of course — Leonardo da Vinci long ago taught us that creative genius isn’t easily pigeonholed. But today, technology is at everyone’s fingertips, so we almost feel as if we, too, are capable of making those transformations that turn the Governator from a human being to a fantastic metallic creature and back again, just by sitting at our computers. It’s the museum’s responsibility to ask us to reconsider that arrogant stance, to persuade us that there really is such a thing as an artist’s vision, and that no, we wouldn’t have been able to conceive of doing any such thing on our own.

Early in the last century, when film was a newer medium, many artists were intrigued by its kinetic visual possibilities, and for a fantasist like Dali, the opportunities must have seemed especially rich. After all, artists had long sought to convey various states of mobility in the static media of painting, and even sculpture limited the options. Moreover, we still admire earlier art works for their ability to communicate illusions about our actual experiences of the real world.

To that end, Dali collaborated with his countryman and fellow surrealist, Luis Bu?uel, on groundbreaking films (“Un Chien Andalou,” 1929; “L’Age d’or,” 1930), and the experience informed Dali’s paintings as well. The 1920s were especially rich in these efforts at creative filmmaking, and Sigmund Freud’s explorations and their impact were also still relatively fresh, so the imaginative opportunities were endless. To fully appreciate this exhibition will require watching these films, in addition to viewing the paintings, so plan to spend more time than the usual museum show allotment.

“There is a constant triangulation formed by the flow of film, paintings, and text,” Dawn Ades writes in one of several illuminating essays in the catalog accompanying the exhibition. This reminds us, too, of Dali’s role as a writer — manifestos were fashionable in his day, including statements about art and its relationship to everything else; in Dali’s time, artists played the role of forward-thinking visionaries. We no longer trust that sort of bombast, but we ought to remember that after the horrors of the Great War, artists may have seemed more perspicacious and trustworthy than those who conducted affairs of state.

But Dali was not entirely won over by the new medium; he complained that he didn’t “believe that cinema can ever become an artistic form. It is a secondary form, because too many people are involved in its creation. The only true means of producing a work of art is painting, in which only the eye and the point of the brush are employed.” Imagine what he might have done with Photoshop and all the other toys now at our disposal.

Ever the self-aware showman, Dali was lured to Hollywood in the 1940s, by which time he was already a famous artist and therefore a potential asset to filmmakers. As producer David Selznick wrote in a memo regarding the anticipated contract with Dali for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), “if we make a deal for the celebrated artist we have in mind … we should not let this leak out in publicity, as I think we can get some sensational breaks on it.” Only Dali’s dream sequence survived in the legendary Ingrid Bergman/Gregory Peck film, but Dali also tried his hand, with limited success, at a number of other Hollywood film projects, including an once-abandoned and now revived Disney animated six-minute short, “Destino” (1946), and the video, “Chaos and Creation” (1960), directed by Philippe Halsman.

The interplay between film and painting makes this exhibition seem particularly well-suited to Los Angeles’ audiences, and will likely reinvigorate respect for Dali’s inventiveness and unique vision, especially among all the local film folks for whom this experience should provide a major series of discoveries.

Tom Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

Creativity for a cause

Esther Netter, CEO of the Zimmer Children’s Museum, speaks with infectious enthusiasm about her museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Show & Tell: The Art of Harmony,” which opens Sunday, May 6.

“Look at what artists can do!” she says in the museum’s storage room as she points to the wide array of objects, each based upon a musical instrument.

She is gearing up for the third “Show & Tell” exhibition, following previous ones in which artists produced sculpture, painting and mixed-media forms based upon a clock or a telephone of their choice. The shows have always been remarkable, not only for the personalities who provided their phones or clocks — including Ariel Sharon and Elizabeth Taylor — but also for the artwork’s deeper resonance related to the themes of time, communication and now music.

The musical connection seems a perfect one for artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose “White Paintings” — canvases with all-white surfaces — famously influenced composer John Cage to produce his so-called “silent” music.

In “Show & Tell,” Rauschenberg has provided a mixed-media work titled, “Fugue.” A pigment transfer on paper, “Fugue” suggests a polyphonic composition in that it features drawings of piano keys in black and white juxtaposed with metronomes, painted red and looking almost like miniature pyramids. With its layers of piano keys on top of one another headed toward infinity, “Fugue” induces the kind of hypnosis one might experience listening to certain fugues, which can transport the listener into a trance.

Rauschenberg, who signed his work with his initials and thumb print, his signature since his stroke some years ago, was brought into this project by his friend, Barbara Lazaroff, the restaurateur and architectural designer.

Lazaroff has contributed a work bearing the title, “If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On,” the opening line from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” As one might expect of a restaurateur who partnered with Wolfgang Puck, she includes a series of colorful dinner plates beneath this verse, each with its own mini-theme, such as love, betrayal, marriage and cowardice. In a statement about her work, Lazaroff writes, “Both music and cuisine are art forms that evoke our visceral and cerebral memories.”

Proceeds from the sale of the works will raise funds for youTHink, the Zimmer’s outreach program for students, and while the show includes some famous contributors, many of its works come from lesser-known figures.

Peter Schulberg, for instance, wittily comments on the architects of the Iraq War with a set of drums marked by the images of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld beneath paintings of the American flag. The images are displayed on a curved side of a pair of drums, presenting museumgoers with the temptation to beat the faces of Rumsfeld and Bush.

Los Angeles-based artist Alison Saar comments on domestic concerns in a manner more dissonant than harmonious, depicting Yemaja, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea, in a turquoise hue. The goddess’ eyes are obscured by the keys of a kalimba, an African thumb piano — we cannot see them, and they cannot see us.

Work such as that by Schulberg and Saar reflects the Zimmer’s mission over its roughly 15-year existence, which is to educate children of all backgrounds and instill in them progressive values. As Netter says, “We want to teach them how to be a mensch.”

“Show & Tell: The Art of Harmony” opens May 6 at the Zimmer Children’s Museum. For information, call (323) 761-8989 or visit

Feminist ‘Scroll’ unfurled for Weisberg retrospective

Fifteen years since it was last exhibited at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, Ruth Weisberg’s “The Scroll,” a 94-foot mixed-media painting that encompasses the Jewish feminist narrative in mural form, will be displayed at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of a mid-career retrospective of her work titled “Ruth Weisberg: Unfurled,” opening Tuesday, May 8.

Done in five stages, “The Scroll” begins with creation and the birth of a child. A mother and baby are seen touching one another in an homage to Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel.” Weisberg, dean of the Roski School of Fine Arts at USC, continues her narrative with images of growth, rebirth through death; fittingly, the work is installed at the Skirball in a space that suggests the notion of the womb, curving from one corner of the girdle-shaped room to another.

Following the mural’s initial unfurling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, it was shown at the Skirball in the late 1980s, when the museum was based at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Several years later it went to Chicago.

Curator Barbara Gilbert points out that this is the first time that “The Scroll” has been exhibited in such a setting. Previously, it was hung in a horizontal format. But that is not the only difference this time around. “Now we realize how significant this was to her career … Her other works have evolved from it,” Gilbert says.

In the show’s catalog, Matthew Baigell, emeritus professor of art history at Rutgers, writes, “No painting by a major artist concerned with a narrative sequence based on tanach or on aspects of Jewish secular history appeared until Weisberg’s ‘The Scroll.'” He adds, “It is in effect the first Jewish American mural cycle based on Jewish subject matter … [and] from a Jewish feminist point of view.”

Indeed, the tallit section features Israelite women like Miriam, as well as a scene from the bat mitzvah of Weisberg’s daughter, in which mother and child are joined on the bimah by Weisberg’s sister and Rabbi Laura Geller.

Merging the biblical and historic with the personal is a trademark of Weisberg, who seems to be suggesting that past and present are one and that we can see our own narratives in the ancient narratives of our forebears.

Weisberg uses chiaroscuro in much of her work, not only “The Scroll” but also some of her early intaglio prints, such as “Together Again,” a companion piece to “The Children,” in which she drew pictures of children based on a photograph she had recovered of unknown Eastern European Jewish kids from the first half of the past century. Although they wear the plain clothing we often associate with those headed for the concentration camps, the children hold hands, forging a stance of strength and optimism against an uncertain destiny.

“Doing children is not in in the art world,” Weisberg says with a chuckle. “People are afraid of sentiment. Sentimentality I want to avoid, but deep feelings are something I want to engage.”

She also engages memory and movement. In showing otherwise forgotten children next to trains, an evocation of the cattle cars, and ships like the St. Louis, Weisberg suggests that travel or dispersion has always been a part of the Jewish narrative and will always be a part of the future.

“The Scroll” shows this motion, beginning and ending with immigrants arriving, presumably in America. The middle section, known as revelation, derives from philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s theory of the three stages in life: creation, revelation and redemption.

Though one may be tempted to recall the Book of Revelation, which was likely written by a Jew — as Jonathan Kirsch points out in his new book, “A History of the End of the World” — there is nothing apocalyptic about this section of the painting. It features an inverted tree of life with the roots at the top, tying into the kabbalistic concept that we reach upward for a connection with God. Underneath the tree, a wedding takes place, another theme that runs throughout the painting, most notably in the painted Torah bindels inserted in several places.

If one wonders what prompted Weisberg to create such a massive mural, Gilbert notes that Weisberg studied Christian murals for several years in Italy. Weisberg concurs.

“I really was aware of what had been done in terms of large-scale works … within the Catholic canon,” she adds. “This had never been done before from a Jewish point of view.”

Given Weisberg’s background of studying Italian art that depicts the Christian Bible, it is not surprising that at this moment the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has hired her to create art that serves as a “conversation” with a painting by Guido Cagnacci, a Baroque Italian painter. The painting deals with the rebuke of Mary Magdalene. “Maybe, you shouldn’t mention that,” she jokes.

Ruth Weisberg will appear in conversation with Nancy Berman on Thursday, May 3 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The exhibit, “Ruth Weisberg: Unfurled” will open May 8.

The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. For more information, visit

Was Judaism a color on Rothko’s palette?

Like many people of my generation, I first grooved on Mark Rothko’s paintings at Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection in the 1960s. The museum’s founder, Duncan Phillips, an early Rothko patron, had assembled four sublime paintings in a small room (approximately 13-by-24 feet) — what the artist said was “in a scale of normal living” — enabling the viewer to be saturated by the luminous colors of the paintings. The reverential mood of that very special room (recently reinstalled) presaged later assemblages of Rothko paintings, most notably the artist’s late work for Houston’s eponymous Rothko Chapel. At Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Chief Curator Paul Schimmel has just brought out eight of the museum’s 10 Rothko paintings in an “intimate” installation. Here’s your chance to ponder the layered meanings of all that reverence with which many of us have addressed the artist’s work. And it’s also an opportunity to consider whether there’s anything especially Jewish about the majestic works of the artist, who was born in 1903 as Marcus Rothkovich in Dvinsk (now Latvia), Russia.

Despite my long interest in those points at which “art” and “Jewish” intersect, and plenty of immersion in the meditative qualities of Rothko’s work, I considered my admiration for Rothko’s art to be at some distance from my Jewish sensibilities. True, Rothko’s 1930s associations were with various New York — mostly Jewish — artists (such as the unjustly ignored Ben-Zion), many of whom he gradually outgrew. In line with the political commitments of so many of his cultural colleagues, Rothko was engaged by the generally leftist political issues of the 1930s and ’40s. But it’s evident from both his writings and his work that his major involvement was with his painting. If we are to believe his various comments and those of collectors and critics who knew him well, Rothko really cared about the way in which viewers saw his work. That’s different from the assertive and even macho image that we associate with so many of his fellow abstract expressionists, with their strong sense of a public-be-damned arrogance, leaving museum curators, collectors and critics as the powerful intermediaries who tried to make this crazy — “my child could do it” — art palatable to a skeptical public.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider Rothko, writing to critic Katherine Kuh in 1954, arguing that he put his trust in the psyche of the sensitive viewer who is free from conventional patterns of thought. He didn’t know how a viewer would use his pictures to meet the needs of his spirit, but he was certain that when the viewer had both needs and a spirit, there could be a true exchange.

It’s in this unusual concern for his audience — looking for “a consummated experience between picture and onlooker” — that I find Rothko most persuasively Jewish, as well as oddly apart from his contemporaries. Having been subjected to a rigorous Orthodox Jewish education prior to his immigration to the United States at the age of 10, Rothko was probably the best Jewishly-educated of his painter colleagues, while avoiding the pretentious pseudo-intellectual Jewish pronouncements of Barnett Newman.

But whatever Rothko’s Jewish commitments, they weren’t clearly evident in his paintings. As (Jewish) critic, Dore Ashton, has written, he was “no stranger to the history of the world in which suffering predominates,” but somehow sublimated the specificity of his reaction to the events of his day into something more universal, using themes from ancient Greek tragedy. This reflects a concern with the validation of painting itself — in that sense very much attuned to the then-new “triumph of American painting” (critic Irving Sandler’s term) — rather than with meaning in or of painting. Art, Rothko wrote, is “an adventure into an unknown world.” He worried about telling the public “how the pictures should be looked at and what to look for. While on the surface this may seem an obliging and helpful thing to do, the real result is the paralysis of the mind and the imagination.”

And yet, inevitably, there are interpretations that have worked in contradiction to the artist’s assertions. After all, who’s to say that we need to believe the artist, or that he ought to have the last word. I first encountered this years ago while reading that Rothko’s 1950’s vast layered pools of indescribable, sometimes murky, colors might be “brooding Hebraic” paintings without recognizing the potentially anti-Semitic thrust of such critical comments, perhaps meant positively. More recently, Matthew Baigell, probably the most astute (and most Jewishly educated) scholar currently writing about contemporary artists and their Jewishness, argues that, having come of age in “an era of rampant anti-Semitism in America and because of his desire to appear as a modern artist without parochial attachments, Rothko simply could not proclaim connections with ancient Israelite memories or archetypes, but could do with ancient Greek ones, instead. It was an old Jewish habit, but for Rothko the trials of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon substituted for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.”

It’s true that Rothko spoke and wrote of “tragedy” and the “tragic” — suggesting that “perhaps the artist is a prophet.” Like most Jews of his generation, he was also deeply affected by the sense of helplessness at watching the unfolding of events in Europe during the 1930s and the abyss of the Holocaust. Professor Baigell contends that “if we assume the Holocaust was a devastating experience for Rothko both while it was happening and in retrospect, then his paintings, certainly those of the early and middle 1940s, when there were still suggestions of legible imagery, can be read as his profoundly tragic responses — as a Jewish artist — to the Holocaust.

Those earlier works aren’t the ones before which we reverentially melt in the various installations that, since 1960, have sought to give us more Phillips Collection experiences. Perhaps the artist instinctively understood that he could reach us more directly via the simply visual, rather than through majestic traditional classical themes reminding us that our familiarity with Edith Hamilton’s mythological is sketchy, at best. It’s too bad that those earlier Rothko paintings are less familiar to the general public, because they serve as important, perhaps more readable, touchstones for understanding the artist’s early sense of responsibility.

MOCA is taking on a gutsy task in suggesting that a handful of paintings from the permanent collection can be worthy of a special exhibition. The installation re-exposes us to the familiar Rothko of lush and deeply saturated, endlessly-layered, colors. These meditative, luminous, and numinous works, spanning the years 1947 to 1960, suggest movement toward a post-Holocaust Jewishness, one that the artist may have instinctively felt, prior to his death in 1970.
Rothko’s late work isn’t so much about some dark and mysterious Jewish sensibility as about a kind of freedom from dogma and cant: the mystery of clarity.

Surprise lesson lurks in show of painters’ works

Outwardly, the paintings of the Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico do not have much in common. De Chirico’s world is a silent place of deserted plazas, long afternoon shadows and motionless trains. In his interiors, faceless mannequins sit in airless rooms, surrounded by spears, shields and other emblems of ancient Rome. Guston’s paintings, on the other hand, are exuberant and crude looking, like enlargements of comic strip images from the Krazy Kat era. Far from the dignity of the classical world, Guston’s atmosphere is 100 percent American, a world of car horns, pratfalls and Bronx cheers.

The surprising lesson of “Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico,” currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, is that the irascible Italian master and the restless Jewish American painter are profoundly linked. The source of the link is the unwavering admiration of Guston (1913-1980) for the older artist (1888-1978). The admiration began in 1932, when Guston, then a teenage art student, first encountered two de Chirico canvases — “The Soothsayer’s Recompense” (1913) and “The Poet and His Muse” (1922) — in the Hollywood Hills home of Louise and Walter Arensberg. (Both works are on view in this show.)

After seeing this show of only 26 paintings, one can no longer look at Guston without thinking of de Chirico. And the hard-to-understand world of Guston opens up a little bit, when confronted with the many conscious references to images or devices in de Chirico’s work — a half-open door, a floor that floats in space, empty picture frames containing other empty frames – which the American painter made part of his personal iconography.

Both de Chirico and Guston eluded the neat categories often applied to modernist art. The Italian master was one of the most independent artists of the 20th century, and his most famous works date from the years just prior to World War I.

The irrational, non-narrative quality of his dreamscapes were quickly embraced by the Surrealists. (A 1922 canvas by de Chirico, “A Song of Love,” was a pivotal influence on Rene Magritte, the famed Belgian Surrealist.) Yet despite their admiration, the Surrealists failed to recruit de Chirico to their movement, and the Italian painter subsequently found himself left behind, isolated and even vilified by the fast-changing fashions of his time.

Guston would also find himself criticized for bucking the “official” line of the art world in 1969, when he exchanged his trademark abstract expressionist style of the 1940s and ’50s into the “impure” style of more narrative, cartoonish images. Using figurative imagery was anathema to serious-minded artists at the time, like painter Lee Krasner (widow of Jackson Pollock), who never spoke to Guston again. A look at Guston’s history, however, shows the seeming betrayal as a return to his roots, both pictorial and political.

Born in Montreal of financially struggling Russian Jewish parents, Guston, born Philip Goldstein, grew up in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Like many children of immigrants, Guston was a self-denying Jew (his daughter, Musa Mayer, has said she was unaware of her ethnic heritage until adulthood). And like many second-generation Jews, Guston was intensely political, a conviction probably strengthened by open anti-Semitism and the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in California during his childhood and early youth.

After a series of “metaphysical” paintings clearly influenced both by de Chirico and his teacher, Lorser Feitelson, Guston graduated to lightly veiled leftist themes in murals he made for the WPA in the late 1930s, then finally moved to total abstraction by the early 1940s. After spending nearly 30 years as a respectable second-rank figure in the group that included boyhood companion Jackson Pollock and Wilhelm de Kooning, Guston startled the New York art scene with his unexpected break from abstraction.

Guston’s contemporaries might be forgiven for not knowing what to make of his later paintings. Comical-looking men wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods go wheeling through town in squash-shaped cars. They lie in bed smoking fat cigarettes emitting cartoonish smoke. Enormous unblinking eyes stare at the ceiling or the sky.

These “funny” paintings were never intended as jokes, however. They have no punch line. Indeed, they are strange, sad and enigmatic — not unlike to the evocative mood of the “metaphysical” paintings of de Chirico. The hooded klansmen are sometimes menacing and at other times benign and pensive; they seem to be alter egos of an artist never entirely comfortable with himself.

“The hoods are not just powerful and menacing, nor are they entirely benign,” said Lisa Melandri, one of the co-curators of the show. “They are complex, ambiguous, silly; they’re all these things at once. There is also a pathos to them.”

Other allusions point directly to de Chirico, such as a hooded figure leaning on its arm in “By the Window” (1969), which appears to be a reference to “The Poet and His Muse” or a clangorous battle of garbage can lids and baseball bats in “Ramp” (1979), reminiscent of the collision of spears, shields and legs in de Chirico’s “The Invisible Cohort” (1973).

As an institution without a permanent collection, the Santa Monica Museum of Art stands or falls on the quality of its shows. The interest of exhibitions like “Enigma Variations” suggests that the museum, standing almost hidden among the former industrial sheds in Bergamot Station, now occupies a presence in the art world far beyond its tiny footprint.

“Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico” is on view through Nov. 25 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica.

Morris Newman has written about architecture and other subjects for many publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

‘Nighthawks’ Scribe Brings Hopper Painting to Life

Based upon Edward Hopper’s famous painting of a late-night coffee shop on a desolate city street corner, Douglas Steinberg’s new play, “Nighthawks,” which is having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater, features a painter who says only one word in the entire first act. The word is “coffee,” an apposite line of dialogue for a silent character spending significant stage time sitting at a counter.

This painter, known as the Customer, rarely speaks, and the other characters do not speak to each other so much as interrupt, disregard and talk past one another, the kind of miscommunication virtually always suggested by the subjects in Hopper’s paintings. They rattle off dialogue like it’s coming out of a Gatling gun and speak in a streetwise idiom right out of the New York ghettos.

Steinberg knows he is treading familiar ground here, ground previously traversed by Warner Bros. screenwriters from the 1930s and ’40s, playwright Clifford Odets and novelist Daniel Fuchs in his Williamsburg trilogy. Steinberg knows that the reputations of Odets and Fuchs have suffered in recent years and that their dialogue, endlessly recycled, has become a cliche. To Steinberg’s credit, he makes his dialogue sing.

“It’s kind of poetic in its absurd, poor grammar, flowing in a vile, vulgar sort of way like ‘Deadwood,'” he says, referring to David Milch’s highly acclaimed HBO series.

Beyond the staccato lyricism of his language, Steinberg has also come up with a grand conceit in extrapolating a story line from Hopper’s painting, a famous study in urban anomie. About 20 years ago, Steinberg’s wife, the painter and actress Sarah Torgov, bought him a poster of “Nighthawks,” which he placed above his desk. Soon afterwards, “the characters started whispering to each other,” he says, and he began writing his play, which won an National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Despite being a playwright in residence at the South Coast Repertory Theater and a member of the Los Angeles Theatre Center Playwrights for more than 10 years, Steinberg could not get the play staged.

At the time he wrote “Nighthawks,” he says, the painting was just starting to become part of popular culture, whereas “now, it’s like a McDonald’s sign.”

Indeed, it has been co-opted by big business whose poster and tchotchke merchandisers have transformed it into Hollywood kitsch, changing the four unknown characters in the late-night diner into a roster of postwar entertainment icons, including Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Steinberg, however, imagines the four principals the way Hopper did, as anonymous city dwellers. Mae, a one-time looker, is the waitress/owner of the diner; Quig, her underfinanced husband and cook; Sam, a polio-ridden friend and bellhop at a nearby hotel; and the Customer, the man with no name, who secretly or not-so-secretly paints the three others.

Steinberg grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, although none of his characters are supposed to be Jewish. “It would be chauvinistic of me to take this man’s painting and apply my own interest,” he says in explaining his characters’ nondescript ethnicity. The exception is Jimmy Nickels, an Irish gangster. Still, they all have what Steinberg calls a Jewish “sensibility” in that they “rail against injustice.”

In bemoaning their fates, Mae, Quig and Sam question the Customer’s motivation. Like the character in the painting who keeps his back to the viewer, long thought to be a model for Hopper himself, the Customer is a painter, but he may have more in common with fiction writers in that he devotes much of his time to observing others while giving away little of himself.

The play deftly questions the nature of the relationship between painter and subject. The Customer grapples internally with whether or not he is responsible to people whose lives he has entered, perhaps even intruded upon.

Although the Customer rarely speaks, he influences everyone in the play, many of whom subconsciously emulate him. Nickels, the neighborhood wiseguy, keeps his back to us, just as the painter does. Clive, the young hustler, seems always to enter just as the Customer exits. Lucy, Mae’s niece and an aspiring dancer, echoes the painter in her one-word request, “Coffee.” And there is even the dead carcass, black-market meat that takes the Customer’s place on his favorite stool. Sam and Quig wrap it up, so that it will be mistaken for a drunk.

This doubling reminds us of the longstanding link between art and theater, which is particularly acute at a proscenium arch theater like the Kirk Douglas, where each scene can be framed like a painting. This is best illustrated in the so-called silent scene suggested in the script. Like a closed-window episode in an Ernst Lubitsch movie, the silent scene in the play freezes the principals in time as in a work of art. The silence is finally broken when, appropriately enough, the painter exclaims, “Coffee,” as if telling his models that they can take a break after hours of holding a pose.

The play concludes with what Steinberg calls “a Solomon story,” where one of the characters must choose which loved one to sacrifice. It is also a variation on an O. Henry ending, in that a good intention goes awry, but the result is far from benign.

Hopper, whose work inspired Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as well as the after-hours theme of Turner Classic Movies’ promotional spots, understood a life of compromise. As Quig says of Sam, who has endangered the group, but for whom he has a soft spot, “What other man but Sam knows the night like I do? Huh? What other man has cared to share a smoke, a laugh?”

“Nighthawks” has its world premiere on Sept. 6 and runs through Sept. 24 at the Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772.


Presbyterian Church Fixes Divestment Damage
Two years after it angered Jews by passing a resolution calling for divestment from Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is trying to undo the damage.

At this year’s General Assembly in Birmingham, a church committee agreed Saturday night to ask the full assembly to replace its 2004 resolution calling for “phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” with a policy of “corporate engagement” that would restrict investments in Israel, the Gaza Strip and West Bank to peaceful pursuits. The full assembly was to vote on the resolution Wednesday.

The committee overwhelmingly agreed to the motion after days of deliberation in which it held open hearings and heard dozens of proposals.

Although the resolution does not formally rescind divestment, most took it to mean that the drive toward divestment had been stopped, and that the call for “corporate engagement” shows a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resolution approved by the church’s peacemaking and international issues committee:

  • Calls on the church to restrict its investments that relate to Israel, Gaza, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank to peaceful pursuits;
  • Urges peaceful cooperation among Israelis, Americans and Palestinians, and Jews, Muslims and Christians;
  • Calls for dismantling Israel’s West Bank security barrier where it ventures beyond the pre-1967 boundary;
  • Aims to submit these proposals to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian politicians and religious leaders.

Klimt Paintings to Leave LACMA
Los Angeles’ loss is New York’s gain, with the sale by local resident Maria Altmann of an iconic Gustav Klimt painting to the Big Apple’s Neue Galerie, owned by Jewish cosmetics heir and philanthropist Ronald Lauder.

The gold-flecked 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt, was sold for a reported $135 million, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.

In addition to the portrait, four other Klimt paintings were recently returned to Altmann and her family by the Austrian government, after a seven-year legal and diplomatic battle waged by Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg.

The art works were seized from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis, after their takeover of Austria in 1938.

Sale of the “Golden Adele” is a cultural blow for Los Angeles, and especially the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA), which is currently exhibiting all five Klimt paintings.

LACMA tried hard to keep the collection intact and permanently on home grounds, but was unable to come up with the necessary funds.

Altmann, a lively 90-year-old Cheviot Hills resident, is now planning a trip to Europe with her grandchildren, but doesn’t plan to change her lifestyle.

“I’ll stay in the house where I’ve lived for 30 years, keep driving my ’92 Ford, and I don’t need any new clothing,” she told The Journal in an interview earlier this year.

Angelenos have one more week to view the Klimt collection at the LACMA exhibit, which closes June 30. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Ethiopian Immigration to Israel to Remain Flat?
An Israeli ministerial committee recommended that the government postpone a decision to double the number of Falash Mura allowed into Israel from Ethiopia. The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity and who are now returning to Judaism. The government decided several years ago to increase the number allowed into Israel each month, from 300 to 600. However, the decision was never implemented, and the committee said the move should be postponed further because of financial considerations. The recommendation comes as Israel’s High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition next week on the government’s failure to expedite the aliyah.

Reform Movement Center Opens in Jaffa
The Reform movement in Israel inaugurated a $12 million cultural center in Jaffa on Sunday. The facility, to be opened officially in October, will be called Mishkenot Daniel. The decision to put it in Jaffa was part of the movement’s efforts to reach out to middle- and working-class families in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The inauguration coincided with the first annual convention of the Association of Reform Zionists in Israel to be held in the Jewish state. The center is to include a youth hostel, auditorium, classrooms and a synagogue. Some prominent American Jews have donated to its building, and Israeli Reform movement officials hope local Reform congregants will help raise additional funds for the complex.

Israel Expands Residency Law
Israel expanded a law granting residency to children of non-Jewish foreign workers. On Sunday, the Cabinet approved a proposal by Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On to ease the minimum age requirement for children whose parents work legally in Israel and who want to become citizens themselves. Previously, only children who were born in Israel or arrived before age 10 were eligible, but the bar has now been raised to 14. Other requirements for candidates are that they speak Hebrew and have lived in Israel for at least six years. After completing mandatory military service, they will become eligible for citizenship. The amendment was opposed by Cabinet ministers from the Shas Party, which said it would threaten Israel’s demographic balance. But Bar-On argued that it applied to only a few-hundred potential candidates.

Kosher Restaurant to Open in Turkey
Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday that Silence Park, a new holiday resort to be launched in the city of Antalya next month, includes a glatt kosher restaurant, the first in Turkey. The restaurant will serve both meat and dairy meals, using both local fare and products imported from Israel. Antalya is especially popular with Israeli vacationers given its geographical proximity and cheap prices.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.