Platform for Jewish-Polish Dialogue  

From Memory to Canvas, Lost Way of Life in Poland



Mayer Kirshenblatt, 92, whose words and images are at the Jewish Museum, with two of his works, “Circus,” left, and “Gypsies at Buchirski’s.


Sometimes it takes a family, and a persistent one at that. So it was with Mayer Kirshenblatt, a reluctant painter and accidental memoirist whose words and images form an extraordinary exhibition at the Jewish Museum.

“They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust” contains nearly 70 canvases and a dozen works on paper. Nearly all depict scenes of Jewish (and some gentile) life in between-the-wars Poland with a charming combination of poignancy and precision.

They are set in Opatow (Apt in Yiddish), a provincial Polish city where Mr. Kirshenblatt was born in 1916 and where he lived until 1934, when his family emigrated to Toronto, which is still his home. He always displayed a certain independence of mind, earning him the nickname Mayer Tamez; Tamez is the Yiddish word for July, the hottest month, which was also slang for crazy. As in Crazy Mayer.

Mr. Kirshenblatt didn’t begin to paint his uncannily accurate pictures of Apt until 1990, when he was 73. He was 14 years into retirement and suffering bouts of depression. His family — rightly picking up on a hidden talent — had spent the previous decade plying him with art supplies and imploring him to take up painting.

The paintings were, almost from the start, it seems, infused with wonderful colors and an instinctive feel for light. Executed with folk-artist dispatch, they clearly benefit from his career as the owner of a paint and wallpaper store in downtown Toronto, and especially his expertise in mixing colors and faux wood-graining. They have vistas: floorboards that stretch deep into interiors bathed in cones of light cast by ceiling lamps, or expanses of cobblestones that have the softness of marshmallows. A particular strength is an extensive range of pale browns and creams, together or apart, that recur throughout these works, sharpened with jolts of red or green.

These paintings won’t elevate Mr. Kirshenblatt to the canon of 20th-century self-taught painters. Their style is overly indebted to Marc Chagall, another painter of Jewish life and Mr. Kirshenblatt’s favorite artist. But where Chagall floats above his subject in the realm of fantasy, Mr. Kirshenblatt’s feet are planted firmly on the ground. His paintings, combined with his text labels, record a lost way of life with encyclopedic thoroughness.

The images imply an artist blessed with an insatiable curiosity about the way the world worked and something like a photographic memory for its machinations. A fervent observer of just about everything, Mr. Kirshenblatt was held back a year in school for continually playing hooky. He had spent the time around town, watching life happen.

In the Jewish Museum show his subjects include routine occurrences: market days; petty theft; a Torah procession; the shilklaper, who walked the streets like a town crier, reminding women to light the Sabbath candles; and Mayer himself, attending school, playing soccer and fetching a herring from the fishmonger.

We see shoemakers and their tools; people making brushes, harnesses or wigs, or plucking geese; and a water carrier with his coattails tucked into his belt to keep them dry. A memorable view of a tailor shop shows three men in a row, working on burgundy garments. There are also drawings that illustrate how shoes are made and the cross section of a stove, as well as a map of Apt.

The paintings may be crowded with people, but their expressions are usually individualized. One especially touching work shows Mayer in a tub with his three brothers, being bathed by their mother. One brother is lost in reverie; another stares down at the water as if imagining an approaching sea monster.

One of the most exuberant paintings depicts the performance of a Purim play, “The Bride of Krakow,” in the home of a wealthy man. The label points out that the female roles are played by men, and that Mr. Kirshenblatt is among a small crowd of boys watching through the window.

The images also chronicle less usual occurrences, like the last-minute wedding of a pregnant hunchback; the community’s first gramophone; and the funeral of a father of one of Mr. Kirshenblatt’s Christian friends.

In another painting a corpse in a shroud is being shaved in the courtyard of a synagogue. The man had lived an assimilated, mostly beardless life; the rabbi wanted him to be beardless before God. Elsewhere a cellist plays for tips in the courtyard of an apartment building, sitting next to the outhouse.

Mr. Kirshenblatt has painted things as he remembers them, leaving little out.

The show includes a painting of him buying a boat ticket in Hamburg beneath a portrait of Hitler, and one of the boat pushing through snow-covered ice while passengers throng the bar.

And although Mr. Kirshenblatt left Poland before the Final Solution began, he painted the fate of many of his relatives, based on written accounts that his father received after the war. In the final gallery two paintings inspired by Goya’s “Fifth of May,” which he saw in the Prado, depict the horrific execution of his grandmother and several of her children and grandchildren in a field beneath a purple sky. We see the fate that has been hanging over Mr. Kirshenblatt’s lovingly recounted world.

The story of the family effort behind these paintings is almost as significant as the work itself.

In Toronto Mr. Kirshenblatt married Doris Shushanoff and had three daughters. After his retirement, he and his wife began refinishing and selling antique furniture, but it wasn’t enough to keep depression at bay.

And so Mrs. Kirshenblatt started urging him to paint, as did their oldest daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor of Eastern European Jewish life at New York University, and her husband, Max Gimblett, a New Zealand-born painter based in New York. They appreciated Mr. Kirshenblatt’s visual intelligence and manual skills, and his vivid, often-told tales of life in Apt, which had already influenced one career choice in the family.

This was Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s. She began recording her father’s stories in 1967, and eventually wrote her dissertation on the folklore of Jewish immigrants in the Toronto area. During a sabbatical in Israel she had the tapes transcribed, and became convinced that she had the rough draft of a text that was crying out to be illustrated — by her father. Mr. Kirshenblatt’s skills as a writer emerged in 1995, when, in a crunch, another daughter, Elaine, suggested that he write explanations for some of his paintings that were to be shown at a Jewish center in Toronto.

The rest is elbow grease. Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett began to encourage her father to write. She started to knit together his written and spoken memories, and then to tailor them to the paintings that he was making. Sometimes she would interview him again, using snapshots of the paintings. After the University of California decided to publish the book, she approached the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, which agreed to organize this show. It is the first solo exhibition of Mr. Kirshenblatt’s work outside Canada.

The book is even better than the exhibition. For one thing, it includes excellent reproductions of about 200 paintings; there is a picture on every other page. The narrative moves effortlessly from personal tales to descriptions of people, places and things being made. It is a children’s book for all age groups.

I recommend starting with Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s loving afterword, which recounts the background and touches on what the writer Neil Harris calls the operational aesthetic, that is, “the pleasure taken in observing process.” It is a big idea in both art and life, and one of Mr. Kirshenblatt’s achievements is to bring them together.

His first painting portrayed the scene his daughter longed most to see: his mother’s kitchen in Apt. In the label accompanying this painting at the Jewish Museum, Mr. Kirshenblatt observes, “I never intended to get into this full time.”


New York Times
Published: May 7, 2009