Jewish art exhibit forsakes aesthetics for history, religion


November 05, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

"Treasures of the Jewish Museum" at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through Dec. 30) appears to have three aims: to show a selection of objects that reflect the richness, beauty and diversity of Jewish works of art, ceremonial and otherwise; to act as an introduction to Jewish life, especially religious life and ceremony, through those works; and, finally, to show, as the accompanying catalog puts it, their "stylistic relationship to the art of their time."

The show certainly succeeds at its first aim. Time and again the viewer is stopped by the elegance, the charm, the craftsmanship, the imagination of these works. There are so many possibilities one could single out. There is the appeal of the slightly awkward 1550 spice container from Frankfurt, and the impressiveness of the incredibly intricate filigree work on the Venetian spice container of a century or two later.

There is the strength of a 4 foot tall synagogue menorah (17th and 19th centuries) from Germany, and the grace and beautiful workmanship of the much smaller 18th century German menorah. There is the endearing Staffordshire 18th century coffee service, in imitation of Chinese export porcelain but showing a Jewish wedding scene and appropriate inscriptions; the handsome New York Federal silver service (1791) given to Sally Salomon Andrews at her wedding; and the marvelous integration of decoration and calligraphy in the 1961 marriage contract by Ben Shahn. With the exception of a couple of paintings that are merely illustrative, this is an exhibit of treasures indeed.

With respect to the other two aims, the show leaves one feeling somewhat unfulfilled. In terms of the stylistic relationships the catalog is more successful, with longer entries, chronological organization, and fre

quent photographs of stylistically related works in conjunction with the exhibition objects.

The show does not altogether ignore this aim. In some places, and especially in the section on Hanukkah lamps, there are examples of various styles from Italian 17th century classicism through baroque, rococo and early 19th century neoclassicism. But the organization of the exhibit around various aspects of Jewish life rather than chronologically or by medium or type of object results in an emphasis on history and religion over aesthetics.

That emphasis doesn't work as well as it should. From various categories such as the Sabbath, domestic life and ceremonial art, we don't really learn a lot about the subject matter. Spice containers don't tell us much about the observation of the Sabbath, nor does a single beaker shed much light on the observation of death. Often inscriptions are not translated, and elements of iconography go unexplained.

Some objects look as if they were shoehorned into various categories; others seem to be floating free. Indeed, when the exhibit concentrates on a certain type of object, such as Hanukkah lamps or Torah crowns, it is at its best, and one could wish it had been better organized.

All of which is not to say don't go. If the organization isn't the best, the objects, or most of them, at any rate, are terrific.

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