BMA's display of Judaic art leaves stylistic questions unanswered

November 08, 1990|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

"Treasures of the Jewish Museum," an exhibit of Judaic art from the Jewish Museum in New York, usually lives up to its billing. There are indeed many cleverly crafted and quite beautiful objects in this show at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

But the general organization of the exhibit often leaves a lot to be desired. Although one may come away better informed about certain aspects of Jewish ritual and the accompanying ceremonial objects, one may also come away with many unanswered questions about stylistic traits of Judaic art.

It's inevitable that a modestly scaled exhibit spanning so many centuries and so many countries would not be able to elucidate every stylistic variation, but this exhibit doesn't make enough of an effort. Actually, the exhibit catalog has much useful information on stylistic matters, whereas the installation itself is inconsistent in this regard. In the installation groupings of Torah crowns or spice containers, for example, we can immediately pick up on certain stylistic differences, but this installation approach is not followed often enough.

A good instance of where the installation pleases the eye more than the style-conscious, culturally questing intellect is in the portion of a Faience tile mosaic wall from a 16th century Persian synagogue, where Torah scrolls were placed in its niches. The arabesque patterns on the tile are similar to the Islamic designs one would find in a mosque. Arabs and Jews have been such antagonists in recent times that it is bracing to contemplate the fact that centuries ago Jewish communities were usually safer within Arab countries than they were within Christian countries.

And from an artistic standpoint, both the Moslem and the Jewish artist adhered to a belief system that advocated the decorative over the figurative. Alas, this is the sort of tantalizing information that one picks up more from the catalog than from the exhibit labels.

If you find it stimulating to encounter that sort of unexpected cross-cultural connection between Arab and Jew, you may find yourself walking through the exhibit and -- at least mentally -- rearranging its objects into a scheme that speaks more to aesthetic concerns and cultural cross-pollination.

You can then think about how the Jewish religion, long ago exiled from its ancestral homeland, was able to maintain its identity, continue to produce the ceremonial objects so closely tied to its faith, and yet adopt design elements from the various European nations where most Jews settled. Not to mention that the most exhilarating tension in Jewish studies comes from asking what it means to be a Jew, and asking how a Jew is to hold onto his ancient religious identity in scattered lands and secular eras.

There are some curious examples in the show that you would want to keep in your revisionist re-installation of the exhibit. Among the most interesting is a Staffordshire salt-glazed stoneware coffee service made in England in 1769. Like so many other English household goods of the period, the floral and other decorative designs on this coffee service emulate the appearance of Chinese export porcelain. However, there is also a depiction of a Jewish wedding scene on a tray, and there are Hebrew inscriptions on all of the pieces. Hmm, an Anglo-Chinese-Jewish table setting.

Much more recent pieces in the exhibit -- such as the Bauhaus-influenced Passover set made in Germany by Ludwig Wolpert in 1930 -- exemplify how many Jewish artists took readily to the streamlining tendencies and abstractly decorative qualities of modern art.

"Treasures of the Jewish Museum" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Dec. 30. For details, call 396-6310.

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