Worth a visit: Pre-Shoah exhibit opens in NY


His paintings are even more astonighing than the fact that he first started them at the age of 73. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood Before the Holocaust is Mayer Kirshenblatt’s colorful account of his life growing up in Opatow (Apt in Yiddish), Poland before he emigrated to Canada in 1934 at the age of 17. The mesmerizing collection is now on exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City through October 1.

“I was named after my great-grandfather Mayer Makhl Gutmakher. Everyone in town had a nickname. 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,” explains the artist, now 92 years old, at a special lecture during opening week.

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In more than 80 vibrant and whimsical paintings and drawings, Kirshenblatt has captured life before the Holocaust in incredible detail. Encouraged by his wife and daughter, the artist first picked up the brush at age 73 and began painting the town of his childhood. Painting by painting, story by story, he recreated the entire world of his youth. He painted everything he could remember about the streets and courtyards, the synagogue and marketplace, and best of all, the many characters who were so tightly woven into the cloth that comprised his tiny town: the pregnant hunchback who stood under the wedding canopy just hours before giving birth; the cobbler’s son who dressed in white pajamas to fool the Angel of Death; the pious teacher caught in bed with the drummer’s wife; the butcher who kept his accounts in chalk on his boots; the well-dressed kleptomaniac who slipped a fish down her bosom and whose husband repaid the shopkeepers at the end of the week for her thievery; and the woman who washed the floors in a wedding gown.

These primitive paintings, a fine example of outsider art, capture a world of memories through the eyes of an inquisitive boy. And although Kirshenblatt’s characters are reminiscent of Chagall’s symbolic, whimsical, flying figures, Kirshenblatt’s characters are firmly anchored in the ground.

Also on view are two videos: one shows Kirshenblatt and his daughter, acclaimed scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in the artist’s studio in Toronto and another on a trip to Apt. Additionally, the exhibition includes a remarkable toy theater based on the artist’s painting, The Boy in the White Pajamas, as well as an accompanying video of a performance in the toy theater where tiny figures from the painting slide across tracks on the stage.

Beginning to paint so late in life and with no formal training, it is amazing that Kirshenblatt could recall his youth in such detail and so stunningly put it on paper. Abruptly disconnected from his Polish shtetl at childhood’s end, his artwork is locked in time and place. Through this exhibit visitors can view a community and way of life just before it was so horrifically destroyed. Once a vibrant town of 10,000 people, half of them Jewish, Apt’s Jewish population is gone.

The last gallery includes Kirshenblatt’s painting of the odious execution of his grandmother, several of her children and grandchildren, as told to him by his father after the war. Inspired by Goya’s Fifth of May, which he saw at the Prado, the painful depiction is ominously painted under a purple sky.

Lest future generations know more about how Jews died than how they lived, Mayer Kirshenblatt has made it his mission to remember his childhood in living color through his art.

The Jewish Museum is located at Fifth Avenue and 92nd St.

The Jewish Museum

Where: 1109 5th Avenue, NY, NY.

WHEN: Saturday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.; closed Fridays

How Much: $12 – $7.50; Free on Saturdays

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