Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

Paintings and Words

The Painter and the Hassid

This series from 2007-2010 presents an imagined visual encounter with and between two creative individuals: Malva Schalek, a Prague-born painter whose works were discovered after World War II between two walls in the Thieresenstadt Ghetto, and Klonymos Schapiro, a Polish-born rabbi whose writings were discovered after the war inside a milk jug in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto (and were later published in the book “Esh Kodesh”). Both of them were murdered, yet their work survived, hidden.

The starting point for the series was a sense of wonder at the commitment of these two people to their creative work even under life-threatening conditions, from the point of view of an artist who struggles to create just in the face of day-to-day exhaustion and distraction.

Untitled with/without Captions

Untitled with/without Captions, 2008, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

 

After Malva Schalek’s Self Portrait 1

After Malva Schalek’s Self Portrait 1, 2007, pencil on paper,  65 x 50 cm (26” x 20”)

After Malva Schalek’s Self Portrait 3

After Malva Schalek’s Self Portrait 3, 2007, pencil on paper, 65 x 50 cm (26” x 20”)

The attempt to touch on the extraordinary creative power of the painter and the Hassid despite the impossibility of truly comprehending their experiences led to the use of the diptych format in many of the works in the series; two canvasses with a border between them that also constitute one work – on the one hand, two distant planets, here and there, and on the other, the exact same world (despite a gap of about seventy years). I recognize the border between here and there, yet attempt to cross it nonetheless.

Untitled

Untitled, 2007, oil and pencil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

She and I (1)

She and I (1),2007, oil and pencil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

She and I (2), diptych, oil and pencil on canvas, 2007, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

She and I (2), 2007, oil and pencil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”), private collection, USA

She and I (3), diptych, oil and pencil on canvas, 2008, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

She and I (3), diptych, oil and pencil on canvas, 2008, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”), private collection, USA

 

Color

Color, 2008, oil and pencil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

He and I

He and I, 2008, oil on canvas,80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

A number of paintings conjure up the hiding places of the works, time-capsules concealed without knowing if they would be discovered, using a painterly interplay of light and darkness. These images are a fertile ground for thoughts on the place of the internal and the unknown in the creative process, vs. the need for exposure and communication which may also be essential to it.

The Israelite

The Israelite, 2008, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, (32” x 24”), private collection, USA

 

From the Depths

From the Depths, 2008, oil on canvas, 115 x 115 cm (45” x 45”)

Hidden 1

Hidden 1, 2008, oil on canvas, 115 x 115 cm, (45” x 45”), private collection, USA

 

Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, Hidden 2

Hidden 2, 2 parts, oil on canvas, 2009, 200 x 45 cm, (79″ x 18″)

The series touches on the humanity emanating from the works of the Painter and the Hassid, from Malva Schalek’s sensitive rendering of people soon to be erased, and from the caring outcry echoed in the writings of Rabbi Schapiro. This outcry raises many questions about the ability to believe in God, and some of the works travel along the seam between faith and doubt. A parallel is drawn between the difficulties and challenges posed by art and by faith to those who choose them as life paths.

The paintings also attempt to connect two Jewish worlds that seem incompatible – a universal one which is open to other cultures and traditional Hassidic Judaism; while creating a bridge between my world and worlds that have been lost forever.

The Painter and the Hassid

The Painter and the Hassid, 2008, charcoal on paper, 50 x 65 cm (20” x 26”)

 

The Painter and the Hassid

The Painter and the Hassid, 2008, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24” ), private collection, USA

 

The Painter and the Hassid 2, oil on canvas, 2009, 125 x 190 cm, 49” x 75”

The Painter and the Hassid 2, 2009, oil on canvas, 125 x 190 cm (49” x 75”)

Two works stem from drawings of children by Malva Schaleck. In one, an image of her drawing of a sleeping child is matched with a painting of my son, asleep. In another, a drawing of a boy that seems unfinished generated a series of small paintings in which the original image appears at center with caption, is gradually completed and comes to life in one direction, while disappearing in the other, leaving only the words of the caption.

After Drawing of a Child Asleep by Malva Schalek, diptych, oil and pencil on canvas, 2009, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

After Drawing of a Child Asleep by Malva Schalek, 2009,  oil and pencil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

 

Unfinished

Unfinished – After Portrait of a Boy by Malva Schaleck, 2009, oil and printed text on canvas, 8 parts, each one 27 x 20 cm (10.5″ x 8″), private collection, USA

Here are the eight parts close up (press arrows on right to view all):

 

The relationship between word and image is also examined in many works in the series, the final ones enlarging Rabbi Schapiro’s crowded and almost unintelligible Hebrew script from the original manuscript and turning it into painting. The unreadable signs are analogous to the impossibility of understanding what happened, yet they also contain the writer’s unending attempts to find a story that will leave him with God’s love despite His apparent apathy.  These attempts lead to the idea of Batei Gavaei, the innermost chambers, in which God cries in sorrow, and which humans can enter and rebuild their bond with Him. In my work this mysterious place is the rusted, beaten and earthly vessel in which the manuscript was hidden.

Judgments

Judgments – a Page from 1943, 2010, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm (24” x 32”)

 

Untitled with Manuscript

Untitled with Manuscript, 2009, printed text and oil on canvas, 60 x 75 cm (24” x 30”)

 

Now the Sorrow is So Great that the World Cannot Contain It

Now the Sorrow is So Great that the World Cannot Contain It, 2010, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm (24” x 32”)

 

The Sorrow is Great

The Sorrow is Great, oil on canvas, 2010, 60 x 80 cm (24” x 32”)

 

The Lights

The Lights, oil on canvas, 2010, 60 x 80 cm (24” x 32”)

 

Batei Gavaei (The Innermost Chambers)

Batei Gavaei (The Innermost Chambers), 2010, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm (24” x 32”)

 

Batei Gavaei (The Innermost Chambers) 2

Batei Gavaei (The Innermost Chambers) 2, 2010, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm (32” x 24”)

My wonder at the creative force of the Painter and the Hassid led me to ask “Do I really want to paint?” – or, can I do so with even a fraction of the passion with which they worked, and with the inner neccesity with which other elemental works of art came into being?

I answer with a quiet and hesitant Yes.

Do I Really Want to Paint?

Do I Really Want to Paint?, 2009, oil on canvas, 165 x 155 cm (65” x 61”)

 

 

One Response to “The Painter and the Hassid”

  1. Censorship - Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

    […] writings the image was to appear) and the painter Malva Schalek, part of my series of paintings The Painter and the Hassid which featured these two figures, who perished in the Holocaust but whose work survived, hidden. […]

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