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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I don’t live very far from The Jewish Museum, and yesterday, a gloriously sunny early autumn Saturday, I finally made my way over to see two exhibits: Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side: Photographs by Bruce Davidson, and Camille Pissarro: Impressions of City and Country.

What a terrific way to spend part of my Saturday.

Especially in the immediate aftermath of the latest Nobel literature award, I appreciated the chance to learn more about Singer (1904-91), who won that prize back in 1978. “His” exhibit occupies just one large room filled with Davidson’s photographs, with a corner reserved for screening a film on which Singer collaborated, Isaac Singer’s Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko’s Beard.

The black-and-white photographs capture a world of which Singer was very much a part, but Davidson found subjects beyond the writer as well. One of the most affecting pictures shows an elderly rabbi, tefillin wrapped around his arm and only partially concealing the numbers tattooed there.

As for the Pissarro (1830-1903) exhibit, I had only dimly realized, if at all, the artist’s singular status as “the Jewish Impressionist.” Most of the works I associated with him came from his decidedly Impressionist approach; I hadn’t realized how much he had stretched himself with “newer” styles that reminded me more of Seurat or Van Gogh than Renoir or Monet. And much as I’ve studied the Dreyfus Affair (and believe me, with a Ph.D. in Modern French history, I have studied it), I didn’t realize how anti-Dreyfusard some of Pissarro’s fellow artists turned out to be, and how some of his friendships suffered at that time.

Taken together, the two exhibits also made me think of a recurrent question (see this post for some background): How do we define “Jewish” artists/writers? Singer quite clearly wrote of Jewish characters and Jewish settings; Pissarro’s work, at least what I’ve seen of it, reveals no such focus. And yet there they are, featured together on the second floor of The Jewish Museum. Pissarro died when Singer was two; together, their lives spanned 171 years of history.

There’s still time to see both exhibits–they’re both around until February 3, 2008. (If you can’t get to New York, you can take a virtual tour of the Pissarro show here.) But do try to catch them!

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