Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

October 5, 2012

Remembering Ed Boccia

St. Louis recently lost one of its artistic greats.

Edward Boccia, painter, poet, and teacher, died on September 3, 2012, at the age of 91. An exceptionally prolific artist, he noted, “For as long as I can remember, drawing and painting have been as natural to me as breathing. I can’t conceive of not producing artistic work.”

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1921, Boccia studied at the Art Students League of New York, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. His time at Pratt was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Army from 1942 to 1945. But even war didn’t stem his creative output. He received art supplies from his mother back home, painted from foxholes and cafes, and sent the work to his mother. Upon his return Boccia married fellow Pratt student Madeleine Wysong. He joined the faculty of Washington University in 1951 and was named professor of art in 1966; he became professor emeritus twenty years later.

Boccia’s work is found in the collections of the St. Louis Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, the National Pinakothek in Athens, and more than 600 private collections.

Ed and Madeleine Boccia.

Ed and Madeleine Boccia in a candid moment at the opening reception for MOCRA’s “Good Friday” exhibition in February 2009. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Boccia developed a distinctive style that wedded abstract expressionism and figurative styles through a surrealist sensibility, resulting in visually arresting but enigmatic images. He described his work as dealing with “love, lust and life,” and brought together literary themes and archetypes both pagan and Christian in his work. He employed diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs (often on a monumental scale) to depict multiple dimensions of a single concept.

It was such canvases that were displayed at MOCRA in a 1996 exhibition titled Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter, mounted jointly with the McNamee Gallery at Samuel Cupples House (also on the Saint Louis University campus).

"Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter" at MOCRA in 1996.

“Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter” at MOCRA in 1996.

In the exhibition’s introductory texts we noted:

Edward Boccia’s career as a painter may be poetically referred to as a grand house with many rooms. Some rooms, although elegant, are lived in briefly. Other rooms, made more comfortable by the artist’s personal associations, are occupied for years. No room is permanently closed. The artist moves freely from room to room, constantly borrowing ideas from where he has stayed before. The paintings and drawings in this exhibition are grouped by thematic concerns beginning with character sketches done in France during World War II and ending with a nine-panel painting, Eugene’s Journey (1996), that draws upon all of the artist’s skills as a painter and poet.

"Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter" at MOCRA in 1996.

“Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter” at MOCRA in 1996.

"Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter" at MOCRA in 1996.

“Edward Boccia: Eye of the Painter” at MOCRA in 1996.

While Boccia’s art reflects the influence of many artists, including Picasso, Cézanne, and Nolde, his great idol was the German expressionist painter, Max Beckmann. It happens that Beckmann taught at Washington University in St. Louis briefly in the late 1940s. Boccia arrived just a few years too late to be Beckmann’s colleague, but he did come into possession of the artist’s easel.

Boccia was introduced to Beckmann’s work by Morton D. “Buster” May, head of the May Department Stores Co. May became Boccia’s great patron and advocate. He bought hundreds of paintings and drawings, right up until his death in 1983. May made generous gifts of the works to friends, colleagues, universities and museums, including Saint Louis University. Generations of SLU students have encountered (and were likely puzzled by) Boccia’s paintings in the halls of DuBourg Hall, the reading rooms of Pius XII Memorial library, and other campus buildings.

Boccia’s work is also well known to people who worship at the Washington University Catholic Student Center Chapel, which is dominated by his grand mural Path of Redemption. A 1964 set of Stations of the Cross commissioned by the Catholic Student Center were part of MOCRA’s Good Friday exhibition (mounted in 2009 and reprised in 2010). Reminiscent of Matisse’s late works, they are made of collaged cut paper and use the motif of hands as an eloquent means of bringing out the deep pathos of the Stations.

Edward Boccia, "Stations of the Cross, No. 4: Jesus Meets His Mother," 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis.

Edward Boccia, “Stations of the Cross, No. 4: Jesus Meets His Mother,” 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Edward Boccia, "Stations of the Cross, No. 13: The Deposition," 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis.

Edward Boccia, “Stations of the Cross, No. 13: The Deposition,” 1964. Paper collage. Courtesy of the Catholic Student Center, Washington University, St. Louis. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Boccia was an inspirational example of an artist continuing to develop throughout his career. In his mid-60s, he began writing poetry. Several volumes have been published, including Moving the Still Life, and his poetry has won national and international awards.

Appropriately, then, an effort is underway to make Boccia’s artistic legacy an active one. Boccia’s daughter Alice is spearheading a Catalogue Raisonné of Ed Boccia’s works. Scholarly contributions and information regarding the location of Boccia artwork are requested for inclusion in the catalog. Entries may be submitted directly from the website. Also, Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA) has an upcoming exhibition of Boccia’s work, titled Edward Boccia: Triptychs and Polyptychs, scheduled for February 22 – April 21, 2013.

The staff of MOCRA extend our condolences to Ed’s wife, Madeleine, his daughter, Alice Boccia, and his granddaughter, Jennifer Pateraki.

Ed and Madeleine Boccia pose with Ed’s “Stations of the Cross” at the opening reception for MOCRA’s “Good Friday” exhibition in February 2009.

Some of the information for this post was drawn from remembrances published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Beacon. Both articles merit further perusal, and include additional images of Boccia’s work.

– David Brinker, Assistant Director

September 27, 2012

New MOCRA exhibition features Irish painter Patrick Graham

MOCRA’s latest exhibition opened this past Sunday. Patrick Graham: Thirty Years – The Silence Becomes the Painting offers a survey of work by Patrick Graham, frequently cited as Ireland’s most important contemporary artist. Through paintings, collages, and drawings, this retrospective curated by distinguished art historian Peter Selz offers an extraordinary view of the continuum that marks Graham’s psychologically charged explorations into revelation and transcendence.

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years, at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, September 23 - December 16, 2012.

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years, at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, September 23 – December 16, 2012.

There is no doubt that this is work that challenges viewers. As we note in the text accompanying the exhibition,  Graham’s art may be hard to like, but it is impossible to disrespect it. Patrick Graham has been credited by critics and art historians with changing the face of painting in Ireland. Art historian, writer and curator Peter Selz, who curated this exhibition, says that Graham “confronts the viewer with drawings and paintings of shattering force … [he] makes us aware that great painting has a presence and a future.”

Graham is a thoughtful and articulate man, as interviews with him make clear. His own words provide the title to the exhibition. He muses, “The silence becomes the painting, the painting comes from silence. It is the moment when painting is no longer an act of doing or making but of receiving.”

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years, at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, September 23 - December 16, 2012.

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years, at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, September 23 – December 16, 2012.

Graham’s inspiration is deeply rooted in the Irish landscape, in vistas and places that hold deep meaning for him. The Irish affinity for nature, combined with profound experience of the pain which comes from both oppression and repression, has led to extraordinary artistic expressions in poetry, music, and dance. This cultural and artistic milieu formed Graham’s visual expression. His work incorporates ambiguous symbolic forms and scripted phrases that resonate like fragments of traditional song and lyrical poetry which spring from a unique historical consciousness; through them he explores the elemental processes of life and the existential journey. Among the realities he acknowledges in a sensitive voice is the Irish religious experience, particularly of the Catholic faith, yet his work has universal appeal to those who struggle with issues of identity, freedom, or faith.

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years, at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, September 23 - December 16, 2012.

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years, at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, September 23 – December 16, 2012.

Patrick Graham is widely regarded as Ireland’s most important contemporary artist, and has been recognized by Ireland as a “living national treasure” through his induction into Aosdána (a society that honors outstanding work in the arts) since 1986. Graham was born in Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland in 1943, and studied at the National College of Art in Dublin. He has exhibited in Ireland and internationally since 1966, and is represented in major public and private collections at home and abroad. Graham’s work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and symposia internationally, at venues including the National Gallery of Ireland, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Trinity College Dublin, Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England, the Hokkaido Museum in Hokkaido, Japan, the University of Michigan, Northeastern University in Boston, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Patrick Graham: Thirty Years – The Silence Becomes the Painting was organized by Meridian Gallery/Society for Art Publications with the support of Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles, international agent for Patrick Graham. The exhibition at MOCRA follows showings in San Francisco at the Meridian Gallery of the Society for Art Publications of the Americas and in Washington, D.C., at the Katzen Arts Center of American University. The exhibition is supported by Culture Ireland, the Irish national body for the promotion of Irish arts worldwide.

The exhibition will be on display at MOCRA through December 16, 2012. Learn more here.

– David Brinker, Assistant Director

August 9, 2012

MOCRA Voices podcast features Archie Granot and Max Thurm

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, page 20. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, page 20. Collection of Sandra and Max Thurm. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

MOCRA’s showing of Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah in Spring 2012 proved to be a highly popular exhibition, one that elicited deep appreciation for Granot’s technical virtuosity and sense of design, as well as his skillful manner of reinterpreting a classic religious text for a contemporary audience.  One of our disappointments was that we could not arrange to bring Archie to MOCRA during the run of the exhibition.

Fortunately, in early May MOCRA Director Terrence Dempsey, SJ, and I had the opportunity to sit down with collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned The Papercut Haggadah) in the studios of WFUV (90.7 FM) at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY. Archie joined us on the phone from his home in Jerusalem. For the next hour or so we enjoyed a wide ranging conversation covering topics such as how Archie was drawn to the art of papercutting, how the commission came about, the special considerations engaged in creating an artwork based on a sacred text, and continuity and innovation in the Jewish tradition. The rapport between Archie and Max was evident from the get-go, and their exchanges open a window on the fascinating process of collaboration between artist and patron.

We are pleased to make an edited version of this conversation available as the latest installment in the MOCRA Voices podcast. You can stream the podcast from our website, or subscribe to the podcast in the iTunes Store. Also be sure to check out the extensive Listening Guide, which delves further into the topics discussed and includes images of many of the pages from The Papercut Haggadah.

– David Brinker, Assistant Director

July 19, 2012

Frederick J. Brown memorial service now online

Frederick J. Brown addressing the attendees at the 1995 opening of his "The Life of Christ Altarpiece" at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MIssouri.

Frederick J. Brown addressing the attendees at the 1995 opening of his “The Life of Christ Altarpiece” at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA), Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MIssouri.

On July 10, 2012, a memorial service for the late painter Frederick J. Brown was held at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City. Fred’s wife Megan, daughter Sebastienne and son Bentley were in attendance, as well as numerous friends and colleagues. The service was led by Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones of Trinity Church, who also preached at the service. I was honored to serve as Assisting Priest.

The remembrances offered by Fred’s family, friends and colleagues (including Stanley Crouch, Lowery Stokes Sims,* Stephen Rosenberg, and Sherry Bronfman) made manifest a man who was deeply immersed in his heart, but not in a way that isolated him from others. Rather, his art expressed his full and passionate engagement with the people in his life and the movements and events of his time. His daughter Sebastienne shared a note she found in one of his sketchbooks, addressed to those he loved:

When you know I love you, my heart is full, and I love myself. Just to see a smile is enough to keep me afloat in the great sea of life, and I give it back as often as possible. You are my main source and reason to do great things, and to become as complete a human being as I am capable of being. Just remember that I love you.

The vitality of Fred’s life was celebrated in another way through the musical offerings of outstanding jazz musicians including Henry Threadgill and David Virelles, Oliver Lake, and Amina Claudine Myers. Jazz music and the artists who create it were a perennial subject in Fred’s art and an integral part of his life.

Trinity Church has made a video of the service available on its website for a limited time. I encourage you to set aside some time to watch this tribute to an outstanding artist and human being. Watch the video here.

– Terrence E. Dempsey, SJ, Director

* Lowery Stokes Sims was unable to attend the service. Her remembrance was read by Jean-Claude Samuel.

June 29, 2012

A Tribute to Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012)

Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012)

Frederick J. Brown (1945-2012)

We at MOCRA were saddened to receive word that painter Frederick J. Brown passed away on May 5, 2012. The MOCRA staff extend our condolences to Fred’s wife Megan and his children Sebastienne and Bentley.

Born in 1945, Brown was one of America’s finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources, including his African-American and Choctaw ancestry, his religious upbringing, and the folklore of the South. He referenced religious, historical and urban themes in his work, but was especially noted for his numerous portraits of jazz and blues artists. In fact, the connection between music and painting was a constant in Brown’s life and art. He called music “the catalyst for much of what I do” and frequently worked on a portrait while listening to the subject’s music. In a 2005 interview (cited in this remembrance by Judd Tully), Brown spoke about the vibrant New York cultural scene in the 1970s:

. . . you had these people all around you who were at the top of their game and of the avant garde scene and of the aesthetic thing. . . . Plus, right in front of me, I saw the work ethic. You could go to their studio or they could come to yours, and you could partake in whatever you wanted to partake in and discuss aesthetics at the highest level. You had all this kind of wisdom, information, feedback and back-and-forth.

Brown’s paintings show the influence of the German Expressionists and the American Abstract Expressionists, especially that of his mentor and friend, Willem de Kooning. He exhibited widely throughout the United States and abroad, and his paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the White House. Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art has extensive holdings of Brown’s work, including the ambitious The History of Art (1994–2000). The 110 interlocking paintings, surveying centuries of artistic styles filtered through Brown’s own unique vision, are permanently installed in the museum’s Café Sebastienne (named after Brown’s daughter). In 1988, Brown had the largest retrospective given a Western artist by the People’s Republic of China, and he was the first Western artist ever to have an exhibition at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution (now part of the National Museum of China) in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square.

I first encountered Brown’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the summer of 1985. There in the Met’s contemporary galleries was Brown’s large figurative expressionistic painting of the Ascension of Christ. Compositionally influenced by Raphael’s well-known Transfiguration of Christ, this 9-foot-tall painting commanded the entire gallery in the Metropolitan with its bold colors and confident brushwork.

Frederick J. Brown, The Ascension, 1982. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Frederick J. Brown, The Ascension, 1982. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Its vitality energized one of Christianity’s most frequently depicted subjects, with the top frame barely able to contain the rising Christ figure who bears the physical signs of his crucifixion. And I couldn’t ignore the bewildered man at the bottom of the canvas who stared out at me trying to understand what he is witnessing. With his eye contact he drew me as a viewer into this powerful event.

Since I was just beginning my doctoral dissertation research at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley on the topic of the renewed interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions in contemporary American art, I knew that I had to meet this artist. Nearly a year passed before I was able to get together with Fred in his New York studio in SoHo. Surrounded by canvases in various stages of completion with recordings of the jazz music he so loved playing in the background at full volume, Fred was totally at home in this element. He was surrounded by his depictions of great jazz musicians and visual artists, a large painting of John Henry and a compelling portrait of Sitting Bull, a small but powerful painting of a young Maori warrior, images of the overlooked members of our society, and portrayals of Jesus, David and Goliath, and Moses. (Several of Fred’s paintings can be viewed on his website.) All of them harnessed the energy that he found in bringing together the visual and aural arts, as well as the sacred and profane. Perhaps I should retract the word “profane” because all of his subjects were sacred to him, and every painting revealed the respect that Brown had for his subjects.

Fred and his work became an important part of my dissertation, and in 1989 I also had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of his works in the gallery areas of the Flora Lamson Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union. Upon completing my Ph.D. work in 1990, I began teaching art history at Saint Louis University. The opportunity arose to realize my desire to create the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art—what was to become MOCRA—and I knew that I wanted Fred to be a part of that museum. Owing to our lean budget, I had in mind simply borrowing works, but Fred offered to paint a multi-paneled work that would become a permanent part of MOCRA’s collection.

Frederick J. Brown, The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994-95. Collection of MOCRA.

Frederick J. Brown, The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994-95. Collection of MOCRA.

Through the generosity of his patrons Crosby Kemper III and UMB Bank, Fred realized that promise in 1995 in the form of The Life of Christ Altarpiece, a work that synthesizes theological, painterly, and cultural concerns. The central triptych, depicting the Baptism of Christ, the Descent from the Cross, and the Resurrection, is flanked by two pendant canvases depicting the Madonna and Child and the Descent into Hell. This major work has been shown frequently at MOCRA ever since, both as an ensemble and as individual panels. We are honored to have this important work in the MOCRA collection. We are pleased to present it from now through August 26, 2012, in memory of a gifted artist and a thoughtful and compassionate human being.

– Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., Director

May 9, 2012

A conversation with Archie Granot

Archie Granot, The Papercut Haggadah, Page 46.

Visitors to The Papercut Haggadah have tended to ask at some point during their visit some variation on a simple question: “How does he do that?!?”

As viewers let themselves be drawn deeper into artist Archie Granot’s compositions, they begin to marvel at the great intricacy with which the various layers of paper are assembled. Paper cut with painstaking precision is layered in ways that resemble latticework. Here layers are cut away to expose a color from several layers down, there Hebrew calligraphy is nestled in a geometric archipelago.

Recently we compiled the questions most frequently asked by visitors, along with others solicited from our Facebook and Twitter followers, and posed them to Archie Granot. Here is what he had to say:


MOCRA:
Please tell us about your preparation for the pages of the Papercut Haggadah. How much advance planning do you do and how much does a piece evolve during its creation? Do you do any sketching as part of the process, or do you create templates of any sort?

AG:
I sketch the work before I begin. This sketch is only used in the initial stages as most of the cutting is done intuitively and freehand.

I plan my papercuts in advance and, when I complete my preliminary sketch, I can, in my mind’s eye, visualize the finished papercut. In reality, however, as I cut a work that may take me more than a month to complete, my mind is never at rest and intuitive changes may, and will, occur.

I often think that the finished paper cut is perhaps a cousin of the original sketch–work that is similar, yet different, to the original concept.

MOCRA:
We’ve had numerous inquiries about how the works are cut and assembled. For instance:

  • Do you build the layers from the top down or the bottom up?
  • Do you stack several sheets of paper on top of each other and then cut through them, or is each layer cut individually?
  • How are the layers attached? What sort of adhesive do you use?

AG:
I build the layers top downwards or bottom upwards depending on the effect that I wish to achieve. The papers are not stacked before cutting. Rather, each layer is cut individually using a surgical scalpel and a cutting board. The layers are attached using a unique adhesive. [Granot declined to give details about his proprietary formula.]

MOCRA:
What happened if you made a mistake?

AG:
This is not something that I really like to think about! Luckily this has happened only a few times in the more than 3 decades in which I have been cutting paper. However, if a mistake is made, I’m sometimes able to correct the mistake or even turn it into a design element. It is equally possible that nothing can be done and I need to start all over again.

Archie Granot

Archie Granot

MOCRA:
How many different “fonts” of Hebrew do you use? What are the challenges and creative opportunities inherent in having to keep the letters attached to the paper, and creating negative space?

AG:
The Hebrew letters that I use are the results of years of experimentation. The use of negative space adds an additional dimension to the letters. The main challenge for me in cutting the Hebrew letters is the effort required to keep a calligraphic balance when my “scribal quill” is really a surgical scalpel.

MOCRA:
Most of the pages in the Papercut Haggadah employ abstract, geometric designs, but a few pages incorporate recognizable objects or symbols. What led you to use references to actual objects (matzoh, feather, cup, pyramid) in some pages?

AG:
The design of every work is a coalition of different thoughts coalescing in different ways. In the Haggadah, the feather is shown abstractly; the cup shown in the page with the blessing over the wine was a given while the pyramid was really an abstract triangle that lends itself to the subject matter.

MOCRA:
Did you create one piece from start to finish or do you have a number going at once?

AG:
Both when working on the Haggadah, or when creating work to be shown in my gallery in the center of Jerusalem, I tend to work on one papercut at the time.

MOCRA:
Did you ever conceive of these as being bound in a book? Is there, or will there be a catalogue or individual reproductions available?

AG:
I do not think that the Papercut Haggadah will ever be bound as a book. Certainly, that was not my intention in preparing for this project.

It is my hope that that a facsimile will be published sometime in the future, when the techniques to capture the three-dimensional modality of my work are available.

April 10, 2012

Other contemporary takes on haggadot and Jewish papercut art

I often find that, as I become deeply immersed in an exhibition at MOCRA, I become highly attuned to news and cultural items that relate to the exhibition. (More prosaically, it’s like the experience of buying a new car and suddenly seeing that model everywhere, on the road, in parking lots. The cars have been there all along, of course; it’s a matter of opening one’s eyes to see them.)  Here on the fourth day of this year’s Passover, I thought I would share a few of the Papercut Haggadah-related  items I’ve come across.

We recently added a new link to the “Art, Religion, & Spirituality” page on the MOCRA website. “Jewish Art Now” states that its mission is “to build an appreciation for contemporary art in Jewish communities and build respect for Jewish art in the contemporary art world. ” The organization’s website showcases Jewish artists from around the world, along with news, reviews, upcoming events and resources for artists and art appreciators. The organization also has a presence in social media and print.

As I was browsing the site recently, my eye was caught by an exhibition titled The Paper Tefillah. The work is by artist Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik and is being shown at a reform synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee. The catalogue is available online here, and here is the artist talking about his work.

Paper Tefillah from Temple Israel on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, at Jewish Art Salon I came across an interview with artist and author Mark Podwal on PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website. He discusses his recently published haggadah Sharing the Journey. In the interview he connects his approach to expressing the text in his paintings, as well as how his work relates to historic haggadot such as the Prague Haggadah (1526) and the Venice Haggadah (1609). The website also has several pertinent related links about the haggadah, the Passover seder, and more.

http://www-tc.pbs.org/s3/pbs.videoportal-prod.cdn/media/swf/PBSPlayer.swf

Watch Passover Haggadah on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Sitting here in front of me on my desk is a copy of the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander. I heard about this via an interview with these two authors on NPR’s Weekend edition and was intrigued by their project. I’m looking forward to delving into this new haggadah, but just paging through it, it’s clear that the text has been translated not just by Englander, but by book designer Oded Ezer, an Israeli graphic designer and typographer. Myriad variations and transformations of Hebrew letters flow across the pages, congregating in one spot here or tracing graceful arabesques across a spread there. In other instances they splinter like fractals or disintegrate and dissolve. These letters are purposeful, alive. Ezer talks about his approach to this volume in an interview with Ellen Shapiro of Print magazine. He  says,

Here is what I really want people to know: If I touch the letters I think and I hope that people will be touched by them. I’m a secular Jew and I know this story almost by heart because I’ve heard it every year since I was born, 39 years ago. If we designers are involved with what we do, it’s likely that our audiences will get involved with it too. For years I have been claiming that the real question about typography is not ‘how does it look?’ but ‘how does it behave?’

The interview includes Ezer’s commentary on specific pages in the New American Haggadah.


All of these works are quite distinct from Archie Granot’s approach to the visual interpretation of traditional prayers and texts as embodied in The Papercut Haggadah, but they are all examples of the vitality and variety of contemporary Jewish art and belief.

– David Brinker, Assistant Director

March 16, 2012

Also showing at MOCRA . . .

Archie Granot’s Papercut Haggadah is beautifully installed in MOCRA’s central nave gallery through May 20, 2012. The pages are each unique in design and content, but taking the 55 pages as a sort of musical score, one can discover theme and variation, leitmotif and transformation.

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah at MOCRA.

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, at MOCRA 2/26/12 - 5/20/12.

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah at MOCRA.

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, at MOCRA 2/26/12 - 5/20/12. Foreground, from left: Pages 39 and 38.

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, Page 35 (detail).

Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah, at MOCRA 2/26/12 - 5/20/12. Page 35 (detail).

In addition to Granot’s work, we are also displaying a number of works in our side chapel galleries. Drawn from our collection and works on extended loan, these works are by a wide range of artists, including Romare Bearden, Lore Bert, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Jon Cournoyer, Robert Farber, Donald Grant, Steve Heilmer, Dean Kessman, Bernard Maisner, Chris McCaw, DoDo Jin Ming, Daniel Ramirez, James Rosen, Susan Schwalb, Thomas Skomski, Shahzia Sikander, Kazuaki Tanahashi, and Michael Tracy.

Dean Kessman and Bernard Maisner, on display at MOCRA.

Left: Dean Kessman, Rorschach Bible, 1996; Right: Bernard Maisner, "The Trojan Horse ..." (Henry Miller), 1982. On display at MOCRA, 2012.

For the most part, the works were selected to resonate visually and thematically with The Papercut Haggadah, as with the two works pictured above.

Dean Kessman’s cibachrome Rorschach Bible explores questions about perceived and actual reality, and the ways in which scientific and religious understanding interact to determine fact and fiction, or more importantly, truth. The juxtaposed positive and negative images of pages from Leviticus invite us to consider our responsibility in interpretation—of the artwork, of the Bible, of religious propositions—and the relationship between the individual seeker and authority and received tradition. Learn more about Kessman here.

Bernard Maisner is one of today’s finest illuminators of manuscripts. His thematic concerns include “questions of infinity, endlessness, beginnings, endings, emotion, intellect. Unity, opposites, and paradoxes fascinate me.” His visual influences come from many sources (Flemish panel painting, Sienese art, Persian and Indian miniatures, medieval manuscripts, Chinese and Japanese art, and Hebrew micrography) and he draws on texts both classical and contemporary, sacred and secular. Like Granot, he employs venerable media and techniques in novel ways that extend the possibilities of both, as seen with Maisner’s small accordion book “The Trojan Horse …” (Henry Miller). Maisner was featured in a 1999 MOCRA-organized national touring retrospective exhibition titled Entrance to the Scriptorium.

– David Brinker, Assistant Director

March 12, 2012

Establishing context for The Papercut Haggadah

I came into preparations for The Papercut Haggadah with a passing familiarity with Passover and the elements of the Seder, but no idea of the richness of the tradition of the Haggadah or its development both as a body of texts and rituals, and as a written or printed artifact.

One of the benefits of being a university museum is having access to varied and valuable resources on campus. Here at Saint Louis University, one of our great treasures is the SLU Libraries Department of Special Collections, and in particular the Vatican Film Library, a research collection for the study of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and the texts they contain. It is formed around a core collection of more than 37,000 microfilmed manuscripts from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ranging in date from the fourth century AD through the seventeenth century and covering a broad spectrum of subjects. In addition to the microfilm, the collection includes many actual manuscripts as well as reproductions and reference materials.

We turned to the friendly and helpful staff of the Special Collections division to see if they had any historical examples of Haggadot that we could look at for reference. The response was exceptional. Not only were we able to see samples of pages from illuminated and printed Haggadot, we were able to make arrangements to borrow a number of volumes to include in the exhibition, so that all of our visitors could see these historical antecedents as well. We selected items that relate to aspects of Archie Granot’s project, such as the textual passages illuminated, or similar design elements.

Reproductions of historical Haggadot on display at MOCRA.

Reproductions of historical Haggadot on display at MOCRA. Pages from Archie Granot's "Papercut Haggdah" are visible in the background.

For instance, we had noticed in Granot’s papercuts that certain Hebrew letters were frequently elongated or otherwise distorted. It soon became evident that this was not an arbitrary artistic choice, but a practice rooted in centuries of handwritten Torah scrolls, allowing scribes to create perfectly justified columns of text.

The most notable object we have on loan is a magnificent facsimile of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript called the Rothschild Miscellany.

Rothschild Miscellany facsimile

A facsimile of the Rothschild Miscellany on display at MOCRA. Courtesy of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections.

The original volume was commissioned by Moses ben Yekuthiel Hakohen during a period when Italian Jews experienced exceptional scholarly and artistic activity as well as social mobility. The most elegantly and lavishly executed Hebrew manuscript of that era, it is comprised of more than 37 religious and secular works. Among the religious books are Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, and a yearly prayer book including the Passover Haggadah, while the secular books include philosophical, moralistic, and scientific treatises. The text throughout the manuscript is accompanied by marginal notes and commentaries. Of 948 pages, 816 are decorated in vibrant colors, gold and silver.

This painstakingly produced facsimile is open to the beginning section of the Haggadah. It is common in historical Haggadot to find depictions of the actions or rituals prescribed in the text. The illustrations on the righthand page depict preparations preceding Passover, including brushing up crumbs of leaven with a feather, burning the leftover leaven, and baking matzah. Granot references this practice in one of the pages of The Papercut Haggadah.

We are grateful to the staff of Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections for their kind assistance and enriching the experience of our visitors.

– David Brinker, Assistant Director

February 23, 2012

A preview of The Papercut Haggadah

Today’s edition (2/23/2012) of the St. Louis Jewish Light includes an article previewing MOCRA’s new exhibition, Archie Granot: The Papercut Haggadah. The article includes comments from artist Archie Granot, and collector Max Thurm (who with his wife Sandra commissioned the work), along with a few framing remarks from yours truly. Read the article here.

Archie Granot

Archie Granot

Granot (pictured) was commissioned to present the story and rituals of the Passover Seder in the traditional medium of papercutting. The resulting 55 pages employ intricate geometric and abstract shapes and calligraphic text to create an exquisite and unique version of the Haggadah.

Granot expresses his hope that viewers will be inspired by a labor of love that reflects much thought and introspection. “The creation of a Haggadah for Passover is the ultimate dream for any artist creating Jewish art,” he said. “I have been lucky in that I have achieved this dream.”

We’re putting the finishing touches on the installation, and look forward to welcoming visitors to immerse themselves in Granot’s realization of the Haggadah. Learn more about The Papercut Haggadah on MOCRA’s website.

– David Brinker

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