|Above the mahogany Colonial night-table in the Pendleton House of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD Museum), a small painting by Alonzo Chappel depicts Roger Williams stepping from his boat to greet and smoke a peace pipe with the Narragansett sachems. This idealized image of the hopes for “what cheer, netop” (hello, friend) goodwill among settlers and natives seems, for me, to capture the tone and mood of the entire collection throughout the galleries, buildings, nooks, and crannies.|
Above the mahogany Colonial night-table in the Pendleton House of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD Museum), a small painting by Alonzo Chappel depicts Roger Williams stepping from his boat to greet and smoke a peace pipe with the Narragansett sachems. This idealized image of the hopes for “what cheer, netop” (hello, friend) goodwill among settlers and natives seems, for me, to capture the tone and mood of the entire collection throughout the galleries, buildings, nooks, and crannies.
Over the half century and more that I have taught within the liberal arts here at RISD, I have become closely attached pedagogically, philosophically, and personally, to a few of my favorite things. The Buddha, which came to Providence from a garage in Japan the same year I did, as a newborn: 1933. The Spanish Jesus, which has a strangely Zen-esthetic quality as it seems almost like a driftwood figure that might merely have floated to our shoreline. The painting of The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem done by an expatriate African-American artist Edward Ossawa Tanner, who was studying and working in Paris. Caught up in the fashion for the “exotic,” the son of a preacher traveled to the romantic Holy Land and saw, perhaps, in the wall, a metaphor for the race barrier in his homeland, and in his rendering of the orthodox visitors to the Western Wall expressed a sympathetic respect for the other. There is no propaganda, no subconscious insult in the image, only a recognition of the common human link touching traditions, diminished but ever powerful.
Before the dedication of the new Chace Center, designed by Rafael Moneo and housing new displays of the 20th-century genres and forms of art and the 21st-century pieces reflecting the concerns and materials of the college and the community, a small exhibit was presented in 2005 of objects done by and about Jewish artists. The show included photographs by Aaron Siskind, abstract paintings by Mark Rothko, and, of special interest to me, sculptures by Elie Nadelman. Polish, French, and American, Nadelman produced a group of deer, elegant, occupied with their wilderness family unit, in another dimension of existence. Like the author Felix Salten, he made symbolic use of deer to stand in for the Jewish condition. Hunted down, mild-mannered. Of course, the age of Bambi has passed. Although the book itself was clearly a commentary on pogroms, the suburbanization of “nature” has sadly and poignantly reduced the deer to the status of vermin and pest. That was not always the case, and the delicate craftsmanship of the group of deer by Nadelman brings poetry and compassion to the diverse designs that can be classified as of special concern to a Jewish browser.
At the time of this brief encounter with the Jewish contribution to modern art, that is, art without church connections, lectures and discussions were held at the museum. Norman Kleeblatt of the Jewish Museum delivered a prelude to his recent book. He spoke of Clement Greenberg and Harole Rosenberg, the Partisan Review, and the American Existential movement. A quite limited small magazine exerted enormous influence by interpreting, articulating, and celebrating the concepts of postwar paintings in New York, the rejection both of propaganda and of religious evangelism, the liberation of all design. A RISD graduate and local watercolorist, Ida Schmulovitz, addressed the audience, “I paint the same scene, the same skyline, at different times of day an d year. Perhaps my work is not religious, but it resembles Hebrew prayers at dawn and dusk, by new moonlight and acknowledging the seasons of the sacred soil.” This may be a good way to close my short essay on Judaism and art at the School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, where the separation of church and state, the industrial revolution, and the creation of the arts of textile, jewelry, and fashion were established.