Mark Podwal is once again the subject of a documentary by Czech Television. In the most recent film, the producers focused on the creative process behind the artist’s latest portfolio of works, “All This Has Come Upon Us,” a series of 42 paintings and drawings created for and displayed at the Terezin Ghetto Museum earlier this year. The works provide an illustrated history of Jewish tragedies and, according to the artist, offer “a disturbing reminder of how Europe’s extensive history of ‘Jew-Hatred’ laid the groundwork for Terezin and Auschwitz.”
Each tragic example of injustice and persecution is laid out as a page from a book and paired with an appropriate verse from Psalms. Podwal’s iconography is always magically transformative and in this series the works are a visual and metaphoric guide to the sorrowful saga of the Jewish Diaspora. Podwal draws us through the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, past the yellow “badge of shame,” the Crusades, through false accusations, blood libels, the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion, Chmielnicki’s massacres and the endless pogroms, through Kristallnacht and the Holocaust – all brought to life by Podwal’s pen.
For Podwal, the menorah is often the symbol of the Jewish experience. In one piece, a menorah is carried away by goose-stepping Nazis, reminiscent of the heartbreaking procession on the Arch of Titus; in another, a menorah is composed of bones, and in yet another, devoured by the Roman she-wolf on an ancient coin. A final image ends on a hopeful note, the Knesset Menorah, upright and golden, sprouting seven biblical fruits. For me, though, one of the most moving and representative of Podwal’s oeuvre, is the piece entitled "Terezin," a drawing of a butterfly in a noose overlooking a painfully beautiful rendering of the concentration camp's skyline, based on an inmates's drawing, hearkening back to Pavel Friedmann's Holocaust poem, "The Butterfly."
The first Czech film about Podwal, “My Synagogue is in Prague” highlighted the artist’s long-time connection and almost Jerusalem-like attachment to that city’s Jewish community and with its 700 year-old synagogue, the Altneueshul (Old-New Synagogue), in particular.
The quintessential Renaissance man, Podwal first came to public view in the early 70s with his illustrations for The New York Times Op-Ed page. His later works, many of which make use of Jewish subjects and themes, are included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Israel Museum, among others. He is also a highly-regarded physician specializing in skin cancer, and a clinical associate professor at NYU's Langone Medical Center but as he explains, “Medicine is my hobby.” Clearly art is his passion.
“All This Has Come Upon Us” was screened on October 7th at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. On October 30, the film will be shown at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton along with an exhibition of 23 of the prints. All 42 original artworks exhibited at Terezin have been published as archival pigment prints, each set housed in a custom-made clamshell archival case. Portfolios have been acquired by many museums and libraries around the world.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.