This week I wrote my Culture View column on Maira Kalman’s new exhibit at The Jewish Museum. I’ve got a pet obsession with her work, and figured that it would have been near impossible to leave my utterly self-conscious bias behind for the sake of a more "critical" review. So instead, I used it as an occasion to look at the same illustrations of hers I love–with all their winsomeness, humor, wit, vivacity and even occasional sadness–and simply view them in another light.
The key to my hermeneutical shift was asking Kalman, who was at the exhibit when I saw it, what made her work specifically Jewishness. After all, very few of the works on display have explicit Jewish themes, or are even set in Israel, where the artist was born. You’re more likely to see an image of Ben Franklin in a coonskin cap, or a pair of Manolo Blahniks, than a magen David or kiddush cup.
Her answer, in short, was that what made her art Jewish was not the subject of her art itself but the sensibility she brought to all of her art. She was raised by parents who fled Europe just before the Holocaust, and lost many of her relatives in it. Which isn’t to say that her work is full of gloom or despair–in fact, quite the opposite. Her work conveys a deep charm for life, and living, and all the joys in small and quotidian things.