Painting The Seder Table
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Painting The Seder Table

With apologies to Shelley, “If winter comes, can Passover be far behind?” And despite the never-ending snow and winter-like cold, Passover is indeed coming soon — which makes this a great time to drop by The Jewish Museum for a view of Nicole Eisenman’s Seder (2010), the featured work in the Museum’s Masterpieces & Curiosities exhibition series.

In a painting style reminiscent of George Grosz or Max Beckmann and with a nod to Renoir’s and Bonnard’s luncheon scenes, Eisenman’s group portrait takes a humorous, loving if somewhat ironic look at the Seder in its current American incarnation. This 21st Century Seder includes nine participants of varied ages and levels of involvement, from interested and engaged to bored or even asleep, whose faces are portrayed in painting styles ranging from the realistic to the grotesque. Amusingly, the artist places the viewer in the role of seder “leader” and narrator—it is our enlarged, cartoonish hands that seem to break the afikomen in half. The painting offers up a familiar prospect, the traditional Seder plate, with its Romaine leaf and other symbolic items, flanked by a bottle of Gold’s red horseradish, cups of red wine and iconic red, yellow and black Hagaddahs at hand. But who are the almost monstrous figures portrayed in the foreground? Are they family members? Friends? Or are they the strangers whom we’ve been commanded to let join the proceedings? Part caricature, part horror movie, part sympathetic family portrait, Eisenman’s canvas offers us a look at a recurring scenario we both recognize and dread.

To help illuminate Eisenman’s subject matter and style, the Museum has gathered together 25 other portraits from their vast collection, some of them seldom seen. Highlighting the Passover theme, on display is Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s 1867 well-known painting of a German-Jewish family Seder, along with photographs by Arnold Eagle capturing the American Seder of the 1930s, and a nostalgic view of the Eastern-European Seder by self-taught artist Meichel Pressman (1950). Included in the collection, as well, are two paintings by Eisenman’s great-grandmother, Esther Harriman. Also shown is a selection of lesser-known Seder plates from the 18th to the 21st century, chosen by curator Joanna Montoya Robotham “to complement and highlight the centerpiece painting.” Robotham notes that the current exhibit demonstrates how “we take a contemporary work and contextualize it from the past…by surrounding it with other artworks, documents and source materials.” Before you embark on your own Seder, it might be worth your while to prepare yourself for this annual rite of spring with Eisenman’s discerning snapshot.

“Seder” by Nicole Eisenman will be on view through August 9, 2015 at The Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street.

Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.

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