“For Cecil B. DeMille,the revelation at Sinai was a purely solitary affair. Charlton Heston’s Moses ascends the mountain on an individual spiritual quest; he hears the Ten Commandments as the Israelites are preparing to worship the golden calf. The scene certainly captures part of the biblical narrative, but it ignores entirely the collective and communal aspect of the moment, as well as the tension between the people’s desire for direct knowledge of God and their quite correct fear of what such knowledge entails. It also ignores the all-important prelude to the revelation: the covenant between God and Israel, for which Moses is nothing more than a go-between.”
Since March of this year, the Met Breuer, a new annex of the Metropolitan Museum, has hosted a remarkable exhibit called “Unfinished.” The works of art exhibited consist primarily of unfinished work from the Met’s permanent collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Van Gogh, Klimt and many other noteworthy artists. Some of the works included were abruptly abandoned by their creators for various external reasons such as death, illness, or a more lucrative commission elsewhere. They feature unpainted spots of canvas, rough blurry lines or pencil sketches that are still visible. These pieces are striking in how they display the creative process of the artist at work – many display a startling unintended beauty in their incomplete form. Other paintings displayed, particularly the more modern works, were intentionally created with an unfinished or provisional quality, similar to a piece of jazz music.
Two Girls with Parasols (John Singer Sargent, 1888)
Hendrickje Stoffels (Rembrandt van Rijn, mid- 1650’s)
Many of the pieces in the exhibit don’t fit neatly in either category however – they were neither accidentally abandoned nor purposefully designed to feel incomplete. These are works that an artist stops painting because he or she decides that it captures something essential in an unfinished state that would be lost once completed. Often these paintings were not made at the behest of wealthy patrons, or for the purpose of commercial gain, but rather remained in the artist’s personal collection. See John Singer Sargent’s outdoor scene of his sister and her friend for example, or Rembrandt’s intimate portrait of his housekeeper turned life partner Hendrickje Stoffels.
The Book of Exodus contains some of the most fundamental religious-historical narratives of the Jewish people. However, as significant as these narratives clearly are, the book’s largest component verse-wise describes a detailed set of instructions for how to build, and then the actual construction of, the Tabernacle, or Mishkan. The looming presence of the Mishkan in such a central text, with its gold, precious gems and other valuable materials, challenges certain medieval and/or modern assumptions about Judaism. Judaism has come to be conceived of as a religion of ideas, a textual rather than a visual tradition that is more concerned with matters of the spirit than physical decoration and embellishment.
This painting, by 19th century German Jewish painter Daniel Moritz Oppenheim, depicts a Jewish family relaxing on a Shabbat afternoon. While the patriarch of the family sits at the center of the tableau, the light in the painting shines on the two women who are reading. There is no way to tell what the women are reading, but art historians assume that the older woman in the foreground is reading a traditional Jewish tome, perhaps a siddur, or the Tzena u’Rena, while the younger woman in the rear is immersed in a contemporary German novel. It’s this assumption, as well as the inscription “1789” above the door mantel, that leads the Jewish Museum catalogue to say the following about the painting :
“Grandmother, hair covered, reads a traditional prayer book for women. Through the doorway symbolically leading to the future, her modern, bareheaded granddaughter enjoys the latest novel…”
“Seemingly peaceful, this scene harbors dynamic undercurrents. It honors a political revolution and contains seeds of feminist action.”
While the museum chooses to focus on the discord present in the painting, I am struck by the continuity between the young woman reading a novel, and her perhaps more religious counterpart. Their bodies are hunched in similar positions, and they also share a look of intense absorption that distinguishes them from the rest of their family. Together they present a vision of the Jewish Sabbath that is both vibrant and serene, their absorption in texts is a dynamic alternative to both political action and actual slumber. I suspect that Oppenheim leaves the question of whether they are reading sacred or secular texts intentionally open, it is the act of reading itself that seems to define their experience of the Sabbath. Despite the winds of change that are alluded to in the painting, there is the possibility that this is one tradition that will endure.