Every so often we like to showcase artwork inspired by Jewish built heritage.
Today, we present the work of two New York artists, Murray Zimiles and Bill Farran, who have both used the image and memory of the magnificently elaborate wooden synagogues in Eastern Europe that were all destroyed before or during World War II.
Since 2011 Bill Farran has created a series of nearly 50 striking woodcuts, each depicting a wooden synagogue that once stood in what today is Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania. (He also has created linocuts of shtetl scenes and portraits).
He writes, on his web site:
My wooden synagogue series has become a labor of love. It brings together many aspects of myself. My love of history and geography, my love affair with Jewish genealogy, my love of art, and my love of my wife who helps me research and write.
The process begins with finding a photo or drawing of a wooden synagogue. They were all destroyed by the end of World War II, and very few images have survived. We research the history of the towns or shetles, to learn about the synagogue, how the people lived and finally how the Jewish presence came to an end. We often become very emotional, but it is my way of not forgetting the past. Then I transfer the image to a linoleum block and carve. I work backwards, only “what I leave behind” prints. The next stage is to make a print from the block. I have to ink the block and place a sheet of acid free paper over it and burnish the image. All my prints are hand printed. Each print is ever so slightly different.
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Murray Zimiles’s series — Book of Fire — dates from 1988. Zimiles created a series of powerful scenes evoking the fiery destruction of the wooden synagogues. He incorporates poems, testimony and other texts, set against the flaming scenes.
He wrote at the time — in words that, three decades later, still resonate:
These paintings, drawings, prints, and artists’ books are graphic statements meant to engage and propel the viewer into a whirlwind of fire and devastation. It is but 55 years ago that the world descended into madness. God looked away as the greatest carnage in human history took place. Civilization crumbled. The Holocaust is the pivotal event of our century, and perhaps of all human history. As an artist it is my obligation to deal with this subject. I write this in desperation as I read statements claiming the Holocaust never happened, of “ethnic Cleansing”, the slaughter in what once was Yugoslavia, and the emergence of Neo-Nazi mobs in Germany. REMEMBER!
The Book of Fire and the fire paintings before you are my answer.
A painter, printmaker, curator, and author, Zimiles may be best known for his Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, which won the National Jewish Book Award in the Visual Arts category in 2008. It is the catalogue/accompanying publication to the exhibit he curated at the American Folk Art Museum about Jewish wood carvers and the lions they carved in synagogue decorations — and merry-go-rounds.
See below an introduction to Zimiles and his work, pegged to an exhibition of his Holocaust and Book of Fire series at the Florida Holocaust Museum in 2017.