Could a new artist in residence program at a historic cemetery in New York be applied as a model for how to focus attention on Jewish cemeteries, their needs, and their history?
Open to applications from local artists, the nine-month residency will “offer one artist the opportunity to create a new project or body of work inspired by [the] beautiful natural landscape, stunning monuments, and compelling history” of the cemetery and “develop a project (or body of work) that is inspired by Green-Wood and engages with the Cemetery’s archives, art, architecture, history, or landscape (or some combination therein).”
The Cemetery, it notes, “has inspired generations of painters, writers, and musicians. The artist selected for this program will continue in that rich tradition of creative expression.”
According to an article about the residency, the artist chosen
will have studio space in the cemetery’s beautiful, landmarked Fort Hamilton Gatehouse and will have access to Green-Wood’s vast archives dating back to 1838, including personal objects such as photographs, paintings, books from the deceased. That includes prominent 19th and 20th artists, 400 of whom are buried at Green-Wood such as: Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Catlin, and Asher B. Durand.
It would be exciting to see such a residency developed at a Jewish cemetery in Europe (or more than one!).
Like Green-Wood, Jewish cemeteries, too, have long inspired artists, photographers, and writers, with their history, with the life stories of the people buried there, and with their physical appearance — some have tombs designed by leading architects of the time; many have richly carved and decorated headstones featuring powerful iconography.
In addition, those abandoned or closed for use can evoke powerful feelings ranging from the romantic to the tragic.
It would mean finding funding, but artist in residency programs could be a means of making these places more accessible and making their histories known and appreciated. The Green-Wood residency includes a stipend of $7,500 for the nine months, but residencies at Jewish cemeteries could be for much shorter periods and entail much less financial support.
JHE director Ruth Ellen Gruber, for example, had smaller grants from the Hadassah Brandeis Institute to work on a Jewish cemeteries project, “Candlesticks On Stone” — a photographic, web, and research project exploring the imagery by which women are represented on Jewish gravestones, mainly in eastern Europe.
Already some projects at Jewish cemeteries incorporate some aspects of combining history and art — focuses artists’ residencies could fit into these programs.
The Ripple Theatre Collective’s audio guide productions for the historic Jewish cemetery in Plymouth, England, for example, use archival and other sources to tell stories and dramatize events and personalities, focusing on the people buried in the cemeteries and/or connected with Jewish history and heritage in these places.
These audio performances are part of a project called Hidden Stories: Hidden Places that focuses on the Jewish heritage of Plymouth and elsewhere in southwest England.
Similarly, the One Lost Stone web project focuses on London’s Sephardic Novo cemetery, posting audio, video, text, and photos relating to the people buried there.
And parts of the House of Life program at London’s Willesden Jewish Cemetery focus on the life stories of personalities buried there, including forming exhibitions and collecting photographs, letters, family trees, eulogies, and reminiscences to help tell the stories.
More than 50 people buried at Willesden are remembered in the cemetery’s new visitor experience, in touch screen displays in the Visitor Centre, information panels in the grounds and marked on our new cemetery map.
The interest of artists in Jewish cemeteries goes back centuries.
One of the earliest and most famous paintings of a Jewish cemetery is that from the mid 1650s by the Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, of the Beth Haim cemetery at Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam.
Artists have been particularly drawn to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, which functioned from the early 15th century until 1787. Artists painted romantic views of the cemetery’s bristling forest of stones already from the late 18th century, and the gravestones there also inspired Art Nouveau graphic artists.
A 2006 exhibition mounted at the Prague Jewish Museum — Images of the Prague Ghetto for the 100th Anniversary of the Jewish Museum in Prague — highlighted a dozen or so Czech artists who drew inspiration from the cemetery in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Jewish cemeteries also inspired poetry — the 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an evocative poem about the Old Jewish Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. The 20th century British poet Tom Pickard wrote a poem about the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. The American poet Jerome Rothenberg has frequently used Jewish — and imagined — Jewish heritage imagery.