Saturday, March 3, 2012

Last Call: Mark Podwal's Haggadah Paintings at Forum Gallery

Mark Podwal: Sharing the Journey, Forum Gallery, February 14 through March 7.

CCAR Press (a division of the Central Conference of American Rabbis), 2012.

With the Lenten season upon us and the Feast of Esther (Purim) almost here (March 7 and 8), can Paschal celebrations for 2012 be little more than one month away?  Yes.  The first night of Passover falls on Good Friday, April 6 (one week later for Orthodox Christians).  Within these four short weeks, vigorous preparations for festival meals take place. Jews completely clean their homes, ridding every crack and crevice of hametz (daily cakes and bread).  Then books (haggadot) that guide the Passover service at the table come out of storage, receive a good dusting and finally end up distributed at each place setting before the guests arrive. 

The haggadah helps the participants fulfill the necessary rituals before and after the Passover meal, which in its entirety is called the seder (the order).  Based on the Greek symposium, either a leader or each member of the dinner party reads from the haggadah while everyone else follows the text.  Some families prefer a set of one edition of the haggadah that everyone follows and some families prefer collecting different haggadot, which tend to liven up the conversation around the table or cause mass confusion.

This winter, Mark Podwal's 26 original gouache paintings created for Alan S. Yoffie's Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family grace the walls of Forum Gallery in midtown Manhattan and richly share in the eager anticipation of this major spring holiday.  Podwal vividly portrays this yearning in a menorah bursting with new life in the form of flowers springing forth from each "branch," aptly entitled Spring:

Mark Podwal, Spring, 2011
acrylic, gouache and colored pencil on paper
16 x 12 inches

The menorah is the oldest symbol of Judaism, based on the lampstand described in Exodus 25:31-40. It represents the Tree of Life.  The seder too symbolizes the core values of Judaism by imposing order on the meal as we should impose order on our lives.  The ritual meal also asks the participants to reflect on the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.  Also to find within ourselves an "Egypt" (some personal bondage) which keeps us from reaching our full potential.

Elijah's Cup shows us the golden glow of Passover miracles and mysteries.  Elijah, the prophet, should visit every home, welcomed by the children who open the door to invite this invisible honored guest. His special goblet, filled to the brim with wine, adorns every seder table.

Mark Podwal, Elijah's Cup, 2011
acrylic, gouache and colored pencil on paper
16 x 12 inches
© Mark Podwal, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

Another interpretation of the text, Bread of Affliction, features pyramids made of matzah, a reference to the quickly prepared dough that baked in the sun as the Jews wandered in the desert.  The Jews did not build the pyramids, as they were created for the Old and Middle Kingdom pharaohs - not the New Kingdom pharaohs, such as Ramses or Ramses II of the 13th century BCE who are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  However, in Podwal's work the pyramids immediately communicate the location, Egypt, the site of affliction.

Mark Podwal, Bread of Affliction, 2011
acrylic, gouache and colored pencil on paper
16 x 12 inches
© Mark Podwal, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY

Twenty years ago, Podwal drew a similar themes in The Passover Haggadah, with commentary by Elie Weisel, published in 1993.


Mark Podwal
The Bread of Affliction (from Elie Wiesel, A Passover Haggadah)
ink on paper, 3 x 4 1/2 inches
© Mark Podwal, courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York, NY
, 1991

Mark Podwal recently exhibited the torah covers and other ornamental textiles he designed  for Altneuschul in Prague at the Yeshiva University Museum in the Center for Jewish History (November 27, 2011-January 15, 2012).  Here is the video which explains the textiles' production:

Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum,  copyright 2011
produced and edited by Zachary Paul Levine, Assistant Curator

On March 15, 2012, Podwal will be honored in Prague for his significant contributions to the art and Jewish life in their majestic city.  Three months earlier, on December 13, 2011, Podwal received a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award from the Foundation for Jewish Culture as FJC celebrated its 50th Anniversary.  In 1996, Podwal became an Officer of Fine Arts and Letters, an honor bestowed by the French Government.

Mark Podwal's work belongs to numerous collections, most notably the Jewish Museum in New York, Yale University Museum in New Haven and the Victorian and Albert Museum in London.  In addition to the textiles in the Altneuschul, Podwal's works have been acquired by the Jewish Museum in Prague and the National Gallery in Prague.  The artist's interest in Prague's Jewish heritage has extended to filmmaking.  He collaborated with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Allan Miller to create House of Life, a film about the Old Jewish Cemetary in Prague, which aired on PBS in 2009 and 2010.

To learn more about Mark Podwal's work, visit his website  or the Forum Gallery website    Reproductions of his designs are available on cards and plates at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera Shop.

Alan S. Yoffie, Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family, CCAR Press (a division of the Central Conference of American Rabbis), 2012.

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