Mayer July  26 March 2010

Colourful Memories of a Polish Childhood

4 June to 10 October

Following a very successful run in New York, the exhibition Mayer July. Colourful Memories of a Polish Childhood will open at the Jewish Historical Museum on 4 June. It features the work of Mayer Kirshenblatt (also known as Mayer July), who at the age of 73 began transforming his childhood memories of prewar Poland into marvellous narrative paintings and colourful drawings. His conversations with his daughter Barbara over a forty-year period about the nearly forgotten world of his youth ultimately led to a book and an exhibition.

In a frank and humorous style, Kirshenblatt (1916-2009) presents a unique picture of everyday life in his birthplace of Opatów (also known by its Yiddish name Apt) before the Second World War. He depicts the bustling streets, squares, and markets, the synagogue, the craftspeople, and of course the memorable characters who populated his world, from shoemakers, butchers, and prostitutes to street performers, pickpockets, and chimney sweeps.

Weird and wonderful folk tales come to life: the stories of the pregnant hunchback who stood underneath the wedding canopy just hours before giving birth, the cobbler's son who dressed in white pyjamas to fool the angel of death, the well-dressed kleptomaniac who slipped a fish down her bosom, and the woman who washed floors in her wedding gown. The exhibition is a tribute to Kirshenblatt's distinctive imagination, fuelled by his keen memory.

Mayer Kirshenblatt, who went from Opatów to Canada at the age of 17, looks back at his place of origin through the eyes of an emigrant. He takes a nostalgic view, even when recalling very difficult times. His art embodies a universal struggle with the past, with issues of loyalty and identity and feelings of being rooted, and uprooted - themes that strike a chord with viewers and are highly relevant today.

The exhibition will also feature two films. The first shows Kirshenblatt in his studio in Toronto and during a visit to Apt with his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a leading scholar of East European Jewish life and culture. In the second film, one of Kirshenblatt's magical stories is performed as a puppet show. There is also an entertaining and informative audio tour, available free of charge, with commentary by the artist, his daughter, and other experts (in the English-language version).

For this exhibition, the Judah L. Magnes Museum and the California University Press have produced a magnificently illustrated and bound catalogue (€ 42.50).

The exhibition was developed by the Judah L. Magnes Museum in California under the title of They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust has been made possible through a grant from the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and thanks to the generosity of Jean and Sandy Colen, Varda and Irving Rabin, and Katie and Amnon Rodan.

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