Much has been said in recent decades about memory — how we relate to it, construct it, retain it, communicate it. And in some ways, the Holocaust — as an event that obliterated memory and defied our understanding of experience — has become the world’s historical reference point for many of these questions. Mayer Kirschenblatt’s paintings thus arise not in a vacuum, but in a rich and sometimes contentious field of thought about what memory is, what it means, how it can be, or should be, transmitted. His folk-art works, with their visual narratives, bright, thick colors, and naïve perspectives, are instantly accessible, often amusing, and vibrant. They also remind us of what memory is as much as of what it is not.
“They Called Me Mayer July” collects re-creations of the small Polish town Kirschenblatt grew up in before his emigration to Canada at the age of eighteen in 1934, a town which no longer exists. He claims he wants people to know not only how Jews died, but how they lived, and that these scenes of life in ochres and olives and bright blues is his gift of memory. There is also a companion volume, They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust, which presents more images as well as Kirchenblatt’s written memoir.
What makes the show so interesting, though, is not only that the tableaux represent Kirschenblatt’s experience of a life that no longer exists, but that they show the stumblings of memory, the jester’s tricks of memory. Sometimes the dish rack in his mother’s kitchen is enormous and dwarfing, covering an entire wall; in another painting, it is shrunk down to size. Sometimes the town synagogue has three brightly colored stained-glass windows, sometimes two. “Women’s Day,” a large painting of nude women bathing at the town mikvah (ritual bath), is likely a scene he would not have been let in on. And the most disturbing images, of Nazis murdering terrified groups of Jews, may have been burned into Kirchenblatt’s mind, but they are not ones he witnessed.
These vagaries of memory are not errors or marks of inaccuracy. Instead, they mark memory for what it is — a work in progress, an attempt to be somewhere that lives only in one’s own fragile mind, and to bring that place before the eyes of others. It is not an act of science. It is always an artistic act, and it is this that gives memory its life. Through January 13 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley. 510-549-6950, Magnes.org