Published in conjunction with the exhibition
Janet Shafner: Dark Prophecies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, New York
September 6, 2011 – March 30, 2012
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, New York
Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director
Laura Kruger, Curator
Susan Orr, Assistant Curator
Phyllis Freedman, Nancy Mantell, Curatorial Assistants
Allison Glazer, Public Programs Coordinator
Jennifer Kronick, Mallory Mortillaro, Rebecca Pollack,
Georgina Wells, Kate Wiener, Curatorial Interns
This exhibition is presented by the Irma L. and Abram S. Croll Center for Jewish Learning and
Culture at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with the generous support of
George, z”l, and Mildred Weissman, and Cantor Mimi Frishman and Rabbi Louis Frishman.
We gratefully acknowledge the heartfelt support of the Shafner family.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording,
or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.
Printed in the United States of America in 2011 by
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Brookdale Center, One West Fourth Street
New York, NY 10012-1186
Lot’s Wife, 1996, oil on canvas, 58" x 50"; Collection of the artist.
Self in Cloth, 2007, graphite drawing, 30" x 22"; Collection of the artist.
Janet Shafner passed away today. This exhibition, which was originally planned as a tribute to her extraordinary oeuvre, has become a memorial to her indomitable spirit and inspiring creativity.
The presentation of Janet Shafner’s monumental works at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum reinforces our institutional commitment to fulfill her and our shared mission. Shafner’s subject – the difficult situation of women in the biblical world – has resonance in today’s world fraught with injustice, as we strive to achieve true equality, advance economic justice, combat violence against women, expand educational opportunities, prevent age discrimination, promote diversity, and end racism.
The visual arts are a potent means with which to illuminate such challenging issues. As the world becomes increasingly inured to rhetoric, forceful images capture our attention and linger in our consciousness. Janet Shafner’s works transcend a political agenda and embrace universal life experiences. By addressing the values of humanity, she sheds every pretense of veneer to seek unadulterated truth. And yet, her works are of unalloyed beauty, with a maturity and insight that carry a lasting memory.
One is awed by Janet Shafner’s ability to sustain a balancing act of embracing life while facing uncertainty and despair. Shafner’s powerful paintings and drawings will endure as a permanent legacy to her artistic, feminist, and humanist vision.
Laura Kruger, Curator
August 2, 2011
Biblical women are allegedly easy to miss, simply on the margins of the main narratives as submissive helpmates to masculine heroes and products of a hopelessly sexist document. Not for Janet Shafner. Her paintings have critically dissected the role of Biblical women for the last 20 years, finding their stories to be at the very core of biblical creativity. Under her scathing gaze and forceful brush, they are revealed to be no less than the dynamic engines of Jewish history and destiny.
Shafner’s approach is deeply Jewish, shaping her commentary and elucidation in a Talmudic textual paradigm, insisting on comparisons between straightforward Biblical narratives and midrashic expositions. These juxtapositions are artistically founded on medieval and Renaissance altarpieces and their attendant predellas. Additionally, Shafner uses the postmodern practice of dramatically decontextualizing the narrative to achieve conceptual breakthroughs that are frequently jarring and shocking. It is precisely in these disjunctive spaces and images that Shafner reaps her most salient insights. And in a deeply subversive way, this is exactly the role of the biblical women that she has revealed.
Sarah is indicative of the radical edge these paintings explore. Normally, Sarah is depicted in this episode as hidden away in the family tent, modestly peeking out when the three strangers approach Abraham and proceed to predict that he will miraculously father a child with her at the age of 100. In this painting Sarah, sitting patiently in the mysterious darkness, is in the foreground and Abraham is not to be seen at all. The strangers are lounging in the courtyard, presumably waiting for lunch. But what sets the image on its head is the bizarre lunette depicting a hilly landscape that waxes biomorphic. The two distant hills are verdant green breasts, each spewing creamy white rivulets. The artist is projecting into Sarah’s midrashic future that predicts that the 90-yearold Sarah, after having actually given birth to Isaac, is falsely accused of presenting a foundling as her son. To prove her miraculous fecundity she proudly nurses all of her guest’s children from her overflowing breasts. An old woman’s patience and faith clearly triumphs over the doubters of God’s promise.
The long view is similarly espoused in May You Live Forever: The Assumption of Serach Bat Asher. Serach, mentioned in the Torah as simply the daughter of Asher, represents the important concept of memory in the midrashic mind. Especially beautiful and wise, she is enlisted by her uncles in the delicate task of telling the old Jacob that his son Joseph is alive and well. Playing the harp, she sings softly to her grandfather as he stands absorbed in prayer. Her message slowly penetrates his consciousness and allows him to survive the shock. He gratefully blesses her; “May death never have a power over you….” Subsequently she goes down to Egypt with Jacob and the rest of her people and witnesses Joseph’s death and burial. During the Exodus 210 years later, she remembers where the Egyptians had sunk Joseph’s metal coffin in the Nile. She tells Moses where it is so he can bring Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Another midrashic comment records her interrupting a Talmudic discussion and forcefully clarifying the exact path through the Red Sea, since she was present. Finally, Serach is described as one of a handful of individuals who entered Paradise alive, thereby escaping the pangs of death. Shafner portrays Serach as deeply introspective and, facing the viewer, a virtual self-portrait of the artist. Her alter-ego is seen flying high above, attempting to escape fate while the ladder to eternity, paradoxically extending both up and down, beckons. The artist has taken us to the edge of Jewish memory, etching it in the personal, presenting Serach’s liminal experiences for anyone who has lived a long life and faces the proximity of the end.
The biblical text is not at all reticent about forceful women and neither is Shafner. One of the most dramatic examples is The Daughters of Zelophehad found in Numbers 27. These five courageous women in Shafner’s enormous three-panel painting have just emerged from the complex and dangerous landscape behind them. Mysterious structures dominate the scene, indicating the hopeful plans of their male counterparts busily designing their new homes in the Promised Land, while the forbidding crimson field behind them alludes to the violent conquest necessary to actually possess God’s gift. Nonetheless, these five stand gesturing to one another and toward their leader in the center who will convey their audacious request to Moses. At first they seem inarticulate and uncertain. And yet they come forward to challenge the heretofore male prerogative of inheritance. And God agrees and takes their side!
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah stand alone before us. Neither Moses, the Cohen Gadol, nor the entire Jewish people are anywhere to be seen. Rather their isolated presence becomes a challenge to a contemporary audience for women to engage and interact with received Jewish law. Lot’s Wife frequently gets short shrift, never more than an object. For Shafner, Lot’s wife stands at a crucial juncture in Jewish history, a human tragedy that still offers a generative future. She dominates the foreground, a cool presence ruling a cold future universe. In the background we see her daughters circling their father in an incestuous dance. The entire icy foreground is vividly contrasted with the angry red of burning and a lunette that depicts the midrashic account of why Sodom was so abhorred by God. Cruelty alone defined the city. A woman who dared to offer food and lodging to a traveler was condemned to be bound on the city walls, smeared with honey, and allowed to be stung to death by the enraged bees. Inhospitality and lack of compassion define the Sodomites.
Lots’s wife is a martyr; her death opens the way for her daughters’ incest that ultimately lays the foundation for the Messiah. The Torah relates that the offspring of this horrific union are Moab and Ammon. The tribe of Moab finally produces Ruth, who is the seminal ancestor of King David, whose descendant will be the Messiah. Meanwhile, the midrash explains that the reason Lot’s wife looked back on the doomed city was her concern for her children and the family left behind. In one terrible moment her compassion opens the doors for the ultimate compassion of mankind’s salvation: the Jewish redeemer. In Shafner’s vision, Lot’s wife is transformed from a victim into an enabler.
The Concubine of Gibeah is perhaps the most horrific episode in all of the Tanach. Simply understood, these verses from the Book of Judges: 19, 20 and 21 tell a tale of a world gone terribly wrong. The sordid narrative of gang rape, murder, and mutilation quickly escalates into the virtual annihilation of one of the twelve tribes. Shafner here explores the consequences of lust and violence that reflect on the terrifying nature of blessing and prophecy. As in many of her works, the lunettes effectively set in motion the interior narrative of the three artworks. The vicious wolf-like man presides over the compartmentalized image of a woman: exactly what unbridled male sexuality accomplishes. The next image dissects the ill-fated concubine above the chaos of mass rape, eerily reminiscent of the use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia and Rwanda. Finally, we return to the savagery of the gang rape visually ‘blessed’ by twelve hands; a bitter commentary on Jacob’s final blessing to his son Benjamin:
“Benjamin is a predatory wolf; in the morning he will devour prey and in the evening he will distribute spoils.” Here Shafner shockingly characterizes the biblical antagonism and tension between the sexes. She leaves it up to her audience to sort out the dynamic between women as victims and women as heroines.