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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 8 (2004) 251-267

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The Painted Word:

Jewish Women's Book Art

The combination of visual imagery and printed or painted words constitutes a crossing of aesthetic borders that figures in much important artwork being done by contemporary Jewish women artists.

Some of the work presented herein fits into the category known as "artist's books"—not a book about art, but art that is a book. "Book art" is defined in the loosest sense of the word; it can take the form of a container for text, ideas, and/or images; of something that has a sequential narrative of words or pictures; or—in the form most removed from its original function—of sculptural installations, often made from found and recycled materials, in which books or other printed matter are used as raw material for environmental structures and objects.

The book art movement has proliferated into a vibrant array of artworks that eschews the framed formality of "wall art." It requires the viewer to engage interactively by reading, handling, or walking through the artist's creations.

Some artist's books are unique, one-of-a-kind objects, but the abundance of modern photographic, copying, and printing technologies has created the means for an individual to publish her own multiple edition. The availability of very cheap or free publications has also expanded the possibilities available to the book artist by providing raw material—but more about that later.

The rich intellectual nature of these objects evokes the legacy of Walter Benjamin, the twentieth-century cultural analyst and literary critic who was a passionate collector of rare editions. It is said that his suicide, as he was detained at the Spanish/French border in 1940, was partially motivated by the despair that beset him as he envisioned life without his cherished library. [End Page 251]

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Figure 1
"Shadowtime for Walter Benjamin" (2000). Collage, crayon, and ink on paper, 12" x 9". Illustration by Susan Bee for the libretto of an opera about Walter Benjamin called Shadowland, by Charles Bernstein.

In his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Benjamin writes about the importance of the "aura" of a work of art, its unique, authentic essence, as it exists in space and time, originating as it does from the hand of an individual.

It is the "aura" of these works that I most want to bring to your attention, along with an appreciation for the labor-intensive manipulation of materials that often makes artist's books the "Funny Lady" of the art world, with many of the works starting out in a thrift shop or in the garbage and ending up on exhibit, traveling around the world. Humor and playfulness are a common characteristic of artist's books.

Except for Sigalit Landau, all of the artists discussed below have or will be included in an exhibition called "Women of the Book / Jewish Subjects, Jewish Themes." The show is the brainchild of California curator Judith Hoffberg,1 who has encouraged and chronicled the artists' book movement, especially through her editing of Umbrella, a magazine about the making, exhibiting and collecting of artist's books. For WOB, Hoffberg brought together ninety women artists (including this writer) from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Italy, Israel, and South America. WOB has traveled for eight years and is still going. The participating artists tell personal narratives, investigate liturgy and ritual, memorialize victims of the Holocaust, and interpret history, literature, and myth. Only six of the show's seventeen venues to date have been under Jewish sponsorship, attesting to its universal appeal. [End Page 252]

Miriam Neiger Fleischmann

Sometimes the work serves as a chronicle of the artist's attempt to integrate an uneasy past. In both poetry and painting, Miriam Neiger Fleischmann (Israel) uses her work to process the emotional trauma she carries as a child of survivors. Her painted books have wildly chaotic layers of color and...


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