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  • From Word to ImageVisual Midrash
  • Renata Stein (bio)

Much of my work in recent years has been exploring the Hebrew Bible's hidden meaning, in part to counterbalance the excesses committed by a seemingly growing number of fundamentalist Bible thumpers of all denominations who insist that their narrow and very literal interpretation of the biblical narrative (and the world) is the only valid view. Judaism has always encouraged Jews—particularly those of the male persuasion—to engage with its sacred texts and give them new meaning in every generation.

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Renata Stein, "Family Tree", detail. Photograph by Peter Goldberg

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In art history, Christian artists have been turning to the Bible for understanding and commenting on the world for centuries. Jews, on the other hand, only emerged as professional artists during the 19th century, which makes visual midrash a more recent discipline in a rather text-based religion. Visual midrash interprets the biblical narrative through visualization and free association in a playful and imaginative way rather than analytically. Symbols reveal deeper aspects of what it means to be human that are inaccessible to empirical thought. While symbols transform physical reality into a modality of the spirit, it is the material that transports the meaning.

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Renata Stein, "Let There Be Light." Photograph by Peter Goldberg

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My visual vernacular is made of the discarded detritus and fragments of modern life, from old Hebrew book fragments, to scrap metal, hair, sand, and leaves. In dialogue with distressed, weathered surfaces, the words of the Bible turn into visual poetry: Sand tells the story of the earth and the sand of the deserts and streets relates to the wanderings of the Jews as refugees, nomads and exiles wandering from country to country. Hair is symbolically connected with strength, while signifying sacrifice at the same time.

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Renata Stein, "Crossing the Line." Photograph by Peter Goldberg

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My use of the Hebrew alphabet is based on a legend about Rabbi Channinah, who was burned alive by the Romans. When burning on the stake, Channinah's disciples asked him what he saw and he replied, "I see the parchment burning and the Hebrew letters rising up to the sky, forming new prayers." Jewish tradition has always provided Jews with hope and new life and there is no political power that can extinguish the divine spark of the human spirit. Visual midrash discloses the inner workings of human existence that are hidden from view. The ability to access the depths of the psyche creates an understanding of the multiplicity and paradox of our lives. This opening to our inner world gives us the freedom to transcend the limitations of our situation and arrive at an understanding of the other, the universal and the cosmological significance of all human endeavors.

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Renata Stein, "Nomad Sand." Photograph by David Smith, Pittsburgh

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Renata Stein

Renata Stein is a mixed media artist living and working in New York. Her work makes use of everyday found objects that create a new visual language merging ordinary life with the poetic and symbolic. A native of Germany, Stein is also a translator, including, most recently, "How Healing Becomes Killing," an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum Houston, 2007. In addition, she has been the curator of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York/Berlin.



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pp. 23-26
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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