The Dance of Life
By Caroline Igra
Music is at the heart of J.D. Kirszenbaum's imagery of the shtetl. His visual memories of his native Staszow are deeply intertwined with the music that played a major role in cultural life there. In his memoir the artist distinctly mentions the significance of music, be it as accompaniment to joyous ceremonies such installing a new Torah scroll in the synagogue or a festive wedding or merely an element of street life. "In Staszów...There were the musicians who played their instruments while their brightly colored parrots hovered above...Even today the dulcet sounds of those melodies echo in me, ancient and somber, that used to ring in our ears and resonate in our hearts."
The role of music in Kirszenbaum's art distinctly aligns him with other contemporary Eastern European artists. In fact the fascination with mimicking and even competing with music, bys some considered the most superior of the arts, is well documented within contemporary works by, for example, Chagall and Kandinsky. Kirszenbaum's exploration of this theme, as illustrated in a small selection of his works on the theme, brings him directly in line with these others.
Dance of the Hassidim reflects the emotional response to music by a group of Hassidic young men dancing on Simchat Torah. The artist depicts these men swaying, mostly with eyes closed, and clustering together, held together by a strong enclosing line that binds them both spiritually and quite physically as they react to the music of God.
Disciples and Musicians illustrates the artist's continual fascination with music in the shtetl as he began to explore new stylistic structures. Here the distinct relationship between God and prayer are expressed with a more modern line and structure reflective of the contemporary compositional works being executed at the Bauhaus. Kirszenbaum exploits the contrast inherent in ink by playing black and white off one another and allowing line to describe three-dimensional movement and sound while being restricted to a specially volume-less two-dimensional space. Although the figures themselves breathe in and out to the tempo of their musical instruments, the space they inhabit, here populated by goats and small huts of the shtetl, is flat and limited. Music retains the unique quality of enabling release to a more spiritual, less terrestrial, world.
Notable in both of these works is the joy Kirszenbaum associated with music. Despite a significant body of work devoted to imagery of the Jewish populace struggling to survive under the weight of intense oppression the artist specifically returned, repeatedly, to images devoted to happy occasions and celebrations! The Wedding, wherein a bride and groom are accompanied by a flutist, a tambourine artist and a violinist, visually express the juxtaposition of sound and sight the artist himself recorded as characterizing life in the shtetl: "Staszów had its own musicians. In addition to the three fiddlers, each of whom saw himself as Beethoven, there was Chetzkeleh the trumpeter from Krakow, who regarded himself in the act of playing the brass trumpet as if he were at least Wagner in all his glory. Yisroel Ber the klezmer and Chetzkeleh the trumpeter were my unforgettable virtuosos. Whatever they had of color, rhythm and melody lived and sang within me."
Maintaining total fidelity to his impressions the couple is described engaged in a joyous dance, while between them and behind them are depicted those documented figures providing the music to accompany their celebration.
Kirszenbaum's memories of what was lost, what was left behind in the shtetl of his youth, were forever tied to the spirituality and levity of music. The imagery of this period of his life, whether painted early or much later on as he made his way throughout Europe and continued to develop his art work, was forever enhanced by the pure and triumphantly joyous sounds of music.