Museums’ mislabeling can leave visitors with misconceptions of biblical proportions

Psalter with Samuel Anointing David at the Cleveland Art Museum

Detail from a psalter with Samuel anointing David, c. 1270-1290. Cleveland Museum of Art/Menachem Wecker


My article “Museums’ mislabeling can leave visitors with misconceptions of biblical proportions” appears in Religion News Service.

What If You Trivialize Hitler?

Bruce Gendelman Holocaust art

Detail of one of Bruce Gendelman’s paintings on view in Krakow. Photo: Menachem Wecker


My article “What If You Trivialize Hitler?” — about the Holocaust art of Bruce Gendelman — appears in Mosaic magazine. (The Jewish Journal, LA, also excerpts it.)

Here’s the lede:

“How do you shoot the devil in the back?” asks the character played by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects. A similar question has plagued artists for centuries. If evil stops to pose for a portrait, what if you miss your shot, trivializing Hitler or turning Torquemada into a cartoon character?

For many, the 2002 exhibit Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum in New York missed the mark egregiously. Among its works commemorating the Holocaust were Chanel-, Hermès-, and Tiffany-branded poison-gas containers and a concentration-camp photograph into which the artist had inserted himself holding a Coke. Even for artists exploring the subject of the Holocaust thoughtfully, gorgeous brushwork or careful cross-hatching can so prettify the surface as to tie up evil in a neat bow.

All the more edifying, then, at the other end of the artistic spectrum, are Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits of ugly people—exquisitely drawn, but there’s no mistaking their individual hideousness.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Even articulating what it’s actually like to stand at the notorious train tracks leading to the entrance gates and all that lay beyond them is like trying to explain color to someone who has never seen. How could art possibly supply the want?

Fortunately, I came upon one possible answer to this conundrum later the same day in Krakow, at an exhibit of the Holocaust works of the American artist Bruce Gendelman. The recipe with which Gendelman approaches the portrayal of evil combines ominous or horrific imagery with a graceful handling of materials while somehow also finding room for a sliver of hope, even of God, peeking through the enveloping darkness.

Bruce Gendelman's Holocaust mobile

Bruce Gendelman’s Holocaust mobile on view in Krakow. Photo: Menachem Wecker

With striking juxtapositions, Nordic art unfurls at the Phillips Collection

Phillips Collection Nordic

Outi Pieski’s Crossing Paths (2014) at the Phillips


My article “With striking juxtapositions, Nordic art unfurls at the Phillips Collection” appears in The Art Newspaper.

Hands-on research underpins a pioneering chiaroscuro woodcut exhibition

Chiaroscuro NGA

The National Gallery of Art chiaroscuro exhibit. Photo: Menachem Wecker


My article “Hands-on research underpins a pioneering chiaroscuro woodcut exhibition,” about a National Gallery of Art exhibit, appears in Art Newspaper.

Art and beauty can carve a path through a fallen world

St. Peter's Rome

St. Peter’s in Rome. Photo: Menachem Wecker


My article “Art and beauty can carve a path through a fallen world” appears in National Catholic Reporter.

Update: On the NCR podcast, Brittany Wilmes and Julia Lieblich say exceedingly nice things about my article (starting around the 5:05 mark, although the whole podcast is worth a listen).

Non-Catholics enjoy challenges of teaching in Catholic setting

My article “Non-Catholics enjoy challenges of teaching in Catholic setting” appears in National Catholic Reporter.

Looted vessels returned at event marking 15 years of US-Italy art crime fighting co-operation

Fourth century BC krater

A 4th cent. BC krater illegally excavated in southern Italy pre-1985, which the Carabinieri and the N.Y. county DA located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on view at the Italian embassy in Washington. Photo: Menachem Wecker


My article “Looted vessels returned at event marking 15 years of US-Italy art crime fighting co-operation” appears in The Art Newspaper.

A record-setting $30.1m sale of an Assyrian relief at Christie’s raises red flags

My article “A record-setting $30.1m sale of an Assyrian relief at Christie’s raises red flags” appears in The Art Newspaper.

In the wake of Pittsburgh, houses of worship ask how much security is enough

My article “In the wake of Pittsburgh, houses of worship ask how much security is enough” appears in Religion News Service.

Bible museum is first in US to show mile-long illustrated Bible

Wiedmann Bible

A recreation of Willy Wiedmann’s attic-studio in Stuttgart, Germany, displayed at the Museum of the Bible. The aluminum boxes (middle right), reference books, brushes, and mugs and containers come from Wiedmann’s studio; the work table is a replica, and the plastic, white paint containers aren’t original. Photo: Menachem Wecker.


My article “Bible museum is first in US to show mile-long illustrated Bible” appears in Religion News Service. (The Oakland Press, Mich., has also run the piece.)

Here’s the beginning:

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Going through his late father’s attic painting studio in 2013, a German banker named Martin Wiedmann was surprised to find a Bible that his father, Willy, had spent years creating. The 3,333 illustrated pages were bound as a leporello, a book that is pleated like an accordion. Fully laid out, Willy Wiedmann’s Bible stretches about a mile in length, or about 50 times the length of an unrolled Torah scroll.

Wiedmann had made the book at his combined home and art gallery in Stuttgart over 16 years, beginning in 1984, working in almost complete obscurity. “He lived away from the family. I hardly ever saw him,” said the younger Wiedmann, who lives in Zurich, of his reclusive father.

Martin Wiedmann has since devoted himself to promoting his father’s work.

On May 7, 2017, 500 volunteers held up a copy of the leporello, also called a concertina book, along the Elbe River in Magdeburg, Germany, to set a Guinness World Record for the largest such book, according to the Museum of the Bible in Washington. The museum will open a Wiedmann exhibit on Saturday (Oct. 27).

Wiedmann Bible

Some of Willy Wiedmann’s 3,333-illustrations spanning the entire bible. The German artist called his style “polycon,” a combination of the Greek poly for “many” and ikon for “picture or panel.” Photo: Menachem Wecker.

  • Selected articles

    Bobby Fischer gravestone "Searching for Fischer’s Legacy." Chess Life magazine. March 2018. (PDF file).

    Confederate monuments "Confederate Monuments and the Power of Absence." Religion & Politics. Oct. 2017.

    Jules Olitski star "A Memorial That Knows Its Biblical History." Wall St. Journal. Sept. 22, 2017.

    CIA art collection "Infiltrating the CIA’s Secret Art Collection." Playboy. Jan./Feb. 2017.
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