The Arty Semite

On Marilyn Monroe, Aunt Greta and an Artist's Dress of Many Colors

By Menachem Wecker

  • Print
  • Share Share
“Which one?” by Miriam Mörsel Nathan, 2009. Photo by Gregory Staley.

According to the MoMA website, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe screen-print series challenged “the concept of the unique art work by repeating the same mechanically produced image until it appeared to be drained of all meaning.”

It’s tempting to cite Warhol’s Marilyns as the inspiration for the 18 screen prints in Miriam Mörsel Nathan’s “Greta” series, each of which shows a different colored version of the same dress.

But whereas Warhol used redundancy to emphasize triviality, Mörsel Nathan’s series is intentionally repetitive, leaving no color palette untried in its search for the answer to a particular question.

Leafing through pre-World War II photographs, Mörsel Nathan, former director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, discovered a picture of her aunt Greta, whom she had never met. When she started making prints based on the image, she realized she had no idea what color to use for her aunt’s dress.

“The series of screen prints is of the same dress but in many different colors, as if to say to my aunt Greta, ‘Which of these do you like?’” says Mörsel Nathan in a wall text at the exhibit “Memory of a time I did not know…” which opens tonight at the Washington D.C. JCC’s Bronfman Gallery. “There is little that I know about my aunt…These walls of many dresses remind me of what I don’t know.”

Other works in the show, which use techniques like gum transfers, literally obscure the photos Mörsel Nathan found. A box encases the photo in “Elegy” (2009), and try as the viewer might, it is impossible to get a good glimpse of the image. Several works depicting the wedding of the artist’s Uncle Josef are covered by veils.

Just as second-generation Holocaust survivors like Mörsel Nathan grapple with the vagueness of postmemory, the artist literally obscures her works to ensure that viewers have trouble deciphering the photographs.

“All of us have a desire to tell our story,” writes Steven Cushner, who curated the exhibit. Those who don’t have living relatives to tell them tales of the past have to improvise and “complete the story,” which ends up being “part truth, part memory and part fiction.”

It would be easy to dismiss Mörsel Nathan’s “memories” as random guesses. Greta’s dress was either green or blue or pink, or another color. It certainly wasn’t Joseph’s coat of many colors. But to critique Mörsel Nathan’s history is to miss the point.

Tim O’Brien famously argued in “The Things They Carried” that the most honest war stories are often real, but not true. Mörsel Nathan’s Greta is probably not true, but in her absence, she influenced the artist’s life, which allows her to take on a reality of her own.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Tim O’Brien, Visual Art, Washington Jewish Film Festival, MoMA, Steven Cushner, Miriam Mörsel Nathan, Exhibits, Marilyn Monroe, Bronfman Gallery, Andy Warhol

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.