The Arty Semite

Best Bric-a-Brac Culture Can Buy

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Izhar Patkin, Salonière, 1998/Jewish Museum

Over winter break, I didn’t want for activity. There were people to see, films to screen and a wealth of exhibitions to behold, one of the most inventive of which was a modest but arresting show at the Jewish Museum, on until February 3, called “Collection Tableaux.” Taking the form of four distinctive mediations — in paint, paper, glass and fabric — on the role of the table in Jewish life, the exhibition highlighted the connections between the material and the cultural dimensions of the Jewish experience.

I relished each of the artworks but, as a practicing historian, I took particular delight in Izhar Patkin’s “Salonnière,” a large scale, stenciled and framed collage of a fussy end table crowded with the kind of stuff one was likely to encounter in the determinedly bourgeois setting of a 19th-century German Jewish home: books, bric-a-brac, a tea cup and other appurtenances of the cultured.

A closer look, however, disclosed that what was on display was studded with actual historical references. As the artist would have it, the table belonged to Dorothea von Schlegel, Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter, who not only changed her name but her station in life by becoming a saloniste of the highest order. On its surface rested a couple of books, one of which, “Florentin,” she had penned. Slightly off-center, upsetting the balance, the elegant proportion, of things, was a rather unappealing and hulking porcelain figure of a monkey.

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