An exhibition created by the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (Paris),
in cooperation with the Joods Historisch Museum (Amsterdam)
The Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris is delighted to be showing De Superman au Chat du rabbin, an exhibition on Jewish cartoons and graphic novels illustrating how the comic strip contributed to the construction of contemporary Jewish collective memory. The exhibition focuses on the process of depicting the present and reminiscing on the Jewish past in the strip cartoon. It will be shown in Paris from 16 October 2007 to 27 January 2008, then in Amsterdam from 6 March to mid-June 2008.
The increasing share of autobiographical and fictional works dealing with personal or collective Jewish memory in the last two decades has prompted historians to consider the characteristics and social meaning of this new production. The exhibition is therefore an historical reflection on reminiscences of Jewish past as well as the construction of Jewish collective memory and self-awareness. The aim is to show how, from the end of the 19th century until the late 20th century, the strip cartoon and essentially graphic novel played a role in the creation of imagery and partially enriched and disseminated visions of the Jewish past. Artworks by over 30 artists, shown in five main sections, will retrace the gradual process of reminiscing on the Jewish past over successive generations.
230 original drawings and printed works by major cartoonists and graphic novelists will be shown. The core of the exhibition will be the artists living and publishing in New York and their influence on European graphic storytelling as far as Jewish Memory is concerned.
Forgotten Ghetto: from the Shtetl to the “devouring metropolis” (1914?1930)
The first section focuses on works created and published in the first half of the 20th century. Jewish artists who had grown up in immigrant families on the Lower East Side, in Brooklyn and the Bronx used graphic narration to depict their environment, families and daily lives, and to give their characters a realistic setting. In their first comic strips, published in Yiddish (Zuni Maud, Samuel Zagat) or English newspapers (Harry Herschfield, Milt Gross, Rube Goldberg), these authors showed their profound concern for the challenges and trials Jewish immigrants had to face in the course of their social and cultural integration into American society. They created a vision of the Jewish immigrant in transition, between the Yiddish mother tongue (the mame loshen ) and the English language – the eponymous character of Harry Herschfield’s strip Abie the Agent speaks with a heavy Yiddish accent. Since the first rule of the comic strip is that the reader has to be entertained and amused, they frequently depicted characters driven by a will to succeed socially but also by impassioned political involvement in American democratic and national life. Thus these characters often appear congenial and comical.
This is a job for Superman: vigilantes and superheroes (1942?1979)
The second section is dedicated to the phenomenon of the superheroes. Since integration was underway, comic authors now turned to creating superheroes with national traits. Jewish authors were well-represented: Joe Shuster & Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert. Their heroes and superheroes, although they might fulfil or incorporate the traditional Jewish dream of self-defence and autonomy, are devoid of distinctive signs of ethnic or religious identity. They are loyal only to the universal value of good against evil and the defence of mankind.
The third section is dedicated to Will Eisner’s works from 1976 to 2005. After the huge success of his masked detective hero, Will Eisner pioneered a giant step in the world of comics by developing a new genre: the graphic novel. In A Contract with God, and pursuing this experience in other works, he developed a vision and a collective memory of the Jewish past and more specifically of the culture and way of life of the Jewish immigrants and their individual and integration into American society.
In his fold, other artists, each with their own aesthetic and intellectual approach to the past, contributed to Jewish collective reminiscence.
The fourth section develops and closes the American period
With time and successive generations, authors ceased to describe the Jewish world they once know or their daily reality. They pictured a bygone world as they remembered it but also the vision of it they received from former tales. Literature, theatre and movies were also leaving their mark on the visions of those who had no direct experience of this world. They eagerly sought out traces and documents, vestiges of this past and the changes in urban areas and buildings in immigrants’ quarters, old photographs and commercial leaflets depicting workshops, shops and delicatessens. They delved into the history of these changes, digging out every available trace of the epos of self-made men, their languages and cultural backgrounds. Eventually, these sons of immigrants recalled the life story of their fathers to root out their own political convictions. In doing so, they constructed a narration associating the collective memory of former generations and their own contemporary questioning of the problems of their own generations.
With their sentiment of having achieved integration and sense of passing time, Jewish authors began recollecting personal and family traumas. In 1955, in Master Race, Bernie Krigstein and Al Feldstein envisioned the encounter of a survivor and his torturer in modernist graphics. Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the paradigm for the graphic narration of the Holocaust but also tells the generation gap and misunderstandings between survivors and their children. Ben Katchor (The Jew of New York) expresses a highly documented and deeply poetic vision of Jewish existence and history in New York City. Some authors also created fictional narratives or semi-fictional versions of family stories (Joe Kubert in Yossel and Miriam Katin in We are on our own). Or even Bernice Eisenstein’s I was a Child of Holocaust survivors.
This new self-examination of the post-war generation in the American political context is acutely expressed in Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD Magazine. The works of Jules Feiffer (mainly his strips Feiffer and Unexpurgated Memoirs of Bernard Mergendeiler), Harvey Pekar (American Splendour), Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Love that Bunch) and Diane Noomin (Didi Glitz) are existential reflections on the complexity of existence and (Jewish-)American identity. They are also incisive examples of an original and autobiographical approach to reminiscence as well as the combination of reality and fiction in creation from the 1950’s on. Younger author James Sturm in The Golem’s Mighty Swing also contributed to this with a new and original approach highlighting the process and ambiguity of integration. All of these artists illustrate highly individualised approaches to the Jewish American self-awareness and memorial transmission.
The fifth section : contemporary authors in Europe
The fifth section, dedicated to contemporary authors in Europe (France and Italy), deals with Jewish history from the turn of the Century to the 1950’s: Gotlib and Goscinny, Hugo Pratt’s fascination and personal memories blended into the romantic biography of Corto Maltese, Vittorio Giardino’s detective stories Jonas Fink and Max Fridman and Zentner & Pellejero‘s Le Silence de Malka (Malka’s Silence) and Joan Sfar’s Le Chat du rabbin (Rabbi’s cat , five volumes), Kletzmer, and Pascin.
Anne Hélène Hoog
Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Paris
© Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme