Thursday, June 16, 2016

Introduction to Post WWII Judaic Metalsmithing

As has been well documented there was an explosion in the craft community post WWII.  Craft programs sprung up in major state universities across the country.  In the mid - 50s a parallel movement as pretains to judaic metalworking was undergoing its own spike through the creation of the Tobe Pascher workshop at the Jewish Museum in New York.  This workshop is now the 92 St Y’s program in Judaica Metalsmithing.  

The Tobe Pascher Workshop began in 1956.  It was then that Ludwig Wolpert, a German silversmith who emigrated to Palestine in 1935, agreed to come and head the program at the Jewish Museum.  Wolpert had established himself as professor of Metalwork at the New Bezalel School forArts and Crafts in Jerusalem.  There, bringing a bauhaus aesthetic, he taught the next generation of Israeli silversmiths and craftsmen.  The cleanliness and purity of form he brought, as well as the importance of educating jewish metalsmiths, is reflected in the works of two artistsans, Bernie Bernstein and Harold Rabinowitz.

Both Bernstein and Rabinowitz studied at the Tobe Pascher workshop, they are today’s heirs to the educational mantle of the workshop through the teaching of the Judaica Metalsmithing class at the 92d St. Y in New York.  As such they have influenced more than one generation of judaica metalsmiths.  The career of both men was that of educator, Bernstein at CCNY and Rabinowitz in the public school system. 

Bernstein carries on the modernism of his mentor Wolpert through work that can be characterized as having serene lines accompanied by a graceful dignity.  In one kiddush cup, a simple cylindrical form sits upon a medallion with the word “Shabbat” in a stylized hebrew calligraphy.  The piece combines beauty and dignity with a modernist design to convey the timeliness of the cup’s purpose.  A second piece, a Seder Plate, is starkly modern.  Made from a found half inch aluminum bar, Bernstein cut cross-lap joints to form the base and used cups from a Chinatown restaurant supply house.  While the use of recycled materials is consistent with Bernstein personal philosophy, it predates the popularity of such work in the general metalsmithing community.

First a student and then a Fellow at the Tobe Pascher workshop and now one of the teachers at its successor, Harold Rabinowitz’s work is more lyrical than Bernstein.  He seems to incorporate movement in all of its workings.  A characteristic of the Tobe Pascher workshop seen in Rabinowitz’s work is the use of calligraphy.  In one torah crown, the base contains a quotation, in a stylized block hebrew from the Zohar, “Blessed is your crown and your place.”  Rabinowitz’s metalwork only deals with judaica and synagogue related commissions.  He did work in other judaic mediums, for example, designing synagogue bemahs.

It does not appear that, while there were talented jewish silversmiths on the west coast, anything comparable to the Tobe Pascher workshop evolved.  Perhaps the best known of these metalsmiths was Victor Ries.  Ries, like Wolpert, was an emigre coming to the United  States preceding WWII from Israel to which he had emigrated in the thirties.  Ries was also an educator, arriving in the Bay Area to assume a position at Pond Hill School.  After leaving the school he established a practice which included both large scale sculptures and installations as well as items for home use.

I have not been able to find much on Victor Ries, who lived and practiced until the age of 106.  Bill Chayes, a documentary film maker produced a movie on his life entitled, “Metal Man:  The Life of Victor Ries”.  From that I hope to pursue some leads but am ask that anyone knowing information regarding this giant oil our field contact me.

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