After a four-month layoff the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education will reopen Sunday, June 11, with an afternoon cultural festival and street party. The party — which runs from noon to 3 p.m. and features a Chinese Lion dance by Portland Lee’s Association Dragon & Lion Dance team, a performance by the Japanese big-drumming troupe Portland Taiko, and klezmer, Mediterranean, Sephardic, and other Jewish soul music from Michelle Alany and the Mystics — is bound to a lot of fun.
But what’s inside the museum doors is the big, and longer-lasting, attraction. The museum and Holocaust center has spent those four months rethinking and redesigning its main floor, opening up its two gallery spaces so they flow together much more freely. And the galleries are reopening with a bang, highlighting some fascinating work by a trio of compelling artists: the Surrealist celebrity Salvador Dali, the Old Master Rembrandt van Rijn, and the Dutch-born Portland master Henk Pander.
Left: Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Little Jewish Bride,” or “Saskia as Saint Catherine,” etching, 1638. Right: Salvador Dali, “Land of Milk and Honey,” 1968.
That’s not all. The redesigned galleries — part of a $2.2 million capital project, designed by Deca Architecture and built by Emerick Construction — are joined by a new and significant attraction, prompted by the museum’s purchase on May 2, 2020, of the adjacent space formerly used by the Charles A. Hartman Gallery. After a Covid delay and a bit of wall demolishing the Hartman space has been neatly incorporated into the museum and transformed into the home of Human Rights After the Holocaust, a continuing and changeable exhibition that approaches the Holocaust as a springboard to reflections on newer human-rights atrocities around the globe and the issues they raise.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series
The addition of the Human Rights gallery doesn’t just expand the museum’s footprint. It also succeeds in knitting together more closely the organization’s twin purposes: art and remembrance. Since the museum and Holocaust center moved into its home in the former space of the late Contemporary Crafts Museum the permanent exhibitions of the Holocaust Center have been on the museum’s second level while the art galleries have held the street-level spaces: Often people coming to see the gallery shows never made it to the historical and cultural displays upstairs. The new Human Rights gallery, an easy and natural physical extension of the art spaces, brings home the urgency of the upstairs displays and provides a compelling context for the downstairs art exhibits on display.
At a midweek preview gathering for press, staff, and friends of the museum the pieces of the whole “new” museum came together. Among those on hand to talk about the changes were museum director Judy Margles; Scott Miller, former chief curator of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., who curated the new Human Rights After the Holocaust exhibit; and Bruce Guenther, former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, who curated the exhibit The Jews of Amsterdam: Rembrandt and Pander. Shifting from gallery to gallery and listening to each talk was a movable feast.
“HERE WE ARE, expanding the building,” Margles said as she considered the Dali exhibition, But a Dream, in the opened-up back gallery. “And for that we are eternally grateful.” The Dali show, which includes 25 drawings, sketches, and water-color paintings, was commissioned by the publisher Samuel Shore to commemorate the 20th anniversary in 1968 of the founding of the modern state of Israel. The suite was reproduced as photolithographs and published in a limited edition: The set displayed here, on loan from Ursula and David Blumenthal with funding for the exhibition by the Abraham Perlman Foundation, is one of the few complete sets in existence.
Left: Salvador Dali, “Thou Hast Laid Me.” Right: Salvador Dali, “For That Is Thy Life,” both from the suite “But a Dream.”
The images in But a Dream, Margles noted, trace 20th century Jewish history from Shoah, the Holocaust, to independence and the founding of Israel. Each of the artworks is accompanied by a quote from Jewish scripture. And although Dali was a celebrity artist who loved both fame and the money it brought him — “Dali for dollars,” as Margles quipped — with this series “what we know is, he did his homework.”
Margles also was open about the question of Dali and his politics. Unlike many artists of his time, he claimed to be apolitical and yet also expressed admiration for Hitler and Nazism and for the fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. George Orwell called him “a disgusting human being” who was also an artist of “undeniably exceptional gifts.”
That double-edged sword accompanies the exhibition, which, remarkably, comes across as a true and even ennobling exploration of Jewish culture and history. “Was Dali an anti-Semite? Probably not,” Margles said. “I would prefer to call him a generic racist.” And by the time he was commissioned to do the But a Dream series, she added, “he was really pushing back. Because he had been accused of being anti-Semitic.” What resulted was an improbable small triumph, a suite of works that, whatever Dali did or didn’t believe, seems to explore Jewishness as if from the inside.
‘THIS WAS AN INTERESTING organizing journey,” Guenther said about The Jews of Amsterdam: Rembrandt and Pander. The challenge was to bring together the works of two artists from different centuries and styles, and make a cohesive whole of the exhibit. A showing of the 22 etchings in the Rembrandt portion, on loan from the Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art in Santa Barbara, California, had been scheduled before the pandemic, and had to be postponed. By the time the show got rescheduled, it seemed a good idea to add six large paintings by Pander, who died in April of this year and who had a long and fruitful relationship with the Jewish Museum.
The result is a quietly exhilarating show that revels in the differences between the two artists and their times, and also finds the congruences in their work. The Rembrandt works are prints, nearly all of them struck in his lifetime, and they are intimate pleasures: small works in muted colors and large, burnished wooden frames, meant for quiet introspection. Pander’s large paintings are bold and colorful, with heavy swaths of paint and a sense of urgency and loss.
“Rembrandt is part of the Dutch Golden Age” of the 1600s, Guenther noted, and lived and worked at a time when Amsterdam was the most welcoming city in Europe for Jews: “For 150 years or so, Amsterdam enjoyed a freedom of religion that was unseen in the rest of Europe.” As a result, Rembrandt knew and worked with a lot of Jewish people, and often recorded Jewish daily life and historical stories in his works, such as his great painting The Jewish Bride, now in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
Rembrandt van Rijn, “Ephraim Bonus, Jewish Physician” (left), “Joseph Telling His Dreams” (right).
Holland’s openness abruptly changed during Pander’s childhood in Haarlem in the late 1930s and throughout World War II, years of danger and destruction that stayed with him throughout his life and deeply affected his work. The Nazi occupation and Holocaust wiped out 75 percent of Amsterdam’s Jewish population, Guenther noted, and after the war many of the 25 percent who survived moved on to Israel or the United States rather than returning to Amsterdam.
From recent visits back to his homeland Pander created a series of paintings of Amsterdam’s old Jewish neighborhoods, but made them largely vacant, reflecting the catastrophic losses of life and the brutal reshaping of the city’s personality. In Rembrandthaus, Amsterdam, a painting of the still-standing building where the artist lived in the 1600s, Guenther said that the riot of color framing the sky behind the building might seem like a sunset — but it could at least as easily be seen as the building being devoured by flames. In another painting, Weteringschans, Amsterdam, an abandoned bicycle lies in the lonely street, like a being disappeared.
“To look at Henk Pander’s paintings is to understand that buildings weep,” Guenther declared. “They are buildings who have lost their purposes. And are searching for their souls.”
“WE’RE IN A BUILDING that is devoted in large part to Holocaust memory,” Miller, who curated the new Human Rights After the Holocaust gallery, said. And, in this gallery, it is also devoted to the ever-changing memories of fresh genocide or violent disruption from places as diverse as Rwanda, Syria, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. In large letters on a wall above the gallery is painted a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?
In small places, close to home.”
The new space offers a variety of ways to approach its subject, from vivid graphics on the walls to large video screens that can display a changing diet of people’s stories. As Miller noted, “We’re telling the stories of governments and policies, but we’re also telling the stories of individuals.”
In the new gallery Miller emphasizes stories about refugees, human rights versus civil rights (civil rights are legal, human rights are inviolable), and crimes against humanity. If it seems a never-ending story, it is also one in which Jewish people after the Holocaust have a vital stake: Never forget, and do all you can to keep it from happening again to someone else, in some other place. It is, in the end, the story of humanity itself.
Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education
- 724 N.W. Davis St., Portland
- Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
- Lefty’s Cafe museum deli hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
- Admission: Adults $8, students & seniors $5, members and children under five free
Reopening Street Party
- Sunday, June 11, in front of the museum
- Noon: Welcome
- 12:15 p.m.: Chinese Lion dance by Portland Lee’s Association Dragon & Lion Dance team
- 1 p.m.: Japanese drumming performance by Portland Taiko
- 2 p.m.: Klezmer, Mediterranean, Sephardic, and other Jewish soul music with Michelle Alany and the Mystics