Fifty shades of gold
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Fifty shades of gold

Morgan Library showcases modern illuminated Jewish manuscripts by Barbara Wolff

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Psalm 104: You renew the face of the earth. Three concentric bands, representing the earth’s waters, lands, and gardens, enfold and replenish the world. Photos by Rudi Wolff

Psalm 104 is about beauty.

It is about other things as well, true, but it starts with beauty and returns to it as a touchstone.

It describes the world with rapturous metaphor. God, who is “clothed with glory and majesty,” who covers himself with “light as with a garment, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” has made the world in his image.

When you walk into “Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff,” at the Morgan Library in Manhattan until May 3, you are surrounded by the wild precise beauty of that creation, in rich lush exquisite witty masterfully detailed controlled miniature.

To walk into that room is to be stunned by beauty.

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Barbara Wolff

Barbara Wolff, who lives and works in Manhattan, has illuminated both Psalm 104 and the haggadah, in a special volume created for Daniel and Joanna S. Rose. The Rose family, which is both philanthropic and deeply committed to the arts, has a tradition of funding the creation of such work. Pages from both projects are displayed at the Morgan, along with other illuminated manuscripts that show Ms. Wolff’s influences and inspiration.

Ms. Wolff came to create these works after finding herself more or less in the same situation that confronted buggy whip makers, or, perhaps even more accurately, slide rule manufacturers. She spent many years illustrating natural science texts. She worked on “a botanic guidebook to identify plants, insects, trees, and flowers,” among other things; that work honed her eye for miniscule detail and her talent for clarity.

But the market for hand-drawn illustration was changing. Just as cars put buggy-accessory suppliers out of work, just as computers killed off slide rules, machines’ ability to do detailed work faster and arguably, at least in some senses, better, was cutting into her trade.

Ms. Wolff’s husband, Rudi Wolff, is a designer and filmmaker. “I was able to do work for him when he was involved with advertising,” she said. “But with the coming of the computer into the field of art and design – I could see the effects in his studio. He was getting rid of the drawing boards and the pots of rubber cement. There were now three computers lining the walls – and very little stuff.” (Stuff, of course, is shorthand for all the tactile materials that artists want to touch.)

“I realized that what I was doing also would be done with computers, and that it would be much easier. Something that might take me a week – I would make a model, and try to see it from all sides – I could make a sketch and scan it into the computer in no time at all.” The computer could turn it around and provide all the views she could need.

“I didn’t mind that at all – but I thought that I’d rather work with my hands,” Ms. Wolff said. “So I began to think about another related field that I could go into.

“I was always interested in working with parchment, and just by serendipity I happened to take a class for professionals, given by a well-known pigment dealer, about manuscript illumination.

“One day was going to be spent learning about parchment, and I thought that would be a great idea. One day of the class would be great – and the others probably not a waste of time.”

Instead, of course, Ms. Wolff found her calling in that class.

“We were required to bring along a detailed sketch that we would like to illuminate,” she said. Because it was a class about illuminating manuscripts, that sketch would have to involve letters. “Because I am not really a calligrapher, it did not occur to me to do anything in Latin or English. I thought I would just use two Hebrew words. The letter forms are abstract. I worked for a week in that course, and then I brought the sketch back to my husband and I said, ‘This is what I will be doing.'”

The words Ms. Wolff chose to illuminate were “aish” – fire – “which gave me a really nice visual to work with,” and “tal” – dew – “which gave me some really interesting botanical leaves or flowers.

“From there, I just launched myself into doing a series of illuminations,” she said.

They all are Jewish.

“I have a good Jewish background,” she said. “The usual. I was born in New York and grew up here, and went to my neighborhood synagogue in the Bronx, and to Hebrew school.

“It was a very consistent Jewish background. Not everyone in my family was observant, but everybody cared.”

So she combined her soul-deep Jewishness, her love of the entwined beauty of the visual and the tactile, and her eye for detail in this new passion for a very old art.

In fact, she said, “I think that Jewish illumination is what I am going to be doing. There is so much that I could do that I could spend the rest of my life and another lifetime after that and not run out of material. There is so much that I want to do.”

The spell the art casts begins with its foundation. That is the parchment, “the most beautiful material you can imagine,” Ms. Wolff said. “It is virtually indestructible; it’s been used in manuscripts for at least 1,000 years, and before that, before the codex form, in scrolls.

“It’s harder to use than paper because every piece is different, and every part of every piece is different. It’s a gorgeous surface to hold in your hand.”

Its beauty, she said, “honors the subject.”

Ms. Wolff chose to illuminate Psalm 104 because of the natural phenomena it allowed her to show. “The text and the poetry always spoke to me,” she said. “And the first part of that series is all gold, with grapes and wine, the wine that ‘gladdens the heart of man.’ Someone told me that you can’t use different colors of gold together, because gold sticks to gold. You can’t keep them separate.

“I wanted to prove that wrong.” She did.

Her next project was the haggadah. Each of its pages is spectacular, and each is different. Each is so detailed that every time you look at it, you see more.

The calligraphy is both lovely and precise. The Hebrew lettering was done by a Jerusalem-based scribe, Izzy Pludwinski, and the English, which is smaller, is by Karen Gorst. Mr. Pludwinski “is a very gifted scribe and artist,” Ms. Wolff said. “He is slow. Every word is thought out, and constructed like a piece of art. His letters are all the same, but never exactly the same. Each one has just a little bit of extra personality in it.”

Ms. Wolff would lay out the structure of each page and then send it out for calligraphy; when it came back, she’d illuminate it. The process took about three years from the time she’d chosen the parchment, she said. “We spent about a year planning, designing, ruling up the pages, having everything ready to go,” she said. “Each page has to be designed beforehand because you can’t make changes. You have to know exactly what you are going to have on each page.

“I found a computer Hebrew typeface that was almost the same weight and line spacing as what Izzy’s handwriting would be. I’d just print out the whole haggadah and place the section on the pages. He then had a page that had all the words on it, and he could adjust the spacing before I set the art, so that I could make the art a little smaller or move it a little to fit his writing.”

The illustrations were based on research into the botany, history, and archeology of the ancient Near East, filtered through rabbinic understanding and Ashkenazic tradition. The sun that shone down on the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, for example, was based on a Babylonian stele, and the pharaohs and their gods came from Egyptian art. The enslaved Israelites labored in a pyramid, with the Egyptian eye staring unblinkingly down at them.

All of it reflects Ms. Wolff’s sensibilities; some of it also shows her particular viewpoint. “I don’t have an illustration of the four sons because it always bothered me that the children in the family would get tagged,” she said. “There was always someone considered the cut-up, the rasha” – the bad one. “That was especially true in my husband’s family, where there were four boys. I didn’t feel that children should be labeled. So it was my choice to say every child is golden. I labeled each in gold.”

As an alternative to the section that begins “pour out your wrath,” “which some people find very hard, instead I took a piece that was said to be from the medieval period that says ‘pour out your love on those who have saved your people,’ and to illustrate it I drew a rainbow.

“Both texts are there. The illumination for the ‘pour out your wrath’ is flames, and in the flames are actual synagogues that were burned on Kristallnacht.”

Her illumination of Chad Gadya shows a large fuzzy goat floating in the night sky, Chagallian or maybe Sendakian, toward two large, accurate zuzim, silver currency used during the Bar Kochba revolt, positioned where one moon should be. The town over which the goat flies looks eastern European.

“And at the end, where we say ‘Shana haba’ah be’ Yerushalayim'” – next year in Jerusalem – “I took a very realistic twig of olive leaves and drew it as if I had made a little slit in the parchment, and just stuck it into the page. The idea is that we would like to be there, in Jerusalem, and we would also like peace.

“There is a lot in the book that is personal and has to do with the Rose family,” she said. The family name lends itself to illustration, of course, as the dedication and family tree that open the book make clear.

Ms. Wolff loves working with gold. She works with different kinds of gold; each looks different and together they glow.

“It’s magic,” she said. “The materials are very simple – plaster and some kind of glue and a little bit of color and sugar, all in the right amounts. And it isn’t until you layer the gold over it that everything changes. Everything changes on the page, all the relationships change.

“There is something about gold that lights up the whole page. I think that is why it is called illumination.” It’s all about the light.

“When you have a chance to have one of those gilded pages in your hand, and you move it – or you move yourself around it – and the gold changes from light to dark, from yellow to brownish as you move, or it becomes a mirror, and it flashes back light at you, even when you are absolutely still.

“That is what magic is about.”

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