Jewish Art Workshop - Leonard Baskin

This will have been my third art session in my new job as art teacher at the Glen Rock Jewish Center hebrew school. For the first lesson I made the obvious choice in teaching about Marc Chagall. The second lesson was around the time of Passover, so we learned about illuminated manuscripts with a focus on the haggadah. For the third lesson (and the last one of the school year since I began mid-year), I chose to focus on the artist Leonard Baskin. I've always liked his work and in addition, since I like to introduce new techniques, I liked the fact that he's primarily known for his woodcuts. 

Since I myself am a printmaker, it was great to be able to bring in my own carved woodblocks, prints and tools to pass around. Although the kids were slightly disappointed when they realized they'd be "carving" foam rather than wood, they still seemed to love the lesson, and the results.

ARTIST OVERVIEW:

(Excerpted from encyclopedia.com)

Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) was one of the twentieth century's greatest sculptors and printmakers. Railing against the trends of the time, he maintained a focus on figurative art. Strongly influenced by classical forms, his work reflected his interests in Greek mythology and Jewish tradition and culture. Baskin is also known for having founded one of the longest-running arts presses in the United States.

Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on August 15, 1922, his father was an orthodox rabbi, and his brother became a rabbi, too. The family moved to New York when he was seven, and he attended what he later called a "dark, medieval" yeshiva in Brooklyn. When he was a young man he worked in a synagogue for extra money. This strong Jewish upbringing would eventually form the foundation, or context, for his artistic vision.

Baskin founded his own press, called Gehenna Press, in 1942. One of the nation's first fine art presses, the Gehenna Press printed over 100 books and became one of this country's longest running private presses. It ran until his death in 2000. 

Baskin illustrated poet Ted Hughes's words at the Gehenna Press for over three decades. One of the best-known collaborations of Baskin and Hughes was Crow in 1970. The work was a result of Baskin's suggestion that Hughes write an entire book of poems about the bird. The book was followed by three more limited editions on the same theme. They also collaborated in 1981 on a Primer of Birds, which the Press released in a limited edition of 250.

Raptors were central to Baskin’s work throughout his career. His winged creatures stood on their own, as subjects in their own right; Baskin also incorporated them in other images, most notably his human figures.

Birds of prey – owls, herons, eagles, pelicans – encapsulated his antithetical understanding of the human race: noble and base, common and heroic, tender and brutish, vulnerable and ruthless. With that in mind, the crow is a frequent subject in his work. Outcast because of its scavenging ways, the crow stands in for the downtrodden, the common people who survive by their wits on society’s castoffs.

In the 1950s, he was the first artist to create oversized woodblock prints. Indeed, he has been referred to as a pioneer in large-scale printmaking. His work was always figurative, whether mythical or commonplace in subject matter.

He was also influenced by his Jewish upbringing. His religious art such as illustrations of the Haggadah and of the Biblical Five Scrolls was informed by his knowledge of Jewish tradition. This influence carried over into later works, such as the "Angels to the Jews" series, as well.

Baskin's Holocaust Memorial resides at the First Jewish Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Memorial, unveiled in 1994, is a sculpture of a robed, seated man, seven feet high. With one fist over its face, and its other hand stretched toward the sky, the figure is a dramatic reminder of the anguish of the victims of the Holocaust.

Baskin created a series of woodcuts about the Holocaust during the mid-1990s. One, more than five feet in length, portrayed a skeleton rising, surrounded by crows and owls. Printed on the work is a Yiddish proverb written by the artist: "The resurrection of the dead; we don't believe in it. In any case, the owls and the crows will represent us."

BORN: 1922 in New Brunswick, NJ.

RAISED: In Brooklyn, NY.  Son of a Rabbi. Yeshiva education.

ART FORMS: Sculpture, printmaking, painting, illustration, art books.

STYLE: Figurative. Leonard Baskin's artwork is mostly dark. It reflects the inhumanity of the time period during which he lived (World War 2 and the Holocaust).

THEMES: Family, birds of prey, flora & fauna, mortality & war, bible, religion, mythology.

QUOTES:

“Art is one of man’s remaining semblances to divinity.”
“Being Jewish confounds things. The people of the book are intelligently defined as a religion. I, a believing atheist, proudly declare my jewishness. It is to Yiddish that my spirit warms; to that heritage of persecution and sensual denial, that Yiddish so richly expresses. Not religion, but religious texts: not beliefs or superstition, fear or malignant custom, but the literacy, artistic, cultural and human relics of that religion.” 

"My sculptures are memorials to ordinary human beings, gigantic monuments to the unnoticed dead: the exhausted factory worker, the forgotten tailor, the unsung poet … Sculpture at its greatest and most monumental is about simple, abstract, emotional states, like fear, pride, love and envy. "

ADDITIONAL INFO: 

• Collected disparate objects (paintings, drawings, etchings, small bronzes, casts of reptiles and crustaceans, skulls, dried pomegranates and lemons, dolls’ heads, medals, inlaid boxes, carpets, shells, thousands of books) and displayed them together.

VOCABULARY:

Yeshiva - An Orthodox Jewish elementary or secondary school that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah.

Wunderkammer - Also known as Cabinets of Wonder. Encyclopedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were (in Renaissance Europe) yet to be defined; precursors to museums. In modern times, objects would fall into the categories of: natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art, and antiquities. Regarded as a microcosm of the world, and a memory theater.

Figurative - Representing forms that are recognizably derived from life.

WOODCUTS:


ART PROJECT

Supplies: 

  • pencils
  • scratch paper
  • foam printing plates
  • printing paper
  • acrylic sheets
  • brayers
  • printmaking ink
  • palette knife
  • paper towels
  • windex

Lesson Plan:

ART & POETRY

Just as Leonard Baskin created artwork to accompany poems, for this project students will do the same. 

Before reading the poem, tell students to observe the imagery that pops into their minds as they listen. Have them close their eyes as you read the poem "Sabbath Queen" by Hayyim Nahman Bialik, below, or another poem of your choosing. When you are done reading, have them open their eyes and sketch what came up for them.

 

Sabbath Queen

Hayyim Nahman Bialik

 

The sun has already disappeared beyond the treetops, 

Come let us go and welcome the Sabbath Queen, 

She is already descending among us, holy and blessed, 

And with her are angels, a host of peace and rest, 

Come, O Queen, 

Come, O Queen, 

Peace be unto you, O Angels of Peace."

 

We have welcomed the Shabbat with song and prayer, 

Let us return home our hearts full of joy. 

There, the table is set, the lights are lit, 

Every corner of the house is shining with a divine spark. 

A good and blessed Shabbat. 

A good and blessed Shabbat. 

Come in peace, O Angels of Peace.

 

Sit among us, O pure Shabbat Queen, and enlighten us with your splendor. 

Tonight and tomorrow–then you may pass on. 

And we for our part will honor you by wearing beautiful clothing, 

By singing zemirot, by praying, and by eating three meals. 

And with complete rest. 

And with pleasant rest. 

Bless me with peace, O Angels of Peace.

 

The sun has already disappeared beyond the treetops. 

Come let us accompany the Sabbath Queen’s departure. 

Go in peace, holy and blessed. 

Know that for six day we will await your return. 

Yes, till next Shabbat. 

Yes, till next Shabbat. 

Go in peace, O Angels of Peace.

How To:

There are so many amazing tutorials online that explain the process of foam printmaking, you will find TOO many when you look, but this one is straightforward and does the job:  FOAM PRINTMAKING TUTORIAL

Whether you do this project with a classroom of students, or your own children, I hope you enjoy learning about Leonard Baskin and creating your own Shabbos inspired prints! See our results below...