ARTIST, PROFESSOR, PHILOSOPHER
A good painting causes its viewer to make a discovery. A truly great painting draws this person inside the painting, inciting an examination of the various points of view within the work and how deeply they touch his or her life. For a case in point, look no further than any Ruth Weisberg canvas.
“Imake art out of all aspects of my identity, finding in the process that art integrates my experiences, beliefs and heritage,” says Southern California-based Weisberg, whose classically figurative art is often hauntingly autobiographical.
Weisberg grew up in Chicago in an intellectual, Jewish house- hold. Her father, an architect, had close ties with the city’s art community and, as such, the Weisberg home often played host to a number of guests with notable artistic inclinations.Their creative energy rubbed off on young Ruth—recognizing their daughter’s early artistic talents, her parents enrolled her at the Junior School of the Chicago Art Institute. At age six Weisberg declared she wanted to be an artist.
“I had been around artists all my life so I thought it was a reasonable ambition,” she smiles wryly.
She later studied art at the University of Michigan and at the Academia di Belle Arti of Perugia, Italy before coming to Los Angeles in 1971 to teach at USC. The prolific painter has had over 70 solo and 160 group exhibitions and her work is in major museums and university collections all over the world.
In New Beginnings, a 29-foot mural recently installed in the new Jewish Federation building in Manhattan, Weisberg revisits some recurring themes in her art: hope, disappointment and the Diaspora.
“What it’s really about is the Jewish people’s attempts to find a homeland,” she says of her mammoth composition.
“I like using history as a foil,” says the artist, who is also the Dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “When I received the commission I thought,‘how meaningful it would be to explore the emotions of people in transition—people passing from one part of their lives to another,both personally and through collective history.’”
Weisberg walks among a collection of 24 paintings she did for a show at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles. Also called New Beginnings, it expands on themes she visits in her mural but focuses on the 1947 Exodus of Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps and were boarding ships to reach Palestine.
“It was a dangerous, clandestine crossing,” she adds.“But that never stopped the Jews before.”
“After World War II thousands of Jews boarded ships to leave Europe. I portray them on the water at various stages of hope that they will achieve freedom in Palestine,” she elaborates. “At this moment they are suspended between the life they’ve had and the life they’re hoping for. In their faces we see upheaval and anxiety—but mostly we see hope.”
“I call my style ‘heightened reality.’ It’s meant to evoke a memory of an event, rather than the day-to-day identity,” she explains.
Weisberg’s work doesn’t concentrate on the horrors or even on the complete narrative or the conclusion. Instead, she cap- tures the look on a person’s face as he or she dares to hope. Men and women with sloped shoulders are forced off a boat; a couple clings together, fraught with fear they won’t reach their destination or they’ll never see each other again. It’s not certain whether they will meet again. It’s not supposed to be.
Often, the materials she uses in the paintings reinforce the narrative and, more importantly, the state of mind of the subject. In Keep the Gates Open, Weisberg paints on sailcloth instead of canvas, leaving it unstretched to emulate the torrential movement of the ocean. The painting’s three-dimensional texture reinforces its drama.
This epic work features a dangerously crowded boat of devastated-yet-hopeful passengers. In the wind is a banner warning, “Keep the Gates Open, We Are Not the Last.” The image is startling; it’s the stuff that great operas are made of—in art as well as life.
“They are fighting for world opinion.The British had denied the Jews entrance to what they considered was their homeland,” explainsWeisberg.“In this instance it worked. At that moment in history the world sided with the displaced persons and the state of Israel was created.”
Jack Rutberg Gallery.
347 North La Brea Ave. Los Angeles