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Zerbe, Karl - VM - William R. Cross

Karl Zerbe: Job

Faith, Without which we Could not Go On

by William R. Cross

Job’s name may be familiar, but what do we know of his story? This 1949 picture by Karl Zerbe (1903-1972) is a journey into the heart of suffering. It was a voyage shaped by the artist’s recognition, from America, of atrocities committed in the name of his native Germany.    

The nearly life-sized painting depicts a kneeling middle-aged man, his arms outstretched. Except for a loincloth and a shawl barely covering his gaunt shoulders, he is naked, like Adam, a man of mud. His enormous hands are open in gesture; he is in active dialogue. His posture invites multiple readings, of complaint, bewilderment or exhaustion. Yet one thing is unambiguous: he is outward-looking, listening hard. There is an honesty and a dignity to his pain. He holds nothing back.

The black and white bones against the yellow ground shimmer as elegantly as a Klimt-painted gown. Darkened embers (all similar in their sizes and shapes) contrast with white fragments, each unique, like shards of broken Hebrew letters. The blue stripe and tassels on the right suggest tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, while the prominent crescents on Job’s shoulders evoke a yoke, a symbol of servitude. Or are they symbols of authority, as they were for pre-Islamic Persian monarchs? Similarly, do the deep creases in Job’s hands reflect a life of hard labor or the leather straps from tefillin, the phylacteries Jews wear in morning prayers to connect their hands, heart and head? Jewish scholars have found several Hebrew letters in the painting. One in yellow at the upper left corner and in red at upper right, is Shin, the first letter of the central prayer of Judaism (the Shema). It means “Hear.” The placement of tefillin on one’s hand forms the letter Shin. Might the letter appear on the palm of Job’s outstretched right hand?

“His ears are strangely pointed. Pointed ears have a long association with the caricatures of anti-Semitism, and of figures typecast as evil. But like the letter Shin these ears may denote attentive listening. At the end of the book (Job 42:5-6, English Standard Version), Job considers his own story and speaks to God:

            I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
            But now my eye sees you;
            Therefore I despise myself,
            And repent in dust and ashes.

Zerbe’s model for Job is Zerbe himself; the painting is a self-portrait made during a period of crisis in both his life and work. He had painted for a decade in encaustic, an ancient method of mixing pigment and wax at high heat and then applying the mixture to a panel or other substrate. But suddenly the vapors the process released into his unventilated studio gave Zerbe an extreme allergic reaction. He would never again make a work in encaustic. The act of art-making threatened the very life of the artist, although the health of one painter pales against the enormity of the Holocaust. Zerbe wrote of the painting that “it is a drama of faith, without which we could not go on . . . The miasma arising from humanity after the second world war, that pathetic mixture of hope, doubt, and despair, finally brought it to the point of concrete outward expression . . . an intermixture of physiological reaction and philosophical credo . . . symptom and symbol became fused in pictorial organization.”   

Hebrew scholars have long treasured the book of Job, and honored the memory of this man who worshipped the true God in the face of many reasons to lose his faith. But Job himself is not Jewish; he is from a loosely-described Eastern land, Uz. Zerbe depicts him to be not only “blameless and upright” but also Jewish. Job stands with and for the millions of Jewish men, women and children, each with his or her own story, who suffered torment without reason in concentration camps liberated less than five years prior to his making this painting. He sees in those people, and in Job, a character which commands admiration, as they lived and died in dignity within, and despite, conditions of cruelty beyond comprehension.

In painting Job as himself and as a man rooted in the particularity of Judaism, Zerbe also paints him as an archetype of unjustified and inexplicable suffering, an inspiration to all people in all time. Most men and women will not live with such horrific torment as those who died at the hands of Hitler’s executioners.  Yet all people experience profound pain, from the deaths of children to chronic disease. And in all these circumstances, as Elie Wiesel has observed, God himself is on trial. God places himself as the suffering servant, “pierced for our transgressions . . . crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5) In picturing Job as Jewish and in seeing his own suffering in this man of Uz, Zerbe presents a powerful witness to the painful truth of evil and to resilience in its face, by the power of God’s ultimate sovereignty. Even – and perhaps especially – in the darkest hours God hears us and calls us to hear him. “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than the beginning.” (Job 42:12) May we too trust in the sovereignty which, through the darkness, Job saw and heard.

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Karl Zerbe: Job, 1949, pigmented wax on Masonite, 94.3 x 65.09 cm. The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Karl L. Zerbe (1903–1972) is best known today as one of the three leaders of the Boston Expressionist school, with Hyman Bloom (1913-2009) and Jack Levine (1915-2010). Unlike Bloom (who immigrated as a young boy) and Levine, who was born in Boston, Zerbe came to the United States permanently at the age of 32, in 1935. He became a U.S. citizen four years later, nevertheless retaining an identity which was partly German despite spending much of his childhood in France and suffering persecution as a young man at the hands of the Nazi government, which would perpetrate far greater horrors. With a Catholic mother and a nominally Lutheran father, Zerbe was arguably gentile and unobservant in his religious practice. But his colorful, iconographically dense works testify to his immersion in a rich cultural life and to his debt to Jewish artists such as Bloom, Levine and Chaim Soutine (1893/4–1943) and to Christian painters including Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475–1528) and Georges Rouault (1871-1958). Through his teaching at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Florida State University, he helped shape a generation of American painters.

William R. Cross writes a weekly column on art and the gospel for his fellow parishioners at Christ Church, Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 March, 2019