Remastering the masters
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Remastering the masters

Barry Borman reviews the book Converted Masters, which takes a fresh look at some of the world’s most iconic paintings

13 Guests and the Cholent Burnt is based on Munch's The Scream
13 Guests and the Cholent Burnt is based on Munch's The Scream

If you possess an appreciation of art, a familiarity with Jewish customs and an eclectic sense of humour, then this book is for you.

Author Esty Frankel-Fersel obviously has all three in abundance. She has reimagined more than 60 art masterworks, from the Renaissance to the modern era, filtered through her Jewish sensibility.

Each work is shown in its original form, coupled with a brief explanation, enabling the reader to compare and delight in her many refined and ingenious manipulations.

There’s also a final chapter, entitled Oy Vay, offering Jewish expressions such as meshuga, broyges, farshtinken (you get the drift), which she has cunningly matched with celebrated artworks.

Brooklyn-born Frankel-Fersel spent a year at seminary in Israel, majored in psychology and then moved into social work.

All the while, she attended local art school, honing her skills of reproduction and original composition and allowing her inspirational vision of a Jewish twist on artistic masterpieces to germinate and gestate.

Her dream was that this “hobby on the side,” an outlet from the stresses of her daytime job, could morph into something that could make a difference to people’s lives.

The book’s structure illuminates the broad spectrum of Jewish life from which the author selects her idiomatic realisations, allowing the painter’s imagination to ignite her own passion.

Chol HaMoed in the Park, as based on Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte
Chol HaMoed in the Park, as based on Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

So she groups her subjects to make it, in her words, “easier for the viewer”.

We start and end with Magritte: initially, his bowler-hatted gent in a suit and with an apple on his face represents the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden where, she explains, “because of the original sin in eating the apple, that man is thrust into the world of work to earn a living”.

He subsequently reappears, face concealed beneath a white dove, encompassing Frankel-Fersel’s own yearning for the Messianic era, when we will be borne to the Promised Land “on the wings of an eagle”.

It’s a cyclical odyssey and, between the covers, there’s a cornucopia of experiences, a fusion of the sacred and the mundane, from Shabbat, Yom Tovs, Torah and mitzvahs to learning, Kabbalah, and “Matches and Marriages”.

They are all exquisitely wrought so that her own profound sense of spiritual wonder allows the reader to wallow in the sensuous opulence and emotional depth of her expression.

One of her earliest inspirations is a reworking of Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, into which she has deftly inserted a family performing Tashlich, the ritual of casting off sins on Rosh Hashanah. On a Shabbat theme, Vermeer’s brightly attired The Milkmaid, a study in concentration, is plaiting the challah, while Van Gogh’s vibrant Sunflowers now attractively adorn the Friday night table.

Meanwhile, Frankel-Fersel injects humour into Munch’s The Scream, with the main subject now a married woman throwing her hands around her head, above the inserted caption: “Thirteen guests and the chulent burnt”.

Artist Esty Frankel-Fersel
Artist Esty Frankel-Fersel

And it’s not only paintings – Frankel-Fersel has also appropriated Ansel Adams’ iconic black and white photograph of California’s Yosemite Park so that, deep in the forest, we have a frum man davening in his tallit.

Her energy flies off the canvas and there are countless other surprises and revelations in store to amuse and titillate the reader.

What’s more, the author hasn’t simply tacked her modifications on to prints of original paintings.

As a skilled artist in her own right, she has fashioned each work from scratch, mostly with oil and acrylic on canvas. These stunning originals are presently being exhibited in a show at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art.

This enchanting production would enhance any coffee table and is the perfect gift.

It’s the sort of book you want family and friends to leaf through and share the feel-good factor it engenders, as well as a book you’ll want to return to time and time again to marvel at the author’s thought-provoking and entertaining creations.

Converted Masters, by Esty Frankel-Fersel, is published by Menorah Books, priced £35 and is available from Amazon.co.uk

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