Done in five stages, "The Scroll" begins with creation and the birth of a child. A mother and baby are seen touching one another in an homage to Michelangelo's "Sistine Chapel." Weisberg, dean of the Roski School of Fine Arts at USC, continues her narrative with images of growth, rebirth through death; fittingly, the work is installed at the Skirball in a space that suggests the notion of the womb, curving from one corner of the girdle-shaped room to another.
Following the mural's initial unfurling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, it was shown at the Skirball in the late 1980s, when the museum was based at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Several years later it went to Chicago.
Curator Barbara Gilbert points out that this is the first time that "The Scroll" has been exhibited in such a setting. Previously, it was hung in a horizontal format. But that is not the only difference this time around. "Now we realize how significant this was to her career ... Her other works have evolved from it," Gilbert says.
In the show's catalog, Matthew Baigell, emeritus professor of art history at Rutgers, writes, "No painting by a major artist concerned with a narrative sequence based on tanach or on aspects of Jewish secular history appeared until Weisberg's 'The Scroll.'" He adds, "It is in effect the first Jewish American mural cycle based on Jewish subject matter ... [and] from a Jewish feminist point of view."
Indeed, the tallit section features Israelite women like Miriam, as well as a scene from the bat mitzvah of Weisberg's daughter, in which mother and child are joined on the bimah by Weisberg's sister and Rabbi Laura Geller.
Merging the biblical and historic with the personal is a trademark of Weisberg, who seems to be suggesting that past and present are one and that we can see our own narratives in the ancient narratives of our forebears.
Weisberg uses chiaroscuro in much of her work, not only "The Scroll" but also some of her early intaglio prints, such as "Together Again," a companion piece to "The Children," in which she drew pictures of children based on a photograph she had recovered of unknown Eastern European Jewish kids from the first half of the past century. Although they wear the plain clothing we often associate with those headed for the concentration camps, the children hold hands, forging a stance of strength and optimism against an uncertain destiny.
"Doing children is not in in the art world," Weisberg says with a chuckle. "People are afraid of sentiment. Sentimentality I want to avoid, but deep feelings are something I want to engage."
She also engages memory and movement. In showing otherwise forgotten children next to trains, an evocation of the cattle cars, and ships like the St. Louis, Weisberg suggests that travel or dispersion has always been a part of the Jewish narrative and will always be a part of the future.
"The Scroll" shows this motion, beginning and ending with immigrants arriving, presumably in America. The middle section, known as revelation, derives from philosopher Franz Rosenzweig's theory of the three stages in life: creation, revelation and redemption.
Though one may be tempted to recall the Book of Revelation, which was likely written by a Jew -- as Jonathan Kirsch points out in his new book, "A History of the End of the World" -- there is nothing apocalyptic about this section of the painting. It features an inverted tree of life with the roots at the top, tying into the kabbalistic concept that we reach upward for a connection with God. Underneath the tree, a wedding takes place, another theme that runs throughout the painting, most notably in the painted Torah bindels inserted in several places.
If one wonders what prompted Weisberg to create such a massive mural, Gilbert notes that Weisberg studied Christian murals for several years in Italy. Weisberg concurs.
"I really was aware of what had been done in terms of large-scale works ... within the Catholic canon," she adds. "This had never been done before from a Jewish point of view."
Given Weisberg's background of studying Italian art that depicts the Christian Bible, it is not surprising that at this moment the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has hired her to create art that serves as a "conversation" with a painting by Guido Cagnacci, a Baroque Italian painter. The painting deals with the rebuke of Mary Magdalene. "Maybe, you shouldn't mention that," she jokes.
Ruth Weisberg will appear in conversation with Nancy Berman on Thursday, May 3 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The exhibit, "Ruth Weisberg: Unfurled" will open May 8.
The Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. For more information, visit www.skirball.org.