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Three Jews and a painting: Is the joke on us?

TJI Pick
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Three Jews and a painting

Published: 29 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

New work by American Jewish artists MARC DENNIS sends up the contrasting cultures of Orthodox Jews and European art. JERRY SALZ finds it uncomfortable.

The title of Marc Dennis’s new show, Three Jews Walk into a Bar, sounds like the setup for a joke. And it is a little bit. Each painting is a meticulous, photorealist image of three Hasidic Jews standing in front of Edouard Manet’s 1882 masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. They crowd out the picture, are in the way. No one else is around, emphasising their clique-ish isolation. They gaze at the painting intently, studying its finer details the way they study their Torah.

The point, of course, is that you almost never see Hasids behaving this way in public. Dennis’s show is a joke all right. But is it funny?

The Manet exists in a separate universe — the universe of the secular, the arts, the modern. It is one of the treasures of the Courtauld in London and sits somewhere near the pinnacle of 19th-century French painting. The painting’s subject, a barmaid who in real life was named Suzon, stands at the centre looking blankly into space. In the mirror behind her, we can see the circus going on around her. She is enigmatic and gorgeous. She now also presides over these recognisably Jewish figures with their fur hats and side curls and heavy black shoes, as if from the altar of an alien religion.

The Jewish Independent

Dennis appears to be commenting on the Hasidic penchant for insularity. They dress differently from everyone else. They stick to themselves, separate the sexes, don’t go into the office with the rest of us. One of Dennis’s paintings shows them carrying plastic shopping bags, and I thought, yes, they always seem to have those bags. I had to catch myself: Where did this “they” come from? I’m Jewish too, after all.

Photos: Images from Three Jews Walk into a Bar (Marc Dennis)

Three Jews and a Painting (Vulture)

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