George in Oil, or a Schlemiel on Canvas

While most of the schlemiels we come across are in this or that movie, television series, short story, or novel, sometimes the schlemiel takes on graphic form. Take, for instance, the comic strips of Drew and Josh Friedman or the graphic novels of Ben Katchor (to name only two, there are many more that have yet to be examined in the history of the schlemiel in the comic strip). To be sure, whether it is Sholem Aleichem, Stanley Elkin, or Larry David, the schlemiel is often animated. It crosses over into the visual realm. Its talk and its foibles are ripe for graphic representation that has much in common with the popular medium of animation (which, to be sure, draws extensively on the schlemiel character). The schlemiel finds a space in literature, film, and comic books. But we have yet to see the schlemiel enter the greatest medium of high culture: oil painting.

Most recently, I came across an article about how an artist named Morgan Blair has decided to paint scenes from Seinfeld. As the article notes, the character she is most interested in is George Constanza, the schlemiel of Seinfeld.

What we find in these art pieces is a different kind of focus on the schlemiel’s body (or what I call the “body of Jewish comedy”). Through brush strokes and color, we can tune in to the mood of the artist and get a sense of the subject that we cannot ordinarily derive from the TV show.

Compare, for instance, this screen shot:

With this painting:

One of the most interesting things I find – moving from one painting of George to the other – is that the gestures range from joy to shame and pass from the schlemiel’s blindness to the realization that she missed something. Bearing the face and body, as we see in this couch image, and hiding it, as we see below, are the two gestures that are at the forefront of these images.

Yet, in another painting we see a kind of peace on Constanza’s face that we don’t see on the show. It’s as if the paintings are telling us that the schlemiel is not simply a ball of anxiety and awkwardness but, of all the characters, s/he may be the most settled. S/he has what I have been calling a simplicity to him and a smallness which are traits of the schlemiel that a cursory look at this or that TV show or film may overlook. However, literature, comics, and painting do have the potential to stop the movement of the schlemiel so that we can have a better look at him/her.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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