The Jewish Museum in Prague has recently received a significant addition to its art collection in the form of six large canvases by American painter Cleve Gray, worth millions of Czech crowns. The works were created under the immediate influence of the artist’s visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s Josefov district. The artist’s family decided to entrust the works from Gray’s estate to the museum, much to the delight of Michaela Seidenberg, the head curator of the Jewish Museum’s collection.
These paintings represent one of the most significant donations to the museum’s collection since its post-war inception. The value of the paintings, inspired by the genius loci of Jewish Prague, is estimated to be worth millions of Czech crowns. However, their artistic value is even more critical. Gray made his first trip behind the Iron Curtain in 1984, during the Orwellian year, at the invitation of then-US Ambassador William H. Luers. During his visit, he was deeply moved by his visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery.
According to Michaela Sidenberg, during his second visit to Prague in February 1985, Gray came to participate in an exhibition of contemporary American art at the ambassador’s residence. The large-format paintings are part of an extensive series entitled “In Prague,” the genesis of which Gray discussed fourteen years later in an interview with American critic Nicholas Fox Weber. Gray was overwhelmed by the Jewish cemetery and claimed it helped him eliminate his innermost anxieties as if he were analyzing himself.
The weight of the painful Jewish fate, the feeling that he too could be taken away into the night, the deeply rooted conviction that he too would suffer the same fate as the Jews had suffered for centuries, was deeply anchored in his consciousness. The autopsy of that cemetery was a terrifying and disturbing experience for Gray, with graves overlapping in layers and tombstones crammed one on top of the other because Jewish dead were not allowed to expand beyond the ghetto’s borders. The stones spoke of the desire to restore human dignity even in death. They became a metaphor for the unbreakable spirit of dreams and prayers in times when hope seemed out of reach.
The works donated by Gray’s family are a significant addition to the Jewish Museum’s collection, which includes over 40,000 artifacts, artworks, and memorabilia. These canvases are an emotional and artistic tribute to Jewish heritage and memory, and their value goes beyond their monetary worth.