Wiener, Gerta Ries
inside look at the creative process.
longest continuing series of commemoratives continues the Renaissance
tradition of medallic portraits.
tradition of medallic portraiture lives on in what is now the
longest continuing series (aside from those issued by the US Mint)
of medals being issued in the United States. Inaugurated in 1969,
the Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals are distinguished by their
unique shape (rounded trapezoidal), high relief, and artistry.
Creators include four winners of the American Numismatic Association's
Numismatic Art Award for Excellence in Medallic Sculpture - Gerta
Ries Wiener, Alex Shagin, Marika Somogyi and Paul Vincze - who
deserve much of the credit for making this one of the most "important
series of medals in recent years" (Catalogue of the 22nd Congress
of the International Federation of Medallic Art, Helsinki, 1990).
are of wide interest to Jews and non-Jews alike. For instance,
musical subjects include George Gershwin, Benny Goodman and Isaac
Stern; notable women include Golda Meir and Emma Lazarus; and
there are even horses (Levi Strauss and Haym Salomon medals),
ships (including the Titanic), and architecture (Supreme Court
Building, Monticello, etc.).
return to the prima facie attraction of the Jewish-American Hall
of Fame medals - portraits. Stephen Scher, writes in The Currency
of Fame - Portrait Medals of the Renaissance: "One of the most
original and complete means of fulfilling the Renaissance desire
for fame and immortality was the portrait medal, for within the
confines of this small, durable, portable, and easily reproduced
object contained a wealth of information about the subject represented."
Portrait of Domenico Malatesta by Pisanello (c. 1395-1455).
the Renaissance, portrait medals were principally commissioned
by the subject himself (or herself) and given to family and friends,
the subjects of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame have to merit
their nomination by their accomplishments.
think that the artist would be restricted in his/her sculpting
because the original 8" diameter models must be mechanically reduced
to 2" diameter steel dies. This is not the case, since the reduction
process precisely reproduces even the most subtle modeling details.
An important part of the creative process is source material …
ranging from paintings to photographs. Let's see how various artists
approached their tasks.
situation is for the medallic sculptor to create the original
models from a live sitting with the subject. Of course this is
impossible for historic figures, and extremely difficult to arrange
for living subjects. But it did happen once in the 30 years of
this project. Not that it was easy. Shortly before author Isaac
Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, the
Museum commissioned Robert Russin to create his medallic portrait.
However it was not until nearly 5 years later that the sculptor
was able to arrange for a personal sitting with the noted author.
And the medal was finally issued in 1984 together with a quote
"Free Will Is Life's Essence" (in English and Yiddish) personally
supplied by Singer. Whereas original models are usually 8" diameter,
Russin's was much larger, necessitating a double reduction to
the 2" dies. The portrait is unusual because it is mostly below
the upper surface of the medal, incused in the style of ancient
Egyptian art. The sculptor captured the pixyish look of Singer,
although some thought he looked devilish. Perhaps his appearance
is a reflection of the demons, imps and spirits that inhabit his
At the other
extreme is the challenge for an artist to create a medallic likeness
of someone whose portrait doesn't exist. That was the assignment
facing Paul Vincze, when he was assigned the commemorative honoring
Revolutionary War patriot Haym Salomon. But it did not daunt the
world renowned artist who had previously sculpted President Truman
and other world leaders from life, as well as having created official
medals for all of Shakespeare's plays. After all, if one can create
Romeo and Juliet, one can certainly imagine what Haym Salomon
might have looked like. Vincze, alone of all the artists commissioned
by the Magnes Musuem insisted on a round shape; he produced a
classical profile which looked so authentic that the Jewish American
War Veterans immediately borrowed the likeness for use on fundraising
"stamps." Vincze's distinctive classical modelling technique is
easily recognizable, and it is readily apparent why Daniel Friedenberg
said "some of the finest commemoratives of our time … come from
source for portrait sculptors of 20th century personalities is
photography. Marika Somogyi (Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein
and Arthur Miller medals) had a plethora of photos to work from.
In fact having too many sources can be almost as much of a problem
as having too few. But choices must be made as to what will work
best on a medal - where there is no color and the entire portrait
must be contained in an area of only 4 square inches. The best
picture came from Goodman's daughter, who personally assisted
the artist. A contemporary cartoon of jitterbuggers makes the
reverse as lively as "The King of Swing" deserves.
Photo by Lauterwasser, courtesy of Unitel.
Bernstein medal, Somogyi used an official photograph supplied
by the Leonard Bernstein Society. Inscriptions are minimal on
these commemoratives to avoid distracting from the art work.
became commonplace, engravings were used to reproduce pictures.
This was the case for poet Emma Lazarus, whose engraving made
by T. Johnson in 1872 when she was just 23 years old, was the
inspiration for the 3-dimensional medallic portrait sculpted by
Gerta Ries Wiener. The sensitive portrait is surrounded with her
immortal words in her own handwriting, " Give me your tired, your
poor … yearning to breathe free," that have become synonymous
with the Statue of Liberty. Just like the Renaissance medals,
this (and all other) Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals contain
a "reverse with a text or some sort of figure or scene associated
with the (honoree)." In this instance Ms. Wiener created a moving
scene of immigrants -- men, women and children - as they gaze
on the "Mother of Exiles" for the first time -- without any distracting
chose an innovative source for another medal -- a motion picture.
After looking at dozens of photos on album covers, etc. she still
hadn't found one that she liked of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern.
But she solved her problem by sitting through the feature documentary
"From Mozart to Mao" (about Stern's visit to China) several times,
then running home to create a sculptured portrait. (But she did
have a violin-playing neighbor pose with the instrument to help
jog her memory.)
utilized an unusual graphic source for a dual portrait on the
Jewish-American Hall of Fame Titanic medal. Shortly after Ida
Straus and businessman, former-Congressman, Isidor Straus chose
to go down with the ship together rather than being separated,
a song was published (in Yiddish!) commemorating their love. The
drawing of the brave couple on the cover of that sheet music was
recreated on the medal incused (below the surface). The photograph
of "wireless" operator David Sarnoff receiving names of survivors
was discovered in a 1958 issue of the magazine "Wisdom." The meticulous
portrayal of the doomed ocean liner on the reverse is based on
intense research by Shagin, whereas the dramatic scene of survivors
- showing literally dozens of people - came from the artist's
Photo courtesy Houdini Historical Center, Appleton, WI.
had one of the most famous faces of the early 20th century - appearing
in newspapers and handbills around the world. Reed chose the photograph
that was Houdini's personal favorite, as the source of his medallic
portrait. On the reverse, a pair of handcuffs of the type used
by the master escape artist is combined with lettering adapted
from an original Houdini poster. But what makes this commemorative
truly remarkable is the fact that it is actually two medals in
one - precisely fitting together sort of like an Oreo cookie.
Opening it up reveals an Halloween scene with adorable costumed
children surrounded by various demons. This design, sculpted with
contrasting positive and negative reliefs, reflects Houdini's
debunking of phony spiritualists and the fact that he died on
October 31, 1926.
utilized an oil painting … for his portrait of Commodore Uriah
P. Levy. It was painted by Thomas Sully, and is in the collection
of the American Jewish Historical Society.
Gift of Sydney & Barbara Borsuk to the Magnes Museum, Berkeley,
Jacques Schnier produced only two numismatic items in his life
- the 1936 Bay Bridge US commemorative Half Dollar and, nearly
40 years later, the Jewish-American Hall of Fame medal honoring
New York Governor and Senator Herbert H. Lehman. The portrait
is in very high relief. Schnier liked the stylized Star of David
consisting of interlinking triangles, that he created for the
medal's reverse, so much that a few years later he created a large
3-dimensional sculpture on the same theme that is now on display
in the permanent collection of the Magnes Museum.
the series' very first medal by Victor Ries (who also created
the unique shape), did not include a portrait. Rather, it features
an architectural theme (the Hebrew University and Israel Museum,
in Jerusalem) in honor of Judah Magnes, who was the first president
of the Hebrew University.
Later, Ries created the Jewish-American Hall of Fame commemorative
for the Touro Synagogue, America's oldest Jewish house of worship.
Ries used unique techniques. While virtually all other medallists
mold their models in clay (or Plasticine) and cast them in plaster,
Ries either hammered his designs out of a single sheet of metal
(repousse) - i.e. the Touro Synagogue reverse -- or built them
by welding together small pieces of shaped metal - i.e. the Magnes
and Touro obverses --adapting the technique he used when creating
large pieces of decorative architectural sculptures.
Susan Fisher and Mel Wacks
Illustration by David
Wander from "Haggadah in Memory of the Holocaust," Goldman's Art
Gallery, Haifa, 1988.
an alternative to sculpting 3-dimensional original models. The
mint can produce a die directly from a black and white drawing.
Everything in black will appear below the surface, and thus when
the medal is antiqued these areas will be darkened. Two reverse
designs have been created in this manner - for Isaac Bashevis
Singer (by calligrapher Susan Fisher), inscibed "FREE WILL IS
LIFE'S ESSENCE" in English and Yiddish, and Elie Wiesel (by Mel
Wacks), inscribed "NEVER SHALL I FORGET."
Eugene Daub (third from left) and family at unveiling
of Rosa Parks statue.
Eugene Daub, who has
created a number of Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals, including Mordecai
Noah (2012), pictured above, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2013), is one of
America’s leading sculptors of public monuments. His sculpture of Rosa Parks
was the first commission of a full-sized statue approved and funded by the U.S.
Congress since 1873. It was installed in the National Statuary Hall in the
United States Capitol on February 27 in a ceremony attended by President Obama,
House and Senate leaders, and Civil Rights leaders.