Photographer, scholar, dancer and choreographer, husband, son, brother, uncle, friend. Born Oct. 31, 1956, in Montreal. Died Nov. 21, 2011, in Toronto of cancer, aged 55.
Funny yet serious, provocative but with exquisite manners, Oscar Wolfman had an avant-garde approach to his life and his art, even as he spent much of both musing on his family’s painful past.
He was born to Adolf (Dolek) and Irene Wolfman, both Holocaust survivors who landed in Montreal with Oscar’s sister, Paula, in 1948. Later, he recalled “inherited, second-generation memories” about the concentration camps, and other losses, which influenced his photography. In young adulthood, Oscar came out as a gay man, connecting the oppression experienced by Jewish people and those in GLBTQ communities, he said.
As a teenager, he had become interested in dance. He choreographed for the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Montreal and led a folk-dance troupe. While researching in Hungarian villages near his mother’s birthplace, he often approached residents and bought clothes for costumes to enhance his company’s authenticity.
After attaining a teaching degree from Queen’s University, Oscar did graduate work at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he wrote on homophobia in the Ontario school system. There, he met Robert Monro, an educator who was working for the federal government. Quickly they became inseparable, soon moving to Toronto, where Oscar pursued a sociology PhD at York University.
They married in 2007, after renovating, from top to bottom, two very different homes. Their warm hospitality for friends included Oscar’s elaborate meals, done with customary attention to detail. He ruled in the kitchen, the dancer in him manifesting as he darted from pillar to post producing one delicious course after another.
A simple point-and-shoot camera changed Oscar’s life in 2004. Soon, in the light-filled room of their home that he turned into a studio, and the streets and alleyways of Toronto, he photographed his models, several of them friends from his liberal, inclusive shul (Jewish congregation). He planned each pose and tableau, filling notebooks with small handwriting and detailed drawings akin to dance notation.
Oscar put his subjects at ease with friendly encouragement, eclectic music blaring in the background and quick, efficient shooting. The results proved edgy, luminous and lush, usually of male nudes, or men and women draped in fabrics, often with allusions to the Hebrew bible and ritual, of which his knowledge was encyclopedic.
His first solo show, in 2010, called Midrash, centred on interpreting sacred texts through a queer lens. Critical acclaim soon followed.
Though plagued by illness, Oscar raced to complete his next works, entitled Entartete Kunst, or “degenerate art,” which was the Nazis’ name for modern art, as well as art produced by Jews and members of sexual minorities. Oscar reclaimed the term, saying these artists continue to live while the Nazis died as a force of power decades ago. Needing to see it through, he chose complicated palliative surgery late in 2011, which allowed him to attend his final show’s opening.
He died a month later, with Robert at his side, also leaving his parents to endure a heartbreaking loss. Today, his work is attracting scholarly interest. The Globe and Mail’s R.M. Vaughan described “a considered yet fearlessly transgressive practice, [which]was just beginning to become better known. ... The man will be missed, his art must not be.”
Through his photographs and with our recollections of this elegant, kind and vibrant man, we remember him.
Harriet Eisenkraft and Aviva Goldberg are Oscar’s friends and members of his congregation, Shir Libeynu. On May 29, Dr. Goldberg will present a paper on Mr. Wolfman’s work as part of the SSHRC/Learneds Congress at Wilfrid Laurier University.