Artistic Interpretation of the Torah in Michael Rogatchi Art

First published: The Times of Israel

Published: Tribune Juive, France

In memoriam: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away on the morning of Shabbat Parasha Vayera. In our eulogising the great Rabbi and our friend, it has been mentioned about the special timing for his abrupt and shocking passing away. Parasha Vayera and following it Parasha Chayei Sarah when the shiva for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will end, both are telling about the Abraham family, the first and most important among Jewish families. 

Michael Rogatchi has been inspired by the Torah in his art profoundly. Michael also has developed a special intellectual and human affiliation to Rabbi Sacks, in his teaching and him as a warm, thoughtful and special person. In his turn, Rabbi Sacks knew and appreciated Michael’s work. “I found the work of Michael very beautiful and deeply spiritual”, – Rabbi Sacks wrote to the artist a year ago, in November 2019.

I would like to dedicate this essay to enlightening memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, thinking with love and compassion of his wonderful wife Lady Elaine, his children and all the family – IR. 

The Flight Into Other Dimensions

The families of Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Torah are more than a family. It is a prototype, ‘a matrix’ of a nucleus of our most important way of life. The fact that their own lives were full of events, drama and unexpected turns that needed unorthodox resolutions adds the convincing power to the Torah narrative when it is applied to our all’ lives, thoughts and ideas. But not only. 

Art is a special domain of human activity. It makes our lives richer, interesting, spirited, it fills it with beauty and fantasy, with originality and dream. With freedom. It fills it also with imagination and allows us to find ourselves in other dimensions. And other dimensions we do need, as a rule, but now, in the realities of the pandemic which has altered our lives so deeply, widely and dramatically, we do need it more than ever. Much, much more. We need it badly.

In this ANCESTORS FAMILIES series of my FINE ARTS collection of writings, the attention is focused on the key-families of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the Moses family. In his Forefathers project, Michael Rogatchi has paid special attention to these four groups of our ancestors in his artistic interpretation of the Torah in a rare undertaking of contemporary figurative art. We are learning about these families every year while reading the Torah through our annual reading circle. Michael’s special attention to these four families has to do with the role of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs and Moses family in the Jewish spiritual psyche. In our common, and still, everyone’s individual identification to various degrees with these fundamental personalities and the key characters of the Torah.  

What kind of people were our Patriarchs and Matriarchs? What can be added to their stories, their decisions and deeds narrated in the Torah from the worthy sources of primary commentaries of Rashi, Maharal, Malbim and the other early commentators? What special details are enlightened regarding the characters of Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Pirkei Avot, Talmud, and Mishna? What perspective is added to all that by the visions of our great contemporaries such as Rabbi Steinsaltz, Rabbi Sacks, and HaRav Ginsburgh

It is from the tapestry of all that knowledge and insights that Michael bases and waves out his artistic interpretations of the fundamental Biblical figures, and forms his own, distinctive imaginary of the people who have become symbols, the pillars of our attitude to life and our understanding of it.  

Abraham and Sarah in the landscape of the Torah

In his contemporary Biblical artworks, Michael created two double-portraits of Abraham and Sarah. It is the only couple, the only Biblical heroes whom he painted twice. Unlike many artists, Michael does not return to the same subject or character often, except when he is working on music reflecting on its ever-fluid changes. But this is another story. 

In his Biblical series, the artist stays to his principle and his way of work which he has developed due to his scientific background: from elaborating the task, making a thorough research, forming the understanding, to expressing it. 

Of course, art would stay science if an idea, thought, concept and knowledge in it would not be enriched by feeling, emotions, vision and originality. One can produce pretty useful scientific outcomes by being diligent in something not quite original, but important and useful. In art, if one is banal, he or she is lost. Copying, even of the best quality, is for learning, as all artists know, from Renaissance ones to Rotko. 

In his approach to his work on the Biblical themes, Michael is guided by the aspiration to create a distinctive new image to express the phenomenon which is the primary one for his heroes in his understanding. 

He painted Abraham and Sarah for his The Patriarchs series in 1999 and Sarah (and Abraham) for his The Matriarchs series in 2009 as a couple, instead of as separate characters. “Abraham and Sarah are that rare very happy case when a husband and a wife are becoming the one”,  – Michael tells on the background of his works on the first Patriarch and Matriarch portrait. 

His work created in 1999 is essentially about this vital amalgamation.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Abraham and Sarah. Oil on canvas. 67 x 64 cm. 1999.

Michael has explained this rendition in his own essay on the subject: “ According to our sages, an individual Jew represents only a half of a whole, and in order to become a whole requires the missing half. Abraham and Sarah are the perfect example of the whole, shaped from the organic amalgamation of two halves. ” ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers essay, 2011).  

Not surprisingly, the artist solved the work practically in a monochromatic way, with slight lightening of the unifying orange in the Sarah part emphasising the enlightening role of a woman in general, in a Jewish family, in any family, and in this very case. 

The choice of the colour in the work refers to Eretz Israel in a symbolic way, its sun, its sand, its desert, which is seen by the artist – who genuinely likes a desert, in a rare quality – not as a threatening and hostile challenge, but as an accumulation of sun, as a reflection and depositary of it. And also, importantly, as an expression of energy, strength, livelihood which were characteristic for both Abraham and Sarah individually, and of their couple, as well. 

A simple composition of this symbolic frontal double-portrait, which is at the same time is also a family portrait and is a romantic portrait, is clever to convey several important symbols via both Abraham and Sarah’s unified hairs which form ‘the borders’ of the portrait. It symbolises key elements of the Israeli landscape, its sand, mountains, slopes and rivers. 

The stories of the Torah, and those of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in particular, creates the phenomenon which can be described as the landscape of the Torah.  To render that landscape artistically is a rare pleasure. 

The orange harmony on Michael’s work is also about coexistence, its merits, its comfort, its conditions and principles. In the words of the artist: “Love, delicacy, consideration, mutual self-sacrifice, – all these elements defined the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish married couple. In their case, there also was the crucial element of self-discipline, that unique mutual understanding, and their inability of one to live without the other. In this, they are quite different from Adam and Eve”, – believes the artist ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers essay, 2011). 

My favourite term, and actually, the part of the vision of my husband in his perception of Abraham and Sarah as a whole is ‘delicacy’. How rare and precious it is in human relations in general, in marital relations in particular. Perhaps, the long-run relations are successfully long and loving just precisely because of this ability to exercise delicacy towards each other.  

As Abraham was able not just merely listening, but hearing and believing what Sarah was telling to him, even if he sometimes not quite understood her or her motives, or it did not come to him immediately. As Sarah always was seeking to do what is good and right for Abraham, even if it might lead to her own suffering. Their bond was unique – and doubly important because it was the first one on both intuitive and conscious levels in the history of humanity and civilisation. 

In this warm and thoughtful portrait of Abraham and Sarah, the most important feeling, to me, is the mutual content of our first Patriarch and Matriarch with their inseparability, as it is resolved in the work by a double-effect of their shared eye with those soft smiles and quiet radiation of unshakeable confidence of both of them in their shared love.  

Sarah and Abraham: the beauty of the soul

Ten years after Michael’s first portraying our first forefathers in his the Patriarchs series, he continued the Forefathers project with The Matriarchs collection ( 2009-2010). Then Sarah appeared among his painted heroes again, this time in the leading role of the couple’s next portrait.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Sarah. Oil on canvas. 69 x 60 cm. 2009.

The second Michael’s double-portrait of Sarah and Abraham is the portrait of a mature married couple. Everything is different here from their first portrait: the portrait’s composition, its coloristic resolution, the expressions of his heroes’ faces. 

If the first portrait was a portrait of overwhelming mutual magnetism, the second one is a portrait of wisdom. If the first portrait was a statement of a synchronised breathing of a pre-destined couple, the second one is about synchronised thinking of the same couple. This ongoing dialogue between Michael’s Abraham and Sarah does not need words.

The colours in the second portrait are as if coming from the first one, as life develops from its starting point when a family is formed. The same orange which was the only colour of Michael’s first Abraham and Sarah, stays on as a background of the second portrait, with colours of experience in their life weaved into that: dark-red of wisdom, light-red of the gentleness of love, blue of resilience, the emerald of will, the turquoise of challenges, light rose of loving-kindness, the light blue of hope in a child, the first Jewish child of the first Jewish couple; the dark green of determination. And a lot of light yellow, the light of sun over Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. 

Altogether, in Sarah and Abraham’s second double-portrait, the artist presented a full, vibrant palette of life which has originated from the first portrait’s monochromatic colour of promise rooted in deep conviction and warmth of love. 

The expressions of Sarah and Abraham’s faces on the second portrait are similarly thoughtful as in their faces in the first portrait, but with a different kind of thoughtfulness. In this work, their thoughtfulness is more knowledgeable and bears the signs of life-experience. And what life-experience our first Jewish couple has had, indeed. 

Quite interestingly, the emotional balance in this portrait keeps the ratio of the first one. In the second portrait, Sarah has a similar enlightening smile which is as if coming from her innermost, and Abraham has that inner expression of his unconditional support of Sarah, her thinking, her ideas, her feelings, her intention, whatever it is. 

In a contrast with the first portrait, the composition of the second one is different. Instead of looking directly at us frontally, now Sarah and Abraham are looking at each other. It is like their joined life full of so many challenges and dramas, which did provide them both with so much to discuss, with words not quite necessary to convey the feelings. 

Their faces are beautiful, and it is an important integral part of the artist’s understanding of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs who were emphatically beautiful people. There is a serious metaphor in their beauty which is much deeper than just  the features of their faces. It is a special kind of beauty which the Torah sets for us. It is a beauty of the soul. An ideal towards which we all should strive if beauty speaks to us. And what else speaks if not beauty?

Sarah ( 2009) is a sophisticated and modern portrait of Matriarchs and Patriarchs, but it is also quite a tender one. One of its winning and special qualities is transparency, the effect which Michael likes to use. It is a difficult thing to achieve technically, but when it is applied successfully, the entirely new dimension appears in artwork, transcendence, and this is the category which is essentially important for our very understanding of Judaism. 

In the case of artistic interpretation of the Torah, and this very work, the transcendence of light in it projects the image and the principle of the tradition gently. It is achieved by setting the attractive light of the nest of life which has been set for us by the first Jewish family of Sarah and Abraham. 

Akedah: the rock-bed of Jewish family

Michael Rogatchi (C). Akedah ( The Binding of Isaac). Oil on canvas. 84 x 78 cm. 2001.

Abraham and Sarah’s only son Isaac is portrayed by Michael in his The Patriarchs series as part of the family, along with his parents. Michael said that he sees Isaac ‘as the part of the unit with his parents, Sarah and Abraham, perhaps, more than any other central Torah figure, for a historically logical reason: together, the three of them institute the origin of Jewish people, the beginning of the line of Jewish generations. The birth of Isaac, the giving the son to Sarah and Abraham by the Creator, is the key-moment of Jewish civilisation”. 

Michael has chosen Akedah, the most dramatic moment in the lives of all three of them, as the plot to portray his own interpretation of that meaningful unity of the first Jewish family. Was not he worried to step into such over-exploited territory? Akedah probably is the most referred to Biblical episode. On the contrary, Michael responded. “ I did not want to treat this episode in a purely illustrative manner, with legs and hands bound. I wanted to capture the spiritual moment, the moment of that father and that son’s greatest possible spiritual strain that – because of their both’ giant spiritual efforts – has become the touchstone in the history of our people”. 

In the expressive masterly painting, the contra-punctus combines ‘the melodies’ of Abraham and Isaac in the most daring moment for both and each of them. Father and son, they both come from the rock ( following the Isaiah famous saying “ Abraham is the Rock from Which We Are ChippedIs. 51:1)  and return to the rock of our fundamental convictions as Isaac in the painting are forming the same rock with Abraham, expectedly, as his son, but in much-enforced motion after his ultimate life-threatening trial, consciously so. 

Akedah is a triple-portrait.  Sarah is created here by the artist as the figure above Abraham’s head, with her hands stretched forward in her dramatic effort to save her only son. With Sarah’s figure in that position of motherly wholesome gesture of sacrifice and protection,  the portrait of Abraham’s family is complete. With her character and her resilience, Sarah is absolutely the part of the same Abraham’s Rock, the strength of our nation. The whole family is very embodiment of this strength. And the drama which is obvious in Sarah’s desperate gesture is that she would die of horror of the thought of her only son’s death being poisoned by the terrible thought by Satan intentionally. A woman’s heart is not made from steel. 

Colouristically wise, the artist as if combines the ideas behind the two previous portraits of Abraham family, with its further development: the orange from the first Abraham and Sarah’s portrait is coming here as the main colour as well, being enforced into its darker tones, to emphasise the drama of Akedah. The contrasting beautifully deep turquoise background, the colour which is not used often in contemporary art, and in general too ( because it is quite demanding against all other colours), bears the idea which Michael will develop colour-wise, in the second portrait of Sarah and Abraham which he will create eight years after the Akedah. The contrast achieved in this painting is deep and thought-evoking, and as far from a banal resolution, as possible. 

In this unusual family portrait, father and son are looking at each other in the same way in which Abraham and Sarah will be facing each other in the second portrait of them painted by Michael in 2009.  I find it fascinating that Isaac here is having the very same place which his father would be having on the second portrait, and even their both faces are quite similar, as it should be because from the Rabbinic literature we know that Isaac and Abraham looked so similar that people often mistook them each for another. 

Michael’s Isaac is special. One can see that in the portrait, he is an adult man, he was 37 at the time of Akedah. At the same time, his special thoughtfulness and immersion into his own reflections is distinct. The artist’s message is clear: a person who survived such a trial as Akedah, is special, different, and he becomes thoughtful and introverted until the end of his days. As Isaac was indeed, as we know from the Torah and the Rabbinic literature.  This image of Isaac is memorable in the existing image gallery of the depictions of our second Patriarch in art. 

Sarah’s figure in her desperate effort to save her only son is a bold and elegant composition decision. She is trying to protect Abraham and she is trying to reach Isaac. The only person she does not think here absolutely is herself. Typical Jewish mother. It is this dynamic metaphor that unites the three of them together, thus making their unit a family. Ceiling it as the family, actually. 

And this is what it all is really about: when powerful, talented, mighty individuals are able to make a family which is the nest for everyone at any age. Who knows what kind of families there would be among the people in the Jewish world unless we won’t have the stunning, magnetic, powerful, and so very absorbing in their dramatic history samples of the families of our ancestors, starting from the Abraham family. The Rock of Jewish nation Abraham, the exemplification of femininity Sarah, who together, with Creator’s willingness, produced the heights of thoughtfulness in Jewish tradition, Isaac. 

In Michael Rogatchi’s interpretation, all this is reflected in a special way of knowledgeable artistic thinking and fine expression, bringing the origin of our tradition closer to our modern way of perception and reflection.  

Inna Rogatchi (C), November 2020.