The ARTIST’s ESSAY ON HIS WORKS AND VISION ( 2003)
by Michael Rogatchi (C), 2003
From Conversations with My Wife
The Path to the Easel
One’s life can perhaps best be visualised as a series of shadows of white and variations on white. When a human being is born and is still new to this world, this white is untouched. As life progresses, a large variety of shades of white combine to create a characteristic tapestry or pattern to life that is unique to the individual. When a human being leaves this world, this life passage can also be thought of as a return to white. But the quality of this white, as well as that of the future colour of memory, is ours to determine. The degree of decency with which an individual life is led will determine the brilliance, purity and depth of this colour.
The ability of white to reflect and produce shadow and its unique capacity to produce the full spectrum of colour is also a metaphor for creativity. Producing a shadow entails the creation of volume: indeed, a special form of volume, unseen but implied and the result of intelligence alone. For those lucky individuals who possess the privilege of artistic self-expression, the creative process – filled as it is with the torments of composition, involving tension, irritation, effort, repetition, change, destruction and an eventual return – is nothing but the aspiration to reach illumination, nothing but continual approximations of white. The creative act is an attempt to find and express the absolute in this world. If this act is truly creative it requires neither proof, nor explanation, whether it is expressed through the medium of music, painting, literature or science. This is why art falls into two categories: that which is unconditional, and the rest.
The greatest and most perfect creative act was of course the Six Days of Creation. The selectivity demonstrated during this process was amazing: only ten phenomena were brought into being during these Six Days, yet these phenomena are fundamental to our world. It is difficult to comprehend, as each of us is focused on a multitude of different priorities. But eventually we always return to those ten basic phenomena created during the Six Days of Creation. If an artist proceeds from a moral core, he will gradually be drawn towards this initial and most perfect creative act: that of the beginning of Creation. Interestingly, the Creator chose the thirteen year old Bezalel to make the first religious art – including the Menorah and the Ark containing the Tablets with the Ten Commandments – that gave form to the faith’s central beliefs. In doing so, the Creator filled him with a creative power that is supposed to be beyond human ability. This attempt to transcend human limitations remains the essential challenge for the Jewish artist and individual. This is what I define as the creative process.
Painting is a more abstract form of creativity than singing or dancing. This art is closer to literature and to the creation and performance of music. Painting also demands more intellectual and creative effort. As this art form developed, human beings distanced themselves from more primitive forms of expression. As is true in any creative domain, the less mechanistic the works of art became and the more soul invested in them by the painter, the more significant and meaningful the resulting art.
Throughout the long history of mankind, millions of portraits have been painted by millions of artists. But those few paintings we remember are the creations of true masters who revealed in their work their own attitude towards their subject. Along with the great Renaissance masters, El Greco is a brilliant example of this.
Even in the work of such a genius as Rembrandt, one can easily detect when the artist was painting primarily for money and when to satisfy the demands of his soul. Even if one is ignorant of the strange history of the famous Night Watch, one can sense a sharp contrast between this group portrait painted on commission and the sense of warmth and life Rembrandt brought to the portraits of his eternal old men and women.
In addition to clearly expressing its creator’s attitude towards a person or event, a true painting lives and breathes because of what lies at its core. For me this is its warmth. In Dali’s extraordinary and technically flawless paintings, we witness the height of artistic technique, paradoxical vision and infinite fantasy. Nevertheless, Dali’s work lacks the warmth that is the principal quality of Van Gogh or Chagall’s paintings. If Dali’s work is comparable to a flawless diamond, the paintings of Van Gogh and Chagall represent sunlight to me. One can live without a diamond, one cannot live without the sun’s rays. After all, how would we recognize a diamond’s value without seeing its radiance in the light of day? Dali’s form of playfulness precludes the representation in his work of that innermost and most magnetic part of a human being: namely, warmth. However, the indisputable attraction of Chagall and Van Gogh’s paintings lies precisely in their warmth, and in the extraordinary generosity with which these artists filled each of their works with their own soul.
Approximations of White is also the product of the qualities and labour of an individual artist’s soul. For me, the essence of a painter’s art is defined by a combination of the absence of a mechanical approach in his work and the generosity with which he has shared his soul with his audience. Great art requires courage and the determination to overcome the artist’s need to share his personal and innermost thoughts and emotions with the world. These are the qualities that combine to create a true master.
With age, I find myself becoming increasingly selective when choosing the subjects of my paintings. If earlier themes were effortlessly inspired by dreams, now they are the product of a mental process whereby a thought inspires and is shaped by many associations before reaching its final form. The time of fixed, quasi-photographic images is gone. Years of work have also contributed towards this increasing selectivity. If earlier subjects almost leapt onto the canvas with ease and following little deliberation, in response to my artistic sensibility, emotions and aesthetic, now I find myself considering the choice of a subject far more meticulously. Today my priority when working on a painting is not to concentrate solely on my own senses and emotions, but to depict more general and synthetic phenomena. My subjects are different episodes from man’s history as I see them in this era: episodes that I am interested in exploring refracted through the perceptions of our time.
Reading the Torah as well as the other texts that form the keystones of Judaism always provides me with a creative impetus. The chain of thought and associations that they inspire and redirect is due to the unbelievable richness with which the spiritual and philosophical approach of the Torah opens up new visions of the world. It evokes new combinations, reveals the interconnections and interdependence of life’s phenomena and prompts the reevaluation of many concepts. From this point of view, the selectivity and the discipline demonstrated by an artist in the choice of a painting’s subject reflect, to a certain extent, the general theme of significance in art.
Leonardo is one of the most obvious and brilliant examples of this approach. Why did such a genius endowed with the greatest technical facility for painting the most complicated figures and compositions, and whose livelihood this was, leave us so few oil paintings, having worked on each so hard and so long? Precisely because the key principle underlying his work was to put as much as he possibly could into each of his paintings. In the literary realm, a bad writer will describe everything at length, while a good author will carefully select every word that he produces. This brings us back to the Torah together with all the works written by the Sages of Judaism, where not just every word but every letter has been deliberately chosen and contains its own message.
If in the past I produced my paintings far more quickly and with greater ease, indeed sometimes in a single day, today I find the creative process much slower and more thorough, though by no means for technical reasons. I find myself spending much more time thinking things over in an attempt to put the maximum into each painting. In this manner I try to give myself reasons for being an artist, as opposed to a dilettante.
There is no more ridiculous request than to ask an artist ‘to explain a painting’. I would never expound on the nature of my thoughts while I was working on a work of art. However, I willingly discuss the composition, technical aspects and other concrete details of a painting, and am happy to bring to light the historical allusions or the individual history underlying each work.
I believe that on principle artists should not ‘explain’ their work, as the perception of a work of art varies according to each individual and this fact alone precludes all explanation. A painting’s principal role should be to make its viewer think, in the process prompting the individual’s thoughts, senses and spiritual growth.
Therefore, to explain the essence of my paintings is impossible and unnecessary, but as to sharing certain thoughts that arise in relation to them… Why not?
Some of the early and frequently exhibited works in this album form a Romantic Collection entitled Capriccio. Cat’s Smile, The Real Dream and the Capriccio triptych are part of this Collection. In Cat’s Smile, for example, the work’s paradoxical title is meant to initiate a dialogue with a viewer, as it is known that cats cannot and do not smile. However, I was astonished to discover how many people are not aware of this simple fact, or indeed of the existence of the writer Lewis Carroll, who played with this paradox as well as innumerable others so masterfully in his books. A cat’s smile is therefore an existing impossibility. It may not exist because it is by definition impossible, and yet could be said to exist because of the implication that it might be possible.
What lies hidden where consciousness merges with the subconscious, our presentiments and hopes? Perhaps the secret of a cat’s smile, this existing impossibility many of us carry within ourselves. I am indebted for the painting’s title to my friend and former colleague Maxim Pashkov, an exceptionally talented actor and musician from St Petersburg. The extraordinary ballad of this Russian Tom Waits entitled Cat’s Smile entered our lives towards the end of the 1980s, and remains an inspiration.
Occasionally a childhood dream will inspire or even take form as one of my paintings. This occurred with the Capriccio triptych. The subject was a childhood dream of an abandoned Stalinist concentration camp in winter, with a miserable, lost mare left wandering there. She was hungry and half-blind with nowhere to go and nothing to hope for, except that someone might give her some food. Of course, this dream was not a fantasy but a reflection of this period in our lives. Capriccio is a painting of routine horror. Nevertheless, in this painting I wanted to reflect that there was hope amidst this horror. There is no place for hopelessness in my work. Human intellect, will and prayer will not allow even places of horror to remain without hope. When we mobilize ourselves against evil we are already beyond a state of hopelessness. This resistance alone gives an individual hope and becomes a source of strength. One cannot buy the ability to resist in this manner, nor can one ‘learn’ how to do it by following another’s suggestions. Only belief in the Creator provides a human being with this strength.
Another Collection could be described as an attempt at a ‘deeper look’ at the characters and figures that have fascinated me throughout my life, from Don Quixote to Van Gogh. No one could convince me that a fourteen or fifteen year old teenager who has read Don Quixote for the first time has understood the novel completely, and has perceived all the delicate and complex nuances of that ‘journey of a soul’ which Cervantes wanted to depict in his great work. No one could convince me that for a fourteen or fifteen year old, Don Quixote could become a favourite, treasured book in the same easy, unquestioning way as, for example, my beloved Three Musketeers. A mature adult with the wisdom of his own life experience will perceive Cervantes’ novel and its hero in a very different manner, one aspect following on from another. What is important is that these aspects are neither flat nor one-dimensional, but converge – counterpointing, reflecting and illuminating each other – in the process creating a new work altogether. In my portrait of Don Quixote, I attempted to express this image through a new method of painting, employing a different technique. As a result, the portrait marked the beginning of a new phase in my art, which I am continuing to explore. Don Quixote represents a significant breakthrough in my search for a new form of artistic vision and expression.
In my painting, Don Quixote is an exhausted, lonely and even lost figure, but not a despairing one. Physical and mental tiredness has prompted him to stop for a moment’s rest in the middle of the road. As he sleeps, leaning on his old spear, there is a feeling of sadness, disappointment and weariness. However, though Don Quixote is troubled there is no place for despair in him. This was also the case for his creator. At the time of writing Don Quixote, Cervanteswas imprisoned, his feet had been amputated and he was penniless, yet he managed to retain his strength and his spiritual and mental freedom. The same is true for all those individuals who are able to survive because of their moral, rather than physical, strength.
July 29th: In Memory of Van Gogh is a painting of love and understanding. I wanted it to be a testament to the whole life of this genius, who remained so misunderstood. As a very kind person endowed with a largely positive attitude towards his contemporaries, Van Gogh could have expected a corresponding attitude from them. Instead, the outside world regarded him as insane. No doubt from a purely medical point of view he was mentally ill. But from the point of view of the soul, Van Gogh was far saner than all those around him. In my painting dedicated to his memory, I tried to capture and fix the moment when a human being departs this world: that heartrending moment when the material world is left behind but the soul has not yet reached its final destination… I painted two small gleams in the encroaching darkness, which I believe would have been the last things that Van Gogh saw before he passed away. Those ‘gleams’ are spots of colour – colour that was everything to the artist in life, in the same way that sound is everything to a composer, words to a writer or the smell of chemical reagents to a scientist. Looking back on my own life, I remember that years after I had left behind my career as a scientist in my dreams I could still smell the chemical atmosphere of the laboratory.
It seems to me that the extraordinary magnetism of Van Gogh’s art is derived from that quality of soul given to him by the Creator that allowed him to translate and convey his own spirituality through the use of colour. Colour brought into being with a stroke of the paintbrush, colour simultaneously transformed into movement and which begins its own existence on canvas. This talent for transforming colour combined with Van Gogh’s immense kindness became the foundation that breathed life into the artist’s paintings, and fills them with their almost palpable warmth.
If we now compare the creative processes of musicians and painters of genius, we can observe that a master composer, in very much the same manner as Van Gogh, does not merely combine the elements the genre provides him with in a variety of different ways, but allows ordinary mortals access to that unknowable world in which genius evolves, suffers and lives life impetuously. Musical talent, of course, lies not in the ability to compose a piece from a combination of existing modulations, but in the ability to endow these modulations with frequently surprising contrasts and volume. Mozart’s genius lies beyond the understanding of normal human beings. This is unsurprising, as Mozart inhabited his own unique universe where sound was everything: a definition of all that was present in the entire world. A table, a chair, a quill, an ink-pot, were all sounds for him. His world was reflected in the magnificence of his music.
My other favourite composer, Vivaldi, created an eternal ‘tapestry of music’ from modulations derived from quite different perceptions. Vivaldi’s music appears to me closer to Van Gogh’s work through its central quality of tenderness combined with rage. It is impossible to imagine Vivaldi creating anywhere other than Venice. Through similarities in their senses and visions embodied in the creative process, musicians and artists resemble each other far more than members of any other creative profession. Perhaps this is why I feel music to be an integral part of myself. I could not work without it.
If I consider the great paintings that feature so largely in our education, I am sometimes struck by a paradox inspired by a mistaken perception. For instance, when observing Leonardo’s Homo Vitruvius, we instinctively feel that when Leonardo created this symbol of harmony, life was far more balanced than it is now. Of course, this is untrue. The essential features and parameters of life on this planet remain unchanged. The existence of computers does not make their owners Homo Sapiens any more talented or skilful than an individual equipped with a goose’s nib. In many cases, quite the contrary. Man’s mind and conscience are still travelling in the same direction, searching for harmony. Through the ‘golden ratio’ that he illustrated in Homo Vitruvius, Leonardo provided a hypothesis that explained the harmony present in the human body shaped by the Creator.
In my work Homo Vitruvius (Twentieth Century), I wanted to show what happened to a human being, in itself an expression of harmony, when cast into the maelstrom of the twentieth century. The subject is attempting to escape the ludicrousness of the past century, that whirlwind of evil that reached its height with the concentration camps, fascism and the extermination of six million Jews: the horrific culmination of a historical process at work over the past century. On first seeing my painting, a close friend from Texas reacted with typical straightforwardness: ‘Oho, this guy is in trouble!’. One could not express it better. This stands as a rare case of complete understanding of an artist’s idea by his public!
In an attempt to break through both real and imaginative barriers, I then started work on the painting entitled “Welcome to the Hotel California…”. Since childhood the knight has been one of my favourite chess pieces. Whether consciously or unconsciously, I have always imagined the knight as a figure that continually aspires to go beyond the limits of the possible. In chess, the horse is not the castle, which only moves in a straight line, nor the bishop, which always moves diagonally. In this work, my fondness for this chess piece as well as my love for horses coincide in an interesting manner. For a long period I had also made it a tradition to paint a horse at least once a year.
Returning to the theme of chess, a chessboard always represented for me not just sixty-four squares, but life itself. It is significant that Jews must play chess at Shabbat. Within the sphere of the game, the most important figures are the king and queen, which are entitled to do anything. However, it is interesting to note that when only two kings and two queens remain on the chessboard, the result is a drawn game, whereas if a knight also remains in play, the situation becomes truly dramatic. As a child, I was always thrilled that the knight could make its moves in so original a manner: indeed, that it is able to jump over other pieces. I believed that if a knight was able to jump over a queen, anything was possible. In short, I was inspired by the figure of the knight, which always aspires to movement, to atypical moves and to breakthroughs.
The horse in the painting “Welcome to the Hotel California…” is not just breaking out of a wooden chess figure, but is also attempting to widen the scope of the chessboard itself – the sphere of its life – to infinity. I presented this work to the man who in my view best corresponded to this image: General Alexander Lebed. This man whose life ended so abruptly will be remembered by many different people for a very long time.
Rosinante’s Dream and “Poor Yorick!…” also evoke the theme of memory. When an individual remembers someone, the subject’s life energy does not fade away, but is stored and remains alive within the thinker’s memory. Our own individual memories revive our pasts. There is no doubt in my mind that the more intense an individual’s spiritual life, the more energy is stored in his or her memories. When life slows and dwindles, the fact that it does not fade away completely is due to the soul’s ability to remember – to the life and presence of memories. My subjects, Yorick and Rosinante, both lived intensely. Sometimes the intensity of one’s life can be determined by its length. However, it also happens that so much can be compressed into a short period of one’s existence that it is as though we have lived twice during this time.
In my painting Yorick, who as an actor lived many lives, is a tired old man. The only bright spot in this work is the reflection of a yellow bell hanging from his jester’s hat in a mirror. This spot represents his youth. Rosinante is also aged in my portrait. This old horse sees himself in his dream in exactly the same manner many people do: as he would wish to be remembered. When I am working on paintings which explore memory, my priority remains not to emphasise the bitterness of lost time, but instead the light left in us by this time: not the hopelessness inspired by memory, but its mercy.
Another Collection I would like to evoke is entitled Who Said So?. A painting from this Collection, The Days and Nights of Pygmalion, reinterprets the story of Pygmalion and Galatea. Without question, the beauty of this story has made it a recurrent theme throughout history. However, its existing classical interpretation has been over-embroidered, as is common in Greek mythology. We all know of the strength of Pygmalion’s love for Galatea, but have no idea what Galatea looked like. Who said that she was a perfect beauty, in the sense of the beauty of the Creator’s Adam and Eve, which was passed down to Sarah, Joseph and Rachel? Galatea was the creation of man. Could Pygmalion have been blind? The subject with which he fell in love so overwhelmingly was probably an ideal of beauty, but his own ideal. In the story, an artist becomes passionately enamoured of the product of his own hands. But how do we know these were the hands of a Cellini or a Picasso?
In my view, the story of Pygmalion is ultimate proof that the essential factor determining the quality of human relationships are one’s own feelings, and not the object of those emotions. Love is not dictated by the perfection of the beloved, but by the lovers’ spiritual kinship. In The Days and Nights of Pygmalion, the subject is drowning in the ocean of his love. He is experiencing a terrible restlessness of the soul. By night, he loses himself in his worship of Galatea, by day he imposes the harshest possible demands on his creation. I believe that Pygmalion was born with the idea of Galatea. This idea, the product of his senses as well as his mind, was initially unclear and both disturbed and tormented him. He invested even the unfinished block of marble from which she was fashioned with a surfeit of emotion. We do not know whether Pygmalion eventually completed the sculpture in a manner that fulfilled his original conception. The exhausting torments of love that were his misfortune and which he lacked the strength to overcome could be regarded as his destiny. This creator’s love for the object that resulted from an overwhelming creative impulse led him to mistake day for night.
If The Days and Nights of Pygmalion explores man’s attitude to woman, another work from the same Collection, The Abduction of Europa, explores the reverse side of this phenomenon. Who says that Europa did not enjoy being abducted? Who says that she resisted it? Perhaps she saw this abduction as a form of liberation. Perhaps her attitude towards Zeus in the form of a bull was not that previously believed. Perhaps, like many other women, she was delighted by this ‘abduction’. Could she have been grateful to the bull, and found herself gradually responding to him (as happens so often)? It is no coincidence that many similar ‘Beauty and the Beast’ stories are to be found throughout human history, reflecting this interpretation.
Thus, the idea underlying the Who Said So? Collection is that it is always interesting to reexamine our most fundamental myths from a slightly different point of view. If more people bothered to question existing preconceptions, life would evolve faster and would become richer and more dynamic.
The Heart of the Matter is one of my favourite paintings from the Love Collection. Therefore, I am glad that it belongs to a real man, my friend Christopher James. This painting contains everything: our origins, life and beyond – as when a man and woman come together and become one, that one which goes on to bear fruit. Such a union is best thought of organically, as an immense tree. Full of light and strength, this tree produces a myriad of small leaves. However, without its deep and powerful roots, the tree’s bright and quivering leaves would dry out. I believe that the biggest reward in life is the presence of a similar union, with its interconnections of life, feeling, love and delight.
For me love is admiration and adoration. However difficult life may become, if the love is real the adoration remains.
In my Collection Bolero, which consists of twenty-one paintings, my priority was to explore another form of union, in which man is also present. The Collection forms a mosaic exploring different aspects of the corrida, which encapsulates the essence of man’s physical existence.
Man’s physical presence as well as his mental universe are constantly interacting with those external factors and challenges with which we are faced. In the corrida, this intermingling is expressed in its most concentrated and accomplished form. This form gave my Collection its title: Bolero.
In the corrida, man’s intellect, instincts and strength are constantly in play with those of an animal. This movement is perhaps best visualised as a circle of thorns. Both man and animal have their own souls. If one wishes to understand the corrida, this should not be forgotten. Two beings in an arena are never equal: at any one time one is always stronger or weaker than the other, and in any physical fight the balance between strength and weakness will always become apparent in a unique manner.
This inequality produces its own effects. Sometimes the participants in a corrida begin to experience a form of mental interchange, whereby the torero appears transformed into a bull, and even seems to adopt its expression. Moreover, he begins to think like a bull. In order to be victorious, he must uncover the intentions of his opponent in the arena. In his turn, the bull could, in theory, overpower a man – an opportunity rarely accorded animals. Such a bull is rewarded with his life, according to the rules of the corrida. It is no wonder that such intelligent bulls earn not just the respect but also the enthusiasm of the public. A bull that wins its life in this fight against man never again participates in a corrida.
The hidden logic of the struggle in a corrida often provokes admiration. Every stage of the fight, every single movement has been shaped in a truly unique manner. Its impetuous but very precisely determined dance of movements makes the corrida a constantly intriguing form of bolero. The interaction between the torero, the bull and the other participants at hand also possesses its own strict inner logic. However, this logic only becomes apparent after the corrida has taken place.
During a corrida, my greatest sympathy goes to the picadors’ horses. Their eyes are bound. An animal whose eyes are bound is at once completely dependable and utterly helpless. During the spectacle, the blinded animal walks with death. The horse senses danger but cannot see it. It is forced to obey its rider’s shouts and spurring, but the picador’s main goal is naturally to preserve himself. Of all the creatures in the arena, the horse’s situation is the most desperate, and is completely different from that of the bull. The bull may die but this will be the outcome of an equal fight, and as a result it will die with dignity. The bull fights for his life. However, while in the arena the horse’s being is completely suppressed. It does not stop to think, to feel or to understand. This is why the mare in Bolero is grey. She is like the majority of people living under totalitarian regimes, who understand everything but proceed blindfolded. They are forced to live lives in which screaming can always be heard. Sometimes, they experience slight fear, sometimes terror. They are always desperate.
However, the situation is completely different in the corrida caballero, during which toreros compete on horseback. In this form of corrida, the horse is left completely free, and as a result consciously aids its rider, making him both more inventive and dynamic. A horse in a regular corrida and a horse in a corrida caballero are as different as a slave and a free man. This is why the corrida caballero is a truly beautiful spectacle in which there is no despair, but instead a fireworks display of movement and freedom. Freedom that remains the highest value for man. This is the same for any living being, even a tree.
The Jewish theme is key to my work: indeed, it forms its raison d’être. Outside this context, I could not imagine myself as an artist or even as a person. Interestingly, all my works focusing on a Jewish theme have provided me with an impetus to explore new ideas and different artistic directions. When an artist completes a painting it is always a source of satisfaction, provided the painting is good, of course. However, whenever I finish one of these paintings, I am overwhelmed with not just satisfaction, but a sense of joy, completeness and intellectual pleasure. This combination of feelings is comparable to that of the scientist who has completed an important project.
In my Biblical Collection of paintings, I am attempting to grasp and to express the essence of Jewishness: that inner core which makes one a Jew. Sooner or later we all come to the realisation that it is necessary to try to understand the foundations of our beliefs. The Jewish people’s destiny both converges and diverges: some reject their Jewishness in a vain hope ‘to be like everyone else’. This is foolish as by definition Jews are not like everyone else. Others experience a need to comprehend their history, traditions, philosophy and basic attitudes towards the world. Discovering and drawing on this inexhaustible source of humanism and wisdom allows one to lead a life that is both practical and enlightened.
In my portrait of Moses, I have tried to convey the weight of responsibility that he bore. To be responsible for oneself and one’s own actions is one thing. However, it is quite another to consciously accept to bear responsibility for an entire people, and what is more a persecuted people at the most crucial point in their early history. Usually Moses is portrayed as a mythical figure, whereas in reality he was a living human being. A completely uncompromising man endowed with a powerful temperament and a complicated nature, he was nevertheless very kind and loving. Moses was subject to enormous pressure for decades – the result of the huge weight of responsibility which he carried, accumulated psychological and physical tiredness, crushing moments of disappointment and permanent doubt as to how he could accomplish his mission. Nevertheless, the prophet loved his headstrong and complicated people with such selfless commitment, that our Jewish sages reveal the Creator himself was impressed by Moses’ absolute honesty and loving devotion. For me, the prophet’s greatness lies in this combination of his devoted love for those under his care and his awareness of his immense responsibility before God and the Jewish people.
Amazingly, while I was working on this painting, I clearly sensed how it had been at the moment when the Ten Commandments were first written on the Tablets. The letters were drawn from the air one by one, and as Moses grasped the meaning that lay in every single letter, the letters combined into words and the words became sentences. Some time after the painting was completed, I read in the Talmud that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are regarded as protoplasm – the basic material of Creation. I remember thinking that if I, an ordinary man, was granted the vision and understanding of such knowledge, how special my people are.
It is strange for me when I am asked if I am a Jewish artist, or whether I would define myself in some other way. Naturally I am a Jewish artist. When I paint a work, whatever the theme, it emerges from the ground of my upbringing. I cannot imagine life without the Shabbat and the Shabbat family supper. My happiest and most delightful childhood memories are of the Shabbat suppers during which my whole family assembled in the home of my grandmother, Sofia Aaron-Rice. These memories are always with me: a large table covered by a white tablecloth, and on it candles and the Book. I remember my great-uncle Lev Aaron reading from the Book. Thus it was only logical that my first work on a Jewish theme should have been Family Supper.
This relationship to the Book is also reflected in another painting, Heeding the Book. There was always an immense respect for books in our family, to the extent that even touching a book filled us with a special kind of joy and energy. This was doubly true for the Book itself.
My Train was painted before my first visit to Yad Vashem. Therefore I was amazed to discover the train from my painting during my stay in Jerusalem. In the painting, the train is on its way to infinity, bearing away relatives and loved ones, but one is left behind, powerless in its tracks. From childhood, all Jews feel the presence of this train within themselves. Willingly or not, every Jew bears a small part of this knowledge of Horror.
However, every Jew is also endowed with part of the Fire that was first breathed into us by the Creator. The Way, a painting I presented to Simon Wiesenthal, remains one of my favourite works. I believe that this man above all other contemporaries embodies the righteous Jew. I am privileged to know this outstanding individual personally, and with every year that passes, as I observe his words and actions, I am more convinced that this is the case. Wiesenthal’s attitudes and judgements may sometimes appear strange to those without the power to see. Yet the more I study Jewish literature, the more my admiration of Simon Wiesenthal grows. I regard him as a bearer of the deepest Jewish traditions. In The Way I wanted to say that the Jewish way is the way of the Fire of the Creator, the way of the chosen people. To be chosen entails responsibility: a responsibility to yourself first of all. This burden is far from easy.
In Samson, I wanted to capture the precise moment when the exhausted and blind Biblical hero begs the Creator for the only means that will enable him to crush his enemies the Philistines, even at the price of his own life. As he departs this world, Samson’s smile shows his gratitude to the Creator for answering his prayer and allowing him the opportunity to be returned to his people.
Samson’s ultimate test was to sacrifice himself. Still more was asked of Abraham, though initially one might wonder what greater sacrifice could there be than that of one’s own life? The vision underlying my painting The Akedah resulted from the understanding that for all Jews: ‘Abraham Is the Rock from Which We Are Chipped’ (Isaiah 51:1). In addition to being a physical giant, Abraham represents a moral rock for the Jewish people. In a moment of unbearable torment, during which he was prepared to part with his beloved child forever to satisfy the Creator’s will, the forefather of the Jewish people resisted tears. Through the greatest anguish, he had arrived at his final decision to fulfil the Creator’s will. As incomprehensible as this decision may appear to us, Abraham retained his fundamental belief that the Creator would never do anything to harm his pure-hearted children.
To comprehend the movements of Abraham’s soul during this trial is very difficult for ordinary people. However, over the past centuries Jewish sages and tsadiks have approached this understanding, and have aided us in coming closer to it. It is significant that Isaac, who at the time of The Akedah was a thirty-seven year old man, fully understood both his father’s torment and the Creator’s will. This identification with his father results in the smile on Isaac’s face in my painting. As the great son of a great father, Isaac was also fully conscious of and obedient to the Creator’s will during the three-day journey to the location of the Akedah. I have tried to convey in this painting that rare and amazing unity between father and son born from their limitless belief in the Creator.
In all my works, I attempt to portray a physical or spiritual movement. Occasionally it happens that a single touch can bring to life the movement that will uncover the essence of a painting. In the case of The Akedah, I felt that it was important to include Sarah, who eventually died from grief when she realised why her husband and only son had gone out so early that morning. In the painting, Sarah takes the form of a woman whose hands are outstretched over Abraham and Isaac, as though to protect them. Significantly, the concept of The Akedah, and even the word itself, has become a common noun designating the greatest trial of all for the Jewish people. I did not wish to treat this subject in a purely illustrative manner, with bound legs and hands. Instead, I wanted to capture the spiritual moment – a moment of the greatest possible spiritual strain that has become the touchstone in the history of the Jewish people.
The knowledge of the Holocaust is with me every day of my life. Sometimes this takes the form of a subconscious feeling, but far more often I consciously consider the subject. In my paintings about the Holocaust, I do not impose a particular structure. The images of horror appear to me as though by themselves. All technical details are worked out subsequently. My painting The Final Solution expresses the essence of the Nazi attitude towards the Jews: they have been exterminated and their belongings abandoned. The hat and the crushed glasses in this painting come from memory. This is a picture of the fulfilled Nazi order, a ‘still’ of the end.
Perhaps a few ghettos surrounded by specially constructed walls have been razed, perhaps a shtetl (a small Jewish village) was destroyed, or even an entire city. Or perhaps a whole country such as Lithuania or Poland has been ‘cleansed’. Perhaps the entire Jewish people has been wiped from the surface of the earth. But our people’s possessions remain even after their owners have been exterminated. These objects will not allow the world to forget them.
I further explored this vision in paintings such as Kaddish and Shoah. When I was working on Shoah, I was considering the ghetto in general terms. However, subconsciously I appear to have drawn on the reality of the Krakow ghetto, even before my first visit there. When I eventually saw this part of Krakow, I realized in terror that it was exactly as I had imagined it. Even today, over sixty years later, horror and fear are still present in that place.
Sadly, many decades after the horrors of the Holocaust the issue of anti-Semitism is still with us. The painting Unforgiving, which is owned by a family friend, the Israeli Ambassador Josef Hassen, was completed in one day. It was directly inspired by the profanation in one night a decade ago of three hundred out of four hundred graves in the Jewish cemetery of the peaceful and quiet Finnish city of Turku. It would appear that even the graves of Jews remain objects of hate. I will never forgive such barbarians – past, present or future.
In the painting The Western Wall I wished to express a mixture of pain and hope. This combination is perhaps one of the main features of the Jewish people’s character and fate. Another is wisdom forged in torment, but enlightened by belief. This wisdom has provided our people with the strength to survive while retaining their decency.
Yet individuals like those represented in the painting Memories of Safed are a source of eternal hope and support to our people. Obviously, this type of human being does not emerge from nowhere. Safed is undoubtedly an utterly unique place on this earth. Everyone who has visited this small town agrees that it possesses a powerfully charged spiritual atmosphere. It is a very special place for many reasons: to name only one, the synagogue of the prophet Elijah is located there.
All Jews feel from childhood on that Jewish wisdom is filled with love and compassion. As we grow older, we realise that our love is also founded on wisdom. This is the theme I wanted to express in my double portrait of Abraham and Sarah. According to our sages, an individual Jew represents only half of the whole, and in order to become whole requires the missing half. Love, delicacy, consideration, mutual self-sacrifice, a unique understanding and the inability of one to live without the other – all of these elements defined the lives of Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews and ancestors of our people. These elements formed the origin of the moral and ethical tradition that underlay human existence for hundreds of centuries afterwards. Abraham and Sarah are the perfect example of the whole shaped from the organic amalgamation of two halves.
Jewish life over the last millennia has not merely been shaped by extraordinary bitterness, pain and torment, but also by hope, love, joy, jokes and humour and music and song – in short, by our talent for life. The painting Freilax is inspired by family tradition – that of my wife combined with my own. I come from a very large, close family. In our home, religious festivals were always celebrated with music, dance and Jewish songs. On Purim one of my uncles played the piano, my mother Maija Rice sang and everyone danced. My wife’s family, though far from rich, was also warm and generous. They also loved to come together and celebrate, sharing their joy with all who entered their house. All were welcome there. My father-in-law, Isaac Bujanover, danced the Freilax with the enthusiasm of a child and such soul that he seemed to electrify the space around him. Whenever the melody of the Freilax is heard, it sends out a special signal to any Jew present. It inspires immediate joy, however difficult circumstances may have been. Wherever they find themselves, Jews always stand up when they hear the Freilax and start dancing as though ten of them were a hundred. This is what we are destined for: to gather and embody this strength in such proportion.
Another painting from the same collection, The Dance, is dedicated to my father-in-law’s memory. When singing and dancing, Jews are liberated from everything. They cast off all their troubles and problems. When an individual feels free while dancing the dance becomes more than a dance.
The painting Caprice molto perpetuo is a homage to our Jewish musicians, who produce the most beautiful music. I both admire and adore them. One can feel how much soul, warmth and understanding has been brought to the music from the moment when the Creator first breathed a harmony into King David’s harp. It has been enriched over the generations, and has produced an extraordinary tapestry of work and a unique quality of sound, which translates into the unparalleled brilliance and mastery present in the art of Jewish musicians.
After all, the quality of sound is not defined merely by physical parameters, but by the quality of the soul. It is precisely this that I try to convey in my paintings. I wish to capture the movements of the soul on canvas. In everything I paint, my ambition is to express joy, suffering, knowledge, labour, torment, merriment, tears and laughter – in short, the beauty of the soul of my people.