Motif of Devotion and Joy in Michael Rogatchi Contemporary Spiritual Art
Motif of Devotion and Joy in Michael Rogatchi Art
By Inna Rogatchi
First published at The Times of Israel
Ushpizin: personal bond
There is a profound paradox that exists in the narrative of Jewish spiritual heritage when we look at it as the source for artistic inspiration: the league of leading heroes from the Torah and our history is well-known, fixed in its number, and is largely prescribed in its main features in the annals of our Rabbinic and other literature. Quality art is an innovation always, and to be innovative within so seriously defined territory is a challenge.
Another challenge for artists who work on spiritual themes is modernity, shortening the distance from the time ancient to us today while portraying the spiritual giants and human models for our behaviour while being responsible in your effort to reflect authentically and respectfully.
There is no answer or recipe for that. It is highly individual resolution for any artist who dares to step into that territory. Because it all is based on an artist’s feeling. His or her personal bond towards concrete figures from our Biblical heroes and heroines, an artist’s personal connection to that or another character among them. Without that personal touch, nothing happens. With that personal touch, all the challenges are given a way to process of work, long, uneasy, complicated, but absolutely engaging, educating and rewarding one.
This personal bond explains the selectiveness of the ‘repertoire’ of Biblical heroes portrayed by the artists who worked in that field ( except the cases of commissions, of course). I know it also first-hand, observing my husband’s work on the spiritual theme for several decades. Biblical personalities probably is the most difficult, after the Holocaust, theme to create original artworks, just because of your own, highly subjective, perception of them. And one’s versatility in the subject gets it yet more difficult, paradoxically again. The more you know about our Forefathers, the wider the ocean of their inner world is getting in front of you. You have to navigate there, to be able to create something new, original, authentic, sensible, and not cliched. What is your compass in this navigating process? Your feeling. Your personal feeling of Moses, and Aaron, and Rachel, and Yochebed. Or not. And then, nothing happens, and just cannot happen.
In yet another paradoxical twist, artistically interpreting so well known leading figures of Jewish heritage is, in fact, terra incognita for an artist. And his only real chance to do it is his very personal connection towards some of those shining souls, using the Talmud reference.
I was writing previously about Michael’s well-known, widely exhibited and reproduced Forefathers series which has started as his artistic tribute to seven Ushpitzin and expanded also to the Matriarchs and other Biblical heroines.
Working on the new book of Michael’s drawings, I came across a rich trove of his artistic dialogues with some of the Biblical personalities especially important for him.
Some of those expressive works tell us not only on the artist’s search which always provides interesting and telling insights, but also get us closer to the resolution of that challenge posed by modern perception.
In his Study for Sarah and Abraham ( 2010), Michael based his intellectual and artistic search for understanding and expressing the inner, deep reasoning for Sarah and Abraham’s unique pair-ship, that one-soulness between them that has become – or should become – the fundament of our all’ relationships between Jewish man and Jewish woman in the family on the Talmudic understanding of meaning of addition of Hebrew letter Hei to the names of both of them, making Abraham from Abram and Sarah from Sarai.
Not only Creator has added these two heis to the names of our principal ancestors simultaneously, it is also happened at the moment, as it is recorded in the Torah ( Parasha Lech Lecha , Bereishit 17:4 and Bereishit 17:15) when they are informed about future birth of their son Isaac, thus sealing with two heis foundation of Jewish family-hood.
Michael’s thoughts as he related it in his own essays and comments for Forefathers were led by the multiply meanings of gematria in that process of re-naming of Sarai and Abram by the Creator. There are many worthy comments and explanations on that fundamentally important moment in the Jewish spiritual history.
The following quote is the facet via which Michael visualised it: “In Genesis, the Creator gave new names to Sarai and Abram. According to the Talmud, to do so He took the Hebrew letter Yod from the end of Sarai’s name. This letter is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and has a numerical value ( gematria) of 10. He divided it into two equal parts and added a half each to both names using two Heis which have the numerical values of 5. He therefore made Sarah and Abraham. He thus made them inseparable. In that glorious couple, the archetype of a Jewish family, each individual was a half of the other. And this is the eternal secret of Patriarchs and Matriarchs”. ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers. 2010).
How many artists rendered Akedah, the Binding of Isaac? It is arguably one of the most visualised Biblical plots in art. How to make that incomprehensible key moment of Jewish and mankind’s history closer to us living today? Michael chose to concentrate on Abraham and Isaac’s, father and son’s closeness at the most dramatic , shocking, actually, moment of their lives.
He wrote on his version of Akedah – and his approach is also illustrated by his dynamic study for the work: “ Abraham, the Rock from which we are chipped ( Isaiah 51:1), in a moment of unbearable torment during which he was prepared to part with his beloved child forever to satisfy the Creator’s will, resisted tears. 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. I have tried to convey in this work that rare and amazing unity between father and son born from their limitless belief in the Creator. I did not wish to treat the subject of Akedah in a purely illustrative manner, with both bound legs and hands. Instead, I wanted to capture this spiritual moment, a moment of the greatest possible spiritual strain that has become the touchstone in the history of Jewish people’ ( Michael Rogatchi, Forefathers. 2010).
And then, there are sometimes the works which do not need an explanation. In the case of Michael’s study for Jacob, pure love transforms itself into a beauty. It is known that all our Patriarchs ( as well as Matriarchs) were beautiful people in appearance. And it is mentally registered in Michael’s images of them in all his works dedicated to them. But in this special drawing, on which I personally can look non-stop, and am doing it all the time, the finesse of features is the result of the artist’s love, understanding and close feeling towards his subject. When this subject is the Father of Jewish People, the beauty of seeing Jacob-Israel in this lyrical interpretation is a totally new sensation, with long-lasting effect. A rare work, indeed.
In Michael’s new and latest rendition of the images of Forefathers, his David with Shofar ( 2020) is young, hopeful, and enlightened. In the artist’s own ‘gallery’ of Biblical heroes, this new King David comes in a sharp contrast with Michael’s very well-known King David from his “Absalom, My Son!..” oil painting (2003) in which Kind David is depicted in the most unusual way, being a tormented father who has just lost his beloved child. The previous tormented King David is a critically acclaimed achievement of the artist who produced that touching, tormented, and making us think King David with his full compassion. Seventeen years on, the artist who is studying Torah, Talmud and Rabbinic literature deeply and all the time, has produced this young David, playing shofar with elation, David who is an epitome of devotion – and importantly, the kind of devotion which uplifts. Perhaps, one has to live enough to fully understand the beauty, the light and the enlightenment of devotion.
Shemini Atzeret – at the King’s Banquet
After a week of Sukkoth, relaxing under semi-permanent roof, enjoying life with family and friends in our decorated dwellings, altered by the covid realities this year drastically, but still, a special time, we are inevitably getting into the period of concentration – basically, on ‘what it is about’? After stress of Rosh HaShanah, climax of Yom Kippur, and joy of Sukkoth, we are led to that truly special day of Shemini Atzeret, known as our each’ personal attendance of the King’s Banquet, to have that rare moment of contemplation of a different character than we are having in preceding Chagim ( High Holidays), more celebrating, less stressed, in that special anticipation of the new year in our life which has recently started and which lays ahead of us.
This mood is reflected in Michael’s special work which he calls his ‘self-portrait’ and which he does not exhibit often, for this very reason of privacy. In this survey, however, it takes its just place illustrating that Shemini Atzeret visit of each of us to that King’s Banquet, in its clarity, laconism, harmonious co-existence of warmth and strictness, and importantly, that dynamic of a questing man, with all kinds of appearing and reappearing questions to the Banquet’s Supreme Authority on so many of our ever popping in and out doubts. It is also always utterly private conversation, and the essence of this ‘self-portrait’ is fine and telling.
Privacy is ‘a salt’ of our all’ relationships with the High Sphere of our prayers and thoughts. How to relate it? A sole figure on an empty bank of a river would not do for this delicate balance. Such an attitude can portray solitude, not devotion. Because devotion means connection, and solitude means a loss of it.
Michael authored several different versions of his canonic by now Zion Waltz work which exist as an oil painting and as a couple of works on paper in mixed technique, one of which was owned by Leonard Cohen who did thank Michael for it warmly, and which now belongs to Cohen’s estate. There are several revelations in this special work, those dancing & embracing doves, that distinct figure of a Jewish poet who is a musician of his own inner thought, as many devoted Jewish people are, independent of their occupation in life.
But this very study for Zion Waltz, one of several, expresses the essence of privacy of that devotion between a Jewish person and the King at the special moment of those Banquets.
And then, our trees. Starting practically from the beginning of our core spiritual narrative, the Trees – of Life, of Knowledge, of Mercy, of Souls – are commanding the landscape of our thoughts. with different meanings. Those various trees arise in our inner perception with different questions related to the different stages of one’s life. There are also trees connected with our Forefathers, Abraham notably. And then, as a quite-essence of all this, there are trees of Israel, of Jerusalem, of Tiberias, of Safed, the subject of love and devotion of all of us, inside and outside Israel.
Precious, meaningful, dear, beloved Jewish trees of Eretz Israel that every Jewish person bears in his and her heart. As the one of the Michael’s Tree of Light ( 2016), his study for a stain-glass window for the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London known also as the World Jewry’s London address.
Beauty of Jewish Devotion
So many times we are saying kiddush during the month of chaggim ( High Holidays), all those kiddushes are different in their inner meanings – and varies our hopes connected to it. One can perhaps create an art series of different kiddushes, from exalted to reflective ones, as there are books with collections of various kiddushes, true enrichment of Jewish tradition.
But again, when it gets to authentic transferring tradition and heritage into the creative sphere of public domain, it is always personal. Of all possible kiddushes, Michael chose to portray the moment of that concentrated devotion that makes kiddush so special. He did it in two versions of his thought, on paper and on canvas.
On paper, the modern symbolism is evident. What is important in this truly special work beyond its aesthetic elegance is the success in creating an artistic archetype. It is not that often when symbolism gets its right with regard to people. It easily succeeds with subjects, and our eyes and minds are used to these memorable manifestations of symbolism as we know it from Picasso, Braque and their circle. But when it gets to people, for a number of well-grounded reasons, symbolism rarely succeeds. The best known samples of such success is Matisse’s Dance, but there are not that many of such works of art creating that successful archetype by the means of symbolism.
Michael’s man in his Kiddush on paper is a beautiful symbol of observing Jewish man. At the same time, this work is also an elegant symbol of our special Kiddush tradition. It tells it all, and does it in the rare case of artistic success when there is absolutely nothing should be added or left out.
When Michael handed his work to its extremely happy recipient in London, in a huge completely full synagogue, there was a wonderful and memorable moment of unified breathless silence of palpable delight , common and shared at the same time. After the ceremony, people were queuing patiently to see the work closer, and everybody smiled , warmly and engagingly, while examining the work from a close distance.
On a big canvas version, Michael decided to portray a slightly different Kiddush. The Jewish man there is of recognisably Sefardic origin, and the painting’s background represents our desert, both physical one in Negev, and metaphorical one, as well, of our people’s way to ourselves. This desert is not a homogenous or dull or desperate one, it is the kind of a desert that is an essential element of entire Jewish history. On the canvas, it filled in with the images of our Shabbat candles which are always around us and which are guarding us from one Shabbat to another.
The two works are united by the men’s devotion at the time of Kiddush, and from that perspective, from the symbolism presenting the archetype of observing Jewish man it gets to the symbolism presenting the archetype of Jewish emotion. In this case, the most personal and guarded of it, devotion.
Special aspect of devotion: its privacy
When an artist works from inside practicing tradition, his understanding serves as the best guide to his narrative. It is also the genetic memory of Jewish people that appears sometimes in our artists’ works, and this kind of loving loyalty makes this kind of art a sincere and simple song which reaches everyone.
Michael’s work Journey in Time I ( 2016) from his Journeys in Time series relates just this kind of the connection to the Jewish spiritual life-rope, our Torah. The life-rope that has saved us from extinction many times during all our over 3 300 years of history from the Exodus onward.
Devotion has its unmistaken aspect, privacy. The real thing is always quiet. For simple reason: a person does scream when he speaks to himself. How more so it is true in our personal inter-connection with the Creator. The one of the most profound and beautiful descriptions of this core aspect of Jewish Faith is found in the famous episode in the Writings describing Elijah’s encounter with the Creator ( Kings I, 19: 11-13). It tells Elijah in the process of powerful demonstrations that the Creator is not in the wind, nor in an earthquake, or in a fire. But then comes that ‘still, thin voice’ – and upon hearing it, Elijah knows that he has just met the Creator, in person.
There is mass of commentaries of this central episode in the Scriptures, expectedly. The one of the most beautiful and reasonable ones comes from the great Ralbag, Moshe Ben Gerson, known also as Gersonides, star Talmudist and serious scientist from early medieval France, who notes that the characteristic of ‘still, thin voice’ means a transition between state of silence and state of sound, or in another words, the inner voice, the kind of voice when revelation is perceived by a person for himself. The most convincing moment of truth.
Importantly, all our commentators agree on the main outcome of that episode: that the Creator is not to be found in a pompous manifestation, but in a quiet devotion. Michael’s modern drawing expresses the view of Gersonides that he had written in his brilliant commentaries to the Kings seven hundred year ago.
The Joy of the Torah , the Warmth of a Friend’s Shoulder
And then, at the end of our annual High Holiday month, after that contemplating period, after the end of Sukkoth, at the Banquet of the King, comes the exuberance of joy, Simchat Torah. We all have our favourite holidays in our rich circle of them. Michael’s one of the dearest for him is Simchat Torah. It is impossible to explain, it is – yes – personal. I guess that being raised in an observing Jewish family under the Soviet oppression of religious freedom, the outpouring manifestation of gratitude to the Creator for having the Torah, the guide in life, has its special overtone for Michael. Additionally to that, he simply loves people and his friends, and loves to be in a good company.
His lyrical Shtetl Song III ( 2013) drawing was created after spending the end of the High Holidays with our dear friends, a warm and family-like congregation of Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine led for 30 years by now by a brilliant man and outstanding Rabbi of our times, Shmuel Kaminetski. With regard to this work, Michael says that it is a clear-cut case when the inspiration comes from a concrete address. What is interesting to me in this live connection it is the fact that the revived life of Jewish communities in former Soviet Union after 70 years of its total suppression awoke the live creative energy in the artist who created the image celebrating the Jewish life all over the Eastern and Central Europe yet for centuries before the Bolshevik suffocation of freedom and before the Nazis annihilation of Jews and our Shtetls there. This work , and the history behind it, is a live proof of our Silver Thread that keeps us together from the ancient times until today. What can be more modern than the proof of ancient heritage alive?
Rose is one of the central symbols in Jewish tradition, and it gets close to Michael’s heart in his work as the artist, as well. He paints and draws roses often, always in a symbolic way, not as a plain illustrative exercise. Among many of his roses, the one giant one on his Simcha.Dance of Joy painting is special. It refers to the famous and bellowed symbol of the Thirteen-Petalled Rose which was first introduced by talented and original thinker and early Kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Abulafia in mid-13th century before it was brought closer to the wide audience of modern times by the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
It is also Rabbi Abulafia’s gentle metaphor comparing the Torah for Jewish people with ‘ milk for children’ in its absolute organic necessity and its pre-destined naturality, and also in its abundance and vitality in building one’s body. This famous rose of Jewish wisdom and petal-like multi-facetedness of our educated and family-inherited values’ approach to life, coloured as milk is a background for the Chasidic dance of happiness, Simcha, in this Michael’s painting. The rose flies in the cobalt-blue skies symbolising the stronghold of our principles and willingness to defend them. Together with the flying rose there, the cobalt-blue skies of strength are forming the universe of Israel and Eretz Israel. The work occupies a prominent place at the hospitable house of our dear friend, great Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetski, as I am happy to note with his kind permission. Rabbi Shmuel always mentioned that his family always gathers together next to this painting.
This artist loves to place his personages in skies, for a number of reasons. Especially Jewish ones. Jewish musicians, dreamers, singers, dancers. ‘Why is that?’ – Michael was asked numerous times, at many of his exhibitions and encounters with viewers, – ‘is there a straightforward metaphor of lyrical flying applied in these works, telling on your romantic perception of your people?’ – ‘Not necessarily’, – Michael replied several times, – ‘in my understanding, the thing is that music, dreams, dances, thoughts, and prayers originated in Jewish heart, conducted in sincerity, simplicity, and devotion are losing its gravity. Simple.”
Simple, indeed, when it is felt – and painted – organically.
Inna Rogatchi (C). October 2020.