Magazine article Tikkun

Pouring Water into Leaking Barrels: A Solitude of Tikkun in the Works of Ben-Zion (1897-1987)

Magazine article Tikkun

Pouring Water into Leaking Barrels: A Solitude of Tikkun in the Works of Ben-Zion (1897-1987)

Article excerpt

In 1986, the premier issue of TIKKUN ran on its cover "Moses Gathering The Broken Tablets," a painting by the late artist Ben-Zion. One can imagine the Israelites, fear-riddled as they perceive the awesome luminosity of Moses, turning away toward distraction, thereby failing in the nisayon (the Hebrew word for test and experience) of the perception of beauty as a revelation of divine essence. In this painting, Moses' head bends toward his chest; the torso folds into itself in a posture of grief at once tender and wrenching. He holds the fragments of smashed stone as poignantly as a mother gathering a child to her breast. The sculptural rendering of the figure, as well as the colors of beard and robe, relate the figure to sky and stone and mimic the rocky terrain surrounding him. The prophet is at one with the earth on which he stands, barefooted upon the dust of holiness. Moses, the quintessential Homo Sympathetikos-the term Abraham Joshua Heschel used to describe the prophetic union as a sympathy with divine pathos-echoes the primal breaking of the vessels, and thereby the need for tikkun, the restoration of harmony unto the world.

The melody of paradox, evident in this depiction of Moses, is the golden thread weaving its way through Ben-Zion's work. For it is perhaps the blessing of the very tragedy of a broken world which introduces the necessity for and possibility of tikkun, allowing for humankind's participation in the act of creation.

For Ben-Zion, art was a calling, as is prophecy, as God calls the name of the first artist--Bezalel, son of Uri--for he was in the likeness, in the shelter of the divine, born of light. Ben-Zion saw the way of the artist-poet as a lofty solitary meandering--the exiling of trivialization and transmutation of matter into luminous wonder.

Again and again, Ben-Zion returned to the subject of the prophets, and through oil and iron and pen he drew them as he was drawn into them. He became these prophets, bellowing their cry across a vast, empty desert landscape. They gesture: supplicating, rejecting, lamenting, knowing, asking. "The Prophet in the Dark" (fig.A),(figure A omitted) a naked figure with exaggerated and distorted limbs, open, upturned hands as if waiting to be filled, alone and solitary, hints at the nearness of the far through a five-pointed star and moon, no longer in their rightful place but upon the earth. "Abraham and the Stars" (fig.B)(figure B omitted) again introduces the turning of a mask-like face toward the heavens, his long beard of light reflects the light of star-torched sky, his cane hooked upon a star while a diagonal rope connects ground and space. Abraham, forsaking the falsehood of idol worship and rejecting the comfort of familiar community, irradiates a deluded world with his incandescence.

And there is Job, etched into copper plate, or canvas, or immersed in watercolor moving through unbroken gestures from challenging the divine until, enlightened by the divine, he reposes in dancing line and cloth, finally reconciled. The watercolor (fig.C)(figure C omitted) re-emphasizes the colors of rainbow and earth, suggesting that the separation of human from the natural world is but illusion.

Ben-Zion moved from the outrage of prophets to the tenderness of Hasidic and Kabbalistic giants. He painted the Baal Shem Tov communing with birds and trees in the forest. Hasidic lore tells that the Baal Shem Tov spent years alone in the Carpathian Mountains as a young man. For Ben-Zion, walking held meditative rapture. As a youth he walked to the Carpathian Mountains, the Tatra Mountains, losing himself in the wheat fields and pine woods of the Ukraine. As an old man he said "...go into the woods. Pick up a stone. Look at it. Turn it over. Look at it." He painted Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, in Hebrew poetry as an adored being wrapped in holiness, words flowing from his mouth like precious pearls. He painted a Jew blessing the Sabbath wine with upturned fingers recalling the five-petaled rose of Israel. …

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