Art as a love song: High Holiday reflections

MICHAEL ROGATCHI’S FOREFATHERS AND THE MIRACLE OF CONNECTION

I am thinking sometime on what Marc Chagall was thinking while working on his illustrations for the Bible, both in the 1930s and 1950s? With the first series known as The Bible series ( 1931-1939) it is more clear, as it was clearly inspired and ignited by his visit to then Palestine, and intensified in the later part of the series by the clouds that were gathering into the storm against Jews on the European horizon, being very palpable in Paris and France from 1935 onward. 

When the most soulful Jewish master has returned to his big song to the Torah twenty five years later, being 65, after the Holocaust that was a devastation for him, and losing the love and sense of his love with premature and avoidable death of Bella, he was working on it the same eight years as he did on his first series from the 1930s. 105 works of the Drawings for the Bible were created by lost and grieving Chagall from 1952 to 1960. 

Was he thinking on his home, his family, his heder, his synagogue which he stopped to visit immediately after his Bar Mitzva? Was he thinking on the places where they were spending hours and days with Bella, walking and talking, and dreaming and being as one, in that blessed wholesomeness? Was he lamenting the giant loss of Jewish lives because of the Shoah, as he let it go in his heart-wrenching poem on Our Jewish Martyrs that he created in 1955 in Yiddish, at the same time when he was working on the Drawings for the Bible? 

Probably, there was a bit of all of it, longing, suffering, dreaming, and also seeking a consolation for his own tormented by the Catastrophe soul. Each of those works is soothed in melancholy, and it makes them so magnetic. The lithograph of one of the works which we have a huge privilege to see every morning, a special gift of special friend, is one of them, and it is on the most assuring episode narrated in the Torah, on the Angels visiting Abraham to tell him on future birth of Isaac. 

Marc Chagall. Abraham and Three Angels. Lithograph of pastel on cardboard. 23 x 33 cm. Drawings for the Bible. 73. Milan. 1994. (C) The Rogatchi Art Collection.

As it is known, there are not many Jewish artists, as modern, as contemporary ones who are continuing Chagall’s line of reflecting on the Torah. I always wondered why, as the Torah is the most powerful source of the pot of creativity: of knowledge, inspiration, plots, characters, symbols, you name it.

Being lucky to live with the artist who have had a serious input in contemporary art on visual perception of the Torah, I can think on such reason as a huge degree of responsibility for an artist who deals with such fundamental material. 

To paint the Torah and its characters is a very demanding task. It requires a lot of knowledge which is a prerequisite for understanding which is a pre-condition of creating new images on the eternal themes and subjects. To reach the harmony between the limitations of strict observance and accepted by the modern Rabbinic authorities possibilities to express the love and understanding of people living today to the Torah and our heritage is not an easy task to accomplish. And as it was the case with Chagall in his reflecting on the Torah in different age and at different periods of his life, Michael also was approaching it twice by now, with a decade gap in between his first Biblical series, known as Forefathers ( 1995-2010), and the second one, Zion Waltz ( 2016-2017) which combines the theme of the Land of Israel with new imaginary regarding our spiritual domain and tradition. 

Michael Rogatchi (C). Heeding the Book. Oil on canvas. 52 x 82 cm. 1995. Forefathers series.

Forefathers with its core part of 18 paintings won the hearts and minds of many people in many countries, and from different walks of life, from curators and art historians to many Rabbis, including the luminaries among them, and wide general public all over Europe, in Israel and in the USA. Inspiringly, many young people are attached and interested on the series, asking many questions on it. To our joy, very many non-Jews are keen on it, too. 

The core collection of the Forefathers focuses on the Biblical personalities.  Being prompted by the powerful image of Moses ( 1999) with flying letters from the Tablets getting off the Tablets in the moment just before its crushing, the image that has been seen by Michael in his dream with incredible precision, the series in the beginning was centred on the Uspitzim, the seven key-figures of our nation, the ones who are visiting us every day, one per one, during the week of Sukkoth.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Moses. Oil on canvas. 64 x 60 cm. 1999. Forefathers series.

In that series, Michael’s King David ( 2003) grabbed the attention of many art historians, many of whom have noticed that it is ‘the most unusual image of King David among his depictions’, according to Dr. Elena Bergman, former director of the art collection of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and many others.  Michael was giving many lectures on his Forefathers, with specific master-class on his King David whom he decided to depict at the moment of his father sorrow, at the instance when King David was heard on his son’s Absalom’s death.  “King David is my favourite personage from the Jewish history. For me, he epitomises Jewishness and Judaism. And I was willing to portray him in a rare for such strong personality moment as when he had heard on the death of his beloved son, and wanted to be alone. I wanted to examine the most dramatic moment of a great man” – said Michael on his truly unusual work ( Forefathers exhibition catalogue, 2010). 

Michael Rogatchi(C). King David. ‘Absalom, My Son!..’ Oil on canvas, 120 x100 cm. 2003. Forefathers series.

Being added to the gallery of Ushpitsim, Michael’s Samson ( 1999) has clearly become a winner among the art curators with inviting the work to many exhibitions world-wide. Michael says that ‘the second part of the work’s title is important. It is Samson. The Last Smile. In this work, I wanted to capture the precise moment when the exhausted and blind Samson begs the Creator for the only means that would enable him to crush his and our people’s enemies, even at the price of his own life. As he departs this world, the Samson’s smile shows his gratitude to the Creator for answering his prayer and allowing him the opportunity to return to his people” ( Forefather exhibition catalogue, 2010).

Michael Rogatchi (C). Samson. The Last Smile. Oil on canvas. 95 x 82 cm. 1999. Forefathers series.

On each of those work, there could be written an essay of its own. People are always gleaned at the exhibition to the beautiful portraits of Aaron ( 2009) and Jacob (2004) , and are mesmerised by filled by fine symbolism works depicting Joseph  ( 2009) and the first double-portrait of Abraham and Sarah ( 1999), the reproduction of which is said to be one of the best possible Jewish wedding gifts. But the one work stands out of this mighty series, and it is Akeida (2001). In this masterly work with its beautiful and original image, the Biblical definition of Abraham as the ‘Rock of the Nation” gets its artistic dimension.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Akeidah ( The Binding of Isaac). oil on canvas, 84 x 78 cm. 2001. Forefathers series.

It is re-assuring to connect this title work of Michael’s Forefathers with Chagall’s lithograph on our wall which as if gives its special authentic key to our both’ artistic reflections on the Torah in the way in which the art work on one’s wall provides to those who are living with it – sub-consciously. 

In interesting development, ten years after completion of a male part of the Forefathers, Michael was prompted to continue the series, this time with adding the female component to it, the other part of the wholesome picture of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. And although there are four Matriarchs, he decided to add three more Biblical heroines to the series, Miriam, Deborah and Esther. 

In his portrait of Sarah  (2009) which effectively is the second double-portrait of her with Abraham, as Michael insists that they are the embodiment of a wholesomeness in Jewish tradition, he added also some symbols with extra-meaning that deepens the message of the work. His portrait of Miriam ( 2010) is energetic and symbolises the vital strength of the female part in any Jewish family, all originated from the sister of Moses and Aaron. His Rachel  ( 2009) is as if speaking to us from the place of her burial, which effectively is the place of where her spirit is waiting for her Jewish brethren in generations to embrace them. His Deborah ( 2010) is ultra-modern, and the point of it is to convey the message that her wisdom is travelling in time to add strength to every next generation. 

Three works from that series have a special effect on audiences at every place, Esther, Rebecca and Leah. Esther ( 2009) which symbolises a rose in Jewish tradition  – and rose symbolises Esther and many other things – is portrayed in an intricate and original image which succeeded in showing her determination, her thoughtfulness, her facing a super-challenge, and her vulnerability and beauty at the same time.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Esther.Oil on canvas. 120 x 80 cm. 2009. Forefathers series.

Rebecca ( 2009)  from Forefathers is praised widely. It is an outstanding work, fine, impressive, deep and magical. The kind of image which once had been seen stays with a viewer for good.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Rebecca. Oil on canvas. 120 x 80 cm 2009. Forefathers series.

And then, Leah, probably, the most difficult personage from the Matriarchs to be portrayed – not that beautiful as the Torah says to us, suffering, vulnerable, a very difficult subject for a painter to do justice to her. In Michael’s painting, we see a very enlightening Matriarch, the mother of the six Tribes, the devoted wife of Jacob, a very determined woman who in the artist’s understanding deserves deep respect. What is amazing about this very art work is that it has a very special effect being put on a wall. It illuminates the space around it unmistakably, it produces quite palpable effect of illuminating good and enlightening the space around it, it is as if charges it with goodness. Very rare paintings does have such palpable effect, and this is the one of them. 

Michael Rogatchi (C). Leah. Oil on canvas.86 x 78 cm. 2009. Forefathers series.

Three more paintings from this 18-pieces series are depicting the artist’s very personal connection with the spiritual domain of Jewish tradition, a fragments of very rare for Michael’s self-portrait in Heeding the Book ( 1995)  in which a hand is more important part of the artist’s self-portrait than a face and an eye which are also presented there; and the key for that is a statement: the hand is on the top of the Torah; metaphorical Shema, Israel!.. ( 2004) with its transcendent reality of a prayer;  and The Next Year in Jerusalem ( 1995) which is a very emotional and dynamic portrait of Jewish mother and a child in its all-embracing continuity of our tradition. 

Michael Rogatchi (C). Next Year In Jerusalem. Jewish Mother. Oil on canvas, 66 x59 cm. 1995. Forefathers series.

As it had been established by prof. Julia Weiner who co-curated the Forefathers project, “the series is unprecedented in the history of art, as in its comprising images of all Patriarchs and Matriarchs as such had never been done before”. I know that Michael was not thinking on this pioneering element in his work while creating the Forefathers for fifteen years. It is impossible to say anything with certainty on what an artist was thinking about while working on certain works unless we are hearing it from an artist himself, and I am not sure that many of them are eager to uncover that very intimate part of their work and existence. 

Michael can comment on his works, and he does speak on his Forefathers and other works on spiritual theme extremely interestingly and every time anew, but it is about the works, not about his sources for it.  This part of his lab is private. 

For Marc Chagall, the Torah, the Bible in his famous phrase, was ‘the greatest source of poetry of all time”. It also was for him “like an echo of nature, and this secret I have tried to transmit” ( Drawings For the Bible, 1960). 

For Michael, the Torah is a living source of life, and its heroes and heroines are the people, the individuals who defined the moral strength and qualities of our people. He says: “I wish to capture the movements of the soul on canvas” ( Approximation of White essay, 2003). 

Several years after completing Forefathers, Michael has returned to his artistic portraying of Jewish spirituality, heritage  and tradition in his Zion Waltz series. 

Every High Holidays, we are coming back to Forefathers, would it be exhibitions, lectures, master-classes, or private shows of the series which brings us back to our roots  and at the same time connects the corn-stone of our spiritual foundation with our modern-day life today, millennia after the Torah’s personalities portrayed by Michael https://youtu.be/9ics9-rfAWslived. This very connection feels as a miracle to me. A miracle of our spiritual foundation being living and breathing today, as it was in the beginning of our history, 5780 years ago.

Shana Tova 5780 to all our readers and viewers. 

September 2019

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is internationally acclaimed writer, scholar and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal The Lessons of Survival. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Inna's family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, Holocaust and post-Holocaust, arts and culture. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband). Inna Rogatchi is the member of the Board of the Finnish National Holocaust Remembrance Association.
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