Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Cyberangels Honor Rembrandt on His 350th Yahrzeit

The name “Rembrandt” has become synonymous with “artist.” Doting parents of an artistically talented child say, “He’s a real Rembrandt!”

The 350th anniversary of his death on October 4th begins a “Year of Rembrandt” when the great master is being celebrated in museums throughout the world, with exhibitions from Leiden where he was born, to Amsterdam where he established his art studio, to Oxford, Madrid, Ontario, New York, and Abu Dhabi.

My article is titled his 350th yahrzeit, a Yiddish word for the date on which Rembrandt left his artistic legacy for posterity. Judaism honors a person on the day he died rather than on his birthday. It’s like applauding after seeing a great play when the curtain comes down rather than when it goes up when we don’t yet know the story.

I created a Global Tribute to Rembrandt blog to document my digital homage events reaching thirty museums on five continents that have my Rembrandt inspired artworks in their collections. Complimenting my blog, I launched a book that explores the impact of digital technologies and new media on art and culture, Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights on Smartphone Photography and Social Media. It explores the biblical themes found in Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, and etchings in the language of today’s digital culture.

Art is a Computer Angel

Rembrandt’s inspiration for my digital age artwork began three decades ago when I was sitting in a small Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn listening to the chanting of the biblical portion about artists building the Tabernacle while translating the Hebrew words into English in my mind. It struck me that the Bible’s term for “art” is malekhet makhsevet, literally “thoughtful craft.” It is a feminine term.  Since I am a male artist, I transformed it into its masculine form malakh makhsev, literally “computer angel.”

As soon as the services ended, I ran to my wife Miriam to tell her that I realized that my role as a male Jewish artist is to create computer angels. “To do what?” was her response. I reminded her of an article that our son Rabbi Ron Alexenberg had sent us a week earlier when he was archivist at Rabbi Kook’s House in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a down-to-earth mystic who served as the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel during the first half of the 20th century, described the light in Rembrandt paintings as the light of the first day of Creation.

I felt well equipped to create computer angels. I was head of the art department at Pratt Institute where I taught “Fine Art with Computers” and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies where I taught “Developing Creativity for the Electronic Age.” I was a frequent flier on the New York-Boston shuttle.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art invited me and Miriam to search for angel images in its extensive collection of Rembrandt drawings and etchings.  We sat at a large oak table in the print room. In a quiet ritual, a young man placed one Rembrandt at a time on a delicate easel in front of us as the tissue paper protecting the picture was slowly removed. The museum photographed the angels that we selected for me to digitize and create computer-generated multi-media artworks, paintings, lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, to global cyberangel events. Today, if you type “Alexenberg” into The Met’s website of their digitized collection, you’ll find one of my multimedia artworks ““Digitized Homage to Rembrandt: Jacob’s Dream” nestled among the original Rembrandts.

Cyberangels Circumglobal Flight via AT&T Satellites

I phoned AT&T and asked if I could use their telecommunication satellites to send a cyberangel on a circumglobal flight as a tribute to Rembrandt on the 320th anniversary of his death.  “You have what to send around the globe?” was the usual response as I was transferred from office to office.  Incredulity was turn to interest when I reached the Infoquest Center, AT&T’s technology museum in their postmodern building walking distance from The Met.  AT&T agreed to sponsor my event.

On the morning of October 4, 1989, my Rembrandt inspired cyberangel ascended from the Chippendale top of the AT&T building in New York.  It flew to Amsterdam to Jerusalem to Tokyo to Los Angeles, returning to the former New Amsterdam (New York) on the same afternoon.  It took an hour in each city to receive 28 pages of angel fragments and fax them on to the next city.  After a five-hour flight around the planet, the deconstructed angel was reconstructed for the fifth time at its starting point.

When it passed through Tokyo, it was the already the morning of October 5th.  After the line printed out on the top of the fax “Tokyo National University of Arts and Music, 5 October 1989” was the line “Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 4 October 1989.”  Cyberangels can not only fly around the globe, they can fly into tomorrow and back into yesterday.  They reshape our concepts of time and space in ways that correspond to the vision of kabbalists centuries ago.

The cyberangel returned to New York five hours after it had left. The broadcast of the event over the major television networks visited the homes of more than ten million viewers across North America. Associated Press covered the faxart event, sending the angel image and story over its wire services.  Sixty newspaper carried the AP story, each with a different headline. It was also featured in the annual report of AT&T sent to its millions of shareholders.

In the photo above, I am dressed as Rembrandt’s friend Rabbi Manasseh Ben Israel holding my computer-generated print emerging from a fax machine on Rembrandt’s etching press in his studio in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam where he created the original images. The only book that Rembrandt illustrated was a book about kabbalah by Manasseh Ben Israel with an etching of angels going up and down on Jacob’s ladder.

From Faxart to the Digital Culture of Smartphones and Social Media

Flash forward thirty years from the faxart generation to the ubiquitous digital culture of smartphones and social media. The “Year of Rembrandt” events that I am now creating are digital art expressions of the biblical passage (Genesis 28:12) of Jacob’s dream by Rembrandt appearing in the Amsterdam rabbi’s book. “A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels were going up and down on it.”  The preeminent biblical commentator Rashi (11th century, France) teaches that the angels go up from the Land of Israel and come down throughout the world.

Follow my Global Tribute to Rembrandt blog that will be documenting multiple global events that demonstrate the major changes in art and technology 30 years later.

I present the conceptual background for them in my highly acclaimed book Through a Bible Lens. See praise for the book from experts on art and digital culture and Jewish and Christian spiritual leaders at Israel365.  On the book’s cover, cyberangels spiral up from a NASA satellite image of Israel as they emerge from a smartphone screen. It is based on my serigraph “Angels Ascending from the Land of Israel” in the collection of the Israel Museum.

In the first of these events, cyberangels begin their virtual flight from the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, home of ancient Bible scrolls. They gain momentum by going up from the tallest building in Israel, home of Facebook’s R&D Center, until construction is completed for the 91 story Azrieli Spiral Tower in Tel Aviv shaped as a Bible scroll.

They arrive from Israel at the cafes of each of the thirty museum that have my Rembrandt inspired artwork in their collections. Why cafes? The biblical words for angel and food are spelled with the same four Hebrew letters to teach that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life. Perhaps there is spiritual significance that museums that offer art also offer food.

From Jerusalem in Israel to JerUSAlems in USA

Other events will continue the theme generated by the biblical passage of angels going up on Jacob’s ladder in the Land of Israel and going down throughout the world.  Events will link the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to museums in the twelve US states that have places named JerUSAlem. See the JerUSAlem-USA blog.

Art students in Jerusalem will collaborate with art students in art schools and university art departments in the 12 states.  My digital artworks will show cyberangels flying from the office of the mayor of Jerusalem to the governors of the 12 states in their State Capital buildings, and from the Knesset Building housing Israel’s parliament, cyberangels will fly into the Capital Building in Washington to the senators and congressmen representing JerUSAlems in USA.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.