Saturday, February 28, 2009

Painting the Hebrew Bible: Words and images.

I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a new visitor to the Bible illustration blog, whose recent comments on the blog I know many of you have found incredibly helpful. Nahum HaLevi, (who is also a Levite), is a Jewish Bible artist based in the U.S. His paintings can be found at Each painting on Nahum's website is accompanied by a highly detailed description which, apart from being a fascinating read, reveal Nahum's immense knowledge of the Torah. I asked Nahum if he would consider writing a short post for the B.I.B describing his Bible Art. He kindly agreed.

Painting the Hebrew Bible: Words and images, by Nahum HaLevi. 
The thrust and focus of my paintings is an attempt to grasp the transcendent meaning of the Hebrew Bible, and by extension to use art as a tool to try to understand the underlying nature, structure and essence of the universe, in other words to apprehend God. As a template for this process  I attempt to visually express the biblical narrative by deriving multiple images from multiple translations of the original Modern Hebrew text, and at times retranslate the words back into ancient Hebrew and further back into proto-Sinaitic pictographic Hebrew.
  Biblical Hebrew contains many words with multiple meanings, a testament to its very early and ancient origins. The meanings of some Hebrew words can be radically changed by a mere alteration of pronunciation, or textual context, or even by a single letter substitution. These linguistic elements have led to a wealth of literary interpretations.
 Many of my paintings combine the multiplicity of meanings of the Hebrew biblical text with the multiplicity of visual images derived from these different literary interpretations of scripture thereby resulting in combined visual-literary stories that are not possible by isolated pure literary or visual analysis.
  For some paintings I fuse images and words from disparate scriptures thereby creating fusion imagery of disparate biblical characters and concepts in different historical space-time coordinates into one holistic story. By retaining fragments of the different stories, each individual story is told, and a new creative story is told for the first time, providing multiple layers of meaning to the original stories.
  In some paintings , I use the principle of taking stories of individual characters from sequential chronological periods of their lives and jumbling them up into one narrative as though each story is a single point in the space-time continuum, and lives not only in the past or future, but in the never ending present.
One example of this is in the painting "Moses : Rock 'N Rage".
In this painting I have fused the young Moses who hits and kills the Egyptian taskmaster drawing out blood, with the older Moses who hits the rock in the desert, drawing out water quenching the Israelite's thirst. Also visually fused in this painting , are the Egyptian taskmaster and the rock who spew out blood and water as a result of being hit by Moses. The inspiration for this imagery comes from the common Hebrew word used in both stories for hitting- "Vayach"- "and he hit", either the Egyptian or the stone.
 The visualized simultaneity of two separate historical events combined with the simultaneous sequential chronological unfolding of both separate events, confuses our natural understanding and perception of linear time, providing us with a more accurate perception of the malleable bending of the space-time continuum, and thus fills us with an other worldly ethereal transcendental feeling.
 In some paintings I attempt to create a cinematic sensation of time moving both forwards and backwards on a two dimensional canvas by having individuals moving multiple arms and legs in different sequential geometric and spatial planes. I have used this technique in "Moses : Rock 'N Rage", and even more so in "The School of Shamgar".
   In a similar vane in the painting "The Amramovitz Family: Teamwork", I portray the infant Moses with a beard, fusing two of Moses' time coordinates; that of his infancy with that of his adulthood visualizing the simultaneous separate existences of these images within the space-time continuum, as well a providing a sensation of time rapidly moving forward or backwards from infancy to adulthood, depending on one's perspective. Again this confuses our perception of ordinary space-time and transports us into another realm of thought which transcends the ordinary laws of physics as we perceive them.

 In my paintings I also like to convey a sensation of synesthesis. Synesthesis is a neurological condition where certain individuals crisscross and confuse different senses, for example, some people can taste or hear colors. Certain people can see sounds. This is what is conveyed in the Bible , at Mount Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were given, and God descended on the mountain, that all Israel saw the sounds of the shofars (trumpets) and the sounds of thunder. I have conveyed this in my painting  "Shavuot" by drawing musical notes in the background. Similarly in many of my paintings I hope they are appreciated by utilizing sensory modalities other than sight, and I hope that you not only see the paintings, but hear their conversations, and the music they are playing, and hence I hope you fuse sight and sound, that you see and hear illuminated symphonies, and that you are momentarily transported and enjoy a separate reality.
By providing and fusing multiple scriptural word definitions and multiple images derived from them, in many paintings you might see simultaneous multiple image possibilities, and you might simultaneously sense that you are in the past, present or future, or all three, You might sense that you are at location X, or Y, or simultaneously feel that you are at both locations. When you read a word or several words and sentences, you might simultaneously understand multiple definitions and explanations. If you do all that, you might appreciate a greater totality of the universe, or at the very least will understand the limitation of our human brains when viewing things statically.
   I personally view every two-dimensional biblical canvas as a small bird's eye view of the vast space-time continuum. Different splashes of paint and letters all represent different points scattered in space and time, existing separately and yet simultaneously, all splayed out in a microcosm before our frail visual fields allowing us to grasp past, present and future in simultaneity, as they twinkle, coexist and meld into one unified coherent whole giving us a multifaceted perception of infinitely changing realities- dare we say a fragmentary glimpse of God.


Paul Green said...

Interesting thoughts about time Nahum. I happen to agree that viewing reality in a static manner is more of a hindrance to understanding the totality of experience. The Bible (and Eastern philosophies) does open the link between past, present and future. In fact many misinterpretations of scripture are because of a person reading a text in isolation.
Of course in everyday reality we think we live in the present but we are continually affected by past experience in our decision making and apprehension of the future can make us timid in our choices. The present doesn't exist except as part of a flowing stream of past and future.
Thanks for sharing your views and artwork.

deboraw said...

After pondering on the post, I must agree with Paul. Very well said. Deboraw

Anonymous said...

Thank you Paul G and Deboraw for your charitable words.

Bible artist said...

This is the first time that we have introduced a post which considers some of the 'deeper' aspects of Bible Art. In the past, most of our posts deal with what could be described as the more mundane aspects of Bible illustration, be it biblical architecture, clothing, artifacts, customs etc. We have never really discussed 'Bible Art' on a deeper level.

In my mind, I have the tendency to divide Bible illustrators and Bible artists into two separate groups. Although I use the name 'bible artist' I would consider myself a Bible illustrator. The job of a Bible illustrator, as I see it, is to retell Bible stories in picture form, whereas the Bible artist has the unenviable job (or nobler work) of presenting some aspect of the infinite God to His finite creatures in the hope that we will comprehend some small detail of His infinite love, power or grace etc, or as Nahum says, "to apprehend God". The division between Bible artist and illustrator is not a clear one though, as it's true to say that some Bible illustrators have a strong desire to present some aspect of the Almighty God in their pictures. And, although it might be difficult to tell a Bible story using contemporary Bible art, traditional Bible art is often used for this purpose.
I would class Nahum as a Bible artist as the concepts that Nahum presents in his pictures would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get across in what I would call a Bible illustration. I wish that every contemporary artist would add a picture description as Nahum has. I like to understand the reason why everything in a painting is there!

I was very interested to read about the condition called 'Synesthesis' (which my computer thinks is a spelling error! ). I wonder if, when man had the use of all of his brain (e.g. Adam), synesthesis was not considered a condition, but was the norm?
Can you imagine having the ability, when painting a picture, to both hear and taste the colors too? That would be an overwhelming sensory experience! I imagine that, to those who have this condition, the colors used by God in nature (e.g. sunsets etc), would not only be beautiful, but harmonious and palatable too!
I wonder also if man at one time had the ability to hear all of nature singing praise to God as is mentioned in Psalm 148.

Many thanks for this thought provoking post Nahum.

Paul Green said...

Hi Graham

Regarding the subject of Synesthesis I can honestly say I had some form of this as a child. Sadly all I have left are memories of the experience. I think most children experience a greater unity with nature. With fear of sounding elitist - especially artistic children. Most adults lose this ability as their senses become dulled over time.
This is no doubt being eroded as children experience less of the real world of nature in favour of the world of technology.
I find it amazing that certain people can be so arrogant as to pretend to know the workings of the universe and claim to be approaching a "theory of everything" based on their limited senses. We probably experience a tiny fraction of creation with our senses. I think those that have the gift of Synesthesis are glimpsing a portion of the greater reality that lies beyond the reach of our everyday senses.
Materialists will claim that all we see is all there is. There is nothing more. This thinking is equivalent to a fish at the bottom of the deepest ocean saying creation consists entirely of water.

Bible artist said...

Nicely put Paul.

Anonymous said...

Graham your question about wheter Adam who used all his brain was a synesthete is very prescient. The current theory on this matter is that every baby born (just like Adam) has synesthesis. This was surmised based on experiments on how babies responded to certain sensory stimuli. As we get older, and our brains mature , the early synaptic connections existing in the cerebral cortexes and limbic systems which interconnect different sensory modalities, are pruned, and as a consequence,by the end of infancy everyone loses their synesthetic capabilities. Everyone, but those fortunate few, who retain these connections and are synesthetic throughout adulthood. There are quite a few famous artists and musicians that have synesthesis, and thus share their gift with the world. Famous synesthetes include the painter Vasily Kandinsky, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and musicians Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Whereas not all artists are synesthetes , many synesthetes channel their talents via their artistic endeavors. Therefore, Paul G, you must be a great artist having once been aware of your synesthetic talent. Chances are you still might have retained some of these connections. I suspect its somehow reflected in your art.

Horseman said...

Amazing ideas come together here. Your art is a nexus to the infinite. I see it, hear it, and smell it. Can’t taste or touch it though. For the most part, I am figuratively speaking here.

I see incompleteness in some of your work – but that is only because I am Christian. For example, “Moses: Rock and Rage” could show a fusion of your chosen story matter with the event of Yeshua upon the Tree. Moses smote the Egyptian and the rock. Blood and water gushed forth. The blood led to freedom. The water caused them to thirst not when he led them through the desert. These events link to or are a part of this divine truth: Blood and water gushed forth from Yeshua. His blood is our freedom. His waters sustain us through the spiritual wastelands. I explore some of these thoughts in one of my pieces.

But this is about you and your perspective. It is your art. And you are Jewish and would not make such things. Why prepare something that you do not want to eat… right?

Good art.


Bible artist said...

That is absolutely fascinating! I can understand how a painter with synesthesis could have the ability to choose a perfectly complimentary palette of colors as maybe colors that don't compliment each other would sound discordant together.

Most artists rely on their gut feeling when it comes to choosing colors. So possibly this gut feeling, or our aesthetic ability, is based on distant memories of synesthesis.
This is fascinating!

Paul Green said...

I wish I was a great artist Nahum. :)) I've been a professional author of non-fiction for McFarland & Co. since 2000. My artwork has taken a back seat because I felt limited by what I could achieve as an artist and prefer writing as a means of communication. Maybe I should research Synesthesis in depth. It certainly is a fascinating subject.

Paul Green said...

I see Synesthesia has already been researched in depth. There is lots of information available on the web to anyone interested.

Bible artist said...

Paul G is a great artist, he just won't admit it!
Anyone who has worked on Superman is great in my book!

Paul G:
Thanks for that Paul. I'll have a read.

Christian said...

To all:

There is art in a variety of mediums. To some it may be in oils, while others shew forth in watercolors. Other's art may invole wood, metal, and/or stone. To some art is expressed through the written word and yet still others display it in the spoken word. I, myself, dabble in building and coloring pictures by means of the computer, although I have used oils and colored pencils. My father displays his art through is crafting skills in construction and gardening. So Paul, you may be writing, but you are also an artist in the written word.

Second point: Have you ever smelled the rain? Have you ever felt greens and browns? Have you tasted the wind? Have you ever heard snow fall? The ability to experience these colors and the world around us is there in all of us, we simply need to slow down and live! I have felt the color green. It is soft and resistant. Brown, is rough and pointed. Rain has a distinct wet and refreshing odor; wind shimmers over the tongue as an oyster shell shimmers in the sunlight and it dances with a vibrant yellow or its taste is a bitter blue. I personally have sat for hours watching the snow fall and hearing it whisper and rustle as it floats through the air. this does not mean I am special or have this Synesthesis. It means I use the abilities that God gave me to enjoy His creation that He built for me. As do most artists, I shouldn't wonder.


Bible artist said...

I have tasted the wind Christian, but it's usually after I've eaten a large curry! ;0)

Seriously though, I know what you mean. A personal favorite of mine is looking at all the colors of the rainbow reflected in dew drops in the morning when the sun is just up.

Paul Green said...

When I first came to Virginia some years ago I encountered my first tornado. I recall in the hours before the tornado hit the sound of the wind was like a train approaching. Remarkably similar. The power of nature is profound. When the tornado hit it skipped buildings. A random hop, skip and jump that completely flattened a nearby Baptist church (now rebuilt). A house near the freeway was destroyed. The next door neighbor untouched.
So when I think of the sounds of nature the image of the train approaching through the trees comes to mind. No doubt in an earlier age the sound would remind one of approaching chariots or a herd of horses. The sound we hear is based on the culture and society we live in. It follows that all Biblical references to the power of nature are influenced by their culture.
Synesthesia is in effect experienced through the filter of our cultural expectations. We are all entrapped within a small corridor of time that effects our perception of reality.

deboraw said...

I was waiting until I had a few minutes. Interesting thoughts. We have studies on per near everything any more seems like. However, in my experience, the electromagnetic circuits in the brain can be changed, although it is much harder the older an individual is. Children should not be subjected to radio or television until they are approximately forty years old. And then only once. LOL. I don't know how many times I've said 'turn those dumb things off, the stars are still singing, and I want to hear them'. (Job 38:7 When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?)
Very well said, Christian. Yes, to all of the above.

Paul G, I read somewhere (an often quoted artist/article, 'somewhere' and 'someone') that in different countries animals make different sounds. ie, in America cats 'meow', ducks 'quack' etc. but in a European country (choose whatever country) they make different sounds...sounds crazy to me, but? I don't like the lightening storms. You can hear, see, feel, and smell them. Deboraw

Paul Green said...

Hi Deboraw

Having lived both in England and America I can tell you cats meow and dogs bark in exactly the same manner according to their breed. :)) Of course American birds have different "songs" because they are variations of European varieties. The American robin is quite different to the English robin, both in size and song. The American crow is larger and noisier than its British cousin. Maybe that's what the writer meant in their article.
And I agree you can see, feel, hear, smell and almost taste thunderstorms in the air. And many animals know they are approaching by an instinct or sense we don't possess.

deboraw said...

Thank you, Paul G. Now I can rest easy. Smile. Deboraw

Anonymous said...

you should check these out

Bible artist said...

Thanks for the link Anonymous!

Arts Essays said...

It was a great masterpiece and appreciate this artistic medium! I will compose an essay regarding this artwork.