By Ori Z Soltes
Professor of Art History, Theology, and Philosophy
I. Language, Writing, and Memory
Humans are distinguished among the creatures across our planet by a number of capabilities. None is more valuable than memory: a gift that, in the specific ways in which humans use it, is unique. Most obviously, memory eradicates the line between past and present—and between mortality and immortality: as long as we remember events and persons from our past, they remain present for us; as long as we remember those who are gone from the world of the here and now, they remain part of it. The border between life and death assumes a blurrier, more indistinct quality than it would seem to have if we think only of these terms—which we use as a convenience, as a part of the process of separating reality into different aspects, and placing them in conceptual boxes that make it somehow easier for us to grasp them.
This quality of memory’s gift—of taking things out of their conceptual boxes and spreading them across the carpets of our minds—is of particular relevance for the art of Robert Brandwayn and in particular of the agglomeration of works entitled “El Tiempo del No Tiempo”: “The Time of No Time.” The array of pieces in this selection, on canvas and in small installations, are fraught with memory and devoted to the blurring (or perhaps, more insistently, the erasure) of the lines between past and present—and further, by implication, between present and future—as they simultaneously build connections between while eliminating the boundaries between profane and sacred realms.
The instrument of memory is a finely-tuned one for humans, making use, over the hundreds of thousands of years of our development as a species, of its own set of increasingly sophisticated instruments.
We have developed, over many millennia, a uniquely complex series of vocal symbols through which we communicate with each other—we call this “language”—and, in the past relatively few millennia, we have added to this a diverse series of visual means of representing those sounds and through these visual symbols, which we call “writing,” to communicate across time and space well beyond where our vocal articulations can carry the messages that we want to transmit.
These capabilities—language and writing—are interwoven with other capabilities, such as thinking in general and memory in particular, in our evolution as a species. It is argued by some that, without language, we could not think at the level at which we think, since we need the means to express our thoughts not only in order to express them, but to think them. One might then also argue that language is essential to the production of memory, because it is essential to the articulation of memory; without articulating them, the memories fade, dissipating like the dreams that leave us gradually as we awaken, and which we leave behind, even if the feeling evoked by them may continue to effect the day and our participation in its activities. So at the very least, memory aids and abets the extension and expansion, if not the very production, of memory; and writing harnesses language to a still more extended time beyond time; together they carry through the millennia into a point where time is functionally irrelevant.
For after all, Gilgamesh and Akhilleus, central figures in the oldest epics in the Western tradition, both connected to gods—Akhilleus is both human and divine in a literal sense, parented by both a mortal father and an immortal sea goddess mother—as much as the one lived and died nearly five millennia ago and the other more than thirty-two centuries ago, continue to live today, thanks to the poems that tell of them, sung by oral bards and eventually committed to the forms of the written word that eventually became available to the Sumerian and Greek cultures respectively.
These human possessions—of memory, language, and writing—unique and wonderful as they are, are also far from perfect. Spoken and certainly written language may extend us beyond other species, but in both its verbal and its visual forms, as speech and as writing, language is also limited. If it could perfectly capture the love of a parent for his or her child, or the beauty of a sunrise, then poets would stop writing about such aspects of human experience and its ambience. Why continue to try to articulate what has been perfectly expressed?
Moreover, the memory served by language and writing is a flawed instrument. As Primo Levi (among others) points out in the first lines of his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, “[h]uman memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. …The memories that lie within us are not carved on stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even grow, by incorporating extraneous features…”
The context in which Levi writes these words is yet another attempt to explore and express in words, aspects of an experience that transcends words: the Holocaust—an experience that is, ultimately, like the Name of God, ineffable. Yet the Holocaust is a human product: it reflects the unique capacity of human beings to turn torture and murder into a science and an art. This particular volume by Primo Levi, distinct from his earlier books, is specifically focused on the problem of memory: how, to begin with, perpetrators brought before tribunals and courts suddenly found themselves unable to recollect their role in the horrors that, conversely, their former victims cannot seem to forget. The outcome is that there is no single narrative for the events of the Holocaust, but tens of thousands of narratives, that the story is both endlessly unique yet connects not only to its own constituent parts but to stories that carry from Armenia to Cambodia to the Balkans to Rwanda in its disturbing universality. The outcome is that survivors of the horror find themselves in a sharp-edged grey zone of shame as much as or more than of relief that continues to cut at them for decades after the events are over and done with.
Levi explains that someone like him—the same would be said of his famous co-survivor, Elie Wiesel—does not and did not set out to be a “Holocaust writer”—on the contrary; he would have been a chemist back in his city of Turin, and Wiesel probably would have been an obscure rabbi in the town of Sziget. Both of them, and others like them, write because they need to write—so that their memories don’t fade and with them those they loved and who perished at the hands of the Nazis, cease to be known and remembered. Not to write is nearly imagined by them as a second murder of those whom the Nazis murdered.
II. Jews, Memory, Mysticism, and the Written Word
Well before the events of the Holocaust and the tension as a consequence between the wish to forget and the imperative to remember, Jews and Judaism were focused on the importance of memory. The very first word, by implication, of the Ten Commandments, is ”remember!”—remember that “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and out of the House of Bondage”—and the Passover celebration that retells the narrative of the Exodus leading up to the transmission of those commandments at Mount Sinai, as well as the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) that recalls that moment on and at the base of the mountain, together with virtually every other Jewish celebration and calendrical milestone, seeks to bring the past into the present in order to feel the moments of that history, in order more emphatically to remember the significance of those moments. We don’t merely tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, for instance; we imbue all of our Passover gastronomy with symbolic meanings that we—literally—ingest along with the words we recite.
Judaism also has a long history of reinforcing the importance of memory with the written word, from the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible to the extensive sea of the oral—and eventually written—rabbinic tradition. As significant a non-Jew as the prophet Muhammad coined the phrase “People of the Book” with reference to Jews—and Jews have an unusually rich history as a people of a plethora of diverse kinds of books, in prose and poetry.
All of these issues weave an array of concentric circles around the problematic of religion, particularly of the monotheistic sort represented by Judaism as well as by Christianity and Islam: to wrestle with an idea—God—that is by definition beyond the most distant stars (and yet closer than one’s own breathing); a God of inconceivable paradox and ineffable essence, so that everything we say about God falls short of a real description. To say that God is all-powerful or all-knowing or all-merciful and all-good and to speak of God’s interest and intervention in human affairs—all of these expressions are ultimately metaphors. At best we are applying to God what we believe we know regarding our own human experience with respect to power, goodness, interest, and intervention. We can never know what any of these concepts mean in God’s own terms.
One of the most intensely textual forms of Jewish spirituality over the millennia has been mysticism. The mystic’s claim—across all three Abrahamic traditions—is that there is a hidden recess of God, called the mysterion, (from a Greek-language root, meaning “closed” and by extension “hidden”) that is left unaccessed by and is inaccessible to the everyday practitioner of faith. The mystic seeks and believes that s/he can attain contact with that mysterion. To succeed is to be filled with Godness; to succeed is to be one with God. To succeed one must completely separate one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s soul from the world of the here and now and from one’s self—thus one’s goal cannot be to succeed at achieving oneness, which would be too self-focused; one’s goal must be to succeed in achieving oneness in order to return from that ineffable experience and to share it with the community in order to improve it. Within Jewish mysticism in particular this is a paramount imperative, part of the larger responsibility of tikkun olam: fixing the world; leaving it a better place than it was when we were born into it.
The challenges to the mystic are threefold: to get there, to return, and to express what one has experienced, a particularly difficult challenge given that the experience is ineffable—beyond the descriptive possibilities of everyday language—like God Itself. The dangers, too, are threefold: that one will go mad, that one will die, that one will apostasize. Few, it would seem, have managed to overcome all of these obstacles. (The early rabbinic tradition speaks of four renowned rabbis entering the garden of mystical thought, and asserts that only one of them, Rabbi Akiva, survived intact!) If, nonetheless, one dares in spite of the challenges and dangers, how does one begin? With the Book of books, God’s word in ink on parchment: the Torah. But one must read, (and one must also pray), with a preternatural intensity, if one hopes to succeed. One must focus all of one’s energy toward God in prayer and one must seek within the words of the Torah hidden meanings in the text.
From Merkavah to Kabbalah to Hassidut, (the three primary phases of Jewish mystical history), the Jewish mystical tradition places a unique emphasis on exploring the text of the Torah and other books within the Hebrew Bible with an attention not just to phrases but to words and not only to words but to letters within words—their sounds, their numerical values, their combinations—and eventually even to the spaces between words and between letters. Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, moreover, and this, to the mystic, allows ever more complex re-understandings of words and phrases in juxtaposition with each other. By the time of Hassidut, the kabbalistic obsession with various forms of word-and-number play—gematria, notarikon, temurah—has even embraced hidden messages from God found within the visual shapes of letters: this last aspect of the mystical enterprise explicitly marries text and visual image to find keys to the Divine-human relationship.
Language and its sounds, and writing and its shapes, offer the possibility—if they are explored beyond ordinary sound and shape—of accessing hidden messages from God and thus the hiddenmost recesses of God Itself. By the time of Hassidut, in the world of the Ba’al Shem Tov, ordinary anything and ordinary everything can be a vehicle for transcendence—provided that one recognizes the extraordinary essence within and beyond the everyday. After all, God is the Creator of everything and anything in the ordinary world and is thus embedded in some way in all of creation—albeit the Godness remains hidden from view to the everyday searcher. The most ordinary of humans can be lifted up—because Godness is within all of us if we know how to locate it; ecstasy (being outside one’s self) is enstasy (being within one’s self), provided it is Godness and not self that one seeks and finds.
III. Memory, Mysticism, and the Art of Robert Brandwayn
Two particular developments with regard to how humans have, against this matrix of issues, tried to solve the insoluble problem of both being in the world and addressing a Being beyond our world, have particular relevance to the work of Robert Brandwayn. One is the fact that, as far as we can trace ourselves as a species—beyond where we can discern the verbal expression of our ancestors and millennia before they had turned verbiage into written characters—visual art has always offered an alternative and very powerful instrument for expressing, exploring and perhaps explaining both our world and the Other. Art has always served as a handmaiden of religion and its needs, as surely as prayers and myth have done so verbally.
From the small sculpture known as the Venus of Willendorf (ca 30,000-27,000 years ago) to the cave paintings at sites like Lascaux (ca 17,000 years ago), and from the myriad images of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection within the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque worlds, to the Color Field canvasses of Abstract Expressionism—humans have sought to express in shape, line, and pigment what so many words often fail to articulate as effectively as we would like. Visual art has served both to describe and explore human reality and to reach beyond that reality toward divinity. Often enough, the interweave of the two realities in art has meant that religion—that ties us to divinity—has been intertwined with politics (that tie us to each other). This is most direct in images like the diorite sculptures of the pharaoh, Khafra, depicted with absolutely perfect, symmetrical, idealized, unchanging features—together with the image of the falcon, representing the god, Horus, its outspread wings resting protectively on the monarch’s neck and shoulders.
As art was being re-shaped in the modern era from the late eighteenth century forward, and with it, the discipline of art history was developing, which began to articulate a specific understanding and to offer particular definitions with respect to art, art historians could not fail to recognize that Western art was for the previous fifteen centuries Christian in identity. With that recognition a kind of converse assumption emerged—a false assumption—that, thanks to the Second of those Commandments from Sinai, Jews had always and everywhere eschewed visual self-expression.
While it is true that in many times and places Jews have interpreted the Second Commandment to prohibit figurative representation—and in some times and places, even abstract images—from the synagogue walls of Dura Europus to the pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah to the genre paintings of Moritz Oppenheim and the landscapes of Camille Pissarro, Jews have made visual art whenever circumstances and materials allowed it. The 17th-19th-century timber synagogues of Eastern Europe attest by the hundreds of uniquely designed and devised edifices to the architectural creativity of Jewish craftsmen even in the context of edifices tasked with centering the direct address of the ineffable and unimageable God. With late 18th-century Emancipation in Western and Central Europe, Jewish visual productivity began to expand in a steady flow, culminating in a flood in the last two generations—and Robert Brandwayn is part of that flood.
In producing an extraordinary body of visual art, Brandwayn has assumed a strong place in the long history of art and its relationship to religion and to everyday life. His art is rife with memory and rich with imagery synthesis—archival, photographic images that underscore the importance of memory to his life and his work, together with kabbalistic imagery and formulae—and trails and traces of written elements: he is the proof of the legitimacy of applying the adjective “Jewish” simultaneously to visual images and to texts, for Jews are both a people of words and books and of visual art.
What is it exactly that Brandwayn does, in creating artworks that weave together all of these issues—text and image, memory and human language, Kabbalah and Hassidut, the profane world of the here and now and the sacred world of the mysterion, as well as definitional questions pertaining to “Jewish art”? To begin with, he multiplies the issue of memory by filtering a universal issue not only through a Jewish lens, but through a very personal family one. He further filters his ideas through another set of lenses: dislocation and relocation, the reshaping of memories of old places and shaping of new memories in new places. In Brandwayn’s family’s case, that means self-imposed exile from Poland—perhaps 300 years after first migrating there, probably from Rhineland Germany—and finding a new home in Colombia. The synthesis of past and present is reinforced and presented as a kind of metaphor by beginning with photographs—old black and white images of his family—and embedding them within a range of abstract combinations of line and color that suggest a very contemporary visual idiom.
The images of the family center around the biographical datum that his grandparents re-located from Poland to Colombia—his grandfather in 1932 and his grandmother in 1935—less by choice than by necessity, on the eve of the Nazi-enforced decimation of European Jewish communities, but above all, of the Polish Jewish community. Great uncles arrived to Colombia around the same time, and a great-aunt who remained behind and was hidden by a Polish farmer for three years, arrived after the war (and ultimately migrated to Chicago). Other members of his extended family found refuge in other places in North America, and still others perished beneath the iron heel of Nazism.
So these images are about memory and not forgetting; they are about survival and about resilience and transformation: re-planting roots to the family tree and re-starting lives that have been deracinated. This is, recalling Primo Levi, an imperfect process—and the old photographs are both torn around their edges, some as if they were plucked from a fire, their edges burned away, and often fragmentary. They are blurred and somewhat obscured by the single color that usually inundates the overall image. They sometimes, nonetheless, stand out, and at other times are relegated to the visual status of ghostly backdrop. They sometimes slightly obscure one another as they overlap in layers (like the layers of imperfect memories). One work adds texture of a particular sort to the layers, adding row after broken row of textile trimming to the ghostly photographs and the small text: alluding to the textile business of his family, (the small text is the signage referencing the Brandwayn Brothers’ factory) long gone in the Poland from which they are all, now, long gone—but underscoring the textured and not only layered nature of fractured experience and fragmented memory.
Among these many faces and figures, alone and clumped in groups, some are posed and others are captured informally—as for instance the people seen through a car window, sitting calmly; or the three men who are bringing in the Sabbath, as the viewer can tell by the candles and other elements on the table at which they sit; or an entire family gathered around a table prepared, it would seem, for Passover—which image bleeds into the fragmentary image of a traditional wedding contract, in Aramaic. Settings themselves are sometimes found among these images: street scenes and storefronts of an earlier era and another place than the one in which he grew up and continues to reside. Figures float within an undefined space (spaceless spaces to complement their being part of a time of no time) or against the specifics of storefronts and particular street and interior settings.
A single figure, an uncle, turns toward the camera as he skates on the ice, one leg raised in careful balance: the world of Polish winters—before the ice became too thin for Jews to remain safely on its surface—still remembered hauntingly, lovingly. At least one face is clearly a passport photo, within the passport page that offers the identifying written information, and boldly pushes out from the background picture plane. This is the face of someone who has decided to move from the land of his birth to a new, different land with its different culture and its different language—a stand-in for the many who chose (or rather: were forced) to do this.
Other images and textual elements make their appearance in these manifold pages in the book of memory: the enlarged image of a Polish stamp; the overgrown image of the corner of an envelope, its brief standardly-phrased text in French and Polish, indicating a letter sent by airmail; the words, “Poszta Polska”—“Polish Mail Service”—that identify these particular fragments as references to the ongoing pattern of communication within the increasingly dispersed family, across oceans from the Old World to the New.
In turn, such broken yet ever-present images—drawn as they are from the human realm, the profane realm, of the here and now and devoted to the mystery of memory as a bridge between past and present—are accompanied by others, side-by-side or layered over each other. These others, too, are sometimes intact and at other times fragmentary images—drawn from the realm of yearning toward the divine and in particular Its most mysterious, hidden aspect. Thus a repeating motif derives from the kabbalistic worlds of the Sepher Bahir (Book of Brightness) and its more developed, better-known younger sibling, the Zohar (Book of Splendor)—the one ascribed by some to the first/second-century rabbi, Nehunya ben Hakanah; the other ascribed to the medieval rabbi, Moses de Leon (whose widow asserted, however, in its posthumous publication (in 1305) that he had merely edited what had been transmitted down through the centuries from the first/second-century rabbi, Shimon Bar Yokhai). The motif is that of the spherot.
One of the essential doctrines within Jewish mysticism, the spherot are a series of ten connected principles, ideas, words that, as the recipient of intense concentration, connect the mystic to God—in multiple ways, simultaneously. Extending from malkhut (kingdom) below, to keter (crown) above, they are a bridge in the no man’s land between ourselves and God; at the same time, once one has “entered” malkhut, one is already within the divine realm, and embarked on the journey within that realm that can culminate with achieving oneness with the mysterion. At the same time, too, one has not yet entered the divine realm until one has successfully transited all the way to keter. As it turns out, however, even keter does not place one within the mysterion (nor place the mysterion within one)—for beyond it is the endless light (‘eyn sof or), and beyond that is the endless (‘eyn sof), and beyond even that is, simply, ‘eyn: not.
There is more: the spherot, as one sees them schematized on a page or a canvas, offer not only a bottom (malkhut) and a top (keter) between which extend the intervening other eight words, ideas, realms, but a left side, a central column, and a right side, and these are typically discussed as if they represent active and passive, male and female aspects of creation and in particular, of humans. But the entire schema—a tree of spherot, as it is commonly known metaphorically—must not be understood in such a static manner: it is, rather, like a perfectly and infinitely balanced top, spinning so successfully on its axis that one can barely discern its motion, in every micro-second, left, male, active, becomes right, female, passive and vice versa.
There is a paradoxic logic to this in at least two ways: that in the realm of the Divine—or even the realm connecting us to the Divine, or offering preliminary access to the divine—the boxed-in concepts endemic to the human realm do not apply: there is no up-down, in-out, left-right, east-west-north-south, active-passive. Moreover, of course, God is absolutely genderless, so a system that connects us to God may be either thought of as simultaneously male and female or neither of these, but certainly not understood as having a distinctly male and female pair of sides!
Yet by further paradox, the kabbalistic Zohar teaches that God’s presence among us has a femaleness to it, while God’s distant aspect away from us has a maleness—not because God is female and male, to repeat, since God is genderless, but because in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages of the Jewish mystic, the word “presence” (shekhinah) itself is grammatically female, whereas the usual biblical Names for God (Adonai, El, Elohim) are grammatically male. (So, not surprisingly, then: the human instruments of names, words, and language are the instrumentation through which the mystic imposes a paradoxic gender on the genderless God).
Brandwayn in fact depicts the tree of the spherot as if the viewer is on the other side, within the image, looking back out toward where the viewer actually stands: the writing that identifies each of the spherot is backwards. Sometimes the “tree” is fragmentary, sometimes it is complete; it is easily recognized in its simple form, but sometimes the artist has used a far more complex schema, in which subset explanations and delineations of the spherot are included. In some of the canvases, entire pages of Zohar, their edges melted away like the melted edges of the archival family photographs, are placed within the composition—and again the pages are depicted with the writing facing backwards. So, too, however, are all of the texts strewn across these works—from the printed references to the Polish Postal Service, to the words of everyday letters written across the dispersion, to parts of the Aramaic texts of wedding contracts a century old to the names of each of the spherot, to full and fragmentary pages of Zohar.
This insistence on backwards writing is both, it would seem, a reference to the spaceless, non-directional reality of the divine realm toward which these images push—and perhaps also a reference to that consummate Renaissance artist and scientist, Leonardo Da Vinci. For Leonardo has become renowned for writing the thousands of pages of his journal, in which his explorations of all things within the human realm were noted, in mirror writing. God is the consummate creator, and we humans are part of the creation, yet, the artists and scientists among us emulate God on a small scale by being creators, and our paintings and sculptures and technological wonders are small-scale mirrors of God’s creation: artists and scientists are god-like in what they do—but can also engender catastrophe when hubris pushes them to imagine that they are God.
There is yet more to this: in offering all of these written words in a discernibly backward form, Brandwayn forces the viewer—in his or her mind—to go behind the image, to stand within it in order to read it frontally, and not to remain outside and before it, staring at the letters and words that are unfamiliar in their backward forms. Put otherwise, in a subtle but certain manner, we viewers necessarily become part of the canvasses before and around us; we are forced to more actively participate in them and not merely passively contemplate them. So the artist adds another layer within the history of art to the innovation of the Impressionists—Pissarro, Monet and the others—who broke with the stylistic proclivities of Western painting since the Renaissance. Whereas the goal of a Leonardo or a Raphael was to give the viewer the illusion of looking through a window into three-dimensional space, facilitated both by careful perspective and by the elimination of the evidence of the brush, a Monet painting remains a series of blobs of color, both the brushstrokes and even the horsehairs of the brush very much in evidence, until the viewer steps back to the point at which the blobs coalesce in an image, say, of the Rouen Cathedral. Different viewers, with different eyes, will need to step back to slightly different distances—so each viewer completes the painting: completes the process of transforming it from color blobs and brushstrokes to the image of a cathedral. Brandwayn pushes this idea even further: we climb within the painting in order to read its texts correctly, completing it—“completing” the reading of its texts.
Jewish mysticism (to repeat) manifests an obsession not only with texts and their constituent phrases and words, but with the Hebrew letters and their numerical values and the endless permutational possibilities that combinations of these elements offer, in calculating and exploring—in explaining and trying to understand—the relationship between the Creator and creation. Not surprisingly, another element that figures frequently into the imagery conjured by Brandwayn is a wheel—without beginning or end, as is endemic to all wheels—subdivided into twenty-two slices, each of which contains one of the 22 Hebrew letters and also its numerical value. The wheel, in its perfect order, has been subverted not only by erasures and melted edges, but by an infinity of chaotic lineation that suffuses its center, as if to underscore the nature of human creativity—we take chaotic, pre-existent material, be it paint, stone, clay, wood, musical notes, or words, and we shape them into ordered systems of poetry, prose, melody, harmony, rhythm, and visual image—in contrast to the singular form of divine creativity: out of nothing (ex nihilo), out of tohu vavohu (absolute isness) the universe was formed by God.
Among the earliest Jewish mystical texts—ascribed to Rabbi Akiva and in turn said, in some corners of the tradition, to have been handed down through the generations since the time of Abraham, to whom God first articulated it—is the Sepher Yetzirah. This Book of Formation seeks to answer the question of how a singular God that is beyond all five senses and human intellect and emotion created a universe that is Its opposite: endlessly multifarious and accessed through the senses, intellect, and emotion. The Sepher’s answer is: through 32 conduits, those of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten numbers (which evolve eventually as the ten spherot…). Yet the Sepher Yetzirah does not presume to really know the answer to the question that it answers: it does not call itself “Sepher Bri’ah”—the Book of [Divine] Creation, using that word, bri’ah, which is only used for divine creation of everything from nothing—it is merely called a book of formation, of shaping pre-existent material, which is what artists and scientists do.
The most obsessive and intense focus of kabbalistic attention is on the ineffable Name of God: unsayable, its precise vocal parameters not known since the destruction of the Temple (whose High Priest knew it) and not to be known again until the coming of the messiah (who will articulate it out loud for all to hear). The mystic speculates and plays (this is very serious play!) with combinations of numbers and letters in order to deduce forms of God’s Name: the Shem HaMforash (“the Expounded Name”). Thus the four-consonant, basic version—YHVH—known as the tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letters”), while offering its own series of potential numerological significances, also yields to ever more complex versions of the Shem HaMforash,
The number “72” for instance—which offers 12 (the number of Israelite tribes and of the zodiac constellations x 6 (the number of words in the most basic Jewish prayer: Sh’ma Yisra’el Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad (“Hearken Oh Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One”)—must offer some significance. That most salvational of moments in the Torah, is that in which the Israelites pass through the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptians are engulfed by its returning waters (Ex.14:19-21). The articulation of that moment offers three successive Hebrew verses, each of which possesses—precisely—72 consonants. To the Jewish mystic, this anomaly, embedded in the text of God’s revealed words, cannot be an accident, but must offer profound hidden meanings.
One of the kabbalistic “wheels” that appears in fragmentary form among these Brandwayn paintings is that in which, in elaborate detail, aspects and elements (letters, numbers, words and names in Hebrew and Greek and Latin and Aramaic) are inscribed within the 72 slices of the circle—and at the center of this illustration drawn from Christian kabbalah—for in the Renaissance, beginning with Pico della Mirandola, highly educated Christians became interested in this complex mystical vocabulary—a figure stands, embellished with a kind of halo. He is intended to represent Jesus—and the name, Jesus, in Hebrew, is written below the figure, (backwards, of course).
Some of his selected texts and image details further the problematic of definition—as when he chooses an image/word pattern (the just-referenced specific wheel of the 72-letter Shem HaMforash) from Christian kabbalah. Thus that pre-eminent Jewish mystical instrument has, as it were, been turned backwards (like Brandwayn’s mirror placement of the image): one of the key distinctions between Judaism and Christianity—for the first the messiah has not yet arrived and God is absolutely without physical form; for the latter, the messiah has come but has not yet returned and God is that messiah assumed physical form as Jesus—becomes the instrument of preventing ease and over-simplicity of definition: he reversed image from Christian kabbalah seems to ask whether such images are legitimately part of “Jewish” art?
The prominence of texts underscores the intended connection not only to specific narratives, like the Zohar, but to the larger issue of Jews as a people of texts and narratives, of stories that link the personal to the national and the ethnic to the universal. It is not merely the imposition of printed texts such as the pages from the Zohar, but the scrawled cursive sweeping across any number of canvases that offer the artist’s hand as the author of words as much as the organization of photographs and the soaking of the surface with varied hues attest to his hand as articulator of images. And (to repeat) the texts are not all sacred: the everyday world of postcards from Warsaw—connecting the two parts of the family disconnected by a continent and an ocean—bridges back to our profane world; Polish stamps also appear among the visual detritus.
IV Brandwayn’s Images, Words, and the Questions of “Jewish” Art
Brandwayn plays on all of these linked ideas that pertain not only to memory and mystery but to the very act of creating art. His overlay of most of his full-sized compositions with a single pigment—sweeping strokes of sky blue, and less frequently of strident, fire-engine red, and sometimes a yellow hue—may be examined from two directions simultaneously. If we look at these colors in terms of the history of Western, Christian art, then the first color references God’s truth by way of its resonance with the heavens; the second suggests the blood of sacrifice, and the third, betrayal but also redemption (yellow is both the color associated with Judas, who is traditionally viewed simply as a betrayer of his master, and with Peter, who denies Jesus three times before the crowing of the cock at dawn, but eventuates as the very rock on which the spiritual edifice of his master is built).
In the context of the question of “Jewish art”—of how a Jewish artist in the early 21st century fits him or herself into the history of art with its long Christian backbone—Brandwayn follows an evolving two-century-long tradition of answering that question by engaging themes or symbols or stylistic elements of Western, Christian art, and turning them in a specifically Jewish direction. Thus the presentation of a trio of images as a vertical triptych alludes to that form—always horizontal—that has such a long history in Christian art: what in the Christian tradition alludes to the triune nature of God in the Jewish tradition refers to the division of Judaism, for liturgical purposes, into Kohayn, Levi, and Yisrael—and even more fundamentally, to the passage in the rabbinic book, Pirke Avot (“Passages of the Fathers”) 1:2, which notes that “on three things the world stands: Torah, Service, and Righteous Acts.”
Color resonates from Christian art to this art. The red of sacrifice pertains to Jewish history, particularly in the twentieth century, and to the artist’s family and its translation from the Old World to the New; and redemption applies to the extraordinary survival of the Jewish people against the stacked odds of the centuries pushing up, ultimately, against the Holocaust, and to the transformed survival of the artist’s own family as it started anew as strangers in a strange land, but a land that became their unquestionable home. The blue sky overlooks and connects them—us—all.
Of course the colors are also those of the flag of that new land. While Colombia gained its independence from Spain in 1810, it was in 1861 that the current flag was adopted, sporting three color in a horizontal configuration. Yellow occupies the upper half—and symbolizes the wealth of the soil, the sun and its light, harmony, and justice. The upper part of the lower half offers blue—a darker blue than that used by Brandwayn in his paintings, so as an artist, he has further transformed his source material—and suggests both the sky and the rivers surging through the land and the sea beating against its shores. The lower quarter is given over to red, and suggests the blood of sacrifice spilled as the country asserted its independence, and more fundamentally, the determination and perseverance of the Colombian people and its having thrived through its struggles. What may be said of Colombia may be said of the Jewish people and of the family of Robert Brandwayn that has re-established itself in Colombia.
So, too, the swathing of canvasses often with a single, surging pigment offers a visual unifier of the diverse and often fragmentary elements that make up the image details. In that sense, following in the footsteps of Jewish American Abstract Expressionist Color Field artists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, Brandwayn restores order to a chaotic world in symbolic terms by his act of unifying the canvas with hues that draw the viewer’s eye in, toward the center of the image, in spite of the chaotic flotsam and jetsam of faces, figures, geometric forms, letters, words, and entire texts.
Indeed, one of his more compelling canvases, dominated by the ghostly images of three older relatives from the old country, is completely inundated in white. We think of white as the absence of color—and thus this painting is an anti-painting of sorts, resonating with a questioning voice: art is part of civilization; where was Western civilization when Hitler sought to efface the Jewish and Polish worlds of which these relatives were part? Where was God? But white is also the totality of colors, and in its whiteness, a symbol of light—made up of the spectrum of colors—and thus, perhaps, the consummate color for painting. In unifying the entire canvas with one pigment, the artist has simultaneously offered a microcosm of a world restored to order: he as effected a small act of tikkun olam, repairing the world, while alluding both to the survival of his family and his people, and also to the ineffable and invisible Presence (shekhinah) of God: for there were those whose faith in God was what enabled them to survive the debacle of the Holocaust.
Nor can one ignore the importance of the color gold to the artist—that pigment that has such a long history in Western, Christian, art of referencing the inestimable value of God’s truth. A pair of works, placed together side-by-side, suffused with gold, present themselves as a pair of doors—of gates leading toward that realm toward which religion in general and mysticism in particular direct themselves. There is a kind of explosion of texture emanating from the empty space between the canvases, and continuing onto the canvases and outward to their edges. The diptych references the thought associated with later kabbalah in Safed and Isaac Luria (1538-72). He responded to the traditional kabbalistic notion that God created the world by emanating from Itself—the one became many, the invisible became visible, the intangible became tangible, the abstract became concrete, not through the specificity of letters and numbers (as in the earlier Book of Formation) but through the vaguer, ineffable process of God’s expansion—by suggesting the opposite: that the God that is everything and therefore fills everything and everywhere, withdrew itself into an infinitesimal point, in order to make room for the universe.
Or perhaps the two processes, of emanation (atzilut) and contraction (tzimtzum) alternate over eternal time and time without time, as the moral universe shrinks and grows and shrinks and grows and shrinks again, through human participation in it. If, centuries after Luria, the Holocaust offered an extreme moment in that sort of moral contraction, the efforts of those engaged during and after it in the rescuing of Hitler’s would-be victims and/or the rebuilding of the lives of survivors after the debacle, were and are part of the expansion. Those engaged in tikkun olam are always, as partners with God, part of the emanation of God’s shekhinah within the world—whether as individuals, or communities, or an entire country that offers refuge, as Colombia did to key members of the artist’s own family.
So on the one hand Brandwayn’s images address the large and ultimately unanswerable question of divinity and humanity in the shaping of the universe—while more than incidentally offering a retort to the misassumption regarding Jews: that they are only a people of books and not of visual images. And embedded in this is a response to the unanswerable question of how one might define “Jewish” art. (Is it the identity of the artist—as a born Jew, or as a convert to Judaism; as Orthodox or secular or in-between? or is it the artwork itself: its subject, style, symbols, content, intent, purpose?) To a viewer who does not even recognize the Hebrew letters, these abstract representations of sounds—both in isolation and as agglomerated to form words and paragraphs—are simply part of a brilliant and beautiful marriage of figurative and abstract elements, rich in color and texture, (particularly in works where strips of textile, or of thin wood have been attached to the surface in rectilinear configurations to add a further relief feature to the image).
To a viewer who recognizes the elements drawn from the Jewish mystical tradition and who sees the color sequences as far from arbitrary, and who knows that the myriad faces are also personal references for the artist—even without necessarily knowing who, exactly, each of them is—the images are fraught with meaning that can be understood in personal, familial, Jewish, and universal terms. Brandwayn bridges different realms; he begins with pulling from Poland to Colombia and continues with pushing from earth to heaven and heaven to earth. Some of his canvases focus on a handful of dominating visual images, others explode with dozens of smaller pieces: these in particular suggest a diasporic scattering of family and community—his and so many others’—and ideas, across Jewish time and space; the flotsam and jetsam of everyday existence is filtered through the chaotic, ordering lens of the artist’s eye, mind, and expanded memory, and intertwined with profound spiritual concerns.
So, too, installed among the normatively-proportioned paintings hanging on the walls are occasional long, narrow works—these are typically enveloped in a shimmering, golden-bronze hue, both the canvases and their frames. One of these is a long, horizontal work, its entirety scrawled with a text in English, drawn from a kabbalistic passage, referring to humans as “vehicles but ones that…”—and the next words are submerged in and effaced by an abstract smudge—and ending with the word, repeated twice, “Yeshuah Yeshuah,” which can be a Hebrew form of the name “Jesus” but also merely means “savior”: it thus offers a spiritual reference, but not necessarily the specific Christian religious reference.
Installation pieces reinforce the import of the bridges the artist builds. A suitcase here, filled with an accordion of seven photographs that offer black and white reflections of a far-flung family with its various parts relocated or lost to the chaos of mid-twentieth century events and their aftermath. A suitcase there, with an I-pad within it on the screen of which one discerns the image of boxes on a side-table against a wall hung with one of the images on the wall (one of those with the wheel of 22 Hebrew letters). The pair of gold-bronze-painted boxes also appear as their own installation: two large cubes, their six sides (think of the six days of creation, and of the six words of the Sh’ma…) completely overrun by the artist with text.
The history of art, (to repeat), begins with painted and carved figures that respond to the human need to understand the source of creation. From the walls of the caves of Lascaux and the statuette known as the Venus of Willendorf, Paleolithic and Neolithic art, well before there was writing to express and immortalize words, offered a visual vocabulary, beyond words, to address and connect to the ineffable Other. That need and the response to it have persisted down through the millennia, as each individual artist and each particular group has articulated a particular understanding of the human place within the universe. As in the last two centuries an increasing number of Jewish visual artists has taken up the challenges of addressing this need; and as in the past sixty years in particular, a critical mass of Jews has defined Judaism as a culture or ethnicity or civilization, and not, per se, as a religion; the directions in which Jewish artists have moved has been breathtakingly extensive.
Robert Brandwayn takes his place in that array as he has taken up a range of questions with expansive ramifications by means of his own unique vocabulary of abstract and figurative, colorful and black-and-white, memory-laden and mystically focused art that weds the narrow specifics of his focus to a breadth of concept, suffused with lively textures and carefully chosen hue. His works are bridges between past and present and between profane and sacred realms; they cannot be seen casually as the viewer moves past them, but compel careful scrutiny and active reflection. They, and he, function sacerdotally, pushing us to think as we look, in considering connections between our own time and space, times past and future, and spaces beyond space and a time of no time. They insist that we consider how to become part of the process of repairing our own imperfect reality.