Ya’akov Boussidan: modernity of the classic

Arturo Schwarz

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Both Adorno and Walter Benjamin expressed their perplexity concerning certain aspects of what we call ‘progress’. Benjamin’s comment on Klee’s painting Angelus Novus is paradigmatic, it concerns the Angel of history whose face is turned toward the past, “But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress[1].

Ya’akov appears to have well heeded this concern: with him, the ancient art of calligraphy – in his case of Hebrew lettering – has acquired a new aesthetic vigour, while landscaping – so much neglected to-day – has earned, once again, a well-deserved lettre de noblesse.

John Keats wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, hence the importance to write the Hebrew letters as beautifully as possible, all the more since the latter are much more that mere phonetic characters – they are loaded with age-old esoteric values – their inner meanings are channels of creative consciousness, building blocks of the soul. In fact, according to the teachings of our Sages, each of the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet possesses, in addition to its numerical value, three distinct powers: energy (koah), life (hayut) and light (or).

Boussidan’s approach to the lettering of the books he has amorously produced in the course of years of passionate labour derives from his decision to be absolutely traditional – in the course of centuries Hebrew lettering evolved through many different shapes – and yet innovative. In a 2005 interview with Atara Moscovitc he observed, “I use a letter form that I began creating over thirty years ago, and am still searching for better and precise ways to express it. It is a fusion of the Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (oriental) temperaments.”[2]

In that same interview, Boussidan clarified also the reason for his own deep involvement in the art of calligraphy, “Jewish culture is mainly a culture of the letter and of the written word. In my eyes, it is due to writing that it was possible to go beyond the basic, dry laws and create a body of interpretation and commentary that adds layers of life and meaning”. These considerations motivate the production of some extraordinary hand-made artist books such as his Haggadah (1975), the Song of Songs (1969, 1979, 1982, 1986) and Jerusalem, Names of Praise (1996). These books – that are the outcome of a unique blending of calligraphy, illustration and layout – are paradigmatic example of the best in the art of typography.

For instance, if Boussidan’s Haggadah is such a superb manifestation of this art, this is due not only to the three components just mentioned, but also for his having introduced, in the canonical version of the Haggadah, a number of verses from the Book of Genesis. Thus the Passover Haggadah, as interpreted by our artist, acquires a new holistic and universal dimension that, in the words of Benjamin Tammuz, becomes “the narrative of the birth of the world”[3].
Tammuz further elaborates, “The first etchings are related to the six days of creation, in which the likeness of people and landscapes and animals are captured, so to speak, in their primeval state. Death is the first state, as is the kid, the fish and the fowl. In the etching of the plague of darkness, the darkness is interpreted as an internal blindness, not external. The Jerusalem to which we promise to come to “next year”, is the Jerusalem that does not yet exist, though she is also the ancient, eternal Jerusalem”

With Boussidan’s Song of Songs, the eternal biblical verses are given new life and a deeper significance by virtue of the etchings that accompany them. These are not passive illustrations but initiatic hints. Thus, to point out only to two examples of his procedure let us take a look at the illustrations that gloss two quotes of that immortal Book.

“Behold, thou art fair, my love / Behold, thou art fair / thou hast dove’s eyes” (1:15). Gersonides’ comments these three verses by saying that the natural longing between the Shulamite and her lover conducts them “to proceed toward perfection”. According to most esoterical writings, perfection lies in the Androgyne that is blessed with both the Female and Male qualities. Appropriately, this etching represents two figures, the one at the left is a single profile – where dove’s elements can be also perceived – while the figure at the right ­– to which the profile seems to lead – is that of a double-headed torso.
The latter may be inspired from the archetypal figure of the Rebis (res-bis: the thing double, i.e. the Primeval Androgyne) as seen, for instance in Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1617, ill. 38). In fact, love allows – through the identification of each of the two partners with the other – to recognize in one’s own self the opposite sex it harbours. In other words, Boussidan’s etching is a figurative transcription of the deeper truth that love has an initiatic value in so far as it leads us to identify with the loved one and discover in one’s own self the opposite sex that is part of our personality.
The etching that comments another quote of Shir Hashirim: “Turn away thine eyes from me for they have overcome me” (6:5) is equally powerful in rendering the ambivalent feeling that is expressed here: not only of fear but also of praise. There is a gradual intensification in the way the Song of Songs describe the Shulamite’s eyes. First they are simply like doves (1:15 and 4:1); then they are powerful enough to ravish her lover’s heart (4:9); finally they provoke, as in the verse now quoted, the lover’s fears. But, at the same time, the lover wishes to pay homage to the Shulamite’s greatness. Indeed, the Hebrew term for fear translated by modern interpreters as dismay, may be rendered – according to the rabbinical tradition – as in the above-mentioned exalting version. Accordingly, from the dazzling white of the etching’s background, a pair of black eyes look both: menacingly right into the viewer’s eyes but, at the same time, they appear to be so imperative as to raise a feeling of admiration.

Concerning Boussidan’s etching activity I wish to mention also the Continual Motion series – a portfolio of ten large black-and-white etchings where Boussidan’s concern of the interplay of light-and-shadow with the visual experience of motion finds a remarkable climax. These images were followed with a series of large paintings on canvas. In her introductory text to this portfolio, Tessa Sidey pointedly observed “The memory of his mother sewing in the lamplight while surrounded by the animation of shadows on the surrounding walls has remained an abiding image and influence on Ya’akov Boussidan”.[4]
These extraordinary etchings – where the density of the black ink is the outcome of long experiments to obtain an exquisite subtle range of tonalities – stage loosely-outlined individuals (Running male, Standing Male, Iceman, Ice Skating, Reclining figure, Silhouette, Bending [female] Figure, Male in Motion, Undressing, Male Dancing); birds: (Bird Dance, Bird in Swirle); and a Couple. These images – in their dramatic essentiality – evoke, at one and the same time, our own loneliness as well as, the joy of living.

To end this excursion in Boussidan’s graphic works it is opportune to dwell also on his latest book, Jerusalem – Names in Praise (1996) that is a fine example of how scholarship, united with the art of calligraphy – where the quill pen becomes an essential instrument in rendering the even and the slender of each letter – can reveal the fathomless layers of values and meanings that the very word Jerusalem evokes.

The book is a scholarly comment of the over 390 names of Jerusalem. It is magnificently illustrated with Boussidan’s own drawings, gouaches, watercolors, serigraphs and digital adaptations of paintings. Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom (of Beit Morasha, The Academic Center for Jewish Studies and Leadership, Jerusalem), Professor Jakob Klein from Bar Ilan University and Professor Dov Noy, have also contributed illuminating forewords. Boussidan’s own Preface throws an interesting light on the genesis of the book. “From the very beginning, I had before my eyes an abundant spring of names, many of which had lain concealed by history over the centuries. Some praised and glorified the city of faith, while others provided consolation during periods of destruction and ruin […] Each name has added a new dimension to its predecessors and has enriched them as a source of inspiration”[5]. Concerning the impact that Jerusalem has always had on the Jewish mind, Boussidan adds, “Jerusalem is a place. For some, she is a matrix, a spiritual haven, for others, she is the foundation and the center of the world […] Jerusalem has always been and always will be a house in the Hebrew meaning of the word: a place where ordinary people live, the dwelling place of the Lord”. Concerning his own book, Boussidan also clarifies, that it is an “expression of the living ties between the people of Israel and its spiritual capital, Jerusalem […] it is an attempt to express a mood, an emotion an a love for Jerusalem”[6]

Our artist could never have been able to produce such admirable publications and such intense etchings had he not mastered, in the first place, in addition to the art of engraving, also that of sculpture and painting.

Among the masterpieces he created I would like to recall the model (62 cm high) for a monumental seven-meter-high totem-like sculpture titled Twelve Doves (the birds standing for Israel’s 12 tribes). This inspiring work was stimulated by a statement of the 12th Century poet, Rav Yehudah Halevi, “The Dove Found a Resting Place”. This sculpture wishes to represent unity and peacefulness with each bird finding its resting place in harmony with its kins. In the larger-scale sculpture, water would flow from the doves’ beaks, not only to symbolize the continuity of life – all life is born in water – but also to emphasize that water is also a vehicle of love and peace that brings culture to mankind. Indeed, let us remember its archetypal symbolic value, standing as it does for the female principle and being the ‘home of wisdom’ – according also to the Babylonians. In a world torn by conflicts, civil wars and starvation this work is an inspiring artifact that expresses the yearn for a New World of understanding and cooperation.

Concerning his painting, Boussidan confessed that, when he paints, he is “no longer an outside observer” he becomes practically “part of the scenery. The resulting image is the outcome of [his] partnership with the time and space components of that place”[7]. These last words call to mind the event that Jung termed syncronicity – that is to say, the meaningful coincidence of events in space and time. In this case the space being Jaffa and the time, the hour chosen. In fact, our artist always chooses the same place and the same hour of the day to paint his landscapes. His methodology yields exquisite works such as, for instance the series dedicated to Jaffa with its several views titled Jaffa in Storm, or Old Jaffa, or still, – to name just a few of the paintings of this superb cycle – Sunset in Jaffa. These works emanate an intense poetic aura that is enhanced by the masterful use of colors emitting a mysterious life.

Presently Boussidan is working on the theme of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden for which he is elaborating drawings, prints and a sculpture. I have no doubt that this new cycle of works will be as fascinating and meaningful as what he has achieved to-date.

[1] “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VII (1940)
[2] Mabu’a Journal of Jewish Arts, n. 43 (Summer 2005)
[3] Typescript of the Introductory text
[4] The Motion Series, 2004, p. 3
[5] “Preface” to Jerusalem – Names in Praise, KetterPress Enterprises, Jerusalem 2005, p. XI, X
[6] idem, p. X, XI
[7] idem. p. XI

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