Letters of the Law
Letters of the Law
Veteran Jerusalem painter David Rakia (b. Vienna, 1928, here since 1938) an early Bezalel graduate, has been making paintings of a metaphysical bent, filled entirely with Hebrew lettering, for the last four decades. At last, in a show somewhat ominously entitled Toward the Beyond, he has got it all together.
Much of the earlier body of Rakia's work skirted the edge of kitsch. You can see what I mean by taking a look at a highcolor shaped and multi-dimensional painted cutout Rakia has placed at the entrance to the Jerusalem Artists House. Don't let it put you off. His paintings upstairs are an eye-opener, in which the myriad bits of lettering are brought to excellent resolution in a series of pattern paintings of both depth and overall surface design and quality.
Since 1980s biblical themes have been of primary importance to
the artist, because for Alexander Gurevich the biblical narratives are
the seeds that never stop germinating, prototypes of historical situations
which repeat themselves over and over again, landmarks of spiritual development
of peoples and epochs.
Each of these works has been organized with a different color harmony and all of them work, whether in warm or cool hues. The light caught by various letters is carefully organized and the units form a pleasing texture. But it's the careful and restrained color organization that imparts a maturity to these unusual works.
Jerusalem Post, 1988
DAVID RAKIA'S paintings show the artist's 40-year preoccupation with the Hebrew alphabet. In the beginning, letters made obscure appearances among the structures of his Jerusalem landscapes. But with time they became more prominent features of his compositions. In recent years they have evolved into the theme of his abstract works, but only now has he reached what seems the climax of his exploration: on large, engulfing canvases, Hebrew letters are basic elements filling uncomposed friezes. Rakia positions his letter-particles by improvisation and without premeditated structure. He says he works with a basic theme in mind, developing it like a baroque or jazz musician. But bold forms emerge. Layer upon layer of letters give a dramatic sense of infinite spatial depth, like uncountable stars receding to ungraspable distances.
He was born in Vienna in 1928. His paternal grandfather was a sofer stam — a scribe penning the Old Testament texts onto sacred parchment with the painstaking attention to minutiae demanded by Jewish law. Rakia recalls his fascination as a boy watching the old craftsman in his workshop. Later the Nazis destroyed the scribe's work, and then murdered him in Theresienstadt concentration camp. "My life's preoccupation has been retrieving his work," says Rakia.
With his parents, Rakia fled Europe in 1938, reaching Palestine after six months in transit. He later studied art at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy and in Paris, and identified himself as a Surrealist. "But after Paris I underwent a personal revolution and discovered my roots." He became obsessed with Jewish mysticism, and Hebraicized his name from the former Sternfell—Rakia means heaven, or the mystical firmament of Genesis. His Hebrew letters motif first appeared in public in 1961, in an exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Rakia calls his work an assertion of Hebrew culture in a world still hostile to Jewish identity. But his themes are larger, more universal, even cosmic. His language, admittedly, is local, specific—the Hebrew characters of his immediate environment—but their reference is to Heaven. Constellations of letters recurring in his paintings make up key words from the Kabbala — the central work of Jewish mysticism. Terms such as yesod (foundation), netzach (eternity), tiferet (splendor), emerge almost unintentionally, as in the automatic, stream-of-consciousness writing method nurtured by Joyce. These terms point to the global, eternal preoccupation’s of this artist.
Rakia's work corresponds with Jewish tradition, which places the Hebrew alphabet in an exalted role. This stands in contrast with the Western assumption, evolved over the last three or four centuries, that language has no significance or powers of its own. In the West, words and letters are viewed as mere signs, which work as such only by the grace of human, social convention. "Flower," for example, means something only because people use it in their interactions to communicate thoughts about flowers. If the human use of the word was different, its meaning and entire role in the world would be different as well.
But the traditional Jewish view is that Hebrew is divinely instituted, not humanly evolved. The Hebrew language and its letters, accordingly, have a unique reality and holiness. It has existed eternally—and so predates Creation, and was already around and waiting for the events of Genesis. Mystics have made much of the role of Hebrew characters in the emergence of reality out of chaos—of how the letters acted as vessels for the creation of the parts of our environment.
Rakia's mind-set is shaped by the Kabbalistic view of the Hebrew language and its role in Creation. It is a fanciful idea, but we can appreciate his canvases without making that leap of faith. As metaphors they work marvelously: We see a universe in which Hebrew letters, not material particles, are the basic components. It is a universe glowing with sacredness—and the sense of that sacredness infusing reality lingers, even when we switch back to our own.
The Israel Observer
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