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Poetic Art And Biblical Illustration: A Study In Contrasts

Poets’ Portraits: Lines For My Image: Drawings

and Sculpture by Zvi Lachman

Through August 30, 2007


The Illuminated Torah: Yonah Weinrib,

The entire Book of Exodus, Illustrated

Through May 27, 2007


The Yeshiva University Museum

15 West 16th Street, NY




         One of the advantages museums hold over galleries is that their exhibits need not focus on one theme. In the wide array of artists, movements and time periods, viewers can experience art within a larger context whereas galleries generally have to specialize and present simply one artist’s vision in isolation. But those comparisons can sometimes become popularity contests, and some works suffer when juxtaposed with superior art. The two artists exhibiting at the Yeshiva University Museum are a perfect example. Zvi Lachman’s pastel portraits and Yonah Weinrib’s paintings are about as different in their approach to mark-making as any two artists can get.


         Lachman was born in 1950 in Tel Aviv, and he pursued sculpture (studying with Chaim Gross, among others) after obtaining degrees in engineering and architecture. He did construction work for the Israeli Navy, and served as a military architect in Sinai following the Yom Kippur War. Lachman moved to New York in 1978 with his wife Lilach and two young children, and studied at Parsons School of Design (earning an MFA) and the New York Studio School. He then moved back to Israel and taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. He now teaches painting and sculpture at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.


         His portraits, for which he uses charcoal, pastel, paint, pencil, chalk and bronze, evoke a cross between the portraits of Anna Ticho and Francis Bacon. Like Ticho, who used to draw the patients who sat in her husband’s, Dr. Avraham Albert Ticho’s, ophthalmology clinic, Lachman’s drawings of famous poets capture the less than happy sides of his subjects. In the catalog introduction, curator Shva Salhoov refers to the “horror [which] bursts forth” in Lachman’s work. Salhoov identifies the Hebrew word for horror as always attached to the visual. “Horror is a visible event, the core of which resides in its actual presence as a shadow.”


         Salhoov writes, “For well over a dozen years, Zvi Lachman has drawn portraits of poets that strive to duplicate the visionary essence of the shadow of horror.” She gets bogged down by the shadows she sees in the “faces, that are not faces,” and the “darkening expanses, sealed mouths, perforated eyes, seeing and unseeing, singed eyes, glittering with the light of dim charcoal.”


         Salhoov might be right that the works look eerie, but her interpretation is far too psychological (and poetic), where it ought to be more visual. Take Lachman’s 2006 portrait (image one) of Dalia Rabikovitch (Dalia Maria): In the drawing, Israeli poet Rabikovitch (1936-2005) holds up what is perhaps a clenched fist. Salhoov is correct that the poet’s eyes and lips are closed, but many of Modigliani’s subjects exhibit similar poses, and yet “horror” is hardly the first word that they evoke.


Zvi Lachman, Dalia Rabikovitch – Dalia Maria, 2006, charcoal and dry pastel on paper.



         Unlike Modigliani (and the comparison is, of course, unfair to Lachman), Lachman centers his portrait in the middle of the paper, without using the borders. This makes the portrait appear more cartoon-like and illustrative, but Lachman gets beyond that and turns the piece into a more sophisticated work by using abstraction. His vision transcends particular facial features, and the lines of Rabikovitch’s nose continue into the hair, just as the hand becomes the neck. Lachman seems far more interested in triangles and diamonds than in portraits. The same holds for closed eyes and lips, symbolic or otherwise.


         Carmela Rubin, Ayelet Danielle Aldouby and Doron Polak refer in the catalog to Lachman’s attempts to capture the subject’s soul: “Each portrait is a human and spiritual identity imprinted upon a face, whose presence cannot be reduced to its tactile contours.” They also view the work as anti-technology in its abstraction. “As electronic media and the boundless reach of the Internet have come to render information instantly available, presenting it in a one dimensional, sterile and simplified form,” they argue, “Lachman remains committed to maintaining contact with nature and with human memory.”


         In his portrait (image two) of Lea Goldberg (1911-1970), Lachman does perhaps touch upon the poet’s soul, and rather than capturing Goldberg’s horror, depicts her facial features delicately and gently, even as he depicts the hair more violently. Were Lachman interested in capturing emotion, Goldberg would have been the perfect candidate, as her poetry often refers to loneliness, alienation and failed relationships. But the lines Lachman uses to depict Goldberg’s cheek, nose and eyebrows are rounded, even calligraphic. Even in the sharper charcoal lines of the hair, Lachman finds a soft, velvety texture. The rest of the drawing remains mysterious and cloudy, and Goldberg could be equally pinned to a flag or looking out a window.


Zvi Lachman, Lea Goldberg – My Pictures, 2006, charcoal and dry pastel on paper.



         Yet the move that most ties together the portrait of Goldberg is the white shape (vaguely reminiscent of the map of Montana) that holds up the poet’s head. In the style of Rothko, the large form seems to hover, as it simultaneously rises and falls. These sorts of moves are far more important from a visual perspective than the feelings or symbolism that the picture yields.


         Rabbi Yonah Weinrib’s work exemplifies the opposite approach. According to the press release, “Every aspect of his art, from the ornamentation and illumination to the illustrations themselves, is informed by his own profound Biblical scholarship, with written commentary accompanying each piece.” Indeed, Weinrib’s scholarship is commendable, and the works use a “Where’s Waldo?” approach, where every detail contributes to a larger narrative.


Yonah Weinrib, Batim, Parshat Bo, The Book of Exodus, 2005, gouache, acrylic, pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic, airbrush on parchment.



         Yet, works like “Batim” (image three) lack the deep, introspective vision that Lachman so expertly wields. The painting is too literal: Jerusalem houses surrounding the temple with a tefillin box (“for the head”) floating in the air. The verses surrounding the illustration derive from the Shema (“Hear, O’ Israel, our G-d is one” and “You shall love your G-d with all of your heart”). Where Lachman saw lines and shapes extending beyond objects, Weinrib carefully outlines each shape, and the shapes barely interact. The tefillin box looks out of place hovering in the air because it is so literally depicted, and the landscape below feels very flat.


         Both artists are worth seeing and engaging, but Lachman’s strength lies in his ability to see visually rather than literarily and symbolically. His portraits are so engaging and dynamic, because their identity as faces is coincidental to their forms. Weinrib’s innovation resides in his ability to interpret the ideas embedded within the texts he explores. He lends visual forms to these texts, but the works convinced this viewer that the artist placed far more value upon the words, and called upon the visual only to assist the words in conveying their message.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit that closes on June 10.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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