Artexpo New York
February 28-March 3, 2008
Javits Convention Center, New York
Some artists’ iconoclastic, bohemian behavior gets them into trouble. But David Gafni’s 1972 run-in with the law was more of a freak accident than an indication of his self-destruction, and it gave him a religious epiphany.
While he was involved in designing Israel’s Yad Vashem museum, Gafni, 66, was driving to Jerusalem when a bee flew into his car and so distracted him that he swerved and collided with a police car. A father of three young children, Gafni was badly injured and vowed to pray every day if he recovered. “I have done so since then,” he said.
Gafni’s work is currently on display at Artexpo New York. A graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Gafni was chief designer of the Western Wall Tunnels for 16 years and worked at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. He has designed a museum and several exhibitions for Chabad(which were personally approved by the Lubavitcher Rebbe), and he has created exhibits for Orthodox communities in Jerusalem.
In the course of his studies, Gafni became attracted to the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, which was founded in the ’40s as an offshoot of Surrealism and Art Nouveau and combined techniques of the Old Masters with religious and mystical iconography. The movement inspired Gafni with its “optimistic view of imagination and fantastic reality,” and “rich, happy colors and realistic execution.”
Gafni infused his abstract work with Jewish content, and he was influenced by Mordechai Ardon, then-director of Bezalel who used Kabbalistic motifs, and Shmuel Beck, whose work centered on the Holocaust. For his final project in calligraphy at Bezalel – which required designing a hand-written and painted book – Gafni created a prayer book based upon ancient Jewish art. He drew the typography from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and incorporated ancient Kabbalistic paintings, including one with a seven branch Menorah whose pedestal was made of the feet of the lion, eagle, bull, and man from Ezekiel’s vision.
David Gafni. “The Throne of God and the Creatures of the Chariot – Merkabah”
The animals from Ezekiel’s vision surface in Gafni’s “The Throne of God and the Creatures of the Chariot – Merkaba”, which shows the three animals and the man near the heavenly throne in the seventh palace of Paradise. The four, who are essentially disembodied heads attached to the cloud formations, contemplate a menorah with orange, green, blue, and purple branches. Gafni plants two mountains in the foreground, so the viewer only experiences the vision from a distance.
“Jerusalem at the End of Days: Gog and Magog” is the first of five omens, “which shall be revealed to all, to usher in the revelation of the ‘King Messiah,’” according to Gafni’s website. The landscape depicts Jerusalem’s Old City in black and gray, but the city rests on an unstable foundation that resembles tree roots. The Tower of David has twisted almost beyond recognition into a configuration that resembles a corkscrew, as a blue, red, and white form, which evokes the Caduceus (the ancient astronomical sign of a staff with two intertwined snakes, which is used as a symbol of medicine) hovers above the city. An accompanying text on Gafni’s website cites Zecharia 14:8 and interprets it: “The Mount of Olives is cleft in two, and water gushes forth from the depths of earth, forming two streams, one flowing towards the ‘Primeval sea,’ i.e. the Dead Sea, and one towards the ‘Last Sea,’ i.e. the Mediterranean.”
David Gafni. “Jerusalem at the End of Days: Gog and Magog.” All images courtesy of the artist.
In “The Crimson Star and Flame of Fire,” the fourth of the Messianic signs, Jerusalem is again comfortably resting on solid foundation, but the sky is ablaze and a large meteor-like object seems poised to smash the buildings. The painting’s reliance on a palette of mostly primary colors heightens the piece’s dreamy look. Gafni’s website identifies the reference as the Zohar‘s commentary on Balak 22, “And then a terrible crimson star shall arise in the firmament and shall burn and glow throughout the day for all the world to behold.” Gafni adds that the star faces a flame of fire for 40 days, when the two wage war upon each other. “In the end, the star engulfs the flame. The star remains in the sky, where it drifts about for 12 days,” Gafni writes on his site.
David Gafni. “The Crimson Star and Flame of Fire”
A star waging a battle against a flame and a sea gushing forth as mountains are split in half might sound a bit unusual, but Kabbalistic and apocalyptic symbols have figured in many artists’ works, perhaps most significantly that of painter and poet, William Blake. In his very detailed etchings of Biblical and mystical scenes, Blake depicted angels and demons often with human faces, which serves to make Kabbalah more accessible and recognizable. Where previous artists depicted demons as black creatures with horns and cloven hooves, Blake chose to represent his demons as men, often even wingless.
Gafni’s works, in their quotations of Surrealism, address Kabbalah from more of a humble distance. By positioning his Kabbalistic scenes in landscapes that are fantastical, Gafni presents narratives that are gripping and lifelike, but also dreamy and unnatural. If Blake causes the viewer to fear she or he will wake up to an apocalypse tomorrow, Gafni’s apocalypse is a little further off in the future.
David Gafni. “The War of One Star Against the Seven Stars”
To be clear, not all of Gafni’s work is religious. He has designed many exhibits and exhibition spaces, including shows for the Israel Aircraft Industries, NASA, and a memorial exhibit for the Israeli Intelligence Community. But even as he has achieved distinction as a designer and painter, Gafni has always returned to the “basic art of the Jewish nation,” which expresses hope and “a vision for the reinstatement of the Jewish people and world peace.” Gafni sees his work as an heir to the Judaica tradition of painted synagogues, religious artifacts, and holy books. “I believe I continue to contribute my share to this industry in my way and with my openness towards any viewer, Jew and non-Jew alike,” he said.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.