VERY OCCASIONALLY, THROUGH the course of living, reading and looking, you may come across something so overwhelmingly perfect that will reaches you so directly simply you have to have it, at whatever cost. And then, having acquired this thing of great beauty, it doesn’t matter, whether you sit and ponder its treasures every day, or whether you never look at it again, but just rejoice in the fact of your ownership, because that ownership attests to the fact that something as wise and beautiful as this actually exists in the world. This is what Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal will trigger for you.
Impeccably designed, this over 300-page foray into the life’s work of easily contemporary Jewish art’s most unexpected giant, will touch you deeply, whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not. It’s about the magic of metaphor and the cross pollination of ideas that infiltrates everything from the kind of angelology that infused the thoughts of German Jewish thinkers Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem in the pre-World War Two years, to the political value of ritual objects to the ways in which ritual values can splay into shocking and unexpected directions.
A man who can turn the eight-branched candelabrum, traditionally used by Jews in the celebration of the festival of lights, Chanukah, into a series of sinister railroad tracks; or a child’s noise-maker into a gallows, Podwal (b. 1945) is an unexpected giant because he wasn’t trained to be an artist and nor did the trajectory of his career take the expected twists and curves in this kind of road.
Podwal was educated as a physician. He is not a religious man. His unique handling of line and metaphor, with wit and intellect, mysticism and astounding simplicity begs comparison, to an extent, with the line work of American-Lithuanian artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the imagery of Belorus-born artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), and yet, nothing jades the scalpel like sharpness of Podwal’s reflection on everything, from the Golem of Prague to kabbalistic overtures. He makes Hebrew letters dance with a robustness that enables you to hear the jollity of hassids of yore, and an instinctive knowledge of colour and line work that takes hold of you, eyeballs first, and sucks you into the kind of mad, death-defying conflation of superstition and truth, politics and history, that make you believe you can reach the ineffable, just by looking at these drawings.
A colourist as much as a draughtsman of lines both bold and cross-hatched, historical doodles and the jigsaw puzzle of shtetl geographies, Podwal is an entity unexplored by conventional art historical scholarship. This book is a magnificent celebration of the litany of his work. [The review is premised on a pdf of the publication and for this reason does not comment on the quality of the printing or the texture of the paper]. The layout of the book is conventional and elegant. While you may not believe that an occasional use of bold blue background is a good unifying idea for pages in a tome of this nature, when Podwal’s line art is juxtaposed in this context, it glimmers with an effervescence that makes you remember why there are stories in the world.
This is not an academic tractate celebrating the art historical contribution of Podwal to visual culture. Rather, it is an event all of its own – it’s an experience which you will want to visit and revisit, haunted as you will become by a curiously witty metaphor, by that beard that has turned into a fish, by the city that sits on top of the Golem’s head, like a crown; by the cry of a woman that pours from her mouth, palpably, by the sense of surreal possibility that Podwal evokes with his lines and crayons, just as Polish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) or Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) make magic happen with their words and stories.
Along the lines of the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), which features a mentaculus – a kabbalistically-inspired probability map of the universe – the body of Podwal’s work, from his liturgical illustrations to his tapestry designs, plays with the simple complexity that feels both obvious and so deep and rich you can lose yourself in it. This is the kind of book that overrides ownership of a whole library of texts. It embraces the universe at its core.
- Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal features a foreword by Elie Wiesel, a preface by Cynthia Ozick and an essay by Columbia University Professor of Jewish Studies, Elisheva Carlebach. It is published by Glitterati, London (2016).