Last Sunday night the art exhibit “Between Two Worlds” opened at the Jewish Religious Center (JRC). This exhibit, orchestrated by Sigmund Balka ’56, Jewish Chaplain Bob Scherr and Ranana Dine ’16, showcases the work of the contemporary Jewish artist Alan Falk and will be open until Nov. 30.
The exhibit features two series of paintings and watercolors intended to bridge the gap between the world of spirituality and that of romantic love. The works are marked by their folk inspiration and their simplicity.
According to the artist, both series are depictions of unconditional love. The Song of Songs, a book from the writings of the Old Testament, inspires the first series. This book is unique among biblical passages because it is exclusively concerned with the exultation of romantic, sexual love. Through lyrical poems, it describes the relationship between a Shulamite woman and her lover, their longing and love for each other and their celebration of each other’s bodies. Falk has described the passage as a return to the Garden of Eden.
The works in this part of the exhibit beautifully express the content of the text. The most striking aspect of the paintings is their depiction of the interaction between the lovers. They communicate such unaffected tenderness that the viewer seems to experience not only an amalgamation of the worlds of romantic love and spirituality, but also of the worlds of two distinct characters.
From both a secular and a religious perspective the content of this series is topical. Rarely is sexuality portrayed in such an unself-conscious way. But the interactions between the characters depicted in Falk’s paintings are both unprofaned and very human. This content is reinforced by the context of the exhibition, that is, the context of the College and the context of a place of worship.
The second series is inspired by The Dybbuk, a Yiddish play written in 1914 by the Russian Jewish writer S. Ansky, which is considered to be a seminal work in Jewish theater. It tells a complex story of love and death through the lens of Hassidic folk beliefs. The two main characters, Channon and Leah, had been promised to each other for marriage before they were born. When they encounter each other for the first time, they feel as though they belong together, but Leah, whose father has reneged on the agreement, is obligated to marry a wealthier groom. Channon turns to the study of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, for a way to be with Leah. He invokes the name of G*d to cause his own death and then rebirth as a dybbuk, a kind of ghost that possesses the body of a living person. He possesses Leah on the day of her wedding, and together they refuse to marry Leah’s groom. The rabbis exorcise the dybbuk and Channon reappears in corporeal form. Leah decides that she would rather be with Channon in an unworldly union than be with her would-be fiancé in a union completely devoid of love, so Channon enters Leah’s spirit once more, and together they manage to achieve “a union beyond earthly restrictions.”
In this series of works, Falk again captures the sentiment of the original text. This art is darker and stranger than The Song of Songs series is. Through color and symbolic imagery, heFalksuggests a conflict, if not between good and evil, then at least between the sinister and the uncomplicated.
According to Falk, this series is meant to be another showing of unconditional love and another instance of closing the divide between two people. The more tangible divide bridged in these works seems to be between the world of the living and the world of the dead. While it also describes an instance of two people becoming one, it is hard to find a connection between The Dybbuk and the Garden of Eden-esque, uncomplicated love that is apparent in The Song of Songs. However, the lovers in The Dybbuk have an uncompromising and unequivocal love for each other, and for that reason, these two series become an interesting study in the different forms that complete devotion can take.
“Between Two Worlds” is worth the visit to the JRC. The artist will be returning to the College on Nov. 13 to discuss the influence of Judaism on art in the modern era.