Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

In the Beginning was the Image: Julian Bell and Archie Rand Paint the Bible

Genesis: The Book of Beginnings by Julian Bell, and The 613 by Archie Rand

a plate from Julian Bell, The Book of Beginnings, reviewed here
a plate from Julian Bell, The Book of Beginnings, reviewed here

From late Antiquity to the advent of modernism, the story of art in Europe was, mostly, the tale of Old and New Testament sacred art. Religion inspired the subjects for much of the most ambitious painting and sculpture—and churches, the sites for this art. Nowadays, however, the art world and religious people are only rarely in productive contact. Hardly any of the canonical modernists were religious. Indeed, the best-known exemplars of twentieth-century sacred art, Henri Matisse’s Vence Chapel and Mark Rothko’s Houston chapel paintings, were created by men who were not personally religious. And so it is singularly unfortunate that in the 1980s the ambitious project for an Italian chapel by Andy Warhol, who was a practicing Catholic, remained unexecuted. Given, then, this history, these publications of ambitious religious art by two well known mid-career artists are most welcome. A book-length commentary would be needed just to inaugurate a full account of the thirty-seven images from Genesis by Bell and the six hundred and fourteen (a cover illustration plus the 613) pictures of regulations of Jewish law by Rand. As it is, here we must be limited to describing just a very few.

Who, thinking of God’s creation of Adam, cannot almost involuntarily recollect Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image. How wonderful, then, that Bell creates a wholly original image, setting the naked, standing first man within a field of yellow containing the shapes of the animals and birds Adam is naming. And when we get to the Garden of Eden, another so much represented scene, how imaginative of Bell to show the serpent in the foreground, egging on Eve as Adam sleeps in the background. The scene of Noah’s ark is perhaps less familiar. (I recall a very fine, though much decayed Uccello fresco, depicting the flood, in Florence.) It depicts Noah in the foreground, carrying a stout plank to the construction-in-progress. Bell, it may seem, is a figurative artist with a rather traditional style. And yet, how imaginative, indeed how boldly original are his pictures, and how varied! A singularly dark picture shows Abraham with his knife raised over Isaac. And when he gets to the scene of Isaac blessing Jacob, he creates a fluttering field of light-and-darkness, a marvelous way of illustrating the frailty of Isaac’s eyesight. Bell’s subjects may be very traditional, but his figurative style is, so I believe, very much a product of late modernism. See his backgrounds, which sometimes derive from 1960s abstraction, and the ways that sometimes he flattens the images of his actors; and, as I have noted, in the dramatic way he foregrounds some of his human figures, not unlike Philip Pearlstein, with the frame cutting across their limbs.

In the Introduction to The 613 Rand tells the story of his youthful lessons in Hebrew and Jewish Scripture, and how, more than four-decades ago he invented an iconography for his painting of the entire interior of a Brooklyn synagogue. Why now six-hundred-and-thirteen commands? If you’re as “umvisndik” as me, you’ll find that Wikipedia answers that question:

these 613 mitzvot can be broken down into 248 positive mitzvot (one for each bone and organ of the male body) and 365 negative mitzvot (one for each day of the solar year).

a plate from Archie Rand, The 613, reviewed here
a plate from Archie Rand, The 613, reviewed here

Obviously Rand had a lot of work on his hands. His visual style owes a surprising debt to comic books, though minus the word bubbles. And the fully saturated colors perhaps derive from German expressionism. As for his visual sources—they are many. “27 Not to worship idols” riffs on Edouard Manet’s The Spanish Singer at the Met; “31 Not to make Gods of Silver or Gold” alludes to Henri Matisse’s early visually-luxurious paintings of textiles, in a nice comment on that commandment; “283 Not to systematically pick fruit in the seventh year” borrows Edgar Degas’ nubile ballerinas; “44 Not to prophesize falsely in God’s Name” tells the fairy tale of Humpty Dumpty’s Fall—its visual source eludes me. And the bird in “177 To be careful to eat only clean birds” seems to come from Pablo Picasso, as does the woman in “456 “To observe the laws of impurity caused by an irregular discharge.” Only, so far as I can see, he never alludes to Marc Chagall, perhaps because the latter’s images are by now clichéd.

But if there are such allusions for most of the rest of these images, I cannot identify them. Perhaps that is because many of the commands themselves are a little obscure—like “79 To wear phylactyeries so the laws will be a pendant on your forehead.” (Why is there a rocket ship in the background of the image of that mitzvah?) Or maybe the problem is that I cannot remember enough comic books, for they seem to be a fertile source of Rand’s art. “566 Judges must not accept testimony unless both parties are present” cites Andy Warhol’s Dick Tracy. Superman, as everyone surely knows, is Jewish, which helps explain, I am not kidding, “439 One who is cured of a skin disease must bring an offering after immersing in the ritual bath.” Often the images are funny—“91 To remember and sanctify the Sabbath by blessing wine and lighting the conclusionary candle,” for example, has to be seen to be believed. So too does “139 Not to have relations with your mother” in which a man is sawing through the tree limb on which he sits. Or look at “115 On that night to explain the meaning of Passover” which is aptly characterized by the blurb from Art Spiegelman on the cover of Rand’s book: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Wow!’” Many of the commands must have been real challenges. Who else would dare to illustrate “158 Not to have homosexual relations with your father,” a command which inspires a ‘fishy’ response from Rand? The horn of plenty, the shofar, is said to be notoriously difficult to play. Rand is a virtuoso instrumentalist—I am in awe of his inventiveness, essential good will and his sense of humor. I can’t believe that every reader of this review isn’t going to rush out and purchase The 613.

What’s the right visual style for presenting Christian or Jewish texts? Because there aren’t many recent artists offering answers to this question, Bell and Rand have had to innovate. Neither of them suffer from any anxiety of influence. Why should they, when no earlier artists have created such manically strange images? At the conclusion of his great, long art history survey Mirror of the World (2007), Bell writes: “What happens next in art is up to you.” Now, as if they were both responding upon that statement, he and Rand offer a challenging view of what will happen next: artists could turn to illustrating sacred texts.

cover of Archie Rand, The 613
cover of Archie Rand, The 613


Julian Bell, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Lewes: St Anne’s Galleries, 2015) ISBN 978-0-9934321-0-1, £45

Archie Rand, The 613 (New York: Blue Rider Press: Penguin/Random House, 2015) ISBN 9780399173769, 640 pp, $45