catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 10 :: 2008.05.16 — 2008.05.30


Painting the Incarnation

The idea of God-given skin has always fascinated me as the deepest mystery I know.  There must be mystery in the funneling of God into flesh, the stoop of the Divine into a mortal shell.  There must be mystery to appease the puzzling wedge between the theological implication of Christ as the hypostatic union and the practical implication of Christ as having hiccups and sweat glands. I read a book once by a woman who wrote that the deciding factor in her conversion from a devout Jew to a believer in Christ was the doctrine of the incarnation.  No other religion, she said, possessed a wonder such as that.  This wonder is the Word of God spoken of in John 1, who sprouted limbs and clambered the earth for a short season of years, scattering healings, teaching from mountains and finally ending at the cross where he breathed, “It is finished.”  This finish, then, is where the book My Name is Asher Lev begins, as written in the curious context of a Jew who paints the crucifixion.

In the first chapter of this national bestseller by Chaim Potok, Asher Lev describes the dramatic events that have spun out from his recent paintings and their tension of beauty and controversy.  And Asher does indeed spark controversy, as a young Jewish man belonging to the deeply conservative Hasidic community, who takes his vitamins, prays his Krias Shema daily, and then paints the unthinkable image that will secure his enduring estrangement from the life and people he loves. 

The crucifixion image that Asher produces is too profane for the Hasidic community to accept.  Asher’s father refuses to speak about the painting, his mother continues to love him but cannot understand what he has done, and the Rabbi finally requests Asher’s permanent departure from the community.  His art has committed crime against his religion.  And yet, at the beginning of the novel, Asher relates the litany of accusations hurled at himself and his art and tells us, “But I will not apologize.  It is absurd to apologize for a mystery.”

The mystery Asher speaks of is his artistic gift, which he continually struggles to reconcile with his religious belief.  Asher’s artistic talent starts out innocently enough, as he experiments with the simple likenesses of his surroundings on paper: the contours of his small Brooklyn apartment, his father on the telephone with international relief workers and the Venetian blind that veils the window of their home.  But when Asher dabbles in increasingly unconventional creative pursuits, his parents become skeptical and doubt that this talent is of the Ribbono Shel Olom, or Master of the Universe.  Even Asher himself wonders at the offense his art causes to his faith, for example, when he sketches sacrilegiously in the Torah, sneaks forbidden visits to public museums or openly draws taboos such as nudes and crucifixes.  Such paradoxes shove an ethical splinter into Asher’s observance of Jewish tradition. 

The motive for such artistic controversy stems from Asher’s complete devotion to painting truth.  He prefers harsh realities in his paintings to aesthetic illusions.  Even at a young age, Asher would draw the sweat on his mother’s brow rather than the flowers she wished him to draw.  His mother would ask him to draw pretty things after the sudden death of her brother, seeking comfort, but Asher would draw Stalin in his coffin, Jews shivering in Siberia and the dark shadows beneath the trees near his home.  His vision for the world is one of absolute honesty, neither tainted pessimism nor superficial optimism, but truth in its rawest form, whether that truth be hideous or glorious.  This kind of vision, Asher acknowledges, is not without a cost, and he admits, “The solitary vision that put new eyes into gouged-out sockets was demonic and divine.” He knows that eyes are only opened at a high price.

However, Asher neglects the vision for a time, resisting the severity of its demands.  He knows too well the deep offense his crucifix painting will stir in his family and community, and when he finds that the sketches of his suffering mother resemble the suffering of Christ, he destroys them.  Asher struggles deeply in suspension between the apparent dichotomy of his faith and art, so he compromises one or the other to the detriment of both, until he finally makes peace with the fact that truth and practice must be one.  Ideas, Asher comes to learn, are never stagnant.  They leak out from our hands, pour from our eyes and spill from our lungs onto our canvas, our service, our conversations and any other willing vessel.  They will seep into the cracks of our days like cheerful, obstinate weeds, for truth and practice will not be divorced, and in oneness they will claim their bloom. 

Asher decides he must visibly express this newfound learning in art form, and the only symbol he deems powerful to speak this truth is one that stands dangerously outside of Judaism: the cross of Christ.  It is the only motif rich enough to communicate the deep suffering of Asher’s mother in the tragic loss of her brother and the tense rift between her husband and son over his unorthodox artistic pursuits.  So Asher begins the masterpiece that will soon attract as much widening prestige as irrevocable offense.

He paints his mother tied to the window frame of their small Brooklyn apartment in the poise of Christ on the tree, her head twisted and her fists clenched in agony.  He paints himself on one side, holding a spear-like brush and palette, and his father on the other, holding a briefcase.  The two men stand beside her in creation of a familial triangle, both beholding, like the two criminals crucified next to Christ at Calvary.  Their separate stances, divided by the body of Rivkeh Lev, symbolize their two differing ways of giving meaning to the world: Asher’s father through observing Jewish honor and law, and Asher through creative expression.  These two worlds seem to converge for a moment at the foot of Rivkeh Lev’s cross and Asher, in this moment of epiphany, realizes, “My father worked for the Torah.  I worked for—what?…for beauty? No…for a truth I did not know how to put into words.  For a truth I could only bring to life by means of color and line and texture and form.”

It is interesting that the artistic motif Asher uses in his painting is also the ultimate example of his newfound learning that truth and practice must be one.  There is no better model of the oneness of truth and practice than the incarnation of Christ, which unashamedly stands as the very centerpiece of Asher’s painting.  The culmination of Asher’s bold attempt at reconciling his faith and art is manifested in his depiction of the very Author of this concept itself: the Word made flesh. Jesus gave theology a body: lungs, hands, eyes. Just as the eternal Word articulated itself in skin, Asher manifests his ideas about the suffering of the world, his mother, and his religion into his canvas.

At the end of the novel, Potok refrains from granting simple, hand-out answers, and the apparent dichotomy of faith and art is left provokingly unresolved.  Instead, Potok seems to suggest that we see the dichotomy as rather a mystery, as alluded to in the beginning of the novel by Asher Lev himself.  Just as there is mystery in the Word made flesh, there is a mystery in the way our ideas manifest themselves into the workings of our lives.  The mechanics of how belief manifests itself into our veins and their every outflow will always be a mystery.  But the seeming division of truth and deed reconcile peacefully and mysteriously in the incarnation, both historically, in the life and Christ, and metaphorically, in the painting of Asher Lev.  These are the mysteries of Word becoming flesh, idea ripening into practice, and belief blooming into legacy, as Asher discovers when he incarnates his beliefs about the suffering of the world into paper and paint.

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