Michoel Muchnik: Renowned Chasidic Artist Speaks About His Work
Volume 1 , Issue 2 (Dec., 1987 | Kislev, 5748)
Michoel Muchnik, a member of the Lubavitcher Chasidic Community in neighboring Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is one of the world's leading contemporary Jewish artists. He has gained prominence for his joyful, story book renderings in water colors and acrylics, and for his original lithographs.
Born in 1952 Muchnik attended the Rhode Island School of Design and studied in The Rabbinical College of Morristown, New Jersey.
He has exhibited his work and lectured on Chasidic art throughout the United States and abroad. Muchnik was amongst five artists to be featured at a special Brooklyn Museum exhibition of Chasidic art in 1977. He has written and illustrated eight children's books and illustrated a collector's edition of Pirke Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers) published by Behrman House in 1986.
Recently Muchnik has embarked on an exciting new phase in his artistic career. His newer work is far more expansive, serious and painterly than the detailed colorful illustrative style for which he has become well known. In contrast to his older work, the new paintings are grand visions set in ancient Israel which, rather than pointing symbolically to a spiritual world, actually opens that world up before the viewer.
In this exclusive interview with
PSJN editor, Sandy Drob, Muchnik speaks about the artistic and historical aspects of Jewish art, and quite candidly about his recent artistic and personal metamorphosis. Mr. Muchnik will, in the near future be holding a private exhibition for members of Congregation B'nai Jacob and their friends in the Park Slope community.
PSJN: Tell me something about Chasidic Art and the Chasidic Art Movement. Is there such a thing as Chasidic art as opposed to Jewish art?
MM: I believe that there definitely is a difference. Just as you would say there is a difference between someone who is actually practicing and living the Chasidic lifestyle and someone who is Jewish but not Chasidic, there is a difference between Chasidic art and Jewish art. By ?Chasidic? I don't mean someone who necessarily dresses in the clothing, but rather one who lives by a particular set of ideals, and for whom a spirit of joy and depth is a part of his art. I do not feel, therefore, that a picture which portrays Chasidim dancing is necessarily a Chasidic painting. If the person does not have a feel for Chasidus, it may be a picture about Chasidim, without itself being Chasidic art. Whereas a Chasidic artist, if he were to draw a tree or an apple or some other object which at first glance does not even appear to be anything Jewish, can make this into a Chasidic painting through his intention, for example, to show Hashem's (God's) greatness or the greatness of Hashem's creation. Usually, however, a Chasidic painting does contain a Jewish theme or symbol or something related to the Jewish soul in its subject matter.
PSJN: Does your painting then always have a Chasidic or Jewish theme?
MM: Yes, though perhaps not always at first glance. I would say that my earlier pieces were much more obvious in their depiction of Jewish symbols, mitzvot and the like. I would say that my more recent pieces are more symbolic or representative of deeper Chasidic ideas.
PSJN: Are there particular ideas you are drawn to working with?
MM: I don't limit myself to particular ones, because the realm of Chasidic lore is so vast. I guess my nature is such that whatever strikes my fancy when I am studying or learning and which I feel I can translate into some pictorial form becomes the subject matter of my work. Once in a while I have a project, like 1 am hoping to do now with The Song of Songs, where I do try to organize myself to study for the purpose of painting a certain area or book and that book provides the ideas to guide my work.
Take, for example, my illustration of Pirke Avos. The ?Childish? here, what I like so much, is that I illustrated the book and a friend of mine in Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Tougar, wrote on the back of each color illustration, using original sources, a Chasidic explanation of both the painting and the mishnah. This had never been done before and it will give you an idea of part of what I'm trying to do as a Chasidic artist.
PSJN: So you don't have any objections to and in fact encourage an integration of words about your painting and the painting itself.
MM: Some artists feel, in fact many people feel that a true painting should not need an explanation; it should stand by itself. But the way I see things: what's good is good and what's better is better. If, behind a particular painting, the artist has any philosophical ideas, whoever wants to delve into these ideas should have the pleasure and means of doing so. This doesn't take away from the fact that the painting can stand by itself. In fact, I try to create a painting that if devoid of any other explanation, the basic intent would be felt just by looking at it. We can all read the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) without Rashi's commentary but Rashi makes it more understandable. The same with commentaries on a painting.
Oftentimes I go to an art exhibition and I look at some painting and I say to the artist, what does it mean? And he says, ?Well, if I have to tell you what it means, then it takes away from the whole thing!? (Oh-oh. I've insulted him.) Well, perhaps. Perhaps he doesn't know what it means either. If there is some intention behind it, it can't hurt to hear about it, especially if it's a Torah idea. Then it can have a different purpose altogether. Then I'm using art to teach an idea in Torah and it becomes a different thing. Not just art for arts sake, but art for a higher purpose.
PSJN: Would you then say that you have both artistic and spiritual motives in doing your work?
MM: I want the quality of art to stand alone, so that someone who wants nothing else out of it will recognize its artistic quality, but from another standpoint it could also serve this Torah purpose.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (shlita) once said something beautiful to the effect that an artist has the privilege of taking physical objects of paint, canvas, and other material things and transforming them into something spiritual. When you look at a painting it is only made up of physical paint but you are feeling something spiritual by looking at it. Really, in other terms we all are artists in our own individual right because we all turn physical things into spiritual things every time we do a mitzvah; this is one of the essences of our religion. In contrast to other religions we Jews do not believe in removing ourselves from the physical word but rather in elevating the physical to a spiritual level. So the Rebbe said something very interesting. He said that if you paint still lifes and how much more so the human form (which is interesting because people think Orthodox Jews can't do that) and it portrays the mitzvot and ideas from Torah you are then elevating art itself to its highest form. This is a simple yet amazingly profound statement which has affected my entire life as an artist. I feel there is no dichotomy between my art and my Yiddishkeit. Just as everything else in life can be integrated into the service of God the same is true for art.
PSJN: While we are on this subject. Is there a halakhic problem at all in doing your work, or art work at all in Judaism?
MM: People talk about the prohibition against graven images which is stated in the second commandment. The truth of the matter is that there are definitely things which according to halakha (Jewish law) should not be drawn, portrayed, sculpted or whatever. Now, I'm not a Rabbi so one should not use my words as a definitive guide. But as far as I understand this matter, a three dimensional sculpture, which looks exactly like someone, and which has all of the parts and is completely realistic would fall into the category of something which a person might conceivably use as an idol. When it comes to painting, which is not three dimensional, I don't think there is any problem. Other prohibited subjects fall under general religious prohibitions having to do with modesty. Yes, there are limitations to what a Chasidic artist or an observant Jewish artist would draw. I have never had to be defensive about that because I'm not defensive about other things which the Torah forbids us to do. I believe that the Torah was given to us to fill our lives with Kedushah (holiness) and if there are certain things which are proscribed by the Torah then these are not things which have Kedushah or the power to sanctify. Like all prohibitions in the Torah, these limitations are for the purpose of elevating us and arc thus not really limitations at all. In addition, with the teachings of Chasidus I'm offered an infinite array of ideas which I could never find the time to paint any way.
PSJN: People often have the idea that the pictorial arts were never developed in Jewish circles. Was there a time when the prohibition against graven images was interpreted differently?
MM: As with much of Jewish law people put fences around this particular commandment to keep them far from transgressing it. It's true that until this generation there was not too much art being hung on the wall in Jewish circles. I think there were three basic reasons for this. First, most of Jewish art was traditionally incorporated into ceremonial objects which were utilized in the practice of Torah and Mitzvos. In other words, spice boxes, decorated Sukkah walls, seder plates, esrog containers, ceremonial art. This was not, of course, art for art's sake, but rather art for religion's sake, or art for life's sake because for a Jew his religion and his life are all one thing. A second factor limiting Jewish art was the fact that in most places, Jewish people were not living in cultures and did not have the financial means to study the arts. Jewish life was generally devoted to the study of Torah as a main occupation. For a Jewish person to have studied art meant they would have to go into a completely non-religious atmosphere. Remember, for us today we don't think of it like
There was a third reason for the limitations in pictorial art. The graven image idea was interpreted to the point where there were some sects of people who were very religious and refused to even let anyone take their photographs. Most of these restrictions arose from not having the means to elevate or spiritualize those things which were in fact permissible. But the truth of the matter is as far as the Rabbis I've asked and as far as the encouragement I've received from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, not only is it permissible but at this time, if it is done with the spirit of Torah, it is very elevating. That is what is exciting about the whole movement of Jewish art today, which has really blossomed during the last 15 years. The younger generation grew up in different times and many of them have now put their energy into everything from ceremonial objects right up through paintings.
PSJN: Is there an opportunity today to learn from artists who are working within the Orthodox community?
MM: In this category there is a shortage. There are Israeli art schools but they are not religiously oriented and there may be no difference between them and any other art school. I have always had the dream to start something but at the expense of doing the work I just can't seem to put it together. I would like to have done that. Maybe I'll be able to set up something at some point. In the meantime Orthodox Jews can go to secular art schools and avoid certain classes because of issues of modesty. It's not the greatest atmosphere, but it can be done.
PSJN: How many people who are observant, are doing serious Jewish art?
MM: There are a lot of people doing very fine quality things, though not as a profession. I went a year and a half ago to the first International Judaica Exhibition in Jerusalem which was for professional artists, ceremonial object artisans, and publishers, and I was very impressed with the quality. There will be another exhibition this May. There are also many, many people in the States doing find quality work, but not as a full time profession. In my community here in Crown Heights there is only one other artist who does Chasidic art as a full time profession, Zalman Kleiman, a very fine painter.
PSJN: Is your art in a particular tradition, Jewish or otherwise? I know you call yourself a folk artist.
MM: My work is really not folk art in the true sense of the term because I've been formally educated. While I have some of the folk style and some of it is folk oriented I cannot pinpoint the definition of my work. It's not folk, not just folk. People have difficulties putting a term on it. It's just Jewish.
PSJN: If we were to look at several Jewish artists would we feel that there was something in common amongst them?
MM: I think the only thing that would be in common is that it is Jewish. I've seen everything from extremely modern abstract designs to the most representational, traditional, straightforward realism and everything in between. Jewish art is not a style, not a period, it is that which is imbued with Jewish ideas?But it's funny it's not like other religious art because Judaism, in contrast to other religions, is a total way of life and therefore our art doesn't look so ?religious?. When you look at a Christian piece of art it is obviously ?religious?. It has the icons and you say ?This is Christian religion?. I don't believe when people look at Jewish art they feel this way.
Rise, My Beloved and Come forth, Song of Songs, Gouche on Bark Paper
And the Buds are Seen in the Land, Song of Songs, Gouche on Bark Paper
Cup of Blessings, Water Color
PSJN: Looking at your newer work I almost get the feeling that there is an eastern, almost an oriental feel to it.
MM: Yes, some of it is. Jewish art is Jewish art. You can take your ideas for design from anything and I happen to like oriental type motifs, so they somehow find their way into my work.
PSJN: Also, your dealing with Biblical themes which are Eastern.
MM: Yes, did you ever notice that we face east when we pray to God. My earlier works are more shtetl-like, more medieval, more European. It's interesting?I look at that Medieval, European style as representing galus, the Jewish diaspora, or exile. I interpret my newer style, which depicts the holy land, as a representation of geulah (redemption). Some obstacles in my life in the last several years have prompted me to look at my work in a new way. I like to think that as we conquer obstacles in our lives we experience this transition from galus to geulah. The greater the difficulties, the greater the redemption, with God's help, that we will experience.
PSJN: Looking at your paintings from the two periods makes me think that just before a person is about to go through a difficult time he is trying very desperately to structure his life and keep everything O.K.,balance everything?but then when there's the turmoil you may be in more pain but at least it's liberating.
MM: Yes, because it forces you to break open these structures. Everyone goes through difficulties in their lives but not everyone grows from them. I find it awesome that Hashem gives us tests that, God forbid, leave room for one to actually fail.
PSJN: They say that if you have bitochin, real faith, God will care for you even in a crisis.
MM: It's true. It took me a long time to realize this. If we have doubts then perhaps Hashem, as it were, has doubts about us.
PSJN: Could you speak a little bit more about how emerging from personal crisis has effected your work.
MM: My earlier style is a more cloudlike, whimsical and illustrative. My more recent work is larger, more expansive, serious, sophisticated, and, I'd say, painterly. I find it very exciting. The joy I find in painting now is more subtly enclosed. The earlier works were more busy and more controlled.
A person can breathe more when looking at the newer work. When there I chose to paint a sunset, here I choose to paint a sunrise. I guess there's a bit of rebirth in it.