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By Sanford Sivitz Shaman
Born to Abraham and Signora Moreh in Baghdad, Iraq, Mordecai Moreh is the youngest of four sons and two daughters. Abraham Moreh is chief accountant with an English import-export firm, and the Morehs are a comfortable, middle-class family. Their lifestyle tends to be more western than oriental, which is true of most middle-class Jewish Baghdadi families who are educated and associated with professional life. The family is conversant in various languages, but the dominant language at home is a Jewish dialect of Arabic indigenous to Baghdad. As with many Arab and Muslim countries at the time, in Iraq there is little interest in painting and sculpture.
The home is traditional and religious, and Zionism is an everpresent value. This is heightened by danger and fear of antisemitic violence. Moreh’s grandfather is a very religious man, and his grandmother directs a workshop of forty girls who embroider decorative figures. Because they believe in a Jewish prohibition against figurative images, she first spits on every new piece of work which she designs.
At age four Moreh begins drawing and never stops. His parents consider it child’s play, neither encouraging nor discouraging him. By the age of six Moreh already knows almost all the stories of the Bible and the Midrash, and the fables of La Fontaine. He hears these stories from his mother each night when she puts him to bed, and during the day while she is cooking in the kitchen. Moreh therefore develops a great love for stories and for such books as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and A Thousand and One Nights, which he will discover in Paris later in life. During his first days at school, Moreh is deeply struck by the graphic impression of the teachers’ red pencil marks on the pupils’ exercise books. He draws continually during the early school years and first becomes aware of his talent when his art teacher (who will also continue his career in Israel) singles out Moreh to make a drawing at home for a competition. Later Moreh develops an interest in Michelangelo, Leonardo and Rembrandt. Studying in a Jewish school, he learns Arabic, Hebrew and English, and has a particular interest in literature. During World War II Moreh and his family are confined to their home for a number of days because of the farhud (pogrom) directed against the Jews of Baghdad. This event causes a deep divide between Jews and Arabs in Baghdad.
At the age of fourteen Moreh and his cousin emigrate to Israel, traveling as the sons of another family. Prior to the trip Moreh has the feeling that he is going to Paradise, and for this he is the envy of his classmates (1).
While at the Sha’ar Ha’aliyah immigration camp, Moreh is placed in an Allyat Hanoar camp for unaccompanied children. Altogether he will be sent to transit camps in Ahura, Netanya, Karkur and ultimately Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi.
These are the years of many portraits, especially imaginative ones. Drawing continuously throughout this period, Moreh feels that drawing is his only connection to the outside world.Throughout the age of fourteen, Moreh has continual “visions of images of a gigantic figure dancing and at the same time trampling another [smaller] being beneath its feet." Twenty years later Moreh will recognize “...this figure as Mahakala, the devouring power of time, as it is depicted in traditional Tibetan Art...” (2)
Moreh is joined in Israel by his mother, his sister and three brothers. They live in an immigrant camp (Ma’abarat Talpiot) in Jerusalem, where Moreh’s brothers attend the Hebrew University. Because of business, Moreh’s father remains in Iraq until 1962.
Living under difficult conditions at Talpiot, Moreh becomes sick and weak, and feels hostility
around him. In response, he expresses himself by making intensive drawings and paintings from imagination. These are private works which he keeps to himself. Studying at the Hebrew Gymnasium, Moreh is deeply impressed by his first serious encounter with Jewish history. During the winter Moreh frequently goes to the Gymnasium ashamed of his muddy shoes from the Talpiot immigrant camp. This and the cost of schooling cause him to stop studying there. Instead, he works during the day and studies at night school. Throughout this period of adaptation to Israel, Moreh feels the need of a spiritual guide (3). He therefore begins to read Tagore, Nietzsche and Gibran along with the Prophet Isaiah, all of whom have a great influence upon him. Moreh particularly likes the way Isaiah speaks of God as universal.
Moreh often studies at the YMCA library because of its heating and good light. He borrows a book on the life of Buddha, which reveals a whole “other world” he has never known about: an interest in Buddhism as well as Christian mysticism is sparked. (Moreh has been tending toward the opinion that Judaism is too dogmatic) Many years later this reading will play a role in his discovering and understanding Jewish spirituality and the richness and depth of Zohar and Cabala.
This is an important time in Moreh’s life. Although at first the availability of art materials in Israel is limited, and Moreh’s early drawings are therefore done in ballpoint pen on poor quality writing paper, he is more encouraged to make art in Israel than he ever was in Baghdad. He becomes conscious of himself as a unique human being, and he has a strong urge to live his own life and to think for himself. He believes during these moments that there is a reason and goal for existence in the world, and he develops an awareness of communion with the universe. Drawing with an intensity of which he never suspected himself capable, he feels that images impose themselves upon him like visions, and the pen moves by itself as if driven by an inner force. Time and space assume a new dimension - a kind of perpetual eternity. These experiences will overwhelm Moreh periodically until he is nineteen. Always intense and concentrated, they occur each time with renewed energy and content, and are always part of his creative process. He is therefore moved to begin a search in mystical and spiritual literature in order to understand and deepen the phenomenon. As a result, two worlds reveal themselves: the first is the dark world of grey everyday life and existence, characterized by boredom, vanity, and despair, the second, its antithesis, is a world of high exaltation in which each moment is sacred and creative, and is characterized by a strong sense of being an integral part of the universe.
A direct consequence of this search is that another sense of values overtakes Moreh. He understands that he now has no common language with others. Isolated from everyone, even his family, Moreh becomes completely detached from material values and rejects money and possessions as goals in themselves. He aspires to spiritual experience
Graduation from high school in Jerusalem.
Moreh studies art at Bezalel in Jerusalem. But feelings of isolation and lack of funds create difficulties, and at the outset he is discontented from his studies. He is one of the few of oriental extraction among the students, and most of his teachers, like Ya’akov Eisencher, Ya’acov Steinhardt, Jacob Pins and Isidore Ascheim, are of German origin and/or followers of German Expressionism (some are even former pupils of Expressionist masters). This generates even greater feelings of alienation for Moreh, whose artistic interests are more “visionary” and "surrealist oriented,” and whose “elaborate technique” and “minute detail” are at odds with Expressionist attitudes (4). Moreover, Bezalel’s emphasis at this time is on graphics and crafts, not “the fine arts."
During the second year of study at Bezalel, a deep interest in music begins to take root. The cantatas of Bach and the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi are singled out to be especially meaningful as long hours are passed at Beit Hillel listening to classical records.
In the Rehavia district of Jerusalem Moreh rents a double garage to use as a studio where he spends long periods of time, (even sleeping there at times). During his third year of study, a group of students threaten to drop out unless a fine arts department is established at Bezalel. The department is created, and Moreh has his first encounter with etching, which is taught by Steinhardt. in addition, Moreh studies painting, drawing and woodcut. Portraying the cat, an important symbol hidden deep within him, Moreh makes his first etching, The Sacred Cat. The first works of animals from imagination start to emerge. Most of these animals are archetypes. Eternal and universal, they are symbols of human fear, aspiration and destiny. These works are accompanied by nocturnal impressions of the narrow streets of the religious area, Mea Shearim, and the Mahane Yehuda quarter.
Interests in Israeli art and artists at this time include Ardon, Levanon, Boneh, Bergner and Bezem, and the early graphic works of certain teachers at Bezalel such as Steinhardt and Pins. The latter, who collects Chinese and Japanese art, is the first to introduce Moreh to the art of the Far East.
Moreh is significantly encouraged when at the end of his third year of study, critic Miriam Tal reviews the annual student exhibition, and writes extensively about him as a new talent that she has discovered.
The first major procession is painted. These processions are associated with the idea of repentance and atonement, martyrdom and crucifixion. In some processions Moreh sees the flaw of humanity and the generations regenerating and passing.
Moreh finishes his studies at Bezalel as one of the first students to graduate from the Department of Fine Arts. Pins invites Moreh to participate in the annual exhibition of Jerusalem artists at the Artists House. Among those to show their work along with Pins are Fima and Bezalel Schatz. After seeing the two Moreh works in the exhibition, Bertha Urdang, then owner of the Rina Gallery in Jerusalem, visits Moreh’s studio, and decides to give him a solo exhibition.
Spring. Exhibition at the Rina Gallery, Jerusalem, with Moreh' s oil paintings, etchings and woodcuts. The exhibition is well received by the press and most of the works are sold.
Receiving a scholarship from the Italian government, Moreh studies at the Accademia di Belli Arti in Florence. He is impressed by Renaissance Art, particularly the Quattrocento and the Venetian Schools. He closely studies the works of the Trecento painters, as well as Piero della Francesca, Uccello, and Botticelli. But Moreh feels that his teachers at the Accademia are unsure of what to teach because of the dramatic changes taking place in art at that time. Certain sights in the market place of Florence strike Moreh - birds, hares, wild boar, deer, and sheep, hanging in the butcher shops, and he begins drawing them. Eventually purchasing some of these carcasses, he makes studies of them at home. This results in a series of tortured and wounded animals, which symbolize human injustice, cruelty, persecution, death and martyrdom. A series of etchings ensues (e.g., The Wounded Deer, The Hunt of the Hare and The Wild Boar and Rabbit), along with a series of paintings with screaming skulls and crucified birds.
During this time, a deepening interest in Japanese and Chinese art and philosophy sparks the reading of Zen Buddhist philosophy, and trips to Venice and elsewhere to see Japanese and Chinese collections. The pureness, spontaneity, and the direct quality of this art fascinate the artist, who especially appreciates its freedom from such classical Western problems as scientific perspective, anatomy and chiaroscuro.
In Florence, Moreh has his first meeting with Shaya Yariv, now a sculptor but who will later establish the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv. Moreh also is visited by such Israeli artists as Zvi Tolkovsky, Menashe Kadishman, Danny Karavan, Avraham Ofek and David Sharir. And he meets frequently with the Jerusalem painter David Ben-Shaul.
Summer. During a two- or three-month visit to Paris much time is spent in zoos making drawings and sketches of animals. These drawings develop into etchings (e.g., Small Bison, Vulture and Saint Sebastian).
Returning to Florence the artist meets and strikes up a friendship with Red Grooms, who at this time is married to Chaim Gross’ daughter, Mimi.
Invited by the Gretz family to live and work in the Castello di Vincigliata outside Florence, Moreh stays there for a few months together with the Gretz’s son, Gideon, who is a sculptor. Another Israeli painter, Rafi Kaiser, who at this time is obsessed with medieval armor and castles, is also staying and working there. Moreh’s stay proves to be a very fertile period. The metaphysical art of De Chirico, Carrà and Morandi, and especially the unique atmosphere created in their painting, strikes the artist. In his own work he again begins to paint carnivals, processions, masks, kites and a series of hung and crucified birds. The masks come out of his imagination in a manner that he has never seen before, and the figures in these works become increasingly visionary and imaginative. He works in secrecy.
Summer. Disappointment with the instruction at the Florence Accademia and receipt of an American-Israel Cultural Foundation grant to attend L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts encourage a move to Paris, where Moreh takes up residence in a house frequently inhabited by Israeli painters. In Paris the artist works on his art at night and spends the days sleeping, visiting museums, and making regular trips to the nearby zoo. He has few friends and is very lonely. He continues to work in secrecy.
During this period, Moreh observes that most of the students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts work in abstraction and consider his figurative works out of place. Often while painting Moreh experiences great joy and exaltation. He will later realize that this can be also attained through meditation and yoga.
This is a very intense and inspiring period of work on etchings, woodcuts and paintings.
Etchings include The Great Bison, Duel in the Circus and Reflections on Capital Punishment.
What Moreh believes to be his best woodcuts are done in this year. Receiving a set of recordings of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, Moreh is deeply moved by the music and listens with great frequency.
After a five-year absence from Israel, the artist returns for a visit. He is again invited for a
solo exhibition at the Rina Gallery, where he shows approximately thirty etchings. The exhibition is very well received and most of the works are sold. At this time the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum begin to acquire Moreh’s work. Also Old Jaffa is being restored and becoming a vibrant center for galleries. One of its new galleries, the Modern Art Gallery, is inaugurated during the summer with a solo exhibition of Moreh’s paintings, etchings and woodcuts.
Winter. Life takes a sudden turn when Moreh meets Gerburg Marschall (Tamar) in Paris. A curious relationship develops, marked by Tamar’s expressing her love and devotion through dolls and puppets which she makes and presents to the artist whenever she visits his studio.
Later all these dolls and puppets become a favorite subject in painting. Six years later Moreh and Marschall will marry.
A new series of paintings is initiated, inspired by the artist’s collection of toys and puppets
(especially those made by Tamar). Occasionally these compositions are expanded to include crabs and shrimps, as well as strange insects. Many of the paintings have a black background in common (e.g., The White Bat, The Crucifixion of My Aunt, Under the Sign of the Crab, Homage to Marie Antoinette, The Queen of Night, etc.(
Work begins on the “Mask” series in drypoint. Based on portraits of friends, the series is printed in colors from a single plate. (The à la poupée technique is employed in order to print as many colors as desired without making additional plates).
The artist now turns to a series of small works in mixed media on paper. Using china ink, crayon and oil pastel, Moreh often employs an old rejected etching as a surface on which to improvise these works.
Beginning the Curses, after being struck by the frequency with which people employ such words in their daily conversations, Moreh again follows his imagination and frees himself from the limitations of realistic representation of the figure.
This is followed by a significant output of etchings which includes the Cosmic Series (e.g., The Milky Way); the Carnival Series (e.g., Isa the Fool); Monocycles in the Circus; and Commedia dell’ Arte . Color prints combining aquatint with drypoint, many of these works have script in various languages. Often the text relates to the images in the spirit of nonsense poetry.
While working on an ambitious series of drypoints, the women of Don Giovanni make their first appearance. But progress is slow and it takes two years to realize three full-color Don Giovanni etchings. Moreh, however, will return to the project some twenty years later. Moreh works on The Birth of the Cosmic Man, a series of eight drypoints. Numbered from zero to seven, the series is printed in color à la poupée and is different from anything the artist has ever done before. During this work an important symbol, the egg, enters into the imagery along with many other symbols for the first time. Astonished by his own profound use of symbolism, Moreh is led to look into alchemy as a result of these works and to understand this sudden emergence of symbols. He comes to comprehend the real nature of alchemy as a spiritual process, and that changing a base metal into gold is a metaphor for turning one’s “base nature” into a spiritual one. Although Moreh’s ever-present use of alchemy symbolism in The Birth of the Cosmic Man Series may make him seem long conversant with alchemy, as is frequently the case his understanding of these works comes well after their completion.
Summer. Three weeks before a trip to New York, Moreh, who has never meditated or frequented any spiritual group, dreams that he is sitting in a circle with other disciples and meditating in front of a master sitting opposite him. Later in the dream he sees a courtyard with a store filled with Far-Eastern scroll paintings and other oriental antiquities. The store begins to burn and Moreh awakens.
Two weeks later, amidst difficulties securing accommodation for the New York trip, the artist receives a visit from Peter Silverman, a collector of Moreh's work. Accompanying Silverman is a New York dealer in oriental art. The dealer, who also gives lessons in meditation, invites Moreh and his wife to be his guests at his home during their trip to New York. This is the first encounter with Rudi, who will initiate the artist and his wife into Tantric meditation.
Moreh accepts the invitation, and while staying at Rudi’s house he and Tamar attend Rudi’s lessons in meditation. One night during the visit Moreh dreams that he is standing by a river at night gazing at a full moon. Suddenly a wave of light fused with electric energy flows instantly from the moon to the water by the river’s edge where Moreh is standing. The flow and exchange of electric energy from the moon to the water and from water to the moon continue with great intensity until Moreh awakens. Later in the day, at the meditation lesson, Moreh responds for the first time to Rudi’s flow of energy. Rudi’s teachings prepare his students to live on a higher level of consciousness and to surrender negative thoughts and desires. Moreh studies with Rudi how to rechannel the negative energies into positive and creative energy and how to awaken the “Kundalini”. (6)
The artist follows Rudi’s profound teaching for almost two years, until Rudi is killed in an
airplane crash. The teachings of Rudi and his Tantric meditation exercises based upon concentration on breathing will have a deep influence on Moreh’s thought and spiritual life.
A visit to Heidelberg brings the artist’s work to the attention of the Kurpfälziches Museum. The result is a 1972 retrospective covering 1960-1972.
Summer. After almost three years of concentrating mainly on graphic works, Moreh returns to oil painting on canvas, and stops working on prints.
April. Birth of the Morehs’ first son, Mikhayhou. The artist is awarded the Rank-Xerox prize in Paris for the Curses.
Summer. Retrospective of graphic works at the Gutenberg Museum, Mainz. Late summer. For the first time Moreh works in the manner of the old masters as he turns to tempera on wood and canvas. Building the painting in the traditional way, he starts with a detailed drawing in china ink and then applies the colors layer by layer to to achieve a highly finished surface. In this manner Moreh paints such paintings as The Philosophers Tree, Tree of Life, The Alchemical Man, The SacredDeer, etc. Concentrating exclusively on works of this nature, he feels that the results he achieves are clear, precise and full of light.
Wanting to control every detail in his painting, Moreh continues to work on the tempera
paintings. He feels that he succeeds in eliminating any accidental effects.
Autumn. Retrospective of graphic works at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
As a result of his interest in alchemy, Moreh works on an album called Métamorphoses
Herméיtiques, containing six color etchings and six complementary poems written in French
by the artist.
August. Birth of the Morehs’ first daughter, Eliad.
Retrospective of graphic works at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
First exhibition (La Commedia Animale ) at Galleria Don Chisciotte in Rome. This is the
beginning of the artist’s long association with Galleria Don Chisciotte. Exhibition of graphic work at Museum of Art, Ein Harod. It is the first exhibition organized by Galia Bar-Or, the new director of the Museum.
First important Paris exhibition (Le Jardin Alchimique) at Galerie Pierre Belfond. Almost all the exhibited works are in oil and tempera, and are inspired by alchemy. An important friendship begins with the French writer and poet Michel Random, who is working on a book entitled L’Art Visionnaire. The two spend long evenings discussing the essence of mysticism and spirituality in art.
Moreh works on a series of mixed media miniatures on paper. These consist mostly of humorous little animals like hedgehogs and squirrels metamorphosing into plants, musical instruments and totems. A selection of 55 of these images are reproduced in facsimile in a numbered edition book, Bestiaire du 7e jour, published by Michèle Broutta in Paris. In the fall of 1980 the 55 original drawings and the book are exhibited in the FIAC exhibition at the Grand Palais. These works elicit an enthusiastic public response. On the second day of the exhibition, the Morehs’ second daughter, Elior, is born.
The exhibition Moreh - Animals in His Graphic Works at the Haifa Museum of Modern Art. This is an exhibition of all the graphic work that employs animal imagery.
Second important Paris exhibition: Michele Broutta inaugurates her newly opened gallery with a restrospective of the graphic work 1960-1981.
Frequent dialogues conducted by the American poet, critic and biographer Edouard Roditi result in an interview for the book More Dialogues on Art. Among the 12 interviews included with Moreh’s are Victor Brauner, Carlo Carrà, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini and Ossip Zadkine. In search of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros, Moreh begins the first of many trips to zoos throughout Europe. The first of his rhinoceros drawings are initiated in the zoos of Hamburg and Amsterdam.
The Galerie Michèle Broutta publishes a book of 48 of Moreh’s mixed media works on paper, accompanied by six of his poems. Entitled Entre le Rêve et l’Eveil in its original French, the book is simultaneously published by Galleria Don Chisciotte in Italian. The Moreh family moves to Jerusalem for a two-year period, and the artist makes frequent trips between Paris and Jerusalem. He also makes his first trip to Egypt, where he is struck by the art and architecture as well as the Nile and Aswan Dam.
At the end of the year a shift is made from small-scale imaginative works to larger scale mixed media works on paper that are all based on nature. Subjects include exotic fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. These subjects are often combined with the image of a bird,a hedgehog or a fish as a picture within a picture. The pomegranates and irises the artist picks from his garden in Jerusalem are also favorite subjects. Moreh receives Prix Wizo in Paris.
The Galerie Michèle Broutta presents a solo exhibition of subjects from nature in mixed media
works on paper (1983-85) at the FIAC exhibition in the Grand Palais, Paris. The book, La Gravure en Taille-Douce, is published in Paris with the chapter on drypoint written by Moreh.
Making a second trip to Egypt, Moreh meditates in front of the large sculpture of Osiris in Luxor, and has a profound spiritual experience involving the essence of time and eternity. Moreh’s paintings are included in the exhibition Art and Alchemy at the Venice Biennale. Work is initiated on large-scale paintings. At one extreme subjects include visionary gardens and at the other processions and carnivals.
Moreh teaches etching at the Summer Workshop at the University of Haifa. He continues to work on large-scale paintings.
May. A broken leg puts the artist in a hospital for the first time in his life. Unable to continue
to work on the oil paintings, Moreh turns to works on dark tinted paper (“Canson”) upon which he applies bright colors and highlights with crayon. At this time it occurs to him to finally return to the Circus and Don Giovanni Series - not as etchings, but as unique one-of-a-kind mixed-media works.
The French art magazine Art & Métier du Livre publishes a major feature article on the works of Moreh.
November. Exhibitions of graphics and small-scale mixed media works at the Städtische Galerie, Konstanz, and paintings and works on paper 1983-1988 at the Galerie Michèle Broutta, Paris.
A visit to the carnival in Basel reveals the most striking sights set against the background of the quaint houses and streets of the old city. Individuals parade in strange and fancy masks among “disguised families” with fifes and drums, and with carts containing “disguised babies."
November/December. Exhibition of large-scale paintings, “Les Jardins Initiatiques,” at Contrast Gallery, Brussels.
April. The Galerie Michèle Broutta presents a solo exhibition of Moreh graphics at the SAGA exhibition at the Grand Palais. This exhibition includes four images of rhinoceroses. Later in April, Moreh’s mother dies in Jerusalem. This is followed by the death of his father six weeks later, in May.
September. Exhibition of graphics at the Artists House, Jerusalem. This is the artist’s first Jerusalem exhibition since his 1974 exhibition at the Israel Museum.
Summer. Moreh begins his first work in neon in conjunction with Neon Necooda of Givatayim.
The work is funded by the Israel Electric Corporation, Ltd. specifically for an exhibition of the artist’s “Nocturnal Works” at the University of Haifa.
This chronology was composed with the assistance of Yonata Meshi, who collected and arranged much of the information, and Mordecai Moreh, who spent many long hours in interviews, providing details, anecdotes, and data.
1. David Gerstein, "Mordecai Moreh is Awaiting the End of the World" (Hebrew), Kol Ha'ir, 9 Oct. 1981, p. 28.
2. Moreh quoted in Edouard Roditi, "Mordecai Moreh," More Dialogues on Art (Santa Barbara: Ross- Erikson, Inc., 1981), pp. 120-121.
3. Kol Ha'ir, 9 Oct. 1981, p. 28. See Moreh quoted in Roditi, p. 117.
5. Kol Ha'ir, 9 Oct. 1981, p. 28.
6. Research psychologist Henry Reed explains that Kundalini "... is an ancient Hindu word for the body's psychic energy... In Eastern traditions, the Kundalini energy is active within a series of seven psychic centers, or chakras" in the body. See Henry Reed, Edgar Cayce on Channeling Your Higher Self (New York: Warner Books, 1989), p. 101. Rudi goes on to define the Kundalini as "the highest force that normally exists in the human mechanism [and] lies asleep in a psychic center at the base of the spine." Rudi, quoted in John Mann, Rudi, 14 Years with My Teacher (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Rudra Press, 1987), p.49.