Techniques Of Imagination

By Patrick O'Donnell
From the catalogue of the exhibition
Pucker Gallery - October 2008

The works of Mordecai Moreh in this exhibition provide an engaging range of pleasures to the eye and to the imagination by way of techniques and subjects not often seen in a single collection. The challenging drypoint method of engraving [M91 through M127] demands intense concentration of mind and body, it produces black-line images of unusual power in the hands of masters of the technique, among them Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Moreh. The intensely colored works in the collection [M122 through M138] show the use of a broad palette in the invention of images arising from a disciplined and provocative imagination.

Born in 1937 in Baghdad and trained in Israel, France and Italy, Mordecai Moreh has said that he began to draw and paint as a young child in Iraq even before he could read or write, but that his formal training began after graduating from secondary school in Israel. His desire was "acquiring technical skills that would allow me later to communicate more convincingly whatever I might feel compelled to depict." He has described himself as feeling "alien" among the followers of the German Expressionist movement popular with his first teachers, having "tended toward a more visionary concept of art that would be closer to that of the Surrealist school, though with a love of fine and minute detail and a very elaborate technique."

While studying in the Fine Arts program at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, Moreh began to etch images of animals, beginning with a work titled The Sacred Cat. During subsequent periods of study at the Accademia di Belli Arti in Florence and at UEcole Nationale Supיrieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Moreh created a great variety of animal images, particularly wounded and hunted animals, while also painting and etching parades, processions, carnivals, masks, screaming skulls and kites. Some of these are subjects that have stayed with Moreh for decades and are everywhere apparent in the current exhibition.

 m91_-_a_cat.jpg
M91 - A Cat 

A Cat [M91] is one of half a dozen or so works on display that might be described as life studies, single images depicted with detailed accuracy. This is a cat at rest, plump and supine, limbs and tail arrayed in the typical feline posture of self-composition in repose. Only the angle of the head gives any hint of alertness, of the possibility that with the right stimulation this cat could quickly be fully conscious and in motion. The heft of the cat, its definiteness, our sense of its reality, demonstrate the strengths of the drypoint technique,

a painstaking process in which the artist uses a sharp tool to scratch the image on a copper plate, creating from the displaced metal a wave or burr which holds the ink during an impression. This process requires concentrated physical force to create the illusion of spontaneity. The burrs produce inked lines that can be thin or thick, according to the pressure of the maker's hand, which must be exquisitely controlled. The thousands of lines that make up A Cat [M91] are principally straight, but they are arranged to create a sense of roundness, relief and weight. The cat's left haunch, its long tucked-up tail, the texture of its fur, its jewels are all rendered by inked metal burrs-, they are a good example of the ways in which Moreh uses scored lines without apology as part of the method of depiction, just as John Singer Sargent let brushstrokes create the texture of cloth.

 m92_-_drowsy_cat.jpg m93_-_sleeping_dog.jpg 
M92 - Drowsy Cat    M93 - Sleeping Dog

 m95_-__lines_lion.jpg m97_-_a_young_deer.jpg 
 M95 - Lines Lion  M97 - A Young Deer

m98_-_an_ox.jpg  m102_-_the_lion.jpg
M98 - An Ox   M102 - The Lion

Drowsy Cat [M92], Sleeping Dog [M93], Lines Lion [M95], A Young Deer [M97], An Ox [M98], A Couple of Panthers [M99] and The Lion [M102] show Moreh's ability to adapt the drypoint technique to different purposes. The posture of the young deer, its proportions, and the spareness of the lines in its depiction along with the absence of shading in the body create a feeling of fragility and delicacy. Is this deer strong enough to stand on those long, skinny legs? Similarly, the strength and massiveness of the ox is also conveyed with few lines and no shading, but the lines create radial curves defining and outlining the slabs of muscle and fat that gravity pulls from the skeleton of the animal. The lions, unlike the domestic cats and the panthers, seem to be watching a passing scene, their thick manes drawing the eye to the head and neck, the strongest parts of the animal.

With Fidelity [M94] the viewer understands that Moreh often uses animals because, "I find among animals a far greater variety of possibilities for an expression that remains timeless and universal, in fact a far more diversified message" than simply depicting "the image of man." Specific animals can by their nature convey to us an impression of a desirable or undesirable attitude or kind of action, thus Fido the emblem of Fidelity. Such use of animals was a common emblematic habit among late-medieval and Renaissance artists; it works because it is rooted in our experience. As every parent knows, children reciprocate a dog's fidelity. The smaller depiction of the older woman with her dog perhaps illustrates that some fidelities endure.

 m100_-_sylvie_with_a_goat.jpg  
M100 - Sylvie with a Goat   

 m101_-_goats_cart.jpg
M101 - Goat's Cart 

While some of Moreh's animal depictions are emphatically emblematic, including Allegory of Greediness [M109], the works involving animals and people exhibit more complex relationships and perspectives. In Sylvie with a Goat [M100], Goat's Cart [M101] and The Young Girl and the Turkey [M104] the animals are large and out-of-scale relative to the children; they are bulky and dark compared to the still-immaculate children, just as animals might appear to children in dreams, or even nightmares.

 m108_-_training_of_the_hare.jpg m109_-_allegory_of_greediness.jpg 
 M108 - The Girl in Training
Of the Hare
M109 - Allegory of Greediness 

Other depictions of children and animals are decidedly more complex still. The girl in Training of the Hare [M108] controls or trains the hare with both leash and stick. The girl is intriguingly drawn, with her body incorporating a hare and a small girl, just as Inuit sculptures show spirits and animals making up the bodies of shamans. The hare is freighted with traditional symbolism, always invoking the female and especially qualities of fecundity and procreation. The viewer may ask why the girl needs to subdue the hare, whether a goddess is presiding in the background and how the three figures in the lower left corner relate to the implied action of the work. The satisfactions of imagination begin with Moreh and flow to the viewer.

 m120_-_the_feast.jpg  m121_-_the_feast.jpg
 M120 - The Feast M121 - The Feast


The two versions of The Feast [M120] and M121] show that Moreh's animals, while not realistic, are not sentimental depictions nor are they merely "whimsical." These are not the animals of the nursery nor of Eden. This is not the peaceable kingdom. Here is a tableau of reveling animals very reminiscent of Moreh's decades-long output of robust etchings and paintings of blood-and-guts phantasmagorias. Here is death, here is jubilation, here is nature red in tooth and claw, with animals dancing and playing music to bring some kind of order and harmony to the expression of the wildness of the hunt and the feast to follow. The difference between the black-and-white and the hand-colored versions give the viewer a glimpse of what Moreh can accomplish when he animates his work with color.


 
m122_-_the_horse_sacrifice.jpg
m123_-_through_the_blue_screen.jpg 
 M122 - The Horse Sacrifice M123 - Through The Blue Screen


 m124_-_spring_parade.jpg m125_-_the_somnambulist.jpg 
 M124 - Spring parade  M125 - The Somnambulist


m126_-_the_blue_capricorn.jpg m127_-_sunday_morning_promenade.jpg 
 M126 - The Blue Capricorn  M127 - Sunday Morning Promenade



Moreh's use of color in all but one of the unedited drypoints [i.e., one-offs from The Inner Eye, M122 through M127] deftly draws the eye to the individual components of the works, not using color to "unify" the images but rather to emphasize that the implied story is made up of discrete and individualized units. It may be impossible to provide a simple declarative sentence describing the subject of The Horse Sacrifice [M122], but it is not at all difficult to enter into a hypnagogic frame of mind in which brightly colored creatures make a circuit around a horse whose animation has been sacrificed to the art of static representation. Similarly, Through the Blue Screen [M123], The Somnambulist [M125], Blue Capricorn [M126] and Sunday Morning Promenade [M127] rely on color-defined components to create a feeling of overall coherence. It is up to the viewer to decide whether and how the images create meaning.

In Spring Parade [M124], however, the palette is used to create an image in which all the parts are brought together by color-themes and tones. The piece gives an impression of oneness of action, the parade, with variously colored participants, people and creatures of the earth and of the air and flowers and other growing things, blending and almost fusing together in the march of rebirth.

m128_-_eulogy_of_pease.jpg  m129_-_pilgrims_with_four_archangels.jpg 
 M128 - Eulogy Of Peace  M129 - Pilgrims With Four Archangles


 m130_-_peace_village.jpg m131_-_peace_on_the_roofs.jpg 
 M130 - Peace Village  M131 - Peace on the Roofs


 m132_-_peace_parade.jpg m133_-_messiah_is_arriving_on_a_bicycle.jpg 
 M132 - Peace Parade  M133 - Messiah is Arriving on a Bicycle

In The Peace Series [M128 through M133] the viewer understands that Pax Morehana is a very individualized condition, one that brings together Moreh's preoccupations with processions, promenades, parades, carnivals, bright colors, real and imagined animals, masks, labels, disproportion, traditional symbols and visual litanies. Peace, in these works, is very much in the eye of the beholder, who might find that "reading" the pieces is just plain interesting, even fun. Messiah is Arriving on a Bicycle [M133] certainly seems to be derived more from active imagination than from scriptural or theological sources. The wheeled Messiah shows up with an entourage not of ranks of angels and archangels but of animals and humans and human-animal hybrids, along with a poster or two and a painting that might bring to mind a rabbi. This is not whimsy; this is wit: the Messiah, it seems, will show up in an unexpected way and in surprising company. Consistency in the tone of the palette enables the entourage and the procession to cohere visually, while the variety of images and especially of shapes, is unified by the circles and circular sweep of the painting.

 m134_-_eight_petals.jpg m136_-_flowers_for_your_birthday.jpg  m137_-_bouquet_for_shabbat.jpg   
 M134 - Eight Petals  M136 - Flowers for your Birthday  M137 - Bouquet for Shabat  


In the final group of works, the paintings gathered in The Flower Series [M134 through M138], Moreh steps into a convention that is much more difficult than it seems. Painting flowers is challenging, both technically and compositionally. Painting the surface beauty of flowers is a student's exercise; painting flowers that have character, substance and weight requires unusually mature skills and awareness. The completeness of the color field in Eight Petals, Clematis [M134] and Flowers for Your Birthday [M136] and the disciplined exuberance of the flowers themselves gives a feeling that the flowers could still be in a garden. These are expressions of the fullness of nature that is so characteristic of Moreh's work, whether from dreams or from private visions in waking life or from direct observation of nature. The fullness of nature includes, of course, the human psyche, which can be infused into observed objects. Five Sunflowers Exhausted from Pursuing the Sun [M138] easily engages the viewer in the droopy finale of a lively but spent phototropism, the inevitable call of the earth and gravity away from the endless energy of sunlight. In Bouquet for Shabbat [M137] the flowers do not look freshly cut and newly arranged. They look as though their work is done: they need a day of rest and reflection.

m135_-_the_artists_studio.jpg
m138_-_five_sunflowers_exhausted_from_pursuing_the_sun.jpg 
 M135 - The Artist's Studio  M138 - Five Sunflowers Exhausted from
Pursuing the Sun


Patrick O'Donnell
From the catalogue of the exhibition
Pucker Gallery - October 2008