The Nocturnal Works

By Sanford Sivitz Shaman

Chaim Potok's novel, The Gift of Asher Lev is the story of a renegade Hassid whose artistic calling so troubles his Hassidic Brooklyn community, that he is banished to France by the Rebbe. Twenty years later the death of his uncle brings back the renegade, Asher Lev, to the Brooklyn community. Returning as a successful and internationally acclaimed artist, Asher Lev discovers that his uncle, a stalwart and outstanding figure in the Hassidic community, also challenged accepted attitudes and prejudices by quietly assembling a stunning collection of modern art, which he had discreetly kept locked away in two rooms of his Brooklyn home. The uniting of Asher Lev with that collection stands at the crux of a complex and fascinating tale that Potok begins to unravel for his readers. But before the author unites these two elements of his story, he takes Asher Lev past an etching directly to the right of the door to the room that so discreetly housed the collection. Lev stops to study the work, which the author describes in detail through the voice of Asher Lev. It is The Wandering Jew by Mordecai Moreh:

Near the door to my uncle's study was a Moreh print. Over a landscape devastated by torrential waters in which helplessly bob humans, animals, rodents, boats, birds, and trees, a robed figure hangs suspended in the air, attached to a stake that is connected at its foot to a wheel. The Hebrew words above the center are from the Book of Psalms, "Out of the depths I call you, O Lord, O Lord, listen to my cry...."

 The Wandering Jew

But who is this artist that Potok selected to play such a prominent role at such a key moment in his novel? Who is this artist about whom so little is known among the fashionable mainstream art circles, in spite of a very successful artistic career? This artist is a man who has lived amidst the turmoil of the Middle East, and whom historic events and his own inner quest have carried from Baghdad to Jerusalem, Florence, and Paris. Mordecai Moreh has described himself as an artist who “… always tended toward a more visionary concept... that was closer to the surrealist school, though with a love for fine minute detail and a very elaborate technique." That he should be an artist of this bent was inevitable given the visionary and elaborate nature of the collective experiences that formed the spectrum of his youth.

There was, for instance, his first contact with death. lt was in Baghdad when Moreh was only three or four years old and he saw a Jewish funeral procession with immense candles, music, shouting, and hysterical crying. He was shocked to learn that the deceased, who was carried in a huge red box, had been young and unmarried, and Moreh understood that the man was about to marry the earth. A few days later, while sleeping on the roof (as was the custom throughout the summer in Baghdad), Moreh had a deeply colored dream in which three angels, cloaked in long mantles, and carrying a red coffin hovered above the Moreh home. Searching for someone to fill the coffin, the angels, he feared, had come for him: instead they alighted on the roof of a neighboring home.
Since childhood Mordecai Moreh has been fascinated with extraordinary events such as festivals with kites, procesions and canivals, or the appearance of a trumpeter or drummer on the street. He particularly remembers many religious processions which were generally connected to tear, sorrow, and death. And as Shlomo Hillel notes in Operation Babylon, ominous processions were indeed a part of the life experience for the Jews of Baghdad.
...the annual Ashum processions... caused the Jews of lraq to close themselves up behind barred doors. They recalled how as children they had peeked through the shutters in terror as the seemingly endless torch-lit parade of men dressed in mourners' black, beating their barred chests, flagellating themselves with chains, pounding their heads with the handle end of swords and daggers till they brought forth blood, and all the while bewailing the death of the martyred Hussein to the monotonous beat of a drum:
Hussein died in Karbala
A waterskin lay where he tread
And even the birds in the heavens
Weep for the blood that he shed. 3
Growing up in such an environment, Moreh came away with intense childhood memories that provided charged images and objects with which to construct his diverse and often idiosyncratic pictures. Even the animals such as porcupines, deer, cats, and chickens that appear and reappear with such objects as kites and bicycles are visual souvenirs plucked from his childhood - consciously and unconsciously - and are not without rich and emotional associations.

Kites, for instance, were flown from Baghdad rooftops by Moreh and other neighborhood children. Conversely the bicycle sometimes served to target him for antisemitic stonings when peddling to school. The deer was brought home by Moreh's father, and Moreh raised it in the family's garden with doves, chickens and a porcupine. Moreover, the Moreh home frequently received a "distinguished visitor" Haroun, a huge striped tomcat, whom Moreh remembers as "a bit like Lewis Carrol's Cheshire Cat". Extremely greedy Haroun seemed to be haunting little Moreh - particularly at night.

The family's two and a half-story house was the highest in the neighborhood, and its roof was the setting for what came to form the artist's cache of colorful memories. One such memory was fixed when, during an eclipse of the moon, all of Baghdad took to the rooftops to greet the event, singing to a rhythmic beat punched out on big metal pots and drums. According to Moreh, the superstitious believed that the moon had been swallowed by a large monster who must vomit it up to return it, In time with the drumming, the 'excited spectators" of the eclipse sang, "You the greet whale, throw back to us our moon!"

 Mourning The Death of Giovanni

From their rooftop Moreh and his brothers also watched the neighborhood madman, who frightened them with menacing hand gestures, shining teeth, and "popped eyes." But the most striking sight Moreh saw from the roof came when he heard wailing, shouting, and screaming from the palm grove below. There, he saw Moslem women in the throes of a frenetic circular dance to mourn the death of a young man. Hair disheveled and clothes torn to shreds, they jumped, shouted, and clawed themselves until they drew blood. Throwing dust upon themselves, they bared their breasts in the madness of the moment. The charged drama and the frenzied dynamism of this scene shocked the young Moreh, but it ultimately provided him with inspiration for such works as Mourning the Death of Don Giovanni (cat. no. 19) and the painting Mourning The Death of My Grandmother

A frequent image in the artist's oeuvre is a little man who can be traced back to the childhood of Moreh, a poor eater whose dietary preferences were limited to "sweeties". At this time, accompanying his mother to a textile shop in the Baghdad bazaar, Moreh was confronted by the sight of a scowling dwarf in an iron cage suspended from the shops ceiling. Thirty or forty years old, the dwarf was dressed as befitted a gentleman, and a red tarboosh sat upon his head to make him appear larger than he actually was. Pointing to the dwarf, Moreh's mother warned her son that if he did not alter his eating habits he too could be robbed of the blessing of growth. Hearing this, the shopkeeper lowered the cage to the ground and released the dwarf, who immediately pursued the terrified Moreh throughout the crowded bazaar.

By contrast, other highly visible dominant imagery in the artists works relates to a group of objects that were forbidden to Moreh as a child. Dolls, puppets, marionettes and masks were considered graven images by the Jews of Islamic countries, and were therefore foreign to Moreh's childhood experiences. As a result, these objects ultimately came to hold a kind of magic for him:

As a child I was not given toys to play with. I made my own toys .... For me toys and dolls had magic, and deep mystery ,... In them you concentrate all your illogical fears and feelings - something recalling what an African magician or Siberian shaman does... I found that sometimes being deprived of something has as much impact on you as having had that something in your childhood. Sometimes even more - because you keep imagining what it is; how it could be, and what it might have been .... So... instinctively my imagination was stimulated by the mystery and the magic of these strange things I had heard about but had never seen: dolls; marionettes; puppets; masks; and circuses4

Even the words "puppet" and "marionette" in Moreh's mind were magical. Years later, living in Paris, he would follow a preconceived idea and amass a collection of these "forbidden objects." Like an African tribesman attributing magical qualities to such objects, Moreh saw his puppets and dolls as charged with fear and mystery, and sometimes he used them to represent his inner world.

 Le Cirque Arrive en Ville

Puppets and dolls and images linked to Moreh's childhood heavily influenced the compositions of the Carnival Series, which also may be related to the funeral procession that stamped its indelible impression upon the artists mind when he was only three or four. In the Carnival Series Moreh becomes a puppeteer who sets the stage with half-animal, half-human players parading upon the picture plane in bizarre processions. This is clearly seen in Le Cirque Arrive en Ville, in which the procession is completed by an array of mask-like kites hovering above circus paraders in the foreground. Here the bicycle from Moreh's youth also appears, but now reduced to a single wheel upon which to balance the circus acrobat - an agile half-human cat in a striped leopard. Suggestive of the Baghdadi youth who cycles amidst the shadows of antisemitism, this feline equilibrist balances upon his bicycle wheel precariously but defiantly.

Mordecai Moreh arrived in Israel like this cat - a transient disguised as the son of a family other than his own. Like a circus performer, he moved from one camp to another. This was in stark contrast to the rather comfortable lifestyle he had known in Iraq, despite increasingly severe persecution of the Jewish community. At the age of fourteen Moreh was part of Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the historic and chilling adventure that brought more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews (95 percent of Iraq's Jewish population) to Israel between 1948 and 1952. Pondering if these Iraqi Jews "... hadn't just traded one grief for another"6 Operation Ezra and Nehemiah's key player, Shlomo Hillel, pointedly captured the confusingly painful situation in which Iraqi immigrants like Mordecai Moreh found themselves in 1951 and 1952:

...[M]ost difficult of all were the conditions in the transit camps. Fresh off the boat or plane, the immigrants were taken by truck (buses being considered a luxury) to one of the camps dotting the countryside, where whole families, from infants to the elderly, were crowded into asbestos huts or tattered tents from British Army surplus. The furnishings they received for their temporary home consisted of narrow iron cots and straw mattresses. The water faucets and sanitary facilities (field latrines designed for outlying army units) were located at the far edges of these sprawling camps, and reaching them required waiting on long lines in all kinds of weather. Speaking of the weather, it seemed to be particularly ungracious to us in those years.
the winter rains turned the camps into seas of mud, and the cold was nothing short of numbing. In a way, the immigrants from Iraq were even worse hit than the others, because their short and relatively comfortable journey made the shock of these conditions all the more stunning. Some of them had left large and well-appointed homes in Baghdad in the morning and within hours found themselves installed in a tent or hut somewhere in a remote and seemingly forsaken transit camp. 7

As an Iraqi immigrant in Israel, Moreh's life suddenly became reduced to something so basic that it could be symbolized by a single wheel upon which he had to balance himself, just like the cat in Le Cirque Arrive en Ville. Perhaps the lifeline - the single wheel - for this young and lonely immigrant was drawing. Drawing became for Moreh a way of creating an inner world in time of loneliness." 8

In Moreh's personal iconography, the cat, which more traditionally symbolizes laziness and lust,9 represents the mystery of the night:

Cat for me symbolizes all the mysteries of night. Everything which you cannot understand by your reason, anything which you cannot comprehend by your logic is incarnated in the cat. The cat is something you cannot either dominate or fully train (like you  train a dog) .... Always there is something in a cat which will escape your expectations and your logic. Cats live especially at night.

...When you hear how they weep, moan, and shriek after midnight, and if you see how their eyes shine, you are just terror stricken. And there are whole legends about cats, and the seven souls they possess (as the superstition goes in Baghdad). They have these tender, smooth paws, hiding the most ferocious nails, often used when least expected. In fact, you never hear a cat arriving - even when they jump they do it silently.

ls the cat our darker instinct which cannot be controlled by our logic?

To Moreh's mind there is a strong link between the cat and the night, both of which embody the unexpected. Haroun, the feline that menaced Moreh as a child, made his unpredictable appearances at night - probably accounting for the artist's associating the cat with the night. Night holds special meaning for Moreh. This is the time when he cannot exert control - intense creative productivity takes over, and his pen and brush overpower his reason. This, in fact, is the root of the "Nocturnal Works," which are actually executed during the hours for which they have been named.

Moreh generally works at night, having started his day in the very late morning. These habits can be traced back to the age of 15 or 16 when he was living at the Talpiot immigrant camp in Jerusalem and began to attend the Hebrew Gymnasium. Lack of funds, however, soon necessitated dropping out of school in order to work, and night became the time reserved for studying. During this period Moreh made a number of paintings and drawings of symbolic figurative compositions and naive philosophical content that relate to today's "Nocturnal Works." One work, for example, combined a number of strange heads into one composition to express "'confused thought." But as an artist Moreh did not solidify his nocturnal work habits until 1962, when he moved to Paris to attend L'Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. Entering one of his many early periods of working in secrecy, he began working on art at night and spending his days making regular visits to museums and the nearby zoo.

The fixing of such habits is part of the grounding for the eventual emergence of the "Nocturnal Works." This grounding also includes such details from the past as the implanting of Haroun the tomcat (in Moreh's mind) as an unpredictable menacing force that the night could unleash when least expected. But attempting to pinpoint when the "Nocturnal Works" consciously started to appear, the artist remembers Apparition at Midnight as one of the first. Full of masks and phantomlike figures, Apparition at Midnight was painted in 1961 while Moreh was studying in Florence. The work began after a masquerade that Moreh attended. He had gone disguised as Savanarola, the fanatical Dominican friar who was hanged in 1498 following a fiery career in which he had seized the Florentine government through preaching against the worldliness of the Renaissance and the sins of Florence. Coincidentally, one of Moreh's friends went disguised as "Triumphant Death." The meeting of "Savonarola" with "Triumphant Death" was charged with ironic creativity, and the very next day Moreh began painting Apparition at Midnight.

But it was not until shortly after Moreh's move to Paris that the "Nocturnal Works" (or what the artist himself has called "images from the subconscious") began emerging with greater regularity. Painted mostly in oil, the early "Nocturnal Works" had no direct connection with the everyday world around the artist; they were based upon "imaginative masks, fancy kites, queer animals, and strange insects." Foremost among the nocturnal works is the Don Giovanni Series, which like the Carnival Series, draws upon theatrical subject matter and demonstrates the influence of dolls and puppets in the rendering of the figures.

Obviously, the Don Giovanni pictures also draw major thematic inspiration from Mozart's opera, which Moreh first encountered in 1964 when a friend presented him with a complete set of recordings of the opera. This music, to which Moreh listened with great frequency, affected him so deeply that five years later the characters of Don Giovanni began to emerge, unconsciously, in his etchings.

ln 1969, while Moreh was working on an ambitious series of drypoints, the women of Don Giovanni first began to make their appearance. Fat, plump, voluptuous, oval-like, and generally reminiscent of fertility figures like the "Venus of Willendorf," these women presented an array of positions in response to an elusive Don Giovanni, who occasionally assumed the form of an anthropomorphic grasshopper. Musically inspired, the compositions that this cast of characters inhabited were infused with a new sense of rhythm and dynamic movement unprecedented in Moreh's oeuvre: they were a direct expression of the artist's impressions of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni.

 Around Don Giovanni

Once Moreh realized that the opera's characters had entered his art without his conscious knowledge, he welcomed them and titled the pictures accordingly. Throughout 1969 and 1970 Moreh consciously worked on a series of etchings based on Don Giovanni, but progress was slow and the effort resulted in the completion of only three color etchings before being abandoned.

But Don Giovanni is a tenacious, albeit elusive, force in Moreh's life. In 1988 the Don Giovanni Series once again captured the artist's attention, when because of a broken leg he was unable to stand at his easel and unable to leave his studio. The smaller scale of the Don Giovanni works promised a major project that Moreh could easily maneuver without having to stand. Abandoning the idea of a series of etchings, he turned instead to capturing Don Giovanni and his women in mixed media works, constructed on the outline of the original etchings in the same way as a sculpture is constructed on an armature. Printing the original etchings on darkly colored papers, Moreh began to alter the image dramatically with pastel and colored pencil, until, like an alchemist creating gold from base metals, he brought light from darkness.
Moreh, who was perhaps somewhat inspired by the large neon sign outside his studio window, sought to inject the women of Don Giovanni with a neon fluorescence, and more specifically, a luminescent seductivity similar to that of certain insects.

Fascinated by the sexual complexities of Mozart's 1787 opera, Moreh used this light to describe the women of Don Giovanni. The result is a group of mixed media works which portray Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and Don Giovanni's conquests (which he listed in il catalogo). The presence of this neon-like fluorescence in the mixed media Don Giovanni works suggested actually working in neon. When presented with the possibility of applying to the Israel Electric Corporation, Ltd. to fund one experimental work in neon for this exhibition, Moreh was enthusiastic. The idea was received with equal enthusiasm by the Electric Corporation, and in August 1991 Moreh began work on his first objet d'art in neon, Women of Don Giovanni, fabricated by Neon Necooda of Givatayim. Executing a colored line-drawing based upon earlier works, Moreh precisely set down the image that Neon Necooda was to construct. He then watched his two-dimensional lines come to life in the ambiguous three-dimensionality of neon. The selection of the neon colors and the process of translating his two-dimensiona| mixed media compositions into the rich yet garish neon light excited Moreh and began to affect his work. First, shortly after the start of this process, Moreh suddenly resolved Donna Anna: "Vendicar", and Zerlina: "Batti batti". The artist had struggled considerably with these two works; when the influence of the neon brought their resolution he realized that they represented a major departure for him.

Understanding this to be a new attitude concerning movement within his compositions, Moreh then went on to develop a new approach that turned away from the static image and embraced exaggerated animated movement inspired by the motion of neon signs. This new attitude is evident in Zerlina: "Soccorso", La magrotta, and The Three Clowns (cat. no. 38). Commenting on these works in a letter to the author in December 1991, the artist described how neon light influenced their development:

The animated movement in works like Zerlina: "Soccorso, "[and] Zerlina: "Batti , batti", etc. are inspired by the vibrating character and flickering nature of the neon light. Neon light almost decomposes the movement of a figure into a multitude of superimposed semitransparent figures. This is at least how it had always impressed me. Now, this animated movement especially in works like Zerlina: "Batti, batti", [and] Donna Anna: "Vendicar", etc. is dictated and motivated by inner psychological motivations and reasons, or even by an agitated and excited libido, if we can say so! We may call it a psycho-dynamic movement...

 Neon and Plexiglass

The opera Don Giovanni has five major male characters, but Moreh's series portrays only one, a grasshopper-like Don Giovanni. (One rare and recent exception is the work Zerlina: "Batti, batti", which includes a small figure of Zerlina's fiance, Mazetto, in the background.)

Not unlike the dwarf who chased the young Moreh through the crowded Baghdad bazaar, Moreh's Don Giovanni is a mischievous little figure in pursuit of his prey. Blended with a bit of Haroun the tomcat, this Don Giovanni also captures that aspect of the character that opera critic Glen Sauls describes as "a tomcat in satin breeches". 10 Sauls perceives Don Giovanni in a manner that helps us to understand Moreh's portrayal of this character as a small repugnant insect-like creature:

He is lecherous, treacherous, dangerous and perfdious; but what is worse, considering he is supposed to be a connoisseur and a gentleman, he is not the least fastidious, being equally pleased with old or young, plain or ugly, thin or fat, mistress or maid.11

Furthermore, "The fact we feel the slightest sympathy or affection for the Don is almost entirely due to the music Mozart has given him."12 This is what so captivated Moreh, who became fascinated by the way Mozart's powerful score supported Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto to create a fabric that Moreh saw as charged not only with the obvious sexuality of the Don himself, but also rife with the sexual innuendoes, subtleties and complexities of the women of Don Giovanni. Moreh responded to the fact that Mozart's work is much more than a musical setting to a play that had been written and rewritten numerous times in Europe since 1630, when Tirso de Molina first penned the original version, El Burlador de Sevilla y el Convidado de Piedra (The Libertine of Seville and the Stone Guest). This is powerful music, which according to one critical description, changes "... within a few bars from a tragic vein to a comic, out of a joyous into a passionate one." 13 Moreh responded to this by creating a series of works that likewise shift quickly through comedy, tragedy, joy, and passion. Moreh's Don Giovanni Series reflects that quality of the opera which Mozart himself described as "dramma giocoso" or what Glen Sauls defines as fusing together "elements of the serious and the comic." 14

Although the works in Moreh's Series are charged with his interpretation of Don Giovanni as a mischievous and elusive presence, as noted the Series places the emphasis upon the female characters. Moreh's Don is therefore not only insect-like but also elusive and diminutive in relation to the female characters. This insect-like elusive presence invites the interpretation that the image is more of a symbol for sexual desire than a portrayal of a character. Others have also identified this quality in the opera. Sauls, for instance, refers to Mozart's Don Giovanni as "a personification of the natural libido on the rampage". 15 Although never denying the fact that the female characters are the pursued, Moreh chooses to emphasize their physicality and their seductiveness as something much larger than those of the pursuant male. The machinations of these females can thus be seen as their response to the sexual drive as it is symbolized by Don Giovanni. This is particularly evident in Il sogno di Donna Elvira (cat. no. ll) and "Elvira, idol mio"(cat. no. 10), where Don Giovanni is pictured as a "bug in the ear" of Donna Elvira.

Moreh offers an important interpretation in that he draws our attention away from the obvious cliche, the story of the predictable scoundrel, and focuses upon its more complex subtleties. He picks up on the unpredictable aspect of the female persona which is drawn to Don Giovanni's game. The artist's focus on this aspect further suggests a connection between his depiction of the women of Don Giovanni and his vision of the cat as a symbol for the mysteries of night. Because as Emil Gutheil notes in his extensive work on dreams, The Handbook of Dream Analysis, the cat in dreams can represent women, particularly those who are "tricky and cunning." 16 Although these are also the obvious traits of Don Giovanni, they are evident in a much subtler fashion in the characters of Donna Anna and especially Zerlina. What interests Moreh is that less obvious side of the characters, the side which Sauls identifies when he notes that to these women Don Giovanni is

at once the delight and despair... To them he represents all that is attractive and dangerous in men, and every woman is intrigued by the challenge to domesticate this ungovernable creature whom no other woman has been able to tame. 17

The portrayal of women, according to another critic, Eric Bentley, is in fact "the special glory" of Mozart-Da Ponte operas." Bentley further notes that among the three female characters there is great diversity, but in the "project" of Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello there is "terrible monotony." 19

Moreh too must have sensed the monotonous aspects of the character of Don Giovanni. This is seen in the artist's comparative disinterest in the Don, and in the decision to instil him with the physical traits of a grasshopper, 20 certainly a very monotonous creature. The artist's concept for this figure must have some relationship to a group of paintings he did in 1966 that drew upon his collection of toys and puppets, and were expanded to include crabs, shrimps and strange insects. Moreover, Ferguson reminds us that the grasshopper or locust was one of the plagues afflicting or "... visited upon the Egyptians because the Pharoah's heart was hardened against the Word of the Lord." 21

ln fact there is an afflictive aspect to Don Giovanni and all those he touches. First there is the character himself, afflicted by the obsession for seduction. Secondly, there is the affliction of Donna Elvira's passion for Don Giovanni, one that torments her and holds her captive in her own prison of despair. Her love for the Don paralyzes her and makes her willing to be continually tricked and humiliated by him. Thirdly, there is the grief and compulsive drive for revenge that afflict Donna Anna and her fiance through Don Giovanni's attempted seduction of her and the death of her father in a duel with Don Giovanni. Fourthly, there is the temptation and subsequent jealousy that afflict Zerlina and her fiancee owing to Don Giovanni's attempted seduction of Zerlina. And finally Don Giovanni's afflictive character leads to his own tragic end as a result of his heartless and cavalier lifestyle.

Moreh makes this afflictive quality particularly apparent in Il sogno di Donna Elvira (cat. no. 11). Here the grasshopper-Iike figure of Don Giovanni appears to Donna Elvira as she sleeps. (lt is unclear if Don Giovanni is real or a dream, or if this is his figure in the flesh or if it is "the natural libido on the rampage.") As indicated by four dotted lines, Don Giovanni's presence touches Elvira upon her face, breasts and genital area. But although her body suggests a state of sexual readiness, her skull-like face with its hollowed out features betrays her affliction. In another version of this work, "Elvira, idol mio" (cat. no. 10), Moreh replaces the dotted lines with the words from Don Giovanni's aria of deceit, sung to Donna Elvira through the miming of Don Giovanni's servant, Leporello. (ln this manner Don Giovanni tricks Elvira into going off with Leporello, whom she believes is Don Giovanni.)

Commenting upon the breakdown of today's moral values, the artist himself sees Il sogno di Donna Elvira and "Elvira, idol mio" as a contemporary antithesis to traditional representations of St. Francis receiving the stigmata. In traditional Christian paintings of this subject, the vision of a small winged Crucified Christ appears above Saint Francis, radiating lines or rays to the saint's hands, on which he receives the stigmata or the wounds which Christ suffered on the Cross. Employing a similar representational device in Il sogno de Donna Elvira, Moreh places a small figure of Don Giovanni above Donna Elvira, and from this image emanate the lines that arouse the erogenous zones of Donna Elvira. Moreh explains that here he refers to the emptiness of immediate erotic gratification, contrasted with the fullness of dedicated spiritual pursuit, conceptualized by the stigmatization of St. Francis, which occurred only at the climax of the saint`s career and after forty days of fasting and prayer. 22

 Sogno Elvira

Moreh notes that the representation of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata portrays the supreme spiritual aspiration: union with God through suffering even until death. Conversely, Il sogno di Donna Elvira and "Elvira, idol mio" refer to making sexual pleasure the highest aspiration. The artist therefore juxtaposes the lost high ideals of the past to the base ideals of today by visually setting a device from traditional Christian painting against contemporary stylistic attitudes. The Don Giovanni theme brings yet another level to this mix as it too reaches back to the past. Yet its exploration of the complexities of sexual relationships and the elevation of sexual gratification seem to have a great deal of relevance to present-day society and lifestyles. 23

Thus we arrive at the tension inherent in Moreh's Don Giovanni Series. Moreh, who has little interest in the staging of the opera or actual productions, was moved by the power of Mozart's music by repeatedly listening to recordings (of which he never seems to tire). His works, like the opera, are charged with certain erotic qualities, but as illustrated by Il sogno di Donna Elvira and "Elvira, idol mio" they also raise questions about the importance that erotic pursuits have assumed in today's society. With the realization of this tension, Moreh pinpoints the ultimate tragic flaw of the human condition, namely, our irresistible attraction to that which leads to our ultimate downfall. lt is here in Moreh's unique and up-to-date
approach to this age-old theme that we find the strength of these works.

Throughout his life Mordecai Moreh has shown himself to be one who finds his own way. During his youth and as a young artist, he separated himself from school, teachers and colleagues. Repeatedly throughout the early stages of his career Moreh entered into periods of working in secrecy. Perhaps this explains his penchant for the night hours as a time for his
most creative endeavors and the time when he feels the most free.

As an artist Moreh generally distanced himself from "mainstream trends" and artistic attitudes that he believed to be fashionable or stylish. This has resulted in his remaining somewhat outside the critical mainstream, even though he has enjoyed quite a successful career as an artist. Perhaps what has set Moreh apart is his simultaneous pursuit of three distinct stylistic paths throughout most of his career. The major path is the artist's painting, which frequently depicts fantastic gardens and forests, and has been referred to by some critics as art visionnaire. ln lsrael, Moreh is probably best known for his second path - realistically oriented, but often allegorical etchings, which draw heavily upon the depiction of animals. Finally there are his lesser known "Nocturnal Works," the subject of this essay.

lronically the "Nocturnal Works" display stylistic tendencies that place them closer to mainstream attitudes. Moreh's expressionistic and cartoonish approach to the figure, his use of neon colors and his willingness to introduce writing as a compositional element are qualities also inherent in many of the mainstream schools of painting that have dominated the international art scene since 1980.

As the works in this exhibition reveal, these stylistic tendencies were first formed in Moreh's work as early as 1971. With the first Don Giovanni etchings of 1971 (cat. nos. 39 and 40) and the Curses Series (cat. nos. 44-47) Moreh established the expressive cartoonish25 approach inherent in the "Nocturnal Works."

In the Don Giovanni Series, however, we perhaps see the culmination of the "Nocturnal Works". These are notable for their simplicity and economy, and are effortlessly in step with contemporary stylistic attitudes. Don Giovanni provided Moreh with a long-term theme well suited for his lifelong fascination with extraordinary events. (The opera stage is not
distant from the theatricality of carnivals, circuses, processions and puppets.) The symbolically charged character of the night-prowling elusive Don was the perfect vehicle for the personification (albeit subconscious) of the curious and elusive characteristics of those nocturnal characters and events that haunted Moreh as a child. Having imposed themselves on the artist in the darkness of the night, the Don Giovanni works have ranged for some twenty years over Moreh's oeuvre and they continue to provide him amply with a direction that he still pursues today.


1. Chaim Potok, The Gift of Asher Lev (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1990), p. 34.

2. Moreh quoted in Edouard Floditi, "'Mordecai Moreh," More Dialogues on Art (Santa Barbara: Floss-Erikson lnc., 1981), p. 117.

3. Shlomo Hillel, Operation Babylon, tr. Ina Friedman (London: Fontana/Collins, 1989), p. 44.

4. This quote and all undocumented quotes throughout the essay were gathered by the author in a series of interviews held between summer 1989 and summer 1991.

5. Hillel, pp. 379, 387.

6. Hillel, p. 379.

7. Hillel, p. 380.

8. David Gerstein, "'Mordecai Moreh Is Awaiting the End of the World" (Hebrew), Kol Ha'ir, 9 Oct. 1981, p. 28.

9. George Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 14.

10. Glen Salus, "Mozart's "Don Giovanni"' (notes accompanying the recording, Mozart, Don Giovanni), Mozart, Don Giovanni (London EMI Records Ltd., 1987), p. 11. Saul's analogy of Don Giovanni with a tomcat is well chosen since, as previously noted, the cat traditionally symbolizes lust and laziness.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Egon Welleg quoted in Sauls, p. 11.

14. Sauls, p. 11.

15. Ibid.

16. Emil A. Gutheil,M.D., The Handbook of Dream Analysis (New York: Liverigut Publishing Corporation, 1951), p. 281.

17. Sauls,p.11.

18 Eric Bentley, 'Conquests: Man vs. Eros in Don Giovanni," Opera News, vol. 54, no. 15 (14 April 1990), p, 19.

19 ibid.

20 Throughout the course of my work on this essay, Moreh described his representation of the figure of Don Giovanni as an "anthropomorphic grasshopper". However in December 1991 - some two and a half years after the initiation of our work together - the artist wrote to me and cautioned not to "...give too much importance to the grasshopper symbol": "l didn't intend consciously (or unconsciously) to depict the figure of the Don as a grasshopper. This very strange and stylized male figure imposed itself on me - l don't know why and how! lt might resemble a grasshopper - let it be so! But it might as much suggest a baboon - a male one for sure! It can even be a Siberian or an Eskimo shaman's visionary representation of the soul of a man".

21. This is not to suggest that it was the clear intention of the artist to instil in this figure a definite symbolic reference to the biblical event cited above. However in this period of multi-coded interpretations, I believe it is valid to bring this symbolism to light, particularly given Moreh's interest in symbolism. The information in the text is given with the caveat that this interpretation could be open to argument. For information regarding the symbolism of a grasshopper see Ferguson, pp. 1920.

22 See Ferguson, pp. 118-121.

23. ln response to this interpretation, Moreh later noted: "As to St. Francis and modern morals, I wanted to say that l have nothing against sexual love and erotic gratification. I am against it only when it becomes an obsession, a goal and an end in itself."

24. See Bentley, p. 18 for a discussion of the erotic nature of Mozart`s music for Don Giovanni.

25. Moreh prefers to describe the "Nocturnal Works"' with the term "expressive-automatic" rather than "expressive-cartoonish". This is because he draw[s] or engrave[s] all [the] figures as they come without any censorship [on his] part, and without letting [his] reason or logic interfere in their conception". However, by substituting "automatic" for "cartoonish," Moreh switches the description to his process. Rather, when speaking of the artist's "expressive-cartoonish approach," l am specifically and exclusively referring to stylistic tendencies evident in the "Nocturnal Works".