“I'm not sure they’re true believers – not any more than I am” – she laughed, but also started wheezing slightly. We were fast marching uphill, from the Synagogue down on the Avenue de Stalingrad back up to the Jewish museum in the Rue des Minimes – and we didn’t want to miss the second part of the museum reopening programme.
We paused for a while, and after a deep breath, she continued:
“But these men want to preserve a tradition – keep the stories alive. As to me, I no longer believe and I resent how traditional religions diminish women – I am my own person, I’m not going to sit demurely in some kind of Synagogue-gallery watching the men saying their prayers. It’s a very long time since I last was in a Synagogue, but now, as I grow older, I feel the need to go back. Nostalgia perhaps - all these Jewish traditions will be forever linked to my childhood (1) ; the magic of the Jewish feasts, the family meals, the sheer beauty of the recited texts. It would be a disaster if all that were to vanish forever. I suppose that’s why these men go to such lengths to keep the old synagogue running”.
“These men” had been the hosts at a synagogue open-door day, patiently explaining Jewish customs and stories to a very diverse group of visitors (2). They were in their late forties - early fifties, soberly-but-smartly dressed, looking more like typical secular, fashionable French intellectuals than like devout Jews. They did wear skullcaps.
One of them had explained how with a few friends they had lovingly adopted this synagogue, ensuring both its material and spiritual continuity.
“We love this place, it really looks like one of those old east-european ’Shuls’. It represents such a long and rich tradition. I used to be secularly minded, but then I realised with quite some dread that if my generation would renege on this heritage - then the line of remembrance would be forever broken (3). So I started studying the Thorah, reading the Talmudic texts, and became more or less the president of this synagogue. Meaning that I fix the lamps and repair the heating system when it’s broken, but also that I do a lot of reading, arguing and disputing over the old texts with the other members. Each Saturday we try and gather 10 Jewish men to reach the required quorum for public prayers and readings. We don’t always succeed. My own children are not at all interested in religion – sometimes my son does come over, but in fact only to do me a favour, to fill the quorum when needed”.
The visitors had looked around, full of curiosity – some aspects familiar (the seven branched candelabra!) others puzzling. They were timidly peering at the unfamiliar letters in a book, but soon emboldened to take pictures all over the place – click-click- click- whoosh-flash .
In-between the flashes, the president had unperturbedly continued his reflections:
“in fact, in daily life I work at a building restoration company – we do a lot of work in France, in small villages. Often the local church is in bad shape – materially and spiritually, with leaking roofs, crumbling walls and no priest or faithful left. But when the local population is then offered the choice between either tearing down the church or investing in a costly restoration, they usually choose the restoration. Because that church is part of their history, part of their heritage."
We were back at the museum – where security measures had definitely slackened since the draconian screenings earlier in the morning. There hung a kind of elation in the air – a mixture of relief (no incidents) and proud excitement (we did it , we’re open again! And with so many visitors!).
In one of the rooms a second hand book fair was going on – my companion immediately set course to the tables of books, smiling wryly – “yeah you know, we Jews and books – if nothing else, at least the books remain ” (4)
A few cross-reading references and an enumeration
- “At the youngest age, when words can be magical and stories spellbinding, a unique vocabulary came along with the sweet and savoury Sabbath-meal offerings.” (From “Jews and Words” by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger).
- The little group of visitors consisted of a keenly interested European expatriate, an awkwardly looking older couple of local neighbours, a nervous young man asking very critical questions (eg “do Jews think they’re God themselves? “ – answer : “heavens no [hearty laugh] it’s just that practicing Jews do not need intermediaries such as priests”), a few people with Jewish roots (judging by their remarks), a trendily dressed Muslim couple (identified as Muslim because of the headscarf the woman, which in the present circumstances functioned as a very nice statement of cross-cultural goodwill) and, of course, an ever pensive & watchful flâneur.
- “relay the narrative” – [avoid to have] “countless lines of memory irretrievably broken” (Ibidem)
- “Not a
genetic continuum, but rather a series of people carrying texts, burdened with
ideas, stubbornly and lovingly passing them on”. (Ibidem)
It was a dark night, but it was definitely not a nightmare, seeing all these dying barbarians and writhing bodies before my mind's eye, quite the contrary.
I had walked by the piazza with the undulating Borromini façade, then into the stern street with the unobtrusive entry into an imposingly classical courtyard.
The sheer marvel of this palace, with the many rooms full of silent statues, redolent with bygone Roman glory and gravitas, the fading frescoes on the walls, the cool interior with its filtered light contrasting with the windows opening into glaring Roman light and noise.
How come these luminous memories had popped up, uninvited but so very welcome, nearly 15 years later during a dark restless night?
Lying awake at night, I had been pondering again last weekend’s visit of the De Bruyckere exhibition , with its sculptures of vulnerable flesh, its visions of frayed flayed waxen bodies in tormented postures. Some of the poses had vaguely reminded me of an ancient Roman statue - a warrior prostrated on the ground, bleeding from a wound, trying to get up.
A dying barbarian, a dying slave? I tried to visualise the association more clearly, but the precise image escaped me. Then, slipping into a slumber, my mind came up with a marble statue, a "Dying Gaul", and treated me at the same time to a visit of the Palazzo Altemps where it seemed to have its abode. (1)
Now, fully awake at my computer, I further ponder art history’s visualisations of tormented bodies.
From the hardness of Roman marble (2) to the impressible vulnerability of contemporay wax.
They’re both statues of lone suffering beings, though the Dying Gaul is far more publicly and heroically struggling than these inwardly turning waxen creatures.
And how about that long pictorial tradition of descents from the cross , how about all those depositions and burials of Christ? The sheer sinister lividness of those dead bodies, with the grisly streaks of blood - not unlike the tortured texture of that frayed wax. But at least those descents, depositions and burials were communal events, Christ’s body taken down by faithful followers – the images brimming with empathy and devotion.
De Bruyckere’s creatures are quite alone, faceless even, without an individual identity – what could be worse: a lone suffering body – with only the spectator possibly offering redemption. Or rather, with each spectator facing recognition – “le dernier acte sera sanglant”.
- My sleepy memory was playing tricks on me – an old museum guide and the internet indisputably confirm that there is no Dying Gaul at the Palazzo Altemps. The Dying_Gaul is in the Musei Capitolini. The Palazzo Altemps however does have a cousin, the Suicide Galatian. So far for the accuracy of my subconscious art historical referencing system ...
- Late Roman marble copies of earlier Hellenistic bronze originals
It was an intensely luminous day, flickering with translucent greens and yellows. 20° C in the shade and a lazy languor in the air with people in shirtsleeves loitering on the street.
But I wasn’t fooled of course. This was the 1st of November, the quintessential autumn day supposed to bring us “tidings of nature’s decay” in faded yellows and greys.
And there I sat, in the afternoon sun, on a terrace outside the contemporary art museum of Ghent – sipping tea, avidly inhaling – not the autumnal smells of the nearby park, but the cigarette smoke drifting my way. How tempting …. I did love smoking … (but wisely quit 10 years ago).
I was reading an autumnal text – about aging brain cells, touched with the colours of autumn.
“The desires conceived by autumnal brain cells are autumnal desires, nostalgic, layered in memory”.
It’s a quote from J.M Coetzee, selected by Berlinde De Bruyckere – an artist who knows everything about layers - frayed layers of memories, battered layers of matter, soothing layers of comfort.
Are they cruel, her drawings and sculptures of suffering beings, of tortured flesh? The vulnerability of flesh rendered by layers of wax, craggy wax with red and blue veins running through it. The vulnerability of bodies, in twisted, tortured poses – clinging to a pole, folding into themselves – a defensive, lonely inwardness.
Is a painting of a crucifixion cruel? Is a pieta cruel? It’s a universal subject of art – from 14th century worn wooden sculptures of “the man of sorrows” (with their fading polychrome traces not unlike that veined wax) to Bacon’s 20th century twisting & screaming figures.
There are also the bandages, the rough pieces of cloth to bind and cover things up. And then there are the blankets, the many layers of blankets, to rest upon, or to mercifully hide under … Blankets, also a universal and at the same time very contemporary imagery (refugees huddling in blankets, their few possessions bundled up in blanket)