My name is Asher Lev.

It’s not actually – that’s just the title of a book.  I’ve reviewed the book elsewhere, but here I wanted to ponder a couple of things out loud.

The central character, a Jew, seems almost controlled by, rather than in control of, a desire to paint.  It’s not a choice so much as a compulsion.  His art is expression, but he struggles to contain it within boundaries acceptable to those he loves.  As I mused over this, I thought the thing that I have the greatest compulsion towards is mindlessly browsing the internet.  Not exactly a glorious higher calling.  The book raises interesting questions about calling and purpose and following or rejecting tradition in the pursuit of this.  I found it challenging in that.

The pinnacle of his work as an artist (at least in this book – there is a sequel which I’ve not yet read) is to draw a crucifixion scene.  This flies in the face of acceptability with regard to his religious background (and practice – it’s interesting that his art never leads him away from practising his faith).  Towards the end of the book, when his parents are about to view his latest exhibition, not knowing he has painted a crucifixion scene with his mother crucified, he imagines the following conversation with his father:

Papa, listen.  I felt Mama’s lonely torment.  I wanted to paint Mama’s torment.  I wanted it to be a painting, a great painting, because I love painting as you love travelling.  I work with oils and brushes and canvas as you work with events and deeds and people.  There is nothing in the Jewish tradition that could have served me as an aesthetic mould for such a painting.  I had to go to – I had to use a – Do you understand, Papa?  Why are you looking at me like that, Papa?  It isn’t the sitra achra, Papa.  It’s your son.  There was not other way, no other aesthetic mould – He would not begin to understand…

“No other aesthetic mould”.  It struck me again; the uniqueness of the crucifixion.  Nothing else is quite like it.  This made me think of Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece.  I think this, for me, is the most uncomfortable piece of art I know.  The event it depicts is awe-inspiring.  My response tends to be anything but.

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