No time of prayer is more intense than at Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur as we literally pray for our lives, our sustenance and ultimately, our salvation. Our fate hangs in the balance poised between the gates of mercy and the awesome judgment we fear. No other contemporary sculpture so terrifyingly captures this primal apprehension and hope of the Days of Awe than Jacques Lipchitz’s The Prayer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art seen in the recent exhibition Jacques Lipchitz and Philadelphia.
Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) was born in Druskieniki, Lithuania and after schooling in Bialystok went to Paris in 1909, then the cauldron of the modern art revolution. Picasso and Braque, among others, were creating an entirely new way of seeing and depicting the world in Cubism and Lipchitz quickly established himself as one of the leading proponents of Cubist sculpture. The bronzes shown here, including Sailor with Guitar, Woman with Braid and Bather, all from 1914-1917, are masterful meditations on the multiple perspectives of the Cubist vision that preserve the integrity of the human form even as the figure is reassembled with daring wit and cunning creativity.
Early in the 1930s Lipchitz abruptly changed both style and subjects. His form, whether in stone, plaster or cast bronze, became baroquely expressionistic in what seemed like an organic celebration of life. His subjects were now derived from Greek mythology and Jewish life ranging from Prometheus and Theseus to Jacob and David. The subject of Prometheus, the individual who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, dominated his work up to the Second World War. His cruel punishment, struggle and ultimate vindication expressed Lipchitz’s concern with oppression and the struggle for liberation as he witnessed the rise of Nazism and rampant anti-Semitism.
As the Nazis invaded France in May 1940 Lipchitz first fled to southern France and then finally was forced to flee to New York in June 1941. He had become a victim (even though he survived) of the vast evil that was consuming Europe, devouring Western culture and the Jewish people. If anything, this was the time for prayer.
The Prayer was first cast from a wax model in a foundry in Long Island City in 1943. Lipchitz struggled with the complex forms that slowly draw us into the composition as we begin to make out a figure of an old man entangled in flame-like foliage. He is clad in a heavy, ornate tallis as he swings a large terrified rooster over his head in the kapparah ritual. He holds in his other hand a book, perhaps a siddur, that has burst into flames.
As we look closer the forms becomes more terrifying. The man’s midsection has been ripped open by what appears to be three ram’s heads exposing the form of a fetal lamb, curled up and nascent. It is as if in the very act of kapparah this Jew has been disemboweled, perhaps by the soul shattering blasts of the ram’s horn and has exposed the Azazel that must die on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of the Jewish people. Lipchitz understood the power of this work explaining that “The entire subject is the Jewish people, whom I thought of as the innocent victims in this horrible war… I was praying, I was crying when I made this work” (My Life in Sculpture, p. 163).
Further along in the exhibition is a color lithograph, The Sacrifice of Isaac, from 1968. Again the expressionistic image demands careful study to elicit its meaning. Slowly we can discern a ram’s profile at the bottom and the suggestion of the kneeling figure of Isaac just to its right. Rising above this foundation is the figure of Abraham, knife in his right hand, locked in a struggle with a winged angel. The red ochre broken color is unified by a stark nervous black line that summarily delineates the figures. The concept of Abraham struggling with the angel, echoing the Midrash that states that Abraham, even when he was halted, demanded to carry out God’s original command, brings us into the terrifying nexus of God’s “need” for the test. Abraham understood the need for some kind of sacrifice so that it could come to atone for the Jewish people throughout the ages. Expiation of sin does not come easily. For Yom Kippur to be effective we must summon the merit of Abraham’s sacrifice along with our sincere teshuvah, fasting, tzedakah, prayer and weeping as we approach God.
As I walked back through the exhibition somewhat shaken as these works of art settled into my consciousness, I came upon a small bronze, Biblical Scene II from 1950. A dramatic figure is poised atop a vertical mass of rock about to strike a ram with his knife. Suddenly I realized that Lipchitz had depicted Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram. Upon closer inspection I could make out the figure of Isaac below on the left holding the bundle of wood while one other figure waited even further below. But here Abraham seems triumphant, almost celebrating the successful completion of God’s command to sacrifice. This little sculpture, done only five short years after the liberation of the camps and three years after the new State of Israel fought for its survival, celebrates sacrifice and not the saving of Isaac.
The most meaningful art does not provide answers; it only forces us to confront the most difficult of questions. The rest is up to us just as after Yom Kippur the real challenge of permanent teshuvah and meaningful change lies ahead. Perhaps the challenge of Lipchitz’s works is best expressed in a quote from a most unlikely source: “Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame. How couldst thou become new if thou hast not first become ashes!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche).