Artist Adam Rhine explores the mystical nature of the Hebrew alphabet.
By Eva Geertz
I knew I’d be getting a book called “Hebrew Illuminations” in the mail. I knew it would be a book of Jewish art, and I thought, “Ah. Illuminated art—Jews—gonna probably be something like Arthur Szyk, probably minus the politics. Or perhaps more like the old medieval things. Maybe a post-modern interpretation of the Sarajevo Haggadah.”
So I had only a very vague idea of what to expect from Adam Rhine’s “Hebrew Illuminations,” a handsome quarto volume published by Sounds True. And when it arrived, it was not even remotely what I’d expected.
Before mechanical printing sounded the death knoll of the intricate, extraordinarily time-consuming art of illuminated painting, books were rare objects indeed, prized as both works of art and symbols of knowledge that many believed was handed down by God himself. This was not only the case in Catholicism, where monks dominated the bookmaking industry. Jewish illuminated manuscripts, for instance, honored the concept of hiddur mitzvah, a commandment to adorn and beautify the implements of holiness.
Thus, in the Middle Ages, a book was not simply a quick read, or a coffee-table dust catcher, or a convenient airport-time killer. It was a sacred treasure, and its creation involved vast amounts of time and manpower. There was the necessary parchment, which involved drying animal hides, and hand cutting and sewing the pages. There was ink that had to be mixed by hand. There were pens that had to be made, and scribes who had to be engaged to copy the text from an established edition. And then there were the artists, who could elevate mere text into gilded, brightly colored visions both earthly and otherworldly.
Modern illumination, however, is a whole different ballgame. It can have religious symbolism, it can carry on the style and tradition of ancient illumination, or it can stand entirely on its own as a secular art form.
In the case of “Hebrew Illuminations,” it is clear that Adam Rhine is well acquainted with Jewish art history, and that he is a skilled artist. But even though the paintings, of the Hebrew alphabet and the Stars of David, are lovely, I had a basic cognitive problem with the images. To me, gilt is synonymous with an illuminated manuscript, and I expected the paintings to involve gold or silver paint. Instead, they are merely watercolors. Perhaps this is simply my own bias, as Rhine obviously takes the wider view, which is that an illuminated work is simply highly decorated.
At the same time, it can be highly symbolic, and Rhine is painstaking in his exploration of the mystical nature of the Hebrew alphabet, which is rife with layers of meaning. The book takes the reader through the 22 Hebrew letters, with text (written with the assistance of Louise Temple) explaining the meanings and significances of each letter. The name of each Hebrew letter also stands for a number, for example; in addition, the names themselves have different meanings. One can—and some do—spend lifetimes interpreting these kinds of things. I myself am not inclined that way, but it’s clear that Rhine is the sort of person who’s deeply into this sort of stuff. So he combines artistic talent with religious interest, and comes up with these watercolor paintings—which, I’m sorry to say, were somewhat wasted on me.
I appreciated Rhine’s work a lot more in the second section, the Magen Davids (Stars of David). There’s something kaleidoscopic about these paintings, and the colors become more gorgeous, richer, at this point. Each of the works in this section has a theme—the Torah, Yerushalyim, or Hanukkah, for example—which is explored on a page of accompanying text. I found the first and the last most appealing—Shema Yisrael and Tikkun Olam—and have spent considerable time looking at them.
Sounds True has done an admirable job reproducing the illustrations. The colors are bright, true, and sharp; the paper stock, which is matte and heavy, allows one to really look closely at the paintings and appreciate the detailed work without being distracted by glare or the texture of the book’s paper itself. In the end, however, there’s a limited quality to Rhine’s works. They are very, very pretty, and the discussions accompanying each painting will appeal to a certain type of person. But ultimately, I am not that person. And no matter how skilled and even scholarly these works might seem, they still exude a whiff of the greeting card. So it comes as no surprise that Rhine’s art is available in the form of needlepoint canvases, cross-stitch charts, Kosher chocolate candy, and, yes, greeting cards and wedding invitations (you can check them out at his website: www.hebrewart.com).
A few years ago, when angels were “in,” there were three kinds of books on angels. There were the serious ones, filled with large reproductions of angels as seen in the paintings of Caravaggio, or Raphael, or whoever, accompanied by critical text by noted art historians—the kind of thing that might be published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Rizzoli, with a November release date. Then there were the smaller “low end” books about angels sold in Hallmark stores or other gift shops; cute little items with small reproductions of many of the same images and bits of inspirational text.
Finally there was the middle ground—something in between the $200 books with sewn bindings and the Angel stickers and Angel mugs—the medium-nearly-high end gift stores carrying hand-carved objets d’art or silver and precious gemstone jewelry made by a woman who lives in Maine, along with the occasional handsome volume—maybe done by Schocken Books, or for a funkier spin, Chronicle Books. You’d most likely find “Hebrew Illuminations” in this type of store. It isn’t deep thought, and it isn’t high art, but it isn’t pandering, or utterly vapid, either. It’s handsome and cheerful, intelligent enough without being overly intellectual or theological. It’s the happy middle.
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Eva Geertz has been in the book business her entire adult life, having done everything from running a rare bookstore to acquiring books and manuscripts for the Beinecke library at Yale. Her most recent gig was a two-year stint as buyer for Atticus Bookstore in New Haven, Conn. Her last review for SoMA was Growing Up Half-Jewish.
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