Kaddish, Klippot & Tikkun: The Kabbalistic Art of Jan Menses
Volume 2 , Issue 4 (April, 1989 | Nisan, 5749)
Jan Abraham Menses, whose paintings are currently featured at the Blom & Dorn Gallery at 164 Mercer Street in SOHO (telephone: 212-219-0761 for schedule of hours) is a unique phenomenon in the worlds of both contemporary art and Orthodox Judaism. His work, which appears in the collections of over fifty museums worldwide and which has been the subject of considerable critical acclaim, is an extraordinary blend of masterful technique and a personal vision inspired by the kabbalah, the ancient tradition of Jewish mystical thought. Menses, whose work over the past twenty-five years has been a sustained and, in many ways exhaustive, exploration of the phenomenon of evil, has recently embarked on a new series of paintings entitled Tikkun(?repair? or ?restoration?) which depicts, in abstract form, the first stirrings of redemption as described in the Jewish traditions concerning the future messianic age. And while Menses' art is inspired by tradition, it speaks in clear terms to the contemporary age. In depicting the horrors of the holocaust and the estrangement and alienation of contemporary life, Menses is truly an artist of our time.
Menses' ?modernity? is, perhaps, nowhere more evident than in the story of his own life, a life which is itself reflective of the enormous upheavals, shattered ideals, and reconfigurations in human society which have characterized the 55 years since his birth; for in what other era could a man have been born to Protestant parents in Holland, become, in his mid-twenties, a Jew in Morocco, resettle in Canada and dedicate the remainder of his Iife's work to (and receive the blessing of) the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn? As we will see, it may very well be the staccato, ?dialectical? nature of his own experience which enabled Menses to penetrate both to the essence of our own age and the nature of a mystical doctrine (Lurianic Kabbalah) which envisions a restored and redeemed universe and humanity emerging from the reconstructed and reconfigured shards of a shattered earlier world.
Jan Menses was born in Rotterdam in 1933, the very year the Nazis came to power in Germany. His family, like so many of the Dutch, had been involved, for generations, in the shipbuilding industry. His parents were Protestant, and his father was a great Dutch patriot who was proud to trace his ancestors in Holland back some four hundred years, Menses, himself, is intrigued by the fact that the family had originated in Portugal, having migrated to Holland during the era of the Marranos. He muses that, perhaps there is some Jewish ancestry which in some mysterious way has called upon him to return. The more immediate sources of this ?return,? are to be traced to his experiences as a boy in Rotterdam during the war, some of which seemed to guide him, or at least point him, in the direction of his later life as a Jew.
Rotterdam, much like Warsaw, was the subject of incessant bombings during World War II. ?The whole central city,? Menses recalls? was destroyed by Stukas and dive bombers on May 10, 1940.? With time the bombing became progressively worse as the RAF commenced attacks on German targets close to Menses' home. Menses reports that as a child he was absolutely terrified of these bombings. His memories of the war, however, tend to focus on an incident which occurred during 1942, shortly after the Germans had imposed the ?yellow star? to be worn on the arms of all Dutch Jews, a decree which even as a child Menses found thoroughly repulsive. ?One day,? he relates, ?I was playing marbles on the street with several of my friends. Two trucks came and cordoned off the area. A few soldiers came out with a couple of dogs and quickly rounded up three Jewish families who lived on the street, including my little friend. I couldn't believe this. Here I was standing with my marble in the gutter, and my friend was gone. Of course, he never came back.?
Menses recalls that even as a child before the war, he had already had some favorable exposure to Judaism. As a young boy, he had accompanied an older friend whose job it was to tend the stoves of about a dozen Jewish families on Shabbat. ?These were Orthodox families,? he recalls, ?and Iwould see the candles, the table set beautifully and the family singing zemirot and I was very impressed.?
Once the war began, food was rationed and eventually became quite scarce. Menses reports that he was ?adopted? by a local baker in a small village on an island in southwest Holland, a religious Protestant who was working with the ?underground.? This man had a huge family Bible, but somehow he never seemed to be interested in reading from the New Testament. Menses recalls that this baker was fascinated by the battles and the drama of the ?Jewish Bible.? ?After meals, I was called upon to fetch the family bible and I would listen to this man read. Inevitably, he would fall asleep and it became my job to bring him back to the place where he had left off on the previous day. In this way 1 came to know the Bible quite well.?
Menses remembers that the war had a great impact on him as a child, but after Holland was liberated by the Canadians in 1944, the Dutch, Menese included, quickly tried to put their war experiences behind them. ?Many artists, for example,? he relates, ?continued painting as if the war had never occurred. If they painted cows before the war they continued to paint cows after it.? Menses, himself. began painting in his teens, and as an amateur, he was influenced by a group of expressionist artists in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam called the ?Cobra,? who painted in the Northern Romantic tradition of Van Gogh and Munch, and who made use of a very brilliant palette. His parents, however, discouraged him from pursuing a career as a painter and, indeed, his high school grades in ?art,? meted out by teachers with a staid, formalized aesthetic sense, were very low. Menses decided to start working in shipbuilding. Soon after, however, in 1953 was conscripted for military service and was commissioned as an officer in the Dutch Air Force in 1955. It was there that Menses began to take his painting seriously. He purchased some materials and spent every moment of his spare time painting. After completing his tour in the military, he spent several years as an artistic vagabond in Spain, Italy, and Morocco. ?These were warm places,? he relates, ?places where I could live cheaply and sleep in a tent.?
Spain, Menses' temperament became far more introspective and he developed a need to express his inner self through his work. At first he drew what he saw about him: Olive trees, villages, fountains, portraits of farmers and children, donkeys and fishing boats, but it was during this period that he somehow found himself moving closer and closer to Judaism. ?I had never had any real involvement in my own religion,? he relates, ?but at a certain moment, Ideveloped a great need for the divine. I could not accept the Trinity and the Christian belief in the Messiah, and I soon found myself reading whatever I could find about Judaism, and sort of drifted into the certainty that I had to 'be a Jew.? Spain, of course, was still under Franco and not a place hospitable to a prospective convert to Judaism, so Menses packed his few belongings and went to Morocco, where he knocked on the door of the Chief Rabbi of Morocco in Rabat and declared, ?I want to become a Jew.?
Menses recalls: ?I enjoyed life in Morocco. It was easy to survive on some bread, olives and fish. The rabbinate at first tried to dissuade me from converting, but that only made me more stubborn about it.? Finally, Menses relates, they sent him to learn alephbet, the rudiments of tefi lot and the laws pertaining to Shabbat and the festivals, from a small yeshivah boy in Casablanca. When he returned to the chief rabbinate, having mastered those studies, he was admitted to conversion. ?I had brit milah and tevilah in front of three dayanim. They gave me my Hebrew name, Abraham Moshe Yisroel ben Abraham, and at the age of 26 I become a Jew.?
At the base of Menses' early fascination with Judaism, was an awe and respect for a people who had been persecuted, hated and reviled throughout history, but who had, nevertheless, managed to survive. ?If they are hated so much and yet remain Jews,? he thought, ?they must be the custodians of a great spiritual and ethical treasure.? Menses developed an early interest in the phenomenon of the Holocaust, at a time (the 1950's) when practically no one with the exception of men like Wiesenthal and Wiesel even wanted to talk about this immense human tragedy. When Menses began, in the early 60's, to paint about Jewish themes, it was the theme of the Holocaust which engaged him. His work on the Kaddishseries, which began in 1963, has been acclaimed by critics as intensely personal, original and unique. ?As I came into my own, and I rid myself of all the influences of other artists, I determined that my work would be an oeuvre and have a thematic structure.? The Kaddishseries, which Menses worked on for a period of 15 years, contains hundreds of drawings and 175 paintings, including several very large triptychs, in which Menses attempts to create, in his own words, ?a visual equivalent to the machinery of destruction and terror? which comprised the Nazis' ?final solution.? ?Over the fifteen years I worked on Kaddish the art became a long narrative or, better, a 'thesaurus' of the different facets of terror. in its manipulativeness, its blindness and its unfeelingness.? Menses describes himself as having attempted to create a very ?clinical? impression with these paintings, ?like a camera which has no emotions.? In them Menses depicts people who are manipulated by forces beyond their own control and who have lost their capacity for volition; hence they appear like figures frozen in plastic or glass. Frequently their arms have been cut off or their legs turned into a transparency to underscore their inability to act. What's more, the evil in Kaddish is seen as having taken on a life of its own, having divorced itself from the will of its perpetrators.
Menses is the first to acknowledge the personal nature of his work. ?I had to get Kaddish out of my system,? he relates, as if to say that these paintings were not only a way of mourning those who had perished in the Holocaust, but also a means by which the artist could purge the Yetzer haRa, the evil impulse, from within his own psyche. ?I myself felt redeemed,? he told the CBC in 1985, ?by trying to give what seems to be an eyewitness account of the evil of the camps, although I myself was not an eyewitness and only breathed the air at the time that the the victim breathed their last.?
While Kaddishappears ?clinical? in its execution, emotionally, the whole series took a great deal out of Menses. Before it was completed, he began to work in a new medium on a second series of paintings which he calls Klippoth. While Kaddishwas executed in acrylics and oils on wood panels, Menses now began to work in tempera, a beautiful, velvety medium which is very difficult to handle. It was with Klippoththat Menses formally entered the world of the kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. According to Menses, ?the Klippothseries paralleled the theme of evil in the Kaddishseries, but on a more metaphysical plane.? He relates that in the kabbalah, klippoth (literally shells or husks) are thought of as the mirror image of divine holiness and purity (kedushah). The klippoth are not so much a representation of manifest evil. as in the phenomenon of the Holocaust, but are rather a necessary byproduct of God's creation; for in order for there to be finite, created beings, it is necessary that there must exist, within creation itself, a darkening or limitation of God's holy light. ?I don't,? says Menses, ?paint in black per se, but rather 1 use black to represent the remoteness of the manifestation of the divine.?
As compared with Kaddish. Menses was able to take some comfort in producing the paintings which comprise Klippoth. ?Evil in the Klippoth series,? he explains, ?is a much more serene thing.? This is because evil, on the metaphysical level is not,? according to Menses, as the Catholics believe, Satan running amok,? but rather results from ?fissures? in God's creation which were needed to pave the way for the existence of free will. What's more, the evil of klippoth exists only as the apparent dimunition of Godliness, and is, in reality, wholly dependent or parasitic upon what is good. It is for this reason that the dark forces of klippoth contain within themselves the very forces of redemption, which will ultimately lead to their own undoing.
Although Menses felt that it was easier for him to live with Klippoththan Kaddish, there was a great deal of cross-fertilization between the two series. ?Things I couldn't do in Kaddish I was able to do in Klippoth,? he relates. ?With the oils and acrylics of KaddishI was essentially applying paint and could only work in two or at most three tonal values (black, white and a middle tone). With the more fluid tempera medium of Klippoth, which involves layer upon layer of pigment on canvas, I was able to achieve the entire spectrum of black and light.? The new medium, according to Menses, required a far more introspective, silent, and less ?gestural,? approach and execution.
Menses provides his own unique description of the klippoth that are the subject matter of his work. ?Klippoth,? he tells us, ?are little evil busy bodies that bind and prevent us from being liberated. They are little clusters, or in a very highly polished way, cancerous cells, things that go pop in the night, that roll, like ball bearings. They are like little mirrors; and what are they doing? ? Menses reports that he places these ?objects? (disc, balls, oval and circular mirrors) in his paintings in such a way as to give the impression that if you were to look again, they may have moved. ?When you weren't watching,? he says lightheartedly, ?they were up to something; they could disappear or roll off, or simply not be there. They are so persistent, yet so elusive. Perhaps they were all just a figment of your imagination.?
Menses insists that while each of his paintings stands on its own, in order for them to be fully understood, they must be observed as an oeuvre, in sequence. Many of the figures, objects, and artistic devices which he makes use of in one painting, will reappear, transmuted and transformed, in others. Most of these elements allude to fundamental kabbalistic notions, such as the ten sefirot, which are regarded as the fundamental archetypes for creation. The sefirot are, generally speaking, divine values or traits, and the klippoth are the mirror images or the negations of them. In portraying this ?negative- world of the klippoth, Menses reflects that, like Dante in The Inferno, he is exploring the various levels or stages of alienation, debasement and estrangement which, according to kabbalistic tradition, is the illusion of haolant hazeh, this world.
Menses' art is, in a sense, a universe unto itself, one which has its own pictorial language or vocabulary. He describes this universe as a ?kind of mental realm or mental country, a kingdom of the mind that has its own physical laws, its own gravity,? etc. Space, for example, appears contradictory in the Klippothseries, as if our normal Euclidian universe had been fragmented and then reassembled in a manner which follows a new geometry. Indeed, this fragmented world alludes to the Kabbalistic concept of shevirat hakelim the ?breaking of the vessels,? a notion which implies, among other things. that the universe as it progresses towards its ultimate redemption must, of necessity, be shattered and then reorganized and reassembled through the efforts of man.
It is the concept of ?the breaking of the vessels? and the subsequent movement towards redemption which, perhaps more than any other, can be said to characterize Menses' own life and work; for as we have seen, Menses, himself, having been ?shattered? by his experiences during the war, metamorphisized himself into an artist and a chasidic Jew, reconstructing the elements of his previous existence in the service of his subsequent life's work. ?Ihave achieved a purge, a personal catharsis and a form of restoration.?
It is in the light of ?the breaking of the vessels? that we can also understand Menses' most recent (and presumably final) transition to the series of paintings entitled Tikkun. Tikkun. which means ?repair? or ?restoration? is, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, the final redemptive stage in the cosmic process which began with creation and progressed through the breaking of the vessels and the consequent appearance of the klippoth. Several years ago. Menses experienced the agony of having his studio vandalized and a number of the works in his Klippothseries destroyed. As a result of this, he recalls, he went into a depression and subsequently destroyed a number of works himself which he felt were not true to his oeuvre. It was ultimately as a result of this ?shattering? experience that Menses' decided to move from Klippothonto something new. ?When my studio was vandalized,? he recalls, ?I took this as a message that maybe I was too arrogant in attempting to be so exhaustive in my portrayal of evil. After all evil is so multifarious that I could have worked on Klippothfor yet another two lifetimes, each day exploring yet another angle, another one of evil's tricks.? It was then that Menses began in earnest to explore the possibilities of redemption.
According to kabbalistic and chasidic tradition, the ultimate purpose of mankind is to be found in man's ability to assist in tikkun haolam, the restoration and redemption of the world. It is the individual's sacred task to immerse himself in the material world, the world which is sustained by the realm of the klippoth, and to elevate aspects of that world, as well as aspects of his own material ?self,? to a higher, more spiritual level. This process of tikkun or restoration is spoken of in the kabbalah as ?the raising of the sparks;? the spiritual elevation of those ?sparks? of Godliness which exist within everyone and everything, even within those things which we might think of as metaphysically and/or manifestly evil. It is the confrontation with such evil, and the raising of the holy sparks within the evil realm, which has been the raison d'etre of Menses' work, and particularly his work on his current series Tikkun. Thisseries, on which Menses has been working for the past several years is still in a nascent stage. Indeed, Menses has dedicated it to his own spiritual leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and hopes to continue work on it for the rest of his own natural lifetime.
Those who view paintings from the Tikkunseries, however, may be surprised to find that these paintings, like those in Kaddishand Klippoth, are executed in a range of black and white tones. and also convey a mood of somber introspection. While the figures in this series are not totally inhibited in action or dismembered like those in the previous series, viewers still derive a sense of sadness, darkness, and potential doom from these paintings. The only difference is that balancing these darker aspects, is asubtle possibility of optimism and hope. The light in the Tikkunseries is, according to Menses' own account, a purer, more Godly and redeemed light than the light in Klippoth.
In the painting Avihu, for example, we see such ?redemptive light? issuing forth from the altar in the background, perhaps joining with a divine light coming forth out of the heavens. In the foreground is the biblical figure, Avihu. (the son of Aharon, Moses' brother), who, along with his own brother. Nadav, was to inherit the kehuna, the priesthood, from his father. The Torah recounts how the brothers ?offered strange fires to God? and for this presumed offense, ?died before the Lord? (Leviticus 10:1-3).A midrash, however, describes Nadav and Avihu as otherwise righteous men who died because, as Menses, himself, putsit, ?they were intoxicated with God and wanted to do more in His service than what was required.? Whatever the reason for Avihu's death, it is clear that it is connected with some infraction, some blemish in his otherwise righteous and pious character, and it is for this reason that Avihu himself appears to stand in klippah or darkness. His head, bent in sadness and dejection, suggests that his is a broken and contrite spirit. He is an individual who. even in the moment just prior to his own death, is capable of the act of reflection and repentance (teshuvah) which is necessary for his personal redemption or tikkun. As such, what appears to be a halo of divine light is beginning to envelope his broken countenance, perhaps a signal that his repentance after all, has been accepted, and the ?raising of his own sparks? complete.
While the process of tikkun haolam is one which ultimately leads to redemption, restoration, the coming of the Messiah, and an age of universal peace, Menses, in his Tikkunseries, is more interested in depicting the sometimes painful psychological and spiritual processes which will ultimately lead to the redemption than he is in portraying the bliss of redemption itself. As Menses states in a 1985 CBC television documentary about his work: ?The Tikkunseries is not yet joy, but rather suspense, expectation, a preparation of a welcoming; a preparing of the home for Shabbat.? Indeed, Menses' own life and his work over the past three decades can be likened to apreparation, a preparation for a profound redemptive transformation which is only now beginning to express itself in his unique artistic productions. We can only ask that his work continue from strength to strength, and that the transformation of darkness and negativity which is now emerging in Tikkunserve as a source of prayer and inspiration for us all.