Without consciously knowing how or why, artists sometimes reach back to their roots to unearth ways to express themselves in their work.
Levente Thury and Imre Amos, two 20th-Century Hungarian artists whose work is on display at the University of Judaism's Platt Gallery, are of different generations and unrelated by blood, but they have tapped the same 19th-Century religious/historical source for inspiration. Their shared source is Rabbi Isaac Taub, who died in 1821 but left a legacy of teachings in the Jewish mystical traditions of the cabala. These were passed down to both artists through their respective ancestors.
Amos, born in 1908, was raised in a small village in northeastern Hungary where Rabbi Taub led a congregation that included Amos' forebears. According to an essay by Charles Fenyvesi, senior editor of U.S. News and World Report and author of the book, "When the World Was Whole," (Viking, 1990) the rabbi "offered advice and blessings which proved so effective that people came to believe that he had miraculous powers."
In 1940, Amos made 14 linocut prints that depict Jewish festivals, ceremonies and customs and recall the rabbi's refusal to believe "that hatred was immutable, misery inevitable and despair natural," Fenyvesi wrote. Five years later Amos would die in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 37.
Somehow his prints have survived, and they are on view here. Theatrical portrayals of Hanukkah, a "Seder Night" during Passover, and Purim--emit an urgent vital energy.
Thury believes Amos' pictures are so dramatic because "he felt what was happening before everyone else." Specifically, Amos anticipated the roundup and eventual deaths of Hungarian Jews during World War II. In 1937, says Thury, Amos went "in a minute" from painting "nice landscapes . . . to dramatic things."
Thury is pleased to be showing his ceramic sculptures with Amos' prints. Although Amos was not popular with the Communist regime in Hungary after the war, his work was shown in private spaces in the '60s, where Thury was able to see it.
Born in 1941, Thury comes from a family that lived in a village not far from where Rabbi Taub had his congregation. Family legend has it that six generations ago, one of Thury's ancestors received the first blessing ever conferred by the rabbi, when he was just out of rabbinical school and looking for a job. The story goes that Thury's ancestor was concerned about the Earth, and the rabbi said as long as he worked with the soil, he would be successful and so would his descendants.
Following in that family tradition, Thury planted vegetables in the back yard of his family's Budapest home when he was a youngster. From gardening, he turned to making ceramic pieces. In 1966, he graduated from the Hungarian Academy of Art and Craft.
"There is no difference between gardening and sculpting," he said. "They're both Earth work."
His vigorous, emotion-laden works reveal his interest in and study of the cabala as well as the legend of the golem. A human-like figure referred to in the Talmud, the golem is made of clay and brought to life by the magical use of God's name. Thury's golem-like figures embody certain abstract concepts that the cabala calls emanations: understanding, wisdom, beauty, judgment and mercy.
"What he's done is an innovation," said gallery director Judith Samuel. "Instead of doing it intellectually, he's translated these emanations, an important part of Jewish mysticism, into visual objects which have a life and spirit of their own. They become almost animate objects."
A head looks out from the center of a female torso in "Tiferet II," a title based on the Hebrew word for beauty. The hand attached to the torso in "Gevurah" (Judgment) holds an implement reminiscent of a whip. Coins dangle from its lashes. While Thury made heads to suggest "Binah" (Understanding) and "Hokhma" (Wisdom), he fashioned lower torsos for "Hod" (Glory/Reverberation) and "Yesod" (Foundation).
The rough, fragmented nature of Thury's figures conveys his idea, he said, that "a human person cannot be perfect. Only a God could be perfect."
Accompanying his representations of the 10 emanations is a mountainous figure with a head that depicts the more tangible "Daat" (Knowledge).
When he's working, Thury said, visual images rather than philosophical ideas fill his mind. "In Eastern Europe, we understand that clear ideas in the last 100 years have made terrible wars."
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WHERE AND WHEN
What: "Kabbalah Sketched and Sculpted: Two Hungarian Artists, Levente Thury and Imre Amos."
Location: University of Judaism's Platt Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, closed Saturday. Ends April 13.
Call: (310) 476-9777, Ext. 276.