“Museum Musings” relates to the exhibition Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada Lettrism (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 16 June–19 November 2016), discussing the connections made, discoveries, and considerations on what lay behind the unique constellation of the show.
The Aramaic phrase “simana milta hi” (“a [visual] signifier is real”) carries crucial implications for the study of art.1 For me, it means to begin, as Abbaye suggests, by seeing: “le’mehazei”—“to behold.”2 The curator must first confront the material. The visual perception of the graphic elements leads the way to exploration and later to synthesis.
In the case of the exhibition Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism, which I curated at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, it was the graphic quality of Abulafia’s written permutations (figs. 1a and 1b) that convinced me to present them in the context of Dada and Lettrist artists. Only later did it become apparent that there was a real connection between Abulafia and modern artists (fig. 2). The poet Yvan Goll, associated with Dada from its beginnings, and the leader of Lettrism, Isidore Isou, became aware of Abulafia and his mystic permutations in the early 1940s, very possibly through the publication of Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, in which the fourth chapter is devoted to “Abraham Abulafia and the Doctrine of Prophecy.”3
One challenge in regard to any new exhibition is to determine the concept, which is often then connected to the exhibition title. In this case, I chose “Alchemy of Words” as a common denominator. The Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud was the first to coin the term “l’Alchimie du verbe.”4 Hugo Ball referred to him when he prefaced his iconic Dada performance of Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916 by saying: “We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word.”5
For Rimbaud, language could be made “virtually consubstantial with Consciousness.”6 This also relates to the concept “simana milta hi,” or, in its German equivalent, “Ding an sich” (“the thing in itself”). The phrase was used by Immanuel Kant to distinguish between the noumenon—the “thing per se”—and the phenomenon—its perception. However, for Goll, as well as the Lettrist artists, “poetry must emanate the thing in itself, the ‘Ding an sich.’ ”7 These artists chose to override rationality and present random words and letters as well as hyper- or metagraphics (fig. 3) to convey an immediate experience; in Isou’s terminology, a sense of immanence.8 Abulafia went so far as to equate certain permutations with body organs, affecting them directly. Umberto Eco reiterated the concept in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum (1988):
For months, like devout rabbis, we uttered different combinations of the letters of the Book. GCC, CGC, GCG, CGG. What our lips said, our cells learned. What did my cells do? They invented a different Plan, and now they are proceeding on their own, creating a history, a unique, private history.… And they have learned to do this now with my body. They invert, transpose, alternate, transform themselves into cells unheard of, new cells without meaning, or with meaning contrary to the right meaning.…. It’s the temurah. [permutation].9
Part of the challenge of the exhibition was to find Abulafian ideas in modern and contemporary literature and art to supplement the Dada and Lettrist works and provide a contemporary context for the medieval mystic endeavor. The result may be seen in the installation photographs (figs. 4–9).The quotations were not didactic. For example, the story “The Aleph” (1945) by Jorge Luis Borges, which focuses on the multifold meanings of the letter aleph, was placed alongside a manuscript of a student of Abulafia that featured a Kabbalistic drawing of the letter aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet (fig. 10).10
The assemblage Le Vaisselle du poète (The Poet’s Dishes, 1970) by Christian Tobas (fig. 11) was shown near a quote from Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav’s “Story of the Bread,” recounted in 1800–1802, wherein Rabbi Nahman comes down to breakfast only to find that the loaf of bread has become a pile of letters, all jumbled up.11
An excerpt from The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, written by the Polish Count Jan Potocki between 1805 and 1814, which reads “In Hebrew every letter is a number,” was placed alongside The Tape Measures (1923–1925) by Francis Picabia (fig. 12) and La Rose mathématique (Mathematical Rose, 1963) by Ladislav Novák (fig. 13).12
Lamellae from the fourth to the seventh century that were utilized as amulets, with a mystical use of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet (fig. 14), were placed not far from the Lettrist work of Gil J. Wolman (fig. 15), a visually compelling comparison. The early amulets were displayed alongside two video works by contemporary Israeli sound artist Victoria Hanna, entitled Aleph-Bet – Hoshana (2015) and Twenty-Two Letters (2015).13 Works by Michael Sgan-Cohen that reference alchemy (fig. 16) or the twenty-two Hebrew letters (fig. 17) were placed next to a manuscript of Abulafia’s Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Bah (see fig. 1), which deals with permutations of the Hebrew letters in the seventy-two-letter Divine Name, based on three verses in the Book of Exodus that detail the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 14: 19–21).
Manuscripts of Abulafia’s works were used rather than printed versions owing to a herem (an excommunication) by the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet)—the leading rabbinical authority and chief rabbi of Spain in the thirteenth century—who forbade reproducing Abulafia’s books. That ban was in effect for more than 700 years and it is only recently that they were printed for the first time.14 However, the Humanists Pico della Mirandola and Johann Reuchlin used Latin translations of Abulafia’s work, and that of his student, Joseph Gikatilla, for their own books on Christian Kabbalah, which reached the Lettrists indirectly in the early twentieth century. Thus, a handwritten note that was found among the archives of the Lettrist Gabriel Pomerand was a reminder to himself to pick up a book from the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris (fig. 18). The Aide-mémoire included a reference number to a book on Christian Kabbalah that discusses the permutations of the seventy-two-letter Divine Name.15
The timing of the exhibition coincided with a global discourse on Dada and mysticism. The topic was discussed at the November Salon Suisse session that closed the Venice Biennale in 2015 and was featured in a series of exhibitions at the Getty Institute in Los Angeles in 2016 and 2017.16 Following the close of the exhibition, the journalist Ziva Sternhell published a critical review in Hebrew, which tied Dada and the early Bauhaus School to mystic thought.17
It was while searching for works in the museum collection that I found an etching (fig. 19) by Victor Brauner (1903–1966), an important artist associated with Dada and later Surrealism, which illustrated a poem dedicated to Abraham Abulafia entitled Raziel, one of Abulafia’s pseudonyms.18 Intrigued, I found that the etching illustrated a poem in Goll’s book Le Char Triomphal de l’Antimoine (The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, 1947), the title based on a book on alchemy published in 1604 and attributed to Basil Valentine. It turned out that Goll, a multilingual poet, composed more than thirty poems dedicated to Abulafia, including works in English (see Appendix).19
Brauner’s illustration of the poem Raziel features a female figure composed of an open hand with facial features, where the index and ring fingers are turned down to recall a crown. Her breasts, marked with magical “angel writing,” feed a bird and snake. On the left is a sun disc, composed of twenty-two dots, the number of Hebrew letters. On the right, the spiked crescent of a moon echoes the form of “angel writing.” This female figure is a common alchemical symbol for the Anima Mundi, known as Melusine or the Siren of the Philosophers, shown as a mermaid with a stream of blood and a stream of milk issuing from her breasts. It is also found on Tarot cards, an area in which Brauner had expertise, and is now well known to us, as it figures on the Starbucks logo.20 Intrigued, I began to look into the life and work of Yvan Goll and soon found a young Finnish scholar by the name of Sami Sjöberg, who was studying the connections between Goll and Isou and Abulafia.21 He was able to corroborate my first hunch that Abulafia, Dada, and Lettrism were related (owning to their common graphic quality). Thus, this small etching introduced me to the world of alchemy, to Abulafia, and to current scholarship in exactly the field I was looking for.
It was a case of serendipity.
(to Kurt Seligmann)
Yvan Goll, “Raziel,” Fruit from Saturn (Brooklyn, NY: Hemipheres Editions, 1946), 33–38.
Translation for “simana milta hi” is my own.
Gershom C. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Jerusalem: Schocken Publishing House, 1941), 119–152.
Arthur Rimbaud, “Second Delirium: The Alchemy of the Word,” Sixth Season: A Season in Hell, in Complete Works, trans. Paul Schmidt (New York: Harper Perennial, 2000), 232–237.
Notation of June 23–24, 1916, Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 70–71.
Alan Bacher Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 4.
Yvan Goll, “Le Réisme” (Reism), in Quatre études, ed. Jules Romains (Paris: Pierre Seghers, 1956), 206. “To the domain of the transcendent belongs also the Ding an sich, i.e., a ‘thing’ which exists independently of the form of experience.” Erik Stenius, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: A Critical Exposition of Its Main Lines of Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960), xi.
Sami Sjöberg, “Mysticism of Immanence: Lettrism, Sprachkritik, and the Immediate Message,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 11.1 (January, 2013): 63
Alongside the use of Gematriah (assigning numbers to the Hebrew letters) and Notarikon (forming new words by the first or last letters of a word), Temura or permutation forms an anagram by rearranging the order of the letters in a word. These methods were used by Abulafia in his writings to find new meanings for biblical phrases and names of the Divine. Abraham Abulafia, Hayyei ha’Olam ha’Ba (Life of the World to Come), written in 1280 (Jerusalem: Amnon Gross, 2009), 19–20 (in Hebrew); Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), 550. See exhibition catalogue, Batsheva Goldman-Ida, editor, Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism, Hebrew-English edition (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2016), 157–158.
Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph (“The Aleph,” 1945), trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges, accessed July 4, 2017, http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/borgesaleph.pdf.
Zvi Mark, “The Story of the Bread,” The Revealed and Hidden Writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: His Worlds of Revelation and Rectification, trans. Yaakov David Shulman (Berlin, Boston, and Jerusalem: Walter de Gruyter and Magnes Press, 2015), 35–37.
Jan Potocki, “The Ninth Day: The Cabbalist’s Story,” The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, trans. Ian Maclean (London: Penguin, 1995), 102.
Victoria Hanna, Aleph-Bet – Hoshana, 2015, video, 3:51 min., accessed July 4, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl1epz3tSSA; Hanna, Twenty-Two Letters, 2015, video, 3:22 min., accessed July 4, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcnxRi0s_DM.
Abraham Abulafia, Collected Works, ed. Amnon Gross (Tel Aviv: Amnon Gross, Aharon Barzani & Son, 2000–2002) [Hebrew]; see www.abuelafia.blogspot.co.il
Lazare Lenain, La Science cabalistique ou l’Art de connaître les bons Génies (Amiens, 1823). Bibliothèque nationale 8˚=R22944 (now 80-6675).
For more on November Salon Suisse session see, “Speculation” / “Speculatio mystica” (November 19–21, 2015), S.O.S. Dada – The World Is A Mess, Collateral Event of the 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, sponsored by the Zürich Dada100 2016 celebration committee and organized by its director Juri Steiner, and Stefan Zweifel, accessed July 4 2017, http://www.dada100zuerich2016.ch/en/the-last-s-o-s-from-salon-suisse/
For more on the Getty exhibitions see, The Art of Alchemy (October 11, 2016– February 12, 2017); followed by Concrete Poetry: Words and Sounds in Graphic Space (March 28–July 30, 2017).
Ziva Sternhell, “Modern Redemption,” Musaf, Haaretz, 2 December 2016, 60–62 [Hebrew].
Raziel, meaning “Secret of God” in Hebrew, is the numerical equivalent of “Abraham,” both equaling 248 in Gematria.
A second poem by Goll is entitled “Le Chant de Raziel,” Masques de cendre (Paris: Hémisphères, 1949). There is also another poem with the same title: “Raziel,” Les Cercles magiques, 56/57; and an unedited poem, about Abulafia, in “Ars Poetica,” 1945. See “Poèmes Yvan Goll,” accessed July 4, 2017, www.yvanclairegoll.canalblog.com.
Robert M. Place, The Fool’s Journey: The History, Art and Symbolism of the Tarot (Saugerties, New York: Talarius Publications, 2010), 103.
Sami Sjöberg, The Vanguard Messiah: Lettrism between Jewish Mysticism and the Avant-Garde (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2015).