Martha Casanave

Studies of the Hebrew Alphabet

I feel awkward whenever I am asked what these pieces mean to me, and what started them, because for these questions, I really don’t have an answer. I sometimes say that these images come from the heart and not the eyes, and that they deal with the realm of the unknown and previously unexplored. (But couldn’t one say that about all art?) All I can say is that is that I don’t make appointments for the days I do this work, and I unhook the phone. This works takes me over, takes me to a different place. Some kind of spirit enters me and takes me away.

Jewish legend has it that before Creation, the letters, representing pure Spirit, were engraved with flames in the crown of God. The letters of the aleph-beit were, in the words of the 16th Century mystic Moses Cordovero, “configurations of divine light.” They predated Creation. They are the primal forces which created, and create, all worlds. They are, individually and collectively, the raw material of creation. Like the universe and all it contains, the aleph-beit constitutes a single organism in which all parts are interrelated. The number of possible combinations and resulting manifestations of them is infinite and unknowable.

The aleph-beit is the raw material for these images. In Jewish mystical thought, the letters are not only pictographs or ideas. They are also a numerical system (Gematria), sounds (vibrations or cosmic hums), and they embody many levels of symbolic meaning.

My pictures are photograms, one-of-a-kind images produced in the darkroom by manipulating a granular substance on light-sensitive paper. Since there is no camera involved, there is no negative. I can barely see what I am doing while working, so I never know how the images will appear in their final form. So, while forming the letters with my fingers, in the darkness, I feel I am a vehicle for the letters’ expression as much as they are for mine. Though I am a secular Jew and not a practitioner of Jewish mysticism, I do think, each time I begin to work, of the following words by the 13th century Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia:

Now begin to combine a few or many letters, to permute and to combine them until they heart be warm. Then be mindful of their movements and of what thou canst bring forth by moving them.

Martha Casanave [see review]


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