Some time ago, the possibility was suggested to include a subject of Jewish literature in my artwork. Being enthusiastic, it was instantly obvious to me that the subject would have to be an element from the culture that was dominant in Spain before the Jews were expelled from that country in 1492. I appreciate Spanish medieval poetry and have also read some Arabic and Hebrew poetry from that time, but as a result of this project I started to try and gain more insight in this literature. I discovered a group of cabbalists that had formed themselves around Nachmanides in Gerona in the 13th century and from one of these writers, Meshullam ben Solomon Dapiera, I found a text that appealed to me. It is a “lyrical prelude” to an epistolary ode to Nachmanides. A prelude such as this is a well-known figure of speech in early Arabic and Hebrew poetry. It is a poem about the love of the poet for his mistress, like so many before that have been written in Andalusian court-poetry.
In the first part the writer sings of his relationship to his beloved when they were young. In the second part, however, he explains the virtues of his grey hair, the wisdom that has grown in him and then, in a satirical manner, he examines the responsibility and the attitude of the poet. This second part was totally contrary to the convention in this kind of poetry in which youth and beauty was the only thing that mattered.
To begin with, he recognises the love that he feels for his muse, his secret lover. He always surprises her with his numerous observations in exchange for which and through her inspiration, he creates many of his paintings. That love was an earlier subject of my work, refering to the troubadours of Provence, in France, who found greater value in the virtuous writing and singing of poems, honouring their love for a maiden, rather than in consumating that love . It is exactly the attitude of the poet which is a theme in the second part of “Of Love and Lies” that intrigues me. Dapiera first sings of earlier days and how much wiser he is now and then he describes the attitude that he came to as an artist. Ironically he enhances the flattery and sweet-talking of his collegues to their patrons, thus drawing a dividing line between them and the virtuous poet he himself strives to be. He will only be understood by listeners of similar attitude, forming with them a secret alliance, impalpable to outsiders.
The essence of this attitude is illustrated by a riddle-poem by Dapiera:
They asked me: “O wise one,
who is it that doesn’t distinguish good from bad
And sings in praise of the men of the time
Though his heart weighs the truth and ponders it?”
I answered them: “It is I, my friends, I am the lying poet!”
The gouaches that I have painted as a result of this text contain images and techniques that I have used in different periods of my career as an artist. I made this choice to put more emphasis on the element of reflection during the course of my development.
The Hague, 25 February 2006
Carmi, T. (1981) The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse – Penguin Books, London
Brann, R. (1990) The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain – John Hopkins University
Brill, E.J. & Silver, D.J. (1965) Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy Leiden pp.1180-1240