DAVID RAKIA’S paintings show the artist’s 40-yearpreoccupation with the Hebrew alphabet. In the beginning, letters made obscureappearances among the structures of his Jerusalem landscapes. But with time theybecame more prominent features of his compositions. In recent years they haveevolved into the theme of his abstract works, but only now has he reached whatseems the climax of his exploration: on large, engulfing canvases, Hebrewletters are basic elements filling uncomposed friezes. Rakia positions hisletter-particles by improvisation and without premeditated structure. He says heworks with a basic theme in mind, developing it like a baroque or jazz musician. But bold forms emerge. Layer upon layer of letters give a dramatic sense ofinfinite spatial depth, like uncountable stars receding to ungraspabledistances.
He was born in Vienna in 1928. His paternal grandfather was asofer stam — a scribe penning the Old Testament texts onto sacred parchment withthe painstaking attention to minutiae demanded by Jewish law. Rakia recalls hisfascination as a boy watching the old craftsman in his workshop. Later the Nazisdestroyed the scribe’s work, and then murdered him in Theresienstadtconcentration camp. "My life’s preoccupation has been retrieving his work," saysRakia.
With his parents, Rakia fled Europe in 1938, reaching Palestine aftersix months in transit. He later studied art at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy andin Paris, and identified himself as a Surrealist. "But after Paris I underwent apersonal revolution and discovered my roots." He became obsessed with Jewishmysticism, and Hebraicized his name from the former Sternfell—Rakia meansheaven, or the mystical firmament of Genesis. His Hebrew letters motif firstappeared in public in 1961, in an exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Rakia calls his work an assertion of Hebrew culture in a world still hostileto Jewish identity. But his themes are larger, more universal, even cosmic. Hislanguage, admittedly, is local, specific—the Hebrew characters of his immediateenvironment—but their reference is to Heaven. Constellations of lettersrecurring in his paintings make up key words from the Kabbala — the central workof Jewish mysticism. Terms such as yesod (foundation), netzach (eternity), tiferet (splendor), emerge almost unintentionally, as in the automatic, stream-of-consciousness writing method nurtured by Joyce. These terms point tothe global, eternal preoccupation’s of this artist.
Rakia’s work correspondswith Jewish tradition, which places the Hebrew alphabet in an exalted role. Thisstands in contrast with the Western assumption, evolved over the last three orfour centuries, that language has no significance or powers of its own. In theWest, words and letters are viewed as mere signs, which work as such only by thegrace of human, social convention. "Flower," for example, means something onlybecause people use it in their interactions to communicate thoughts aboutflowers. If the human use of the word was different, its meaning and entire rolein the world would be different as well.
But the traditional Jewish view isthat Hebrew is divinely instituted, not humanly evolved. The Hebrew language andits letters, accordingly, have a unique reality and holiness. It has existedeternally—and so predates Creation, and was already around and waiting for theevents of Genesis. Mystics have made much of the role of Hebrew characters inthe emergence of reality out of chaos—of how the letters acted as vessels forthe creation of the parts of our environment..
Rakia’s mind-set is shaped bythe Kabbalistic view of the Hebrew language and its role in Creation. It is afanciful idea, but we can appreciate his canvases without making that leap offaith. As metaphors they work marvelously: We see a universe in which Hebrewletters, not material particles, are the basic components. It is a universeglowing with sacredness—and the sense of that sacredness infusing realitylingers, even when we switch back to our own. .