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Galili Shahr, The Tselem, „The Restless“ Austtellung Catalogue, May 2017 (English)

The Tselem

Galili Shahar

What is a tselem, and what is its meaning? A tselem is an image, likeness, or semblance. It is a form or a figure, an object. Yet it is also an essence – the essence of the soul. It is a living spirit as well as the vestige of this spirit, its template. To this we may add: the tselem is light and is also the shadow of death (tsel-mavet). Such contradictions must be taken into account when we speak of the tselem– the form of what is created, the essence of being. Yet being is embodied in matter, in each and every body. Anyone, anything created according to an image, likeness, or form, acquires a figure, which is at once soul and body. The tselem is an embodiment of the soul. And the most sublime form, the supreme image, is the image of the face.


The tselem is an image of a face, a portrait. When we speak of a tselem, we are thus speaking of pictures of this order. Not just any picture, but this specific type of picture, of this order, a picture that is the image of the thing, its essence. What is imbued in the tselem, cast in shadow (tsel), is the essence of what is created (as is written, created in His own tselem – the image of God). The tselem is a spiritual portrait, a portrait of the spirit, which is embodied in each and every thing. Speaking of the tselem amounts to speaking of this spirit, of the soul. For the tselem is neither any image nor every image. Indeed, a tselem is not merely an image, figure, or template. It represents the possibility of creation taking on form (being-of-form), it is the portrait of the spirit. What imbues the tselem is the spirit, clothed in form.


When we speak of a tselem we are speaking of a portrait, which we defined as the image of a face, the form in which a thing is clothed. This is also the form of man, in which his being as a creation is imbued. Yet as already noted, the tselem gives rise not only to the image but also to the shadow (tsel), the shadow of death which takes on mortal form. For he who is created to live in this world is inevitably a mortal. That is his essence: he lives and is consumed, and his life is consistently shadowed by its end, shadowed by death. Every image of man is an image of his living and of his death.


Herein lies the uniqueness of every tselem: it is a portrait of the spirit, the image of a face stamped by the stamp of being, by the form of the soul, by the essence of creation, as well as by shadow and darkness, the darkness of the world. He who serves the tselem (what, indeed, does such service – the making of an image – consist of?) works in the service of man. He creates forms, engraves impressions, and makes a picture. Yet the picture is not yet a symbol, nor is it considered an idol. It is the portrait of the soul and the image of the face, the stamp of creation and its shadow.

This definition leads us to the definition of art. Art made in the service of man is devoted to the image of the face, to the creation of portraits. The portrait is imprinted with the form of man, his being and essence. A portrait captures the form of a man’s soul, his essence and inspiration. His creation, life, and death are all gathered and made visible in the tselem – in the light and shadow (tsel) of the image. When we speak of a tselem we speak of this contradiction and doubling: a tselem is an image that contains the spiritual form of the thing, as well as its essence, which is the form of the soul. It is visible in the light, yet is also shadowed by darkness. It is imprinted in matter and written in the body, possessing contours, a template, and an end.


The Servant of Images

The maker of images, who works in the service of man, is named „Abady“ (عبادﻱ). The artist’s name (his foreign, Arabic name) reveals him to be one working (abad) in the service of the Creator. This is the context for considering the images he has created (most of which are etched in wood): the tselem is a form that aptly captures a thing, the portrait of a soul embodied in it during its life. Every tselem contains the mystery of both life and death: the tselem pronounces the beginning and end of things. The tselem is an image of the face, and the face contains both an impression and a shadow (tsel). The tsel is the dark side of life, its contradiction. Life is concealed in the shadow, in the tsel (tsel-em).

Yet the one appointed to work in service of the image has a name (Abady, عبادﻱ), a proper name that came to him from his forefathers and his mother. Thus, in representing the picture of his forefathers (Granfather Abraham) and of his mother (The Syrian Bride), he also represented and etched his own name. This is a name that comes from closeby, yet thus also from far away. It is a name born of the closeness of two tongues, of Hebrew and Arabic, whose conflict exists despite, and even because of, their closeness. The name of the artist, the maker of images, is a good name, it is the image of his face. Yet this image of the face, the image of his grandfather and the image of his mother, is inscribed with his name, a name telling of both closeness and conflict. For the name of the artist is also a foreign name, a name returning from a foreign language, the one that is at once the closest and most distant one, just as Arabic and Hebrew are related and etched into each other. We must assume that these portraits, these distinct appearances – the portrait of a man who stands strong and the portrait of a woman under her wedding canopy – also contain both Hebrew and Arabic, in all of their closeness and conflict. Something foreign has infiltrated them.


In this sense, too, the artist performs his work as avoda zara – not in the biblical sense of worshipping graven images, but in the literal sense of foreign work, the work of otherness, which processes what is both close and conflicted. Arabic exists in close proximity and yet is the subject of conflict, as well as the source of the artist’s name and the one in whose name he works. The work of image-making is a strange and foreign work, a work of otherness, yet what is the nature of this otherness? It is a being that is close, yet has become a distant foreigner, and is now called upon to be spoken in the vicinity of things. The artist calls its name, and in the name of this proper yet foreign name, he creates his images. This point is worth stressing: the creation of the tselem, the making of the portrait, is only avoda zara, or foreign work, in the sense that it possesses the power to give expression to what is foreign, non-identical, distinct, unique. The portrait has distinguishable contours and a clear appearance, yet what is depicted and seen in it? Not merely a figure, but the secret of the figure and its mystery, which is partially concealed and partially revealed. What is embedded in the portrait and etched into it is all of the past and all of the future, the beginning and end of the portrayed figure (and of the one working in service of the portrait). The artist, in this sense, is a fortune teller, yet the future is concealed and is not visible in every picture.


The Strangers

It is in this light (and shadow) that one must examine the essence of art devoted to the tselem, or image, to the work of image-making: it paints the picture of the soul, and uses its power to call out its name. For the soul is foreign and distant, and everything that is called by its name, is therefore called in a foreign language. Art is foreign to the world, and its images are equally foreign. This is why art is considered avoda zara – foreign work, strange work, a work of otherness – since it renders things foreign to themselves, redeeming the image of the face from the hidden depths of life and death. As strange (and close) as death. The foreigner is not considered a stranger unless he is someone close who has averted his face, a living entity that has turned away. The foreigner only becomes a stranger if he resided close by before being abandoned. He is not considered a stranger unless he was once intimately familiar, close and beloved. The stranger is the one who formerly dwelt among us, and we – in him; it is only following his growing distance and the ensuing conflict that his existence has become foreign. Strangers are exiles in a state of conflict. And once they have been exiled and distanced from their homes, or even excommunicated, art calls out their name, serving their return.


The work in the service of image-making (in the service of the name, „Abady“), is avoda zara, foreign work; yet this foreignness that is the essence of the artwork is not a form of idolatry – the worship of inert, meaningless objects. It is the foreignness of being itself, the foreignness of anything existing in the present, for the essence of anything that is born is to exist outside of itself, in relation to the other, until death. This foreignness is rendered in the image of the face and in the reading of names. Art reveals things as they are (the essence of things) only once they have become foreign to themselves, once they have been subjected to an experience of exile, of being uprooted.


This can be intuited in the portrait of Hannah Arendt (H. The Fox): the portrait of a Jewish philosopher exiled from her native country, Germany, the portrait of (German-Jewish) political thought, of thought in exile. This is why this image also contains something of the thought returning from a foreign sphere (the sphere of excommunication). The portrait of Arendt is a portrait of a foreign woman. The intelligence reflected in this portrait (surely, intelligence in the sense of cunning), is the intelligence of exile. Those who have been exiled are deeply familiar with themselves, yet this intimate familiarity, we have learned, is acquired at the price of otherness. The one leaving his home, uprooted from the land of his ancestors, knows the path and the wisdom of those wandering on foot (is that not the other name by which Oedipus was called?)

Even when painting himself (Self-Portrait), the artist depicts himself as a foreigner, as one standing across or against, perhaps a „protestor,“ whose face appears alive and exposed, intimating a promise and something of the future. Yet his portrait is also dark and silent, like a death mask. Art creates, yet also restores things to silence, and is thus embarked on a double mission, attending both to the work of creation and to the end of life and the death of things. We thus assume a similar complexity in the making of the image: art creates a portrait, a face that reveals the form of the soul, which is conflicted and foreign to itself, containing a certain degree of discomfort. This is the foreignness in which – and through which alone – things become themselves.



The image, including the image of Judaism, the appearance of its face, cannot perhaps be separated from the testimony summed up by this portrait – the portrait of a woman whose eyes are blindfolded (The Pretty Jewess, after Synagoga). The concept of beauty cannot be separated from the blindfold, from the concealment of the face, from non-seeing, from blindness. This work is thus not merely a tribute to the familiar portrait of Judaism as a blind religion, the humiliated religion of the Christian world, whose sons were exiled to Europe. The tribute named „after Synagoga“ is a tribute to a portrait whose beauty is blind. Perhaps these are eyes resigned to blindness, eyes that see like those of the prophet (the tragic vision of the seer Teiresias, the sight of King Oedipus, certainly, as well as that of King Zedekiah).Yet what is the nature of the blind seer? Does he see afar? See the truth? Is his a false vision? Is his vision (the vision of the heart?) not a synonym for madness?

What is at stake here is a woman, a „Jewess,“ who does not see. And we see her in this state of blindness. This too has to do with the genre of the image: the figure is blind. Yet as we gaze at her, we too, one may presume, turn blind: we do not see her eyes. Our seeing (of the picture, not „the whole picture“), depends entirely on the blind eye, on the concealment of this girl’s face. This foreign, exiled, excommunicated figure demands of us to become blind. It demands of us to retreat from the field of vision into the gaze’s realm of shadows, to the gaze that is tselmavet, the shadow of death. The work of image-making also involves this contradiction: a blind, seared gaze that allows us to experience a strange closeness to ourselves. The blindness of Synagoga is the blindness of the image itself, whose deeper insight, the form of the soul itself, is attained when things are clad in darkness. This contradiction requires us once again to attend to the secret of art. Art only sees when appearances vanish and it no longer exists in a state of distraction – devoted exclusively to the revelation of the face.


Premature Ending

The images, portraits, and soul-forms, the likenesses of the face, are at once beginning and end, their being inseparable from both creation and dissolution, attesting both to the life and extinction to which man is fated. Yet the picture we named – the foreign, proper name of the one who works in its service, is thus imbued with an ephemeral life, a life that has ended prematurely. Art recognizes the validity of such a portrait, a portrait of all that is fleeting, of all that dies prematurely. It is, certainly, the portrait of man (ecce homo), of the one living since his creation (and banishment, and exile) in the shadow of death. Yet one may assume that it is also the image and shadow of art itself, which contains a degree of foreignness and the traces of exile and avoda zara, as well as of premature death. For silence and death permeate it from the moment of its genesis, in the process of every creation. Art is the obstinate attempt to provide a form and give a name to all that is constantly coming into being, that is fleeting and ephemeral. The artist, who works in its service, knows the secret of the thing found in forms and in the likeness of a face, in the image of our short lives.

Something of all of this seems to be revealed and concealed in the portrait „Radu“, an image of a young man that is similarly etched in wood, containing both brightness and lines of darkness (something about the technique of these images, the etching technique, speaks of burning and extinction on a miniature scale). The image, however, is drawn in a circle, the circle of a short life. The tselem is made in the image of this hour – according to its measurements, since it is always „premature,“ gone before we have fully registered it. Art is called to capture such prematurely fleeting moments and seize the essence of the thing, of what is created: the exile cast into the world, for one hour, coming into being before it is extinguished. The tselem thus does not capture eternity, but rather the passing hour; its silence is the silence of being itself. The stillness of the tselem, the portrait, endlessly captures this movement, a bold sketch, the (blind) gaze of the mortals being created.

Galili Shahar is profesor of comperative litreture at the Minerva Institute for German History, Tel Aviv University. His work is dedicated to the study of modern German and Jewish ilterature and thought.