by Benedicta Cipolla
"'Deep is the well of the past'," says author and illustrator Mark Podwal, quoting the opening line of Thomas Mann's novel JOSEPH AND HIS BROTHERS as he searches for words to describe the way his faith and his art intertwine. "The well of Judaism is very deep for inspiration," he explains.
Podwal's latest exhibition, at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York, gathers together 90 works that span most of his 35-year career. The show includes intricate drawings for his collaboration with Elie Wiesel on a book about the Golem, a clay creature given life, according to legend, by a 16th-century rabbi in Prague; whimsical paintings depicting Jewish holiday foods and culinary customs from his book A SWEET YEAR; a special Passover Seder plate designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and op-ed illustrations for THE NEW YORK TIMES.
Throughout his career, Podwal, a nonobservant Jew who draws almost exclusively on Judaism in his art, has highlighted the cultural, historical, and political aspects of the religion -- traditions, folklore, European ghettoes and shtetls -- and, in his op-ed work, the contemporary situation in the Middle East.
"I'm very proud to be Jewish, but when it comes to not eating this or not writing or not turning on the light switch, I can appreciate the people who follow those laws, but it would just really complicate my life," says Podwal, a doctor who runs a dermatology practice in addition to cultivating his artistic calling. "There are people who return to Judaism -- being Orthodox, leaving and then returning -- but very often they just become immersed in the laws. I look at Judaism as something that can offer me creativity."
Playful but clever, childlike but cerebral, his art offers inside winks at Jewish tradition and multiple layers of meaning that transcend the visual image itself, eliciting both smiles and piercingly moving reactions. A matzoh moon hangs over a purple village, which makes for an appealing enough image until you realize that Passover falls during a full moon, and the painting about a flight to freedom suddenly takes on greater depth. Dreidels grow out of an olive branch, a reference to Hanukkah's celebration of a one-day supply of oil that miraculously lasted eight days. Prague's Jewish ghetto floats in a menorah above the rest of the city; because Jewish buildings were forbidden to be taller than Christian ones, Podwal decided to elevate the entire Jewish neighborhood. Hebrew letters snake into the sky from Prague's Altneuschul or Old-New Synagogue, Europe's oldest, representing prayers ascending to heaven.
In recent years, Prague has served as the special locus of Podwal's inspiration. Before he ever visited the city, he created intricate drawings for the Golem book with Wiesel, animated by legends from the city's Jewish quarter. Later, curators told him that the way he had captured the feel of the 16th-century ghetto was uncanny.
"Since then I really have developed many friends in the Jewish community in Prague," Podwal says. "It's like going into a time capsule." He is working with filmmaker Allan Miller on a documentary about Prague's old Jewish cemetery, early scenes of which can be found in the Yeshiva exhibition. In mid-February he is traveling to the Czech capital for the eighth time as part of his ongoing work with the Jewish Museum there. For a limited edition silkscreen print and poster to commemorate the museum's 100th anniversary, Podwal chose the Star of David as the basis for the design, since Prague was the first Jewish community to identify itself with the six-pointed shape. At each point of the star are four of the city's synagogues, the Prague tombstone of 16th-century Jewish scholar David Gans, and the Prague Jewish community's special flag. The painting is a riot of color, packed with symbols of what for centuries was arguably the world's most important center of Jewish culture.
When Michaela Hajkova, curator of visual arts at Prague's Jewish Museum, met Podwal on his first trip to the city in 1997, she was struck by his interest in visiting the Old-New Synagogue's attic, where legend says the Golem created by Rabbi Loew was buried. (In the legend, the 16th-century rabbi breathed life into a Golem or human figure of clay, whose power he then used, according to later writers, to defend the Jewish community against the evil intentions of its enemies.) When she saw Podwal's Golem drawings, she understood why. "Not that he would expect to find the man of mud resting there in peace, not that he would seek to unravel the mystery of Rabbi Loew's creation, nothing like that. I guess that all he wanted was to 'bring his own Jewish dream back home' by connecting its literary fiction with its material ground," she says. "This is what I very often see in Mark's drawings: a perfect match of a free spirit and a deep insight of the essence of things and their interconnectedness."