Sticking to the letter

The interplay of father and son makes for a stirring exhibition at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

‘Le Bien’ (Good) (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Le Bien’ (Good)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you have a penchant for the fine arts and make a living as a printer, it makes perfect sense to have the odd alphabet character or two subtly woven into the aesthetic fabric of your works.
That certainly suited the noted artist Roberdhay (a.k.a. Robert Hay Amram).
The marriage of textual elements and a rich palette of vibrant colors is what meets the eye at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, where the “Lui et Son Fils” (Him and His Son) exhibition opened on Tuesday, and will run until November 29.
The progeny in question is 65-yearold Michel Amram, who runs a florist shop in Givat Shaul, and also clearly inherited a generous dosage of artistic talent.
The upper level of the store is stacked with hundreds of canvases, framed and unframed, the vast majority of which were created by Amram senior (Roberdhay), who died in France in 1993 at the age of 75.
Born in Algeria, Amram’s father started his creative journey by producing paintings of biblical scenes. Conscripted into the French army during World War II, he spent the last six months of the war in a concentration camp not far from Tunis. It appears that his trials at the hands of the Nazis, and their local collaborators, did nothing to dim his myopic patriotism.
“He loved France and French culture,” says Michel. “The only thing he ever said about his time in the concentration camp was that he spent six months there getting free meals and drinking German wine.”
After the war Roberdhay relocated to Paris, according to his son, where he came across two Jewish artists at a soup kitchen: Romanian-born Isidore Goldstein and Frenchman Gabriel Pomerand.
They soon established the Lettrisme movement – which declared itself as a game-changer in the fields of art, culture, philosophy and the sciences. The new school of thought had strong connections with Dada and Surrealism, and there are plenty of elements that pertain to the latter in Roberdhay’s oeuvre.
Le cirque (Circus Rings), from the early 1950s, is a frenetic mix of a peagreen backdrop with seemingly random splashes of color, handwriting and snippets of newspaper lines. Then there’s H Qui est-ce? (The Letter H – Who Is This?), from 1949, which comprises oil paints applied on top of various pieces of paper, including pages taken from magazines and other publications.
Roberdhay’s fascination with letters comes through most powerfully in the suitably titled 1946 work Cocktail de lettres (Cocktail of Letters), as well as his attraction to Kabbala and matters of a mystic nature. As the exhibition catalogue notes, the work handily comes with some enlightenment courtesy of the late artist himself.
“Every word or letter is reminiscent of the most covert mystery of the Creation, a moving expression, mixed with common sense, of paranormal life. A first lettrist work, as lovely as reading a dictionary.”
“That is his first lettrisme work, but he did lots of works before that,” recounts the florist-painter son, producing several paintings sans letters.
“There are surrealistic works and expressionist elements. There is always an amalgam of different elements and disciplines.”
For people of my generation, who caught the early days of the left-field anti-establishment Monty Python’s Flying Circus revolution, some of the Roberdhay’s ready-made additions remind one of the much later work of Python animator Terry Gilliam.
Thankfully, in Algeria for most of World War II, Roberdhay was sheltered from the death and destruction taking place in Europe – and that comes through in his works of the early 1940s. “He wasn’t exposed to bombings and that sort of thing until very late in the war, so his art from that time is quiet,” notes his son.
The like-father/like-son scenario is not the result of happenstance.
When Michel Amram was just a lad, his father would rope him in to help with some of the technical aspects of his work, and the youngster was delighted to hang around the studio, getting a feel for the creative process, and imbibing some of his dad’s artistic drive and motifs.
“My father died in France in 1993. I brought his body here for burial” in a cemetery a short distance from the florist’s shop, says Amram. “I also buried my mother there, so my parents are nearby. My father is always here, with all the works I keep here.”
Amram soon got in on the act himself and began creating a mural at his local branch of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Paris. “I started painting in a room there, and I kept on adding more and more until it was finished,” he recalls.
Artistic value regardless if the teenager was looking to present the fruits of his creative mind to a wider audience, he was to be cruelly thwarted. It was the emotional content that caused the work to remain a wellkept secret, rather than its pure aesthetic and artistic attributes. “It was about the Holocaust and the kids weren’t allowed to go into the room because it made them cry,” Amram explains. The Bnei Akiva kids didn’t get the chance to appraise the work at a later age, either.
“The painting was thrown out at some stage,” remembers Amram with palpable frustration. “That’s my early painting work, gone.”
Adolescent disappointment notwithstanding, Amram is clearly made of sterner stuff and he maintained his creative momentum, eventually picking up on his father’s letter-oriented ethos. Le Bien (Good), for example, is a multidisciplinary, multitextural affair comprising a large number of wooden letter shapes delineated by a wooden frame, mostly in various shades of blue, with acrylic paint, copper and brass.
Amram’s definitively sunny explanation of the inspiration for the work talks of divine goodness and how invoking letters and words in prayer generates positive thoughts.
Amram also seemingly traverses the full color spectrum in Il Parle à la Glaise (He Speaks to Clay), referring to the biblical verse in the Book of Job: “He speaks to the sun and it does not shine.” The younger artist’s catalogue text talks of the creation of celestial lights from the soil, and how God took the precaution of enabling human beings to observe the strength of the overhead illumination according to their own ability.
The art certainly conveys a sense of exploding light and color, which sharply contrasts with his almost completely white rendition of the Israeli flag in Le Blanc, Couleur de la Liberté (White, the Color of Freedom). “The main part of the tzitzit is the blue, but when there is light you don’t need to differentiate between blue and white,” observes Amram, “everything is white. I think that is optimistic.”
Roberdhay liked a spot of wine here and there – nothing excessive – and there is the odd subtle erotic element in the mix. Music also finds its way into his work, such as in a highly colorful and intriguingly apportioned painting called Boléro Héros (Bolero Hero). The work references Ravel’s stirring Boléro score, although Amram says that part of the design was more a matter of a subliminal turn of events than a premeditated plan to mirror the structure of the music. “The letter B appears here 18 times,” he details.
“And there are 18 sections to Ravel’s composition.
The gematria, the numerical value of the letters of his father’s Hebrew name, hai, is also 18.
Amram says his father was adept at going with the flow, and allowing his muse to lead him every which way.
“The division into 18 sections wasn’t planned, but I don’t believe that happened by chance.”