A path to spiritual enlightenment

Artist Yoram Raanan has emerged from a devastating fire with a collection enshrining many of his destroyed paintings.

Bereshit’ by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Bereshit’ by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Were you to lay your hand on Art of Revelation: A Visual Encounter with the Jewish Bible, and subsequently be taken by one of the works that illustrate the weighty new tome, the chances are you wouldn’t be able to acquire the original – not for love nor for money. The plain sad fact of it is, many of the paintings created by award-winning painter Yoram Raanan over the course of four decades no longer exist. They haven’t been snapped up and stashed away in some clandestine private collection, or in some subterranean museum vault, they have been burned to a cinder.
That tragedy took place in November 2016, when a fire swept through Moshav Beit Meir in the Jerusalem Hills, and completely destroyed US-born, veteran Israeli Raanan’s studio with hundreds of canvases. Luckily, the Raanan home, located just a pebble’s throw from the studio, survived unscathed, but the painter had to start afresh. He rebuilt his studio, and got back to what he has been doing for more than 40 years: producing paintings, many of which address Jewish and biblical themes.
I visited Raanan shortly after the fire and the devastation I saw there took my breath away. What had once been a 300sq.m. haven of the artist’s creative process had been reduced to a mangled mess of warped metal covered in ash.
At the time I marveled at the kippah-wearing Raanan’s calmness. I kept looking for signs of tooth gritting, or faux steeliness, but the man gave every impression of having weathered the withering blow; he had already started picking up the pieces and was setting out on a renewed path to fertile exploration, and spiritual enlightenment.
The prints in Art of Revelation, digital copies of which Raanan had fortunately scanned before the fire, correspond to the weekly Torah portions. As Raanan’s wife, Meira, who provided research-based textual commentary for the book, explains, the works were the result of a commission whereby Raanan was to come up with a new Torah portion-interpretive work, every week, for three years. That sounds like a pretty tall order, but there’s nothing like a tight timeframe to focus the mind, and get hands on brushes.
To call the new book lush, or even aesthetically fabulous, would not be pushing the kudos boat out too far. While, in his foreword, Raanan notes that only about 20% of the photographs were professionally taken, the reproduction quality shortfall does not come across on the page.
One of the first things that may strike you as you leaf through the coffee table-proportioned book is the sheer energy that leaps out from every page. The first reproduction, for example, Bokea – breaking through or opening – which references the emergence of light on the first day of Creation, from Genesis 1:3, could have been painted from the viewpoint of someone walking betwixt Manhattan skyscrapers, looking up to the bright sky. But, rather than giving the impression of weight and opacity, the “buildings” appear to gleam and shimmer in the scintillating light. The central bright strip of the silvery-bluish acrylic work also features a vaguely defined figure that could be an angel, a galloping horse, or basically anything the viewer wishes. Meira’s commentary on the painting talks about “early morning light” which, she posits, “is both soothing and uplifting.”
The works in the book, like much of Raanan’s oeuvre, straddle a fine line between the abstract and the figurative. Mishkan (Tabernacle), for instance, is an explosion of color, with a central form that might be a sheer rock outcrop, or even a volcano emitting lava and great billows of hot air and gases. The shapes on the upper right-hand side of the canvas might be loping horses, and the nethermost part of the picture may contain a bed of gaily colored flowers. Naturally, abstract work is open to individual readings. Then again, the painter’s wife offers some pointers here, as she does with all the prints.
“Here, the Mishkan seems to be hovering and fluttering in the clouds and the blue expanse of heaven,” she suggests, adding some insight from the artist himself. “Raanan says that this was an inspired piece that has a feeling of angels with fluttering wings.”
The weekly portion of Tazria gets two renditions, both with intriguing figurative elements. Meira describes the first as a “simple, yet surrealistic painting, dominated by three primary colors,” which “captures the purification ritual that completes the process of giving birth.” It is a highly evocative and accessible work. Meira also offers a glimpse of the painter’s cerebral machinations and mechanical dynamics. “The figures were created by sweeps of the fingers, moving freely in this mysterious setting. The painting resonates with the primal energy of this ritual experience.”
Raanan’s manifestation of The Good Land, for the weekly Torah portion of Ekev, from the Book of Deuteronomy, fittingly dips into bucolic pastures, and references the bounty of the Promised Land. The painter, we are told, wanted to convey a sense of verdancy and the lushness of the land and the plentiful vegetation. It seems that in those days precipitation and the use and misuse of water in this part of the world were not a problem. How things have changed.
The richly crafted oil painting is a busy piece, with an abundance of details. Thankfully, the full reproduction is preceded by a double-spread close-up of a small section of the work, which gives the reader some idea of what physically went into creating the landscape.
Raanan’s works adorn the walls of galleries, museums and private collections across the globe, and even the briefest of looks at Art of Revelation reveals why that is the case. If further evidence of how Raanan’s work is appreciated were required, 
it is provided by former British chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who cites Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine. Sacks notes Kook’s hope that as the Jews return to Zion they would “reconnect with nature and the beauty of the holy land.” That is a tenet with which Raanan clearly identifies.
Jo Milgrom, a 90-year-old US-born Jerusalemite assemblage artist, currently exhibiting works at the Jerusalem Theater, proffers “art as midrash,” meaning that by presenting the source biblical text in visual form, the artist is, in fact, augmenting the origin with new commentary and new life. Raanan certainly fits that bill.