Mark Podwal is one of those startling souls—they are very few—who can imagine, through the power of a unifying eye, connections so new that they shake the brain into fresh juxtapositions of understanding. He can turn a book into a city. He can form limbs of a man out of letters of the alphabet. A menorah, inverted, is all at once shocked into the shape of railroad tracks. A child’s noisemaker can become a gallows for the wicked.
It would be possible to say (and many have said it) that Mark Podwal is himself an unexpected juxtaposition. At his work table, he is an artist; in his office, he is a physician. He is, it is tempting to declare, a living oxymoron, scientist and dreamer both—but such a pronouncement would mislead. Podwal attends to his two professions—call them his two lines of work—fully, devotedly, each one to the hilt, and there is no contradiction between them. The doctor observes and interprets. So does the artist. Both are scrupulous witnesses. Both hope to enlighten. Both measure the task with honest passion. The doctor is circumscribed by the limits of scientific knowledge. The artist is circumscribed by the limits of the line.
Yet here the artist does depart from the doctor. We have some notion of what we mean when we speak of “scientific knowledge.” But can anyone tell what a line is?
A line can be an eternity: Geometry defines it as a moving point that can stretch on and on. A line curled up on itself can be a loop: a hole to fall through, or a cheering sun, or a cold moon, or the mouth of a pit, or of a helmet. A line can be wriggled into an A or a Q or a cuneiform wedge or a Chinese character. A line can be a wound, a wand, a button, a baton, a trundle, a truncheon. A line can be a bridge from like to like, or from unlike to unlike. A line can be a rope to save you from drowning or a rope to hang you with. A line can be an ascent or a descent.
A line is, in fact, the very path of human thought itself: exactly what we experienced when we first learned that the shortest route from one point to another is a straight line. For the artist, though, the shortest—the most direct—route in the line of thinking may be the crookedest, the curliest, the most cunning. The artist’s line is a flight into the inmost chamber of metaphysical ingenuity: the power not so much to invent as to transform—because for the artist as for the physician, the components of the task are already there, an existential given.
The Kabbalists—and Podwal in his drawings identifies himself as their heir—drew up a kind of spiritual physics in their portrait of the supernatural world. Archimedes and his bathtub are not far from the Kabbalistic version of the displacement of bodies: In order to create the universe, said the Kabbalists, God had to contract himself to make room for his creation. This daring and disruptive account of the divine force in all its unequivocal absoluteness restraining itself for the sake of permitting freedom to mere creature-life, strangely enfolds the scientific temperament into the fanciful. But as the image becomes more and more elaborated in the development of further Kabbalistic theory, what appears at first to be only fanciful is seen to stem from a grave and impassioned depiction of the world as a moral framework for the expulsion of evil. The Jewish mystical and ethical movement known as Hasidism, for instance, which owes many of its insights to Kabbalah, was founded by a visionary who acquired a curious title: Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name. The reference may have been to the sweetness of the Baal Shem Tov’s own nature, or a sidelong hint at the unutterable divine appellation—unnameable because unfathomable. In calling its founder Master of the Good Name, Hasidism testified to the singularity of its inspiration: The expulsion of evil depends on the strenuous actions of human beings within the bounds of the free space God has allowed. One is not free to be born at will or to choose not to be born; one is not free not to die. These are the polar God-bounds. But the elastic (and plastic) line that we pull along behind us from birth to death is wholly ours to shape.
Every human being is required to be master of this line, though for most of us the line is felt not to be of our own making—the trajectory, rather, of a helpless rocket-ride carrying us dizzily beyond our ability to steer it. The line that we are committed to master, by virtue of having been born with its first umbilical inch in the core of our infantile being, drags us along and masters us instead. But it is different for the artist. He must become master of the line, or he is no artist. And when the line is true—when it is a plumb line to the depths of clarifying recognition and revelation—then the artist speaks for the free human mind.
Mark Podwal is one of these (infrequent) masters of the line. I want to name him (as the Hasidim would, in Hebrew) Baal Kav Emet, Master of the True Line; or of the line that opens into truth. Like the Kabbalists, he joins metaphysics to physics: essence to presence; ideas to real objects. Like the Hasidic masters, he owns a needle of incandescent wit. The Master of the True Line is also a master of hidden meanings, of symbol and metaphor. Again, like the Kabbalists, he is always conscious of the precondition of his art: He returns to the beginning. He knows that the line is activated by nothing less than the dawning design of life itself—by the law of existence.
And it is as if he has always known this. Podwal has a faintly sinister memory of what it is to have been born, to be, and yet not to exist. It is a child’s story; but more than that it is a parable of the artist. Because of some small illness, the 5-year old Mark missed the earliest days of kindergarten; consequently, his name was not on the teacher’s roster. When she read out the class list, as she did morning after morning, Mark was never on it. Was he a phantom boy? He was compliant; he responded as the others did; he followed whatever his classmates were instructed to do. But he had no name; he was not there; he belonged nowhere. One day the teacher happened to catch sight of a drawing he had made—it was a striking picture of a train. “Who are you?” she asked the child artist. He said his name. She did not recognize it; it was not on her list. But the train, proclaiming an unusual gift, prompted her to investigate, and the invisible boy was at last officially established as a kindergarten member in good standing. “Then I saw,” says Podwal, “that my existence depended on my drawing.” Without mastery of the line, reality cannot be granted—cannot, in truth, be generated. The truth of being is in the crayon.
And in the mature artist’s pen, which recapitulates, so to speak, the formation of the alphabet. Although it is most evident in Egyptian hieroglyphics, every character in every system of writing started out on its journey toward symbolic compression as a pictograph: a thought condensed and transmuted into a new structure. The Latin letter B (Hebrew bet, Greek beta) began as a drawing of a house (bet is the Hebrew word for house); D (Hebrew delet, Greek delta) was once a door. This transition of pictures to syllables is part of the miraculous history of the development of written language, a mystery still mainly undisclosed to scholars. But what we do know about primordial symbol-making is suggestive enough: the protoscribes of ancient humanity were out to encapsulate a complex idea, or congeries of ideas, in a single drawing, so that a glance cast would accommodate a message. It is precisely this elemental (or ultimate) encapsulation of meaning—the fusion of ink and inkling—that we see in Podwal’s drawings. They are a species of ideogram—though, on second thought, it is wrong to say “species.” They are, in fact, sui generis. If you stood on the coast of China and rolled up a Podwal drawing and stuck it into a bottle and cast it into the sea, and if after a voyage of a couple of decades it were washed up at my feet here on the shores of Long Island Sound, I would immediately identify that drawing as the work of Mark Podwal. Podwal’s pen conjures—unmistakably—his own fingerprint and signature. As a poet’s voice is unique, so is the idiom of the Podwal line. No other contemporary artist engages as he does in those idiosyncratic transformations of imaginative logic into a singular, and self-contained, icon. Podwal, as far as I can tell, is the only such ideographer of his time; a Podwal drawing will often give you the sensation of confronting a mathematical equation of supreme elegance—and of perfectly comprehending it.
First, the train the child artist drew, and what became of it. That kindergarten innocence—a train qua train—no longer obtains in our world. The sense of “train” as word and image, has been altered forever; never again will the witnessing human conscience be free to think of trains, in whatever mundane contexts we ride them (even in the daily commuter car), without a commemorative black nimbus fuming out. That is why, when Podwal turns the menorah—an ancient Jewish symbol—upside down, we all at once see lying before us the pattern of the railroad tracks converging on the high lethal gate of Auschwitz. The melting-down of the menorah into those merciless rails is as instantly relentless in its intention and meaning as a wail, an as unbending as a sum.
In the same way, Podwal’s great ideogram (in his stunning Jewish Bestiary: A Book of Fabulous Creatures Drawn From Hebraic Legend and Lore)—a concise masterpiece enclosing in one drawing the whole history of political tyranny—shows us the symbol-statue of Imperial Rome, the predatory wolf dangling Romulus and Remus from its teats; but its shadow, black and thick, is of a greedy fat pig. Here, the sardonic disparity between Roman grandeur and Roman gluttony yields in a flash of inference the selfsame thesis encompassed by a thousand pages of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
Podwal’s genius for such historical contradictions—or intensifiers—recurs in a drawing that accompanies Elie Wiesel’s Jews of Silence, a meditation on the travail of Soviet Jews. Moscow rises up before us with its recognizable onion-domed old churches—only the “domes,” when you look again, turn out to be the joyfully beflagged tops of decorative spice boxes—the spice boxes used in Jewish tradition for the havdalah ceremony that separates the close of the Sabbath form the ordinary weekday round. Yet these Jews are not permitted ordinary lives. In the foreground, one spice box, attempting to escape, has been struck down and lies prostrate on Russian earth; nearby, another strives to stand erect; the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are seen coursing like musical notes—or else like a swarm of fertilizing bees—through the city. A multitude of implications bombard the eye in glorious simultaneity: The Jews of the Soviet Union remember who they are, and like the tall heads of the spice boxes aspire to freedom and hope through the continuity of the Covenant. They may be downtrodden for the moment, but the buzz of liberation animates them. Besides, there are windows in the spice boxes—some are thrown open, others are still shut, but one of them is emblazoned with a Star of David. And a free Star of David hurtles across the Moscow sky.
The preoccupation with Jewish history, including contemporary history, applies also to the minutiae of Podwal’s work. He is meticulous in his search for precision and precedent. A drawing of the Second Temple (in broken lines, immaterial, present only as a dream) is reproduced from an illustration in a Haggadah printed in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. In Podwal’s enchanting version of the redemptive tale of The Golem (for which Elie Wiesel provided the equally enchanting narrative text), the various views of Prague are inspired by photographs; the two great halls inside the castle are exactly rendered. In the same volume, in an eerie impression of the rabbi of Prague praying alone at midnight, the parokhet—the curtain that hangs before the Ark—is an accurate replica of a sixteenth-century hanging. This scrupulous adherence to the literal heightens Podwal’s adumbration of the ghostly: In still another drawing from The Golem, we descry the rabbi hurrying up a moonlit staircase along one of the back streets of Prague. The golem, invisible, scurries beside him—but how do we know this, if the golem is invisible? Behind the rabbi, flung down the stone steps like spilled paint, is a black shadow. Not one shadow but two. The second belongs to the golem. Or consider the night-dark interior of the Altneuschul, Prague’s venerable surviving synagogue, centuries old: Here are the arches and buttresses of that resplendent ceiling, here are the swaying chandeliers, just as a visitor to Prague might see them, today or long ago; but down below, in the heart of the synagogue, a row of hooded faceless figures moves through a misty indoor dusk—figures of legend and fable under a real roof.
Podwal, in short, is a kind of salvational sorcerer. He is in the direct line of those Kabbalistic practitioners who hoped to summon a miracle of redemption out of the mute fabric of the diurnal world; the difference is that Podwal, kindling the wick of his pen, can fire magic into visual being, and can actually reverse nature and society—as the Kabbalists, for all their arcane trying, could not. In bitter old medieval Prague, for instance, a cruel law decreed that the synagogue was obliged to bow down in indignity, and that no synagogue might be built to rival a church in height. The humbled Jews of the ghetto had their own metaphoric response to the surrounding hatred—they lowered their synagogues in compliance, and dug them deeper yet, in resonance with the Psalmist’s cry: “Out of the depths I called to thee”—and thereby touched heaven. But Podwal’s answer is a golden elevation: His messianic line will raise Prague’s ghetto higher than the whole of Prague itself, with all its reaching spires; rising out of the huddled city is a monumentally tall menorah, atop which the little ghetto rests, nearer heaven than all the proud steeples below.
In this way, Podwal as scribe (or sofer) is continually redemptive, even devotional: Here are burning books and Torah scrolls, but the eternal holy letters fly up free of the flames; and here again is a Torah scroll, beautifully adorned in its fringed garb, carrying the whole of Jerusalem cradled in its brows. And here is Moses on Mount Sinai, with the awesome tablets lifted above his head, but their shadow is in the shape of the familiarly humane scrolls of the Torah. The ram is caught in the thicket—the thicket is a menorah, the horns of which are entangled with the ram’s. Over the desert encampment of the Israelites in flight from Egypt, manna hovers in the sky: a pair of braided Sabbath loaves. Even more playfully, the fabled ostrich wears a prayer shawl—she whose egg instructs in contemplative worship. Other emblems of salvation are in the form of political cartoons, ancient and modern. The Purim noisemaker, called a grogger, that is set whirling to drown out the name of the murderous tyrant Haman during the recitation of the Book of Esther, becomes a gallows to punish the would-be murderers: a long-ago escape from annihilation.
Yet in contemporary political drawing, Podwal forcefully reminds us that sometimes evil goes unpunished. In the wake of the deadly bombing of a Paris synagogue by PLO terrorists, he binds the Tablets of the Law in wires connected to sticks of explosives: the lit fuse is headed straight for the Hebrew words that spell out “Thou shalt not murder.” Podwal’s images of anti-Nazi barbarism are, unfortunately, manifold, and his pen can be as cutting as his scalpel. A menorah with flames, and each flame is a hand tattooed at Auschwitz. (A cartoon to mark the opening of the Nazi archives at the United Nations, which had been sheltering them from scrutiny.) Goose-stepping Germans, bearing a menorah on a litter, as the Romans do on the frieze on the Arch of Titus, the tyrant who seized Jerusalem two millennia ago: but the date is Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis’ Kristallnacht, and each burning candle in the menorah is a synagogue set afire. Soviet power in the Middle East: A hammer crashes down upon the menorah, the crescent of a sickle coils around Arab oil wells. The Auschwitz railroad tracks again: This time they spread out horribly, an infestation, the multiple legs of a giant poisonous insect—the insect’s legs are giant swastikas, and out of the insect’s belly a tall chimney spews black smoke. Babi Yar: a cut-off tree signifying a people cut off, and a cascading jumble of destruction—a pit filled with human ribs, overturned menorahs and Torah scrolls, discarded Torah breastplates and pointers, randomly falling Stars of David. A hollow Nazi uniform, with naked figures concealed up its sleeves, and a naked corpse emerging out of its headless collar, as out of a flue.
An alphabet of oppression and redemption, streaming out of a compassionate, sometimes unearthly inkpot. But Podwal’s brilliant line is also a lineage: He knows he is in the line of those whose truth derives from the merciful Covenant. His drawings are, now and then, jubilant God-imaginings, as when Jerusalem floats up from the leaves of a sacred text, or when the letters of the Torah dance through the ether. But more often his canny pen is attentive to the human obligation to see, with a doctor’s honest eye, the terrifying wounds of our world.
From Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal copyright © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated. Essay copyright © 1990, 2016 by Cynthia Ozick. Reprinted by permission of Melanie Jackson Agency, LLC.