Monday, 19 October 2009

Anatomy of a Genius

"My Name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok deals with the development, from early childhood to international fame, of an artist who is compulsively driven to paint the world he sees and feels, even when it leads him to what is considered blasphemy by the deeply religious Hasidic sect to which his Jewish family belongs.

As the novel traces Asher's struggle to express himself while living in the Hasidic community, Potok paints a luminous portrait of the artist's sometimes tortured existence, by turns heartbreaking and exultant.

Asher enters religious school; the wise Rebbe (spiritual leader of the Ladover Hassidim) acknowledges that his gift can't be denied and introduces him to Jacob Kahn, a renowned artist. (A character who seems to be based on Picasso.) Kahn takes Asher under his wing, mentors him and encourages him to express himself even when it leads Asher to paint works that incorporate Christian iconography, so inimical to his religion.

His compulsion to paint not only alienates Asher from his childhood world, but also causes divisions between members of his own family when an uncle offers his attic for a studio space. The uncle recognises Asher's genius early in his boyhood, and gets in on the ground floor by regularly buying pictures from his nephew, building up a valuable collection.

His father steadfastly refuses to accept Asher's artistic vocation, asking his son when he'll give up that "foolishness", even when Asher is already an internationally famous painter whose works hang in major museums. His mother is in the middle, trying to strike a balance between supporting her husband's extreme orthodoxy and her son's need to paint. The most poignant scene comes when Asher's parents finally come to one of his shows.

The walk out when confronted by "Brooklyn Crucifixion" , the painting central to the heartrending climax of the story. This portrays the agony of Asher's mother as a figure crucified by her inability to resolve the tensions between her husband and son. They see the crucifixion, so deeply antagonistic to their faith, as Asher's ultimate betrayal.

Chaim Potok was an accomplished painter, in addition to being a writer and a Rabbi. In a fascinating intersection between art and life, Potok himself created the painting "Brooklyn Crucifixion".

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