Painted Head, Iron & painted wood  105x45x40

Painted Head, Iron & painted wood 105x45x40


Ofer Lellouche and the Alchemical Skull

Arturo Schwarz 

A couple of huge faceless heads, in which two deep furrows hint at deep-set sightless eyes, stare at us. The nose is another sinister cavity and the mouth is effaced, mute, non-existent. It is speechless. The heads, molded with art, spell silence. A silence, which, in the words of the alchemist Michael Maier, resounds like thunder. Death is absolute silence. Did Lellouche wish to create a head or, unconsciously reluctant, a skull? Indeed, a work of art is always, in one-way or another, also a self-portrait. Furthermore, as is the case, when a creative process is involved, the artist is subject to uncontrollable drives he ignores. The artist is, in fact, created by his own creation: he is painted rather than painting, he is sculptured rather than sculpting, he is written rather than writing. The question ‘head or skull’ implies that we — which means also Lellouche — are unwilling to face personal extinction. For our unconscious we are eternal — as both Freud and Jung have pointed out. None of us is willing to acknowledge that death is but another moment of life since the one gives birth to the other.
Lellouche’s last labor is composed of two heads. Why two? Was one not enough to stage the tragedy of timelessness? Before dwelling on the deeper significance of the digit 2, we should call to mind the archetypal symbolical valence of the head. Let us start with the semantic identification head-vase, which leads directly to the alchemical equation ‘head-alchemical vase’. Jung reminds us that the head (testa capitis) or skull (vas hermeticum) served as the transmuting vessel for the Sabaean alchemists1. For the Greek alchemists, the same equivalence existed between the ‘Stone-brain’ (lithos enkephalos), i.e. the Philosopher’s Stone (lapis philosophorum) and the ‘Stone which is not a stone’ (lithos ou lithos), i.e. the brain. Both the Greek and the Sabaean alchemists anticipated what Gerhard Dorn demanded of the adept when he enjoined the latter, a few centuries later, to transform himself from “dead stone to living Philosophical stone”. Another leap of a few centuries and this exigency is reiterated peremptorily by the Surrealists who printed on one of their leaflets the command: “You who have lead in your head, melt it and transform it into Surrealist gold”.

Let us go back to Lellouche’s heads, which may also be seen as a couple of vas hermeticum, as I shall endeavor to show. We should first remember that the hermetical vase — and it is again Jung who clarified it — is of the highest importance in the Magisterium: “For the alchemist the vessel is something truly marvelous…it must be completely round, in imitation of the spherical cosmos…It is a kind of matrix or uterus from which the filius philosophorum, the miraculous stone, is to be born” 2. As a matter of fact, the Vase is as important as the prima materia, which, in turn, is assimilated to the outcome of the Great Work — the Philosopher’s Stone. We may thus understand why the head (also called corpus rotundum: spherical body) has finally designated the eponymous mysterious substance also called corpus rotundum which is, at one and the same time, the Philosopher’s Stone: head, and hence spirit, and above all, desire. In fact, the alchemical treatise Artis Auriferae reminds us that the brain is the space where the Royal Marriage is realized and consummated3. We may deduce that the head, or rather its contents, the brain, is the primary sexual organ, as psychoanalytical anthropology confirms. Sandor Ferenczi, for instance, illustrated in his 1924 fundamental text ThalassaAn Essay on the Theory of Genitality, the “genitalization of the head and the cerebralization of the genitals”, extending this notion to the whole Self.

With Lellouche the sculptural representation of the head could not answer better Mayakovsky’s dictate: “Let us always remember that the regime of economy in art is the principal and eternal norm for the production of aesthetic values”. If this work of Lellouche is so dramatically poignant it is also because he has been able to materialize, with fulminating austerity, Mayakovsky’s principle by reducing the form to its very essence. In fact, here as, perhaps, nowhere else, Lelouche has struggled with inert matter to achieve the absolute perfection of the corpus rotundum. A perfection that entails the elimination of all superfluous details — eyes, nose, ears — a process which will not prevent him to preserve the dramatization of the human face.

I mentioned at the start that the furrows hint at sightless eyes. Let us remember that the eye — a vertical isomorphic symbol of the vulva — is the archetypal organ of intellectual perception and the fount of both knowledge and desire. A Bambara adage — which conveys a universal truth — tells us that sight is desire. And Lelouche does not forget Spinoza’s dictate: “desire (cupiditas) is the very essence of man” 4. Furthermore, when Lellouche imagines a sightless eye he is also in full accord with David Caspar Friedrich who recommended “close your physical eye to look with your spiritual eye and then bring to daylight what you have seen in the night”. This explains why Lellouche’s heads-skulls appear so deeply absorbed: they express the feeling of their having reached the threshold of knowledge. They are ready to become one with the aurea apprehensio. That is to say they are about to be transformed into “living Philosopher’s Stones” — where life meets death the better to transcend it.

I have discussed a few physical traits of Lelouche’s couple of head-skull, let us dwell for a moment on three immaterial, ‘a-aesthetic’, factors of this sculpture: its huge size, its being dual, the abnormal non-symmetrical relationship of the two heads. The mythical dimension of the giant is a call to human heroism. The Giant represents what a human being must vanquish in order to achieve individuation, that is to say heal its split personality by discovering the opposite sexual pole it harbors. In Jungian terms: for a woman, to acknowledge its animus — the archetypal image of the masculine -; for a man, its anima, the corresponding image of the feminine. The fact that Giants are of chthonian origin — they have been given birth by the earth (Gaia) — point to their own androgynous nature and hence to their identification with the goal assigned to our species — that of winning the giant struggle of becoming whole.

How about the duality of this single piece of sculpture? In my opinion we may discern in this fact the fathomless depth of the symbolic value the digit 2 stands for, namely the whole range of ambivalences. This number expresses the essence of dialectics, the conflicting but complementary poles of all opposites: creator-creature, feminine-masculine, matter-spirit, death-life, night-day, etc. It thus reflects the basic contradiction from which all the others derive. But to transcend the male-female polarity means to reach the status of androgyny, that is to say, the quality of the divinity who, being perfect, cannot be only male or only female but must include in itself, to be whole, both sexual poles. In turn, achieving a divine status entails being granted and obtaining also its creative powers.

Discussing with Ofer the significance this number has for him he made some most interesting remarks, which endow the structural configuration of this sculpture with still more significant values. The word Elohim — God in Hebrew — is the only word in this language, observes Lellouche, which is simultaneously singular and plural. The word panim, which means face, is always plural although it describes a single entity. So is the word mayim i.e. water. This grammatical structure exists only in those three words which — he concludes — are linked in a very obscure way and which appear in one of the opening verses of the Bible: And the spirit of God glides on the face[s] of the water[s]. Thus, for Lellouche, creation is linked to both face and water.

His intuition is confirmed by the symbolic values of these two terms. Let us remember Ferenczi’s observation concerning the face (and/or genitals) seen also as a substitute for the whole individual. Since, according to biblical literature, we are created in the image of God, the face is the epitome of the divine in the human being, and hence of its creative power. Max Picard adds, to this demiurgic power, a cognitive value — the aurea apprehensio which cannot be separated from the creative process — by pointing out that the face symbolizes the evolution towards the light of awareness5.

The symbolism of water is just as explicit but still more complex. It would be pointless to discuss its multiple aspects — basically three: source of life, regenerating factor, purification value — let us just mention what is most relevant to our context. As mentioned above, God’s creative breath (ruah) glides on the surface of the waters. The Hebrew letter, men (M), symbolizes the sensitive waters, it is the mother, matrix, and source of everything. Water is the manifestation of the transcendental: Yahve is compared to a spring rain (Hosea 6:3), or to the vivifying dew (idem, 14:6). Just as important, as the link of water and creativity, is that of water and wisdom: “the words a man speaks are deep waters, a flowing stream, a fountain of wisdom” (Proverbs 18:4).

Let me also mention that, the value which Lellouche attributes to the couple not only strengthens the allegorical significance of his sculpture, it also justifies the choice of his creating a diptych. Discussing its duality, Lellouche pondered over the question, “a couple is a ‘one’ or a ‘two’? A pair is not exactly two. A pair of pillows is not exactly one plus one. The “two” is not yet the plural. In many languages there is a special attention given to the “two”, there is a special form of declension for the dual (a couple of… a pair of…). It is a completely different issue to have two items within a frame, than one, or a multitude. I may answer Lellouche’s interrogation by pointing out that the ambiguity of the status of the couple echoes the sexual ambiguity of the androgyne.

In the early Twenties Marcel Duchamp published a “Wanted” poster which I interpreted as a statement concerning his own androgynous dual nature. All the more since the poster, illustrated by his own dual portrait (facing and sideways), mentioned that the wanted person was known as Rrose Selavy, his feminine pseudonym. It is therefore certainly not accidental if Lellouche’s two heads neither face each other, nor the spectator, but are positioned, as in the police records (face-cum-profile). The viewer thus sees the two face-skulls frontally and in profile at one and the same time — that is to say in the position of the afore mentioned Duchamp Wanted poster.

Displaying the two face-skulls in such an unorthodox way has the same implications as the ambiguity of the numerical status of the couple which points to the sexual dual nature of the androgyne — and hence to its creative power. In choosing this type of presentation, Lellouche’s French literary background may have called to his mind Arthur Rimbaud’s celebrated statement Je est un autre (I is another) which is just another way to reaffirm our dual nature.

Let me conclude with a warning before attempting to summarize what has been said. In his essay Analysis terminable and interminable, Freud reminded the analyst that one can never hope to exhaust all the possibilities of interpreting a dream. The same goes for the exegesis of a work of art. With this warning in mind we may try to outline the message conveyed by this monumental sculpture by suggesting two equations, with the second confirming the significance of the first: head-skull -> vas hermeticum -> Philosopher’s stone -> golden awareness-> creativity. Couple -> abolition of polarities -> androgyny -> divine creative power. I mentioned at the outset that every work of art is also a self-portrait of the artist. Ofer Lellouche demonstrates paradigmatically the truth of this statement. With this couple of sculptures he calls our attention to the fact that he — like every authentic artist — is, in the first place, a demiurgos, a creator.

Arturo Schwarz
December 2005
1 Jung: Mysterium Coniunctionis 1955-56), Collected Works, vol. 14. Londom: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, p. 513
2 Jung: Psychology and Alchemy (1944). The Collected Works, vol. 12. London: Routled ge & Kegan Paul, 1953, p.225-27
3 Egerton Manuscript 845, British Museum, London.
4 Ethics III, “De affectionibus” pr. 3 & pr. 9
5 Le visage humain, Paris: Buchet Chastel, 1962