Ra‘anan Levy (1954-2022)
ART, THE MIRROR OF TIME
An artist’s work often reflects the spirit of their time. More generally, on the scale of art history, it bears witness to the way that the relationship between humanity and the world manifests itself at a specific point in time and in a particular place. As such, the distinctive features of an artistic work (medium chosen, techniques, style, subjects portrayed, references to art history, etc.) present to beholders the physical qualities and cognitive properties that are likely to broaden their knowledge and affect their understanding of reality by refining their insights.
How can we view the works of Ra’anan Levy and, through them, today’s world?
Through his portrayal of rooms with several openings and mirrors reflecting them, the painter, having reached the full potential of his art, invites us to visit his pictorial and symbolic universe—a labyrinthine space akin to an ice palace. Beholders could be perfectly happy contemplating its complex composition, the direction of lines, the way they are highlighted by means of contrasts between light and shadow or the painter’s strokes; yet they are irresistibly drawn to the search for meaning. How to paint this, and why, are the two questions that are key to the artist’s work and that will guide the various steps of the aesthetic investigation that follows.
RA’ANAN LEVY’S FAMILIARITIES AND SPECIFICITIES
“My painting is not a chromatic invention like Pierre Bonnard’s, or the pure search for light that can be felt when looking at works by Edward Hopper”, said Ra’anan Levy before humbly adding: “I’m a drawer, my painting is above all a question (…) it provides a framework for the question within me”.  This quote could serve as a gateway to the artist’s unique visual labyrinth. By setting himself apart from the artists he mentions (Bonnard and Hopper), however, Ra’anan Levy points to their potential influence over his work. His palette, admittedly far more neutral than Bonnard’s, lets bright colours flow only when colour pigments spill out from their pots. However, the creations of both artists feature doors, mirrors and—in Levy’s older work—windows opening onto landscapes. Levy’s relationship with Hopper, much more significant, mainly relates to the atmosphere of loneliness and mystery, or even to what the American author Bruce Ross abundantly described as “Ra’anan Levy’s Metaphysical Space”.
Yet a more troubling closeness, although not mentioned, exists with a lesser known painter, the American Marvin Dorwart Cone (1891-1965). Cone inspires a persistent and repeated interest, similar to that shown by Levy today, for the visual effect achieved by the representation of doors and walls inside seemingly uninhabited houses or flats. Here and there, a strange and worrying dynamic is created through the play of light and shadow and the often off-balance perspective created by means of vertical, horizontal and oblique lines. Yet something—or someone—moves through these abandoned spaces. However, while the works of M. D. Cone are haunted by spirits suggested by transparent silhouettes or portraits hanging on walls, Ra’anan Levy’s paintings do not seem as inhabited by the past. Levy’s works appear to be, first and foremost, pure exercises in composition series, always multiplying, with a kind of obsession, more and more lines, inclined planes and reflected perspectives.
For Ra’anan Levy, space is multiple, shattered, divided—anything but solid and even. Rather than closed and perfectly delineated, it is fleeting, sometimes invasive. Not fixed and silent, but full of rhythm and chaos. It is misleading, perhaps even deliberately illegible at times. Unlike the melancholic serenity emphasised by intense light in Hopper’s works, Ra’anan Levy expresses an explosive energy: an unhinged door comes crashing down; pigment pots tip over; water escapes from open taps and forms puddles on the floor. More so than abandonment, carelessness or loss of control, it is a question of intended disorganisation, of assumed disorder. With the diligence of a painter who is entirely absorbed by their art, Levy is meticulously committed to creating spaces that self-destruct, fall apart, blend into one another through lines that have become blurry. The places we contemplate are perhaps not so much existing realities portrayed by the painter but rather a symbolic space, entirely arranged and fabricated; a neglected interior design that is nevertheless paradoxically dynamic and lively.
Just as Marvin D. Cone sought not so much to portray subjects realistically but rather to give shape to his own way of seeing them, when we look at works painted by Ra’anan Levy we are well aware that they do not depict ordinary flats requiring renovation but what in art is sometimes called a ‘mental space’… unless it is organic.
Levy’s spaces are, in fact, open, both metaphorically (to various possible interpretations) and literally (or visually). Based on existing texts on the works by Ra’anan Levy, it is clear that he is perceived and understood in drastically differing ways.
On the one hand, beholders can become sensitive to his qualities of mystery and melancholy, to the ‘existential depth’ or even metaphysical character of his paintings, which harbour an impression of loneliness and perhaps express an expectation of a ‘revelation’, suggested by the artist’s handling of light. As such, the work becomes an enigma: both the painter and the beholder must try to ‘understand the being’ by painting its most ordinary parts in destitute and disorderly places.
On the other hand, anyone who takes psychoanalytical interpretations seriously runs the risk of being seduced by the organic metaphor and perceiving Ra’anan Levy’s flats as living bodies made up of skin, flesh and above all multiple orifices. This allows for hypotheses of a sexual nature, with taps becoming penises and drain holes and sewers taking the role of a human mouth or navel.
From the sexual body in psychoanalysis to the lone and philosophical questions about the essence of that which is, interpretations of Ra’anan Levy’s paintings seem to be subject to certain ambiguities, which the artist fully admits: “The basic and very important idea in everything I paint is ambiguity (…) It’s what I think”.
But what are we to think? By analysing the various aspects of this ambiguity, can we suggest a new interpretation of Levy’s work, linked to the current state of the world?
A WORLD THAT IS INANIMATE OR ORGANIC?
Everything could be relatively straightforward, after all, if it were enough to follow the painter and recognise his almost exclusive interest in the human body: “In general, regardless of what I do, I always paint the human body—which has a mouth through which one can enter before being able to evolve within. Therein lies my way of working”, the artist has confided. However, if we want to consider other semantic dimensions, including the metaphysical one, we must look closely at the unique ontology found in Levy’s works: what are the objects he depicts? Are they really, literally, human bodies? If not, why?
The main ambiguity lies in both the painting process and the choice of subject: the artist seems to want to make everything, even inert objects, look like flesh and skin by following human anatomy charts in the book that he continuously studies, at the foot of his easel. “Ra’anan Levy sees interiors as living organisms (…) The flats (look) like bodies, with entrances and exits (…) The empty spaces become physical bodies. The walls are portrayed like skin with various tones, thereby becoming ‘carnal walls'”, writes Bertrand Lorquin, a curator at the Musée Maillol at the time. Is it not strange and ambiguous to depict inanimate matter (doors, walls, paint pots, washbasins) like a living human body? To paint a door, the artist occasionally uses a naked torso as a model. Layers of colour overlap to imitate the appearance of flesh and blue veins.
Famous questions raised by Ra’anan Levy could therefore include: What are the colours of this living bust, how does it reflect light? How to give a flat’s inert and immobile matter (doors, frames, walls, floors) the appearance of a living matter thanks to yet another material: colour pigment? And why, therefore, commit to blurring the line between things (substances) of different natures (the inanimate world and the animate world) through the magic of pictorial representation?
In this respect, we can clearly understand the importance of light and water to achieve this impression of life; hence the interest in taps and washbasins, with the latter bringing to mind a “nudity close to that of the body”, according to Lorquin.
A WORLD THAT IS EMPTY OR FULL?
What exactly are the new ambiguities born from these various openings (sinks, open sewers, etc.)? How to perceive and understand them beyond the potential anxiety of being sucked in, swallowed or engulfed by them? At the same time, what to think of the pigment pots, which are also open and tipped over?
Clues should undoubtedly be sought in the artist’s recent words looking back on his work. According to Levy, “based on the idea of ambiguity, two other ideas are fully interconnected: (the one of) bulimic subjects (work tables with pigments, etc.) and (the one of) anorexic subjects (uninhabited or deserted spaces linked to them). The link between the two subjects is the following: if you enter into one of the paint pots, all of which are open, you will successfully reach the magical world of spaces. That’s how I see it”.
A significant duality in Ra’anan Levy’s images, one not yet fully clarified by critics, is the one that opposes and joins the empty spaces on the one hand, and overloaded elements on the other, such as rooms filled with books or tables covered entirely in the painter’s equipment, such as pots and rags, if not whole stacks of materials. These two themes of emptiness and fullness are highlighted by the clear alternation between dull shades and vibrant colours, which has been described as “an anorexia and bulimia of hues”. And their communication must therefore be understood, according to the painter, as taking place through openings (pots, sewers, sink drains, etc.).
The idea of an entity that forever fills and empties itself may lead to reflections on desire, the essence of which is the inability to ever be permanently satisfied and which can be seen in Plato, for example, with the plover, which eats and excretes at the same time. The tragedy of our desiring human nature is this: desire disappears as soon as it is fulfilled, only to make space for a different desire that must be satisfied, and so on, indefinitely.
TO BE OR TO HAVE?
The highly materialistic world in which we live is all too concerned by this problem; the overabundance of belongings only increases its greed. Our hyperconsuming society creates inexhaustible desires, and together with them a never-ending feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction. While the poorest countries must still be able to be happy with less, those that, on the contrary, live in abundance and excess are unable to stop producing and acquiring, more and more. Their thirst for possession, constantly fuelled, “empties them spiritually”. As in the case of children who fail to develop their imagination if they are inundated with toys, the potential of rich countries for wisdom, if not developed, shrinks and disappears.
As such, one interpretation involves reflecting, through Ra’anan Levy’s work, on the opposition between the vanity and emptiness of a materialistic lifestyle and spiritual wealth. What can we contemplate in the mirrors depicted by the painter in a recurring manner? Empty spaces or accumulations of items (with “compulsive accumulation” being a disease of our time in particular). While those who have nothing would be able to see a great deal in an empty space, the eternally dissatisfied would scan the overloaded tables wondering what else they are still lacking. The fulfilled existence of those who cultivate their ‘interior’ therefore stands in opposition to the lack of meaning in a life focused on money and the acquisition of ‘external’ goods.
Less bleak than the threatening engulfment previously mentioned (the sewer as the mouth of a monster unrelentingly swallowing humanity), however, is the idea of a helpful way out; openings (especially those of paint pots) represent an exit, a passage and an escape from loud ultra-materialism towards spiritual peace. Disgust and revulsion brought about by overabundance (consider the ‘bulimia’ mentioned by the artist) is followed by a desire to deprive oneself. Through art in particular, we could embark on a quest for renunciation, self-deprivation and emancipation, thereby freeing ourselves from this absurd world that force-feeds us. Asceticism practised in empty spaces—spiritual deserts, so to speak—could be our salvation, far from the overcrowded world: to become free through the act of painting, do away with the deceptive ‘to have’ for the simplicity, calm and truth of ‘to be’.
COMMUNICATE OR TRANSMIT?
Surprising and impressive scenes of books lying on the floor—recalling of the horrors of book-burning or sketching a post-apocalyptic world—could lead to this interpretation being broadened by a new distinction, this time between information and knowledge. Just as bulimia can cause obesity, the contemporary concept of ‘infobesity’ denounces the current trend to create, ingest, share and comment on ‘information’, continuously and at breakneck speed; the same speed might be suggested by the sensations of movement, flow and airstream that are tangible in Levy’s paintings. This communication takes place in the short time of immediacy, starting with a simple ‘click’ on a computer screen or button; it glides over internet users who, because they have access to it at will and as soon as they want, do not need to comprehend it or remember or memorise anything of it. However, ‘informing oneself’ in this sense, and communicating data or facts, is neither knowing nor transmitting. Hence Ra’anan Levy’s images of stacks of abandoned books—a hypothetical symbol of abandoning knowledge worthy of that name. What is more, comments on ‘social’ media—which are now called ‘anti-social’ media—often escalate into messages of hate. And this phenomenon seems to contribute to the sense of sadness described by Paul Claudel: “It seems that the better people know each other, the less they like each another”.
The relationship to ‘knowledge’ in this technological and digital universe is far from coherent with the concept of transmission, which implies a duration in time, with that of slow assimilation, sustainable ownership and profound self-transformation. Real knowledge must be anchored to be sound. Its roots can be found in History. Every person needs to know where they come from so that they can identify where to go. Yet we are a long way away, online, from a patient dialogue through oral tradition, particularly by transmitting stories that connect young generations to their ancestors.
“Several critics have suggested that the paintings reflect Levy’s lack of roots”, writes Bruce Ross. Moreover, the painter stated the following: “This table of pigments seemed to me my country, my territory, my land”.  In this rapidly changing world and its growing imbalance, Ra’anan Levy seems to have found in his art his outlet and refuge.
ORDER AND DISORDER
“Two things threaten the world, order and disorder”
– Paul Valéry
However, as harmful as today’s excesses are, nothing good would come from radical self-withdrawal, inertia and stagnation. Between consumer frenzy, the unrelenting race for progress, the dizziness of globalisation on the one hand and, on the other, absolute poverty and the risk of regression born from a refusal to open up and move forward, the world is struggling to assess the scale of its inner nature. Only… is it capable of such a thing?
B. Lorquin, on the subject of Levy’s painting, asks the following question: “Could the spread of details result in an impossibility to create an organised image of the world—as painting claims to do, no less? Will the psyche be powerless to create order in the world?” Chinese philosophy teaches us that fullness turns into emptiness, and vice versa. If the excess of order leads to disorder, can we wish for chaos to revive harmony? And should hope for unity be sought in the reality fragmented by the mirrors that Levy offers us? The artist’s grimacing self-portraits rather seem to suggest that we have no other choice but to cope with things as they are and to live in the elusive complexity expressed by his paintings.
President of the Pinacotheque museum in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
 Extract from ‘Ra’anan Levy, peintre des questions (‘Ra’anan Levy, Painter of Questions’) (p. 16) by Bertrand Lorquin, curator at the Musée Maillol at the time, to mark an exhibition dedicated to the painter in 2006-2007.
 In his article of the same name.
 This is the interpretation of Bruce Ross, op. cit.
 This organic aspect is developed by Bertrand Lorquin, op. cit.
 B. Lorquin, op. cit. p. 22.
 “In Bouche d’égout, Jérusalem (“Sewer drain, Jerusalem”), this opening, through its blackness, symbolises the occultation of the living. Humanity is reduced to a debris pushed towards the soundless darkness, absorbed by an opacity emphasised by the grid with delicate curved lines”, writes Lorquin, p. 16.
 Idem, p. 19.
 B. Lorquin, Ibid., p. 18.
 Ibid., p. 19.