Hoka-Neni Discovers the Moon, 2001-2002

Oil tempera on canvas 40 x 31 in (l00 x 80 cm)


What is the way to the abode of light?

And where does darkness reside?

Job 38:19


Hoka-Neni, a young woman, is now in a beautiful landscape. Limitless vistas and endless perspectives, encompassing vast expanses 0f land and water, forests and snow-capped mountains, enthrall the eye. In this painting, Lustig draws upon the poetic vision and the tender, delicate touch of the great seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. After the oppressive atmosphere of the first panel, this romantic scene comes as an emotional relief. Hoka-Neni is now free, content and ready to contemplate the world and her existence. She discovers the moon-not, however, the real thing, but only its reflection.

In this panel the artist introduces a philosophical question: what is the nature of ultimate reality as opposed to the apparent reality of ordinary experience? Which features of experience are real, and which, if any, are merely apparent? Plato's hierarchical conception of reality comes to mind, according to which experienced reality is an inferior approximation of "absolute existence" (Phaedo 74b ff.) and therefore only an "image" of reality (Phaedrus 250b). This is how Hoka-Neni views the world.

Lustig is also dealing here with one of the classic issues of art, the concept of imitation. Whether imitation itself is accepted or rejected, the concept remains central to any interpretation of art, and artists are constantly engaged in dialogue with it. The Treachery of Images (1929) by the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte is a well-known commentary on the topic of pictorial imitation. The painting shows a pipe rendered in a realistic manner, beneath which the artist has written Ceci nest pas une pipe (this is not a pipe) -which, of course, it isn't; it is only the painted representation of a pipe: an illusion.

Hoka-Neni may be doubly deluded, for Lustig has twice removed the moon from reality-once by imitating the "real" moon in the sky, and a second time by painting its reflection on the water. The art of painting, using light, shadow and perspective, can have a magical effect on us, one that Plato deplored and attributed to a weakness of the human mind. Perhaps it did not occur to him that painting could be a source of knowledge, that it could magnify the power of sight itself.

The sea or ocean in which Hoka-Neni discovers the moon is, according to the German novelist Thomas Mann (another source of Lustig's insights), a symbol of the "perfection of nothingness," of the "disorganized, measureless, eternal, shapeless void, a metaphysical dream." At this point in her life, Hoka-Neni has formed an irrational, solipsistic view of the world. To correct this, she must continue her apprenticeship -a different direction, an experimental approach, is needed to give her a firm grip on reality. In the subsequent stages of her apprenticeship, her worldview evolves from romantic subjectivity towards an objective, concrete experience of life.

by Edith Balas