FOURTH PART: The Temptation of Hoka-Neni, 2001-2002
Oil tempera on canvas
474 x 63 in (120 x 160 cm)
When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up
and kills the poor and needy;
In the night he steals forth like a thief.
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Hoka-Neni married, became a housewife and had four children (who never appear in the cycle, except symbolically). We can peek through the round windows of her pedestal-like kitchen and see her diligently rolling dough, entirely preoccupied with her own little world, which she tries to knead and shape. A motley horde of people and monsters surrounds the kitchen: those directly in front of the first window are dehumanized and degraded to an animal existence and partly annihilated. The empty third window portends her bleak future. However, when she looks up from her humdrum task, she suddenly realizes that she has little control over her fate. She is overwhelmed by the greater world, which presents a bewildering yet fascinating catalogue of organic and cosmic phenomena. In this world, she is confronted by a large variety of historical, social, religious, moral, and aesthetic experiences. She is engulfed in a sea of temptations.
The Temptation of Hoka-Neni is based on the legendary story of the Temptation of St. Anthony. According to The Life of St. Anthony by St. Athanasius, Anthony (c. 251-356) abandoned his comfortable life in Alexandria at the age of twenty and retired into the Egyptian desert. There, in his solitude, the Devil, jealous of his virtue, began tormenting him. When Anthony did not succumb to seductions of the mind and body, the Evil One attempted to frighten him into submission. The saint endured the assaults of demons disguised as wild animals and monsters, until God finally appeared to him in a bright light and his attackers fled.
Although Lustig's primary source of inspiration was Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony, he also drew upon earlier representations of the scene in art. One important source is Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1500-1505). The central panel, roughly the same size as Lustig's, features a bewildering panorama of the temptations and torments that beset the hermit's soul as he prayed and meditated alone in his cell, an empty tomb in the desert of the Upper-Nile. Bosch created an orgiastic picnic that simultaneously thrills and repels viewers, populated by half-animal, half-human monsters and grotesquely animated objects (including kitchen utensils). His powerful imagination conjured up chimeras, monsters, images of death, vipers, lions, dragons, and horrible birds of many kinds. These images are probably derived from the margins of medieval manuscript illuminations, where all kinds of exotic and fictional creatures are to be found. They also reveal the influence of an engraving by one of Bosch's predecessors, Martin Schongauer's St. Anthony Tormented by the Demons (c. 148o-9o), in which the saint is molested by reptilian demons who, in their frenzy, tug at his beard and expose their genitals. For Bosch, demons were evil made visible, symbols of everything unnatural and unholy, and he confronted his contemporaries with these apparitions in the hope of curing them of their "wickedness and folly." Bosch is also credited with introducing broad landscape vistas into Flemish art to serve as settings for his visual demonology.
The similarities between Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony and Lustig's panel consist not only in the subject matter, but also, and more fundamentally, in the intensity of vision. Both painters present a panoply of figures in savage action. Their compositional arrangements are similar: both use a forward-tilted, foreground "stage" against a distant landscape. However, while Bosch treats his landscape consistently, Lustig applies a Cubist ambiguity of configuration. He encloses the scene of Temptation in a phantom architecture that prompts haunting reflections about the limits of our rational territory. The imaginary building has a large opening in the ceiling through which we can see sky and clouds-or perhaps it isn't an opening at all, but a painted Baroque ceiling offering a view of heaven. The partially applied one-point perspective helps to create a feeling of piled-up figures and objects. Both Bosch and Lustig present the viewer with absurd and disorderly worlds in which the confusion extends to scale, color and space.
Another important treatment of this subject is Matthias Grunewald's The Temptation of St. Anthony, a panel from his magnificent polyptych, the Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512-15), painted for the chapel of the monastic hospital of St. Anthony near Colmar in France. Here, the saint finds himself in the midst of an infernal aviary, assaulted by furious fowls and gigantic parrots in a confusion of wings, shells and antlers. Inscribed on a painted banderole in a corner of the panel is the complaint that St. Anthony addressed to Christ after his tortures were over: "Where were you, good Jesus? Why did you not come to assist me in my trials?" Hoka-Neni will eventually echo this complaint: "Why does God do terrible things to me?" It was the Isenheim Altarpiece that first gave Lustig the idea of painting a polyptych in a narrative format on the theme of the Temptation.
According to Lustig, his principal visual source for this panel was a print, The Temptation of St. Anthony (1635), by the French etcher Jacques Callot. Here, as in earlier representations, nightmarish monsters, dragons, horrible birds, and other creatures fill the scene and seem to surge out at the viewer. Callot, like Lustig, gives the action a distinctly theatrical setting, with Roman gateways and heavy piers. The proliferation of small groups of actors, the dense and violent action of bizarre creatures and objects, are common to both artists.
The horrors that Callot depicted in his etching are said to be partly autobiographical: after a long sojourn in Italy, he returned to his native Lorraine, where he experienced the terrible devastation caused by the Thirty Years War. An excerpt from the journal of one of Callot's contemporaries, Pierre Vouarin, gives us some idea of what the artist witnessed: "In transit [Mansfeld and his mercenaries] killed everyone they encountered as if it were open warfare. They burned villages, raped girls and women, pillaged and damaged churches and altars, carried away everything of value and did unheard of damage even though His Highness [Duke Henry II] provisioned them. Further, they cut growing corn as feed for the horses which they stabled in churches. Everywhere they did infinite damage, stealing furniture and livestock which they managed to discover even when hidden in the remoteness of woods." The devastation depicted in Callot's etching no doubt reminded Lustig of the devastation of HokaNeni's world during the Second World War.
Without trying to precisely define temptation -a complex, theological, philosophical and psychological phenomenon, heavily overlaid with myth and symbolism -I will attempt to decipher Hoka-Neni's story. We know that she will be submitted to temptation in many forms. Can she endure so much misfortune? Can she fight temptations arising from her own heart? Can she discover the sources of good and evil? Will she betray everything she was taught, including her God? Can she battle against injustice and stand by her fellow man in difficult situations? Hoka-Neni, like job, poses a fundamental question that has long puzzled all followers of theistic creeds: why does evil occur in a world supposedly created and governed by a benevolent, omnipotent God?
On the right-hand side of the panel, a group of people bearing gray banners enter the scene. Their leader, sitting on a ball balanced on the back of a horse, holds an umbrella and points a pistol at Hoka-Neni. These figures represent revolutionaries of all kinds-Anarchists, Fascists, Communists-who during the last century have attempted to transform the economic, religious, cultural, and social climate, and whose efforts have brought war, degradation and despair to the people. Their flags are gray, symbolizing the mixture of all the colors associated with revolutionary movements. The pistol clearly represents the revolutionaries' use of violence; the ball on which the leader sits symbolizes their precarious situation; and the umbrella, their opportunism in attempting to take advantage of "favorable winds" for action.
The reptilian creature sprawled near this group is a sort of crocodile, which in ancient Egyptian iconography represents the forces of chaos. The fish with crutches symbolizes the disasters that plagued humanity in the twentieth century, the worst of which, war, is indicated by a huge tank rolling onto the scene. Its gun, like the revolutionary leader's pistol, is pointing toward Hoka-Neni. War brought destruction, famine and death to millions, and Hoka-Neni was one of its many victims.
Hoka-Neni's fate is intimated by the figures crowded onto the balcony at the right. These anonymous, naked, almost sexless beings look like concentration camp inmates-they are helpless, hopeless, beyond salvation, trapped in a place where there is neither entrance nor exit. Why are these people being punished? Do they blame God, or has their suffering failed to quench the fires of their spiritual devotion?
Below this scene, just above the crippled fish, is a large rose, from the center of which a huge thorn projects. This is a direct reference to Oscar Wilde's short story The Nightingale and the Rose, the moral of which is, though beautiful things attract us, their appearances do not always reflect their natures and can easily deceive us. This is how the little girl on the upper left of the panel came to be injured by the animal she was playing with.
In the right foreground we see an Orthodox Jew reading the Talmud and pulling a cart with a strange pair of lovers -a wolf and a sheep -inside. The wheels of the cart are not moving, because they are made of flower petals. This illustrates the messianic utopia of the Orthodox Jew, a hope of total reconciliation, and the message is that studying learned books will not provide solutions for the problems of divided humanity. Nearby, a horrifying two-headed beast, each of its heads a human foot, is just one of the many phantasmagoric animals who are attempting to frighten Hoka-Neni. According to Lustig, the large chocolate torte from which a slice has been removed and set on a plate refers to a tenet of Eastern philosophy. Confucianism, for example, holds that anyone, regardless of social status, can become aware of the moral order of the cosmos and of his or her proper place in it. We are all part of a higher cosmic order, and the individual (the slice of cake) bears the stamp of the divine and carries divinity within himself or herself. On a more superficial level, the torte, as well as the muscular naked king who combines the allurements of power and sexual attraction, can be interpreted as Hoka-Neni's sensual temptations.
Above the torte, a cellist, a harpist and a violinist are trying to make music-in vain, because they don't have bows and their instruments are unstrung. The violinist sits on a pile of skulls. This scene might symbolize the temptation of music and the arts, or the idea of errs longer, vita brevis (art is long, life is short). But another interpretation is possible. During the Second World War, musicians imprisoned in German concentration camps were forced to play in orchestras until they were exterminated. They literally played themselves to death. This was doubly ironic, seeing that their audience-other miserable slave-workers-could hardly be expected to have an ear for music under such inhumane conditions.
Just above this group, a skeleton symbolizing death courts the young Hoka-Neni. This vignette represents Death and the Maiden: in her desperate situation, there is a strong possibility that Hoka-Neni is tempted to take her own life.
The three cooks at the lower left represent Alecto, Tisiphone and Megaera, the three Erinyes or Furies of Greek mythology. Children of Mother Earth, they were born from a drop of blood from the castrated Kronos, the merciless god of Time. Their task was to hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young towards the old, of children towards parents, and of hosts towards guests. Personifying the pangs of conscience, they punished such crimes by hounding the culprits relentlessly. Here, they have been outfitted with kitchen utensils-the same that we encountered in the first panel in the Lustig home. The artist is alluding to the issue of women's liberation in our time. Three types of women are shown: a liberated woman, who wears trousers and seems to be more aggressive than the others; a more conventional woman in fashionable dress; and a third conforming to a rigid Islamic dress code. These women, like Hoka-Neni, are experiencing a variety of temptations: they confront troubles and trials, and their endurance and faith are continually being tested.
The two-story apartment house at the far left is a scene from Lustig's childhood memories. Nostalgia was the first temptation that St. Anthony experienced after he retired into solitude: the Evil Spirit filled his mind with memories of his former existence, contrasting its comforts with his present austerities. Although Lustig's situation is comfortable today, this is a reminder of what happened to thousands during the past century who had to flee their comfortable homes. Forced dislocation, immigration, and emigration have been part of the human scene for many years, and the problem continues today.
Near the apartment house we see Hoka-Neni taking a bath with animals. This is yet another temptation: she is dissatisfied with her current situation; she wants to be somebody or something else, to improve her social status. But there is nothing she can do. Since, in her case, discrimination is based on race, renouncing her religion and becoming an assimiliated Jew wouldn't help to avert the upcoming danger, her deportation.
Above the house, the kitsch and sheer bad taste of modern popular culture are exemplified by a cloying arrangement of two doves and a bunch of artificial flowers. A cherub tries to fly away through the oculus in the ceiling, symbolizing human aspirations for liberty, spiritual freedom, unconstrained existence, and redemption. However, the dead animals on the gallows' rope hanging from his neck hinder his attempt. These animals signify all the restrictions and obstructions that nature and society impose on humanity. Returning to the right side of the panel, the dark amorphous slush pouring forth from the decorated arches also refers to popular culture, specifically to the all-pervasive temptations offered by mass production, consumerism and wasteful lifestyles.
The rich decoration over the arches is full of unsettling meaning. Two chickens vying for a single worm exemplify the struggle for existence, as does the bizarre ornament directly to their left: a large fish swallowing a smaller fish, who in turn swallows a still smaller fish, and so on, illustrating the familiar proverb "Big fish eat little fish." This metaphor first appeared in an ancient Indian text, the KautiliyaArthashastra (c. 4th century Be), in which human affairs are examined from the perspective of matsyanyaya, "the law of the fish;" defined by the great Indologist Heinrich Zimmer as "the law of life unmitigated by moral decency, as it prevails in the merciless deep." Lustig's direct source for the image was a print designed in 1557 by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525-1569), the most famous of Bosch's followers. Bruegel depicted a monstrous beached fish with a flood of fish and other marine animals spilling from its mouth and belly, many of them in the act of devouring other creatures. In the water at the right of the print is a simpler version of Lustig's motif, involving only three fish. The turtle impaled beneath Lustig's voracious fish presumably represents the temptation to do cruelty in the world. The giant meat-grinder, which has appeared in Lustig's previous work, signifies the vast quantity of human ingenuity that has been invested in developing the technology of destruction.
Near the center of the panel we find the artist himself as a youngster, wearing the uniform of the Pioneers, a Communist youth organization. Floating in the same strangely shaped vessel as Hoka-Nevi's "prisoner" (but this vessel contains formalin, a chemical solution used to preserve anatomical and zoological specimens), he is being carried on a litter in a religious procession, as though he were a precious relic, followed on foot by the Pope. What is the artist trying to say here? Is he trying to tell us that he has taken part in the experiences and temptations of the century? Is he trying to tell us that his soul was already wounded, even as a child, by the dismembered family he came from? Does his deformed hand symbolize his psychological pain? Is he also a prisoner, just like Hoka-Nevi's fish, and if so, whose prisoner is he? We know that the imprisoned fish symbolizes egotism, wickedness, and depravity: has the painter imprisoned his own evil spirit in the container? Is he trying to combat his own temptation by redeeming himself with this painting?
The problem of Temptation, as expounded here by Lustig, resists a rational, conceptual approach. "It is the sleep of reason," said Goya, "that generates monsters." It seems to me that during the modern era reason has slept and the monsters have prevailed.
© by Edith Balas