that is, of the insatiable thirst
for knowledge, of the uncontrollable communicative throb
by Arturo Schwarz
For Marcel Duchamp a requirement came before all others: art had to be at the service of the mind, and not be merely “retinal”. Let’s remember the reasons that have motivated this belief. In the last years of the eighteenth century and in the first years of the last century artists were moving from a merely formal kind of experimentation to another. The function of art, understood also as a conceptual exercise, as an instrument of knowledge, had been forgotten, and the painter’s efforts were focused on improving the mimetic function of art. Therefore, the Impressionists, reacting to the norm of painting in the studio – which did not allow them to capture the real essence of nature – would go to the countryside to capture the chromatic reality of the subject. Then the Fauves arrived, who thought that what mattered was not fidelity to colour, but, on the contrary, its exaltation, giving it an autonomous value and exasperating its intensity and contrasts. “No,” said the Cubists, “what matters is not colour, but structure,” hence the neutral shades – browns and greys – of the compositions of Braque, Picasso and Gris, amongst others. Abstractionists took the field. “You are all wrong,” they said. “Neither colour nor structure are relevant, what matters is the model. This should no longer be an exterior model, it is necessary to free ourselves from the mimetic requirement, the model needs to be interior.” For the Expressionists, instead, colour and structure were not relevant factors, what mattered was to capture all the drama of the external model. But, of this reality, they captured only the part that was visible, whereas the actual reality, which included also the submerged part, which, as in the iceberg accounts for nine tenths of it, remained inaccessible to them. Only with the Surrealists, art received back its enlightening function. Remembering Freud’s teachings, they made it their aim to reveal the submerged part of the model as well. From this stemmed their interest in dreams, altered physical-mental states – for phenomena, in short, which allowed them to highlight the manifestations of the unconscious. With the Surrealists, aesthetic needs became of secondary importance, since what came first was the desire to express, with the greatest authenticity possible, their own dreams and desires, their own vision of the world. It’s an accidental fact, but not irrelevant, that such a requirement produced some of the most important masterpieces of modern and contemporary art. What matters, for the Surrealists, let us repeat, is fidelity to their own internal self and, consequently, the initiatic and subversive value of the work.
These are exactly the two main preoccupations of Tobia Ravà – to put art at the service of the mind and to attribute it an initiatic value. He manages to convey, through the simple use of numbers and letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a message that isn’t just of extremely high aesthetic value, but also possesses a deep initiatic value. It’s been said that beauty coincides with truth and that truth has a subversive charge because it is enlightening. We can see this, as never before, in the works of our artist. And it’s amazing how, with his knowledgeable incursions in the ancient Kabbalistic art of ghematriah – the technique that allows to find the secret correspondences between some terms, deriving these equivalences from the numerical value of the letters that compose them – Ravà managed to create works of art which speak so well to our eyes and minds. And this, even if the conceptual message has a subliminal character. An example, amongst many, of Ravà’s discoveries. The sum of the numerical values of the letters that compose, in Hebrew, the names of the four elements is the same that is obtained by adding up the numerical values of the letters that compose the word “athanor” – the crucible of the alchemist: esch (fire: 301) + maim (water: 90) + adama (earth: 50) + avir (air: 217) = 658. Batanur (crucible/melting pot) = 658. Surprising also the work done by Ravà on the Fibonacci sequence, the results of which he translated in works pos-sessing transcendental value.
Concerning alchemy, let us remember that, in origin, its only purpose was to attain complete knowledge of man – known as aurea apprehensio – to free him from the slavery of ignorance. And this in accordance with the instruction inscribed in the corridor of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: gnothi seaton (know yourself). The ancient alchemists, who operated before common times, did not tire of repeating it: “Our gold is not the gold of the common people, it’s the gold of golden knowledge, of the aurea apprehensio”. Only with the emergence of Christian and Islamic alchemy a misunderstanding occurred, and what was only a metaphor was understood literally! The true Kabbalist had understood it well: the four elements stood for man – a microcosm which includes the Whole, since man is the reflection of the macrocosm, of the universe. While the crucible stood for the fire of the alchemy teachings, for the longissima via to knowledge.
Let’s return to ghematriah to clarify also that, in the Midrashic and Kabbalist tradition, the universe was created with the help of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and in virtue of their numerical values. But, even more so, in these traditions, the initiatic charge of art came from the ability of the artist to create a work thanks to the same technique. Hence, the biblical archetype of the artist, Bezalel, managed to create a considerable work of art thanks to his ability to “combine the letters such that the sky and the earth were created” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 55a).
To conclude, I would like to offer a last example, of how ghematriah allows to discover archetypal truths. Ahavah (love) and ehad (unity) have the same numerical value (13) to show that love means, precisely, unity.
Thank you, dear friend, for letting us discover, again, that art is not a mere formal exercise, the function of which is to produce works to adorn living rooms. Art is not a divertissement but provokes, when it really is art, an internal transformation, an enlightening emotion.