Jewish Magical Realism: An interview with Zvi Suchet

South African artist Zvi Suchet’s work is stirring up the world of Jewish Fine Art.  

He is at the vanguard of a new genre: Jewish Magical Realism. 

The beginning of Suchet’s artistic experiences started during his morning prayers as a boy. Every day he would have visions of complex scenes that came out of nowhere. 

Throughout his childhood he fastidiously kept journals filled with notes and sketches of these imagined scenes, with the dream of one day turning them into art.  

“I decided to wait patiently until I felt I was mature enough to create them, because they are so precious to me and I wanted to do them justice,” Suchet said excitedly in the interview. This palpable excitement is present in every word Zvi speaks—his eager intonation, dramatic hand gestures, and bright eyes give an infectious feeling of true passion, a genuine calling. And it comes through in his work which is carefully crafted to the finest detail. 

“The Rabbi of Port Louis” by Zvi Suchet

As a young art student, Suchet was captivated by the Christian art of the Renaissance period but was frustrated that an equivalent amount of Jewish art did not exist. 

“Of all the texts for the world’s religions, I think that the Torah presents the most complex symbolism. It is an impossibly rich, never-ending source of inspiration,” he said. 

There are many reasons why Jewish art has been comparatively scarce in history. Early Christianity was presented largely to illiterate communities and the lavish art was intended to keep their focus, but during this period, Jewish communities had an unusually high rate of literacy.  

There has also been the issue of an ever-changing halachic view (religious laws) on Jewish art. For much of history, Jewish communities have frowned upon depicted Jewish scenes, with the exception of the practice of hiddur mitzvah which endeavours “to make a commandment beautiful.” 

But Suchet’s work did not start in the world of Jewish Magical Realism. 

He began his career as a professional photographer—under his English name, Marc Hoberman—for over 25 years. He published his first book about Jewish stamps when he was just 12, a copy of which was inducted into the Smithsonian Permanent Collection. Since then he has published over 30 coffee-table books and worked extensively in Hollywood, taking portraits of just about every star—among them, Steven Spielberg, Natalie Portman, and Woody Allen. 

It wasn’t until he was 39 that he decided it was the right time to produce his Jewish fine art collection. 

“As I began to create my first piece, I felt an overwhelming surge of energy. It felt like a spiritual awakening and I literally didn’t stop studying and creating for seven months. I only stopped to eat and sleep, that’s about it,” he reflected. 

Svi Suchet
“Lessons of the Fox” Zvi Suchet

Suchet presented his forty-piece debut collection, The Radiant Portal, in December 2019 at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town.

  
Suchet described his style as Jewish Magical Realism. It is a unique blend of photography and digital illustration exploring themes of Jewish mysticism and identity. A characteristic of the genre is that it is an unusual amalgamation of different mediums. The effect makes the artworks intriguingly other-worldly and invokes something of a spiritual experience.

“The response has been truly overwhelming,” says Gavin Morris, the museum’s director, “due to public demand we’ve had to extend the show four times, and the gallery is still full every day. We’ve never seen a reaction like this.”  

There are common elements throughout the South African artist’s work—the lone Jew (a Chassidic man with his back to the viewer), blurred birds in flight (an element linked to his work as a wildlife photographer), delicate clouds, female shadows, and dramatic landscapes from around the world. The work is deeply layered, and his explanations behind the work, presented in the exhibition and on his website, make for a satisfying and moving experience.

Every artwork uses symbolism as a device—figures and compositions are shaped to mirror Hebrew letters; even trees in some of the backgrounds have branches that spell out words from the Talmud.  

Suchet’s work focuses on a missing piece of the Jewish art tradition. As to why he feels it has been so popular, Gavin explains “the work seems to appeal not only to a more mature audience, but also to a younger audience, and to see so many fresh faces is a wonderful treat for us. It has started many discussions about spirituality amongst a more secular crowd.”

Today, within halachic guidelines, art is very much accepted as a beautiful way to celebrate Judaism, and with this changing view, Suchet’s work is more widely encouraged by the Jewish community to be visually and spiritually experienced by all. 

Unfortunately, due to these unprecedented times, The Radiant Portal’s plans to travel the world have been put on pause. Following many requests, Suchet created an online virtual tour of the exhibition. It includes all 40 pieces, videos, artist’s sketches, all accompanied with detailed explanations. It can be viewed at www.theradiantportal.com

Header image courtesy of Zvi Suchet. 

Charlotte Greenblatt is a Fine Art Curator from Cape Town, South Africa. She has a Master of Arts degree from the prestigious Michaelis School of Art and a Journalism degree from Rhodes University. Charlotte writes a regular arts column, Art Talk, in the Jewish Chronicle, and is a contributor to Aish.com. In December 2019 she curated Zvi Suchet’s first major solo exhibition at the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town.

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