Toby Cohen – The Abraham Project

Past Exhibition

29.03.2012 - 15.06.2012

article by Gavriel Engel

In 1858, the London Times wrote that the landscape photographs of the artist Francis Firth, shot in Palestine, “carry us far beyond anything that is in the power of the most accomplished artist to transfer to his canvas”.[1] Firth, like many other British photographer of the late the 19th century, visited the Holy land and documented its landscapes in his camera. The oriental sensuous magic enchanted those photographers, who through their photographs fueled the biblical concept of the Land of Israel.

Like Firth, Toby Cohen is a kind of British adventurer, taking a romantic view of the primordial landscapes of Israel. London born and bred, Cohen at a young age paved his way to success as a photographer of celebrities. The turning point in his life came in 2007, when he visited Israel and decided to abandon the glamorous life of celebrities to settle in Israel and develop a career devoted to photography. During the last five years, Cohen wanders across the country, meets people and documents them, whether within their natural surroundings or in an environment designed especially for them. Like a kind of pilgrim, Cohen investigates the roots of his culture and his Judaism, while consistently seeking a unique visual language.

Cohen’s aesthetics are an unusual hybridization between the contemporary and the classical – on the one hand, he is inspired by photographic techniques typical to contemporary art, such as snapshot and photography in action that require a significant skill set to capture the photographic object in movement. With just such talent at hand, Cohen succeeds in capturing these magical moments through the lens of his camera, with shutter motions moving 180 degrees back and forth.

Cohen is a photographer of changing situations. He is meticulous in the staging of his planned scenes, based on an elaborate, production masterpiece, when eventually the final product is an extremely large work of photography. On the other hand, Cohen’s work is embedded in the classical tradition of painting, inspired by painters such as Rembrandt, Gustave Doré, Maurycy Gottlieb, and James Tissot.

The hybridization between contemporary and classical was evident in Cohen’s previous series of works, in which he searched for those characteristics that described a newly devout Jew, one who has become devoted to his faith, cultivating the land and building the country. The same Jew, who seeks to envelope himself in prayer in remote woods, shepherd his flock and be self sufficient through cultivation of basic crops. The objects of his photographs, who as time passed became his friends, were captured by Cohen in motion, hovering in the air, as if they were jumping and trying to touch heaven while praying.

These photographic works echo the romantic tradition of the 18th century paintings that sought to find God’s revelation in nature. One can see, for example, the influence of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous work, The Monk by the Sea, on Cohen’s work. Friedrich used to create large format paintings that described a small human figure facing great natural forces. In these paintings, Friedrich sought to evoke feelings of reverence and religiosity. One can compare Friedrich’s painting with some of Cohen’s last works (such as Sunrise over the Borders of Romania) that describes the “flying Jew”. Compared with Friedrich’s somber work that describes the religious person as if he is absorbed into the landscape, in feelings of awe and fear, Cohen’s figures celebrate divinity revealed in nature.

In Cohen’s present exhibition at the Engel Gallery, he displays The Abraham Project, on which he worked for three years. The project started with a journey that lasted one and a half years, in order to find the appropriate location for the scene of Abraham and the three angels (Genesis, 18). Eventually, an old acacia tree in Dimona Creek was chosen. The elaborated process of choosing the scene’s locations testifies to the importance of the dialogue Cohen creates between time and location, while confronting old and new, Israeli locales and Jewish tradition. This is a romantic expression of the idea of belonging to the Land of Israel.

The exhibition includes three large-dimensioned panoramic photographs depicting the story of Abraham while referring to the biblical story and the pictorial tradition of its representation.

The story of Abraham, by the sheer fact of its existence is an embodiment of the primary Jewish virtue, “love thy neighbor”. Abraham, the patriarch of the nation, is not a Jewish leader like David and Solomon. He was born to a pagan family and actually revolted against the common faith when becoming monotheistic, religiously independent.

In the story of Abraham and the three angels, there is an emphasis on the humanity and greatness of the great patriarch. According to the Midrash, God was revealed to Abraham, and having mercy on him, “took the sun out of its protective sheath”, so the heat would deter unwanted visitors, robbers and bandits from his residential area, because he had to recover from his earlier circumcision. At noon, while sitting at the entrance of his tent three mysterious transients arrive. Abraham, although frightened, runs towards them, in spite of his feeble condition. First, Abraham is suspect of their intentions, since he is experienced battling the surrounding people over issues such as water and livestock. When it becomes clear there is no danger, he bows towards the guests and invites them to enter his tent. He washes their feet immediately, as was e common practice among the people that inhabited the area during that period and then spread a table, offering them the best he could. Abraham’s portrait in Cohen’s photograph focuses on this gesture, the attitude expressing a largess that was characteristic of Abraham in the biblical story.

In the first panoramic artwork, Abraham’s Tent, Cohen structured a staged scene that represents the washing of the feet of the angel Michael, while emphasizing the human grace involved in this action. Cohen focuses on structuring the scene as written in the Scriptures and describes the biblical desert inhabitants. In this work, the angels sit as described in Jewish mythology and prayers based on those stories (e.g., “To my right Michael and to my left Gabriel, in front of me Uriel and behind me Raphael, and over my head God’s Shekhinah [“the presence of God”]” –  From the Kriat Shema, prayer recited before the Shema when going to sleep).

Two other important figures are represented in this photograph. First, there is Sarah, hidden inside the tent, her face partially shown when she hears she will soon bore a son. Present as well is the thirteen year old Ishmael, also in pain due to the circumcision, looking out at the scene while being set apart, suggesting the dissimilitude and oddness of this son, which will reach their culmination during the following stages of the story. The sunlight, bursting through the top of the acacia tree, unites all the figures in this photographic work. They are bound together under a single light, the Divine light that demonstrates the idea “over my head God’s Shekhinah” and expresses a closure through Cohen’s camera lens.

Another work displayed at the exhibition is a variation on James Tissot’s Abraham and the Three Angels (1897). In this scene, Abraham is stretched out on the ground, in a gesture of pleading, or crying. His face is hidden, while those of the angels are exposed. In Tissot’s painting, there is some defiance towards the biblical story, as by painting the angels’ faces exposed, Tissot personifies the angels’ essence, giving them a human figure. But while in Tissot’s painting these human bodies emit light through their transparency and the whiteness of their cloths, Cohen presents dark-skin and bearded figures, as if saying that God is within each one of us, and in front of us,  and we just have to look straight ahead and see.

The third panoramic work displayed at the exhibition depicts the biblical verse “and went towards Sodom” (Genesis, 18, 22). In this work, Abraham escorts the angels as they leave for their various missions – whether for destruction or for grace. According to the Midrash, only Gabriel and Raphael went to Sodom, while Michael ascended back to heaven, but Abraham does not cease his appeals for the salvation of Sodom. This work refers to Gustave Doré’s famous work, Abraham and the Three Angels (1860). In Doré’s work, the angels seem prominent with their bright skin on the dark background, and the light radiating from them falls on Abraham, sitting below them with his face hidden. Cohen represents Abraham sitting on the ground, attempting to bargain for Sodom’s salvation, while the angels go on to their destructive mission. Raphael, who ended his mission, rises back towards heaven. While in Doré’s etching the flight of the angles is expressed by a light feeling of hovering, going through their cloths’ folds, Cohen chooses to describe the angels’ flight more concretely, when they are actually seen airborne. The representation of flight is natural for Cohen, continuing his previous series of Cherubim & Angels.

This work is continued by the forth panoramic work in this exhibition, Angels, in which the three angels are represented while flying against an infinite black background. The figures in this photograph fly as a part of Cohen’s photographic worldview. In order to photograph these scenes, Cohen hired the Florentine Circus tent, and photographed the figures jumping in the air, above a giant trampoline.

Next to the three large panoramic photographs, a series of portraits of the project’s participants are also under exhibit. In the portraits’ photographs, there is an attempt to emphasize the humanity of each figure of the story, as a kind of credit roll that appears at the end of a film, representing the participating actors. In these photographs, Cohen shows his personal attitude towards this story, by humanizing these mythical figures, attempting to confront the viewer with the humanity found in each one of them.

[1] Quoted in “The Artist Francis Firth”, Jerusalem Quarterly, undated file, p. 56