From Clay to Soul | Levente Thury: A Memorial Exhibition

“A man cannot talk to men because they are not interested in men. They are interested in you because you are a golem and you walk the way and you look the way and you copy everything they do the way they believe they are golems, too.”

(Ernő Szép: A Gólem [The Golem], extract)

 

Since God has formed the first man of clay and water, then breathed life into him, the “new Adams” have persistently been producing homunculi, golems and robots. The most fundamental question of creating artificial people is arguably why we actually produce them. Descriptions of artificial people can be found in the Ancient Sumer and Greek mythology, in Jewish mysticism, in the Renaissance period as well as in our modern age. God’s creation is repeated time and time again as the wonder of birth and yet for some reason we feel the need to imitate the gesture of breathing life into an object created by ourselves. (“I was created by God but in my quality of artist, I am the one doing the creation” – said Levente Thury.) We may be driven by the desire to dominate our creature or want to evade run-of-the-mill chores. Maybe we are attracted by the Creator’s mystery and we, too, want to give soul to a lifeless lump of clay by pushing the divine verb written on a piece of paper into the mouth of the created being or by writing it onto its forehead. When it comes to the need to protect ourselves and our people from peril, we may need the intervention of a superhuman force. Therefore, we turn to mysticism, wonder or knowledge by asking for the help of the supernatural to improve our situation or fate.

According to a legend, in the 16th century, under the rule of Rudolf II Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary and Bohemia, Judah Loew, a famous rabbi from the Prague ghetto, who had a deep knowledge of the kabbalistic traditions, fashioned a huge golem so that it can protect his people in case it got into danger. Various stories are in circulation about what happened after the clay figurine had completed its mission but they all agree that the creature rebelled against its creator who had to resort to a trick to retrieve the written parchment from its mouth or wipe the verb of creation from its forehead in order to send it back to the dust. The family legend holds that Levente Thury, sculptor and ceramic artist born in 1941 in Budapest is a descendant of this rabbi. He continued the family tradition of creating golems, which makes up a significant part of his œuvre. It is possible that he was led by the same intention as other golem and homunculus creators before him. “A golem creator says that he intends to produce more golems that could serve to keep his assortment of treasured souvenirs, making up a huge part of his personality, or even to animate these keepsakes. Later.”[1], he wrote. His paternal ancestor, Baltazár Thury received his coat of arms and grant of arms from the emperor Rudolf II. According to a legend, Rabbi Loew drew up the emperor’s horoscope and worked together with him to save his people from the blood libel. (The original letter patent with the signature and stamp of emperor Rudolf is still in family possession.) Their 20th century descendant joins these two lineages in a way that is more than purely genetical: he believes that his two ancestors, Rabbi Loew and Baltazár Thury even knew each other. Family legends and Jewish myths from Prague live on in Levente’s work. The “remains” of the Golem are still to be found in the attic of the Czech synagogue and Levente was given a vial of its dust by the rabbi in charge there, which the artist kept as a good luck talisman or an amulet. ”It is rubble from the attic of the old new synagogue in Prague, which might contain some remains of the rebel golem, smashed by Rabbi Loew. It may be only an illusion but even so, it is just as important to me.”

We can follow the desire to create golems in Levente Thury’s work from beginning to end; he decorated his ceramics with human figures, faces and eyes even before learning about the family tradition. Faces and small human figures appear first on his functional objects and bowls produced after finishing the College of Applied Arts. The small glazed ceramic tile figurines in his series Panelházak panelkái (Little Blocks of Tower Blocks, 1978) bring aesthetics and serenity anywhere they appear. The down-to-earth raw materials of ceramics, clay, water and glaze colour, not only allow us to relive harmony with nature but they also bring us closer to the experience of playfulness.

From the eighties, Thury takes leave of functional ceramics and the golem myth becomes the centre of his work and thinking. He starts calling himself a golem maker around this time. In keeping with the Prague Jewish tradition, he always gives his figurines some sort of spirit, expressing thereby what the mysticism of creation from clay and the gesture of soul transfer means. He named his golem torsos made in California in 1990 after the spheres of the kabbalist mysticism: these works received the titles Malkhut (Crown), Chesed (Kindness), Tiferet (Beauty), Binah (Understanding) and Chochma (Wisdom). His clay figures convey the unity of the human body and psyche, the wisdom of self-knowledge, as well as the journey leading there, as also indicated by the title of the exhibition E-G-O-L-E-M (Bálint Közösségi Ház [Bálint community House], Budapest, 1996). “Any creature is less perfect than its creator. I am a golem myself and golems made by me are even less perfect than me”, he writes. He sounds as if he identified golems with their creator and would make them indistinguishable or make differences between them appear unsignificant. “An ascending clay man or a descending golem. I imagine now, it might as well be the other way around.“It appeared that the process was reversible and a human could slowly become a golem…”

Thury started making quite tiny golems. Later, they became ever bigger, as seen in the case of the figurines sleeping on the ground at the 1995 exhibition at the Kiscelli Museum or in the case of the works Böhönye (1969), Ülő Gólem (Sitting Golem, 1998) or Rövid történet az ideától a koleszterinen át a szénhidrátig (A Short Story from the Idea through Cholesterol to Carbohydrates, 2003). Golem pairs convey tender feelings about intimate love or parent-child relationships, for instance Összebújós (Huddling Together, 1990), Malkhut (1990), Két fej (Two Heads), A gólem naplója (The Golem’s Diary), Az agyag útja Gólemen át Gólemáig (The Way of the Clay from Golem to Golema, 1988). He animated several of his works by mobilizing them with the help of some built-in mechanics and so enabled his kinetic sculptures to show signs of life and dynamics. Most of these constructions ceased to function with time but they still carry their spirit and sculptural momentum, surviving even their creator.

For his 2002 exhibition entitled Szagos mozgó micsodák, tér és gondolat tákolmányok (Odorous, Moving Thingies, Patchworks of Space and Idea), organised in the Budapest Gallery, Thury created golems affecting all our senses, displaying human instincts and acts and he also assigned various smells to them. He unified in this way naturality with aliveness while fitted everyday materials out with text fragments on lofty ideas and thoughts. The title of one of his works created for the “odorous exhibition” reminds of a novella by Ernő Szép, Emberszag (Human Smell), making reference to the Holocaust.

The human-sized golems, after having completed their mission, broke up and fell to pieces in the hand of their creator. It can be argued that Thury’s golem parts are made a meaningful whole thanks to the accompanying texts. Besides the huge heads, reminding of small children’s faces, often with wondering looks, hands and other body parts, it is torsos that dominate. It helped Levente Thury emphasize the unity and importance of a thinking mind and an acting hand, the importance of simultaneously focusing upwards and downwards. He added various textiles, found objects and coins to the sculpture fragments, underlining their realism. Their clothing makes human-like creatures out of the golems and they grow and come to life in their fragmentation. The literary quotes and text fragments make them speaking and thinking creatures. As if the wise 20th-21th-century golem maker had written his texts on parchments and put them into the mouths of clay figurines to make them utter his views, often sarcastic, on the world. “It is about an object or a person that should be able to show that the emotional charge can be stronger than the limited dancing technique of an aged body gone to seed.” “I think and dread that the world always fails. It is then always the ants that build new worlds.” Hands and heads placed between frames, bars, clamps convey the feeling of being chained down, locked up, but the freedom of ideas born in the heads opposing all that leaves it behind and fills the spirited clay torsos with a new world of ideas.

Réka Fazakas

 

 

Literature:

 

Levente Thury: Talán egy gólem történet? (Maybe the Story of a Golem?) Ráday Könyvesház, Budapest, n.d.

Charles Fenyvesi: Keeping Our Ghosts AliveSzellemidéző), Európa Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 2016.

György Szegő: On the Golems of Levente Thury, Szombat Online, 22 April 2014.

György Szegő: Levente Thury’s Obituary, ÉS, 6 July 2007.

 

 

 

[1] Thury Levente: Talán egy gólem történet? ((Maybe the Story of a Golem?) Ráday Könyvesház, Budapest, n.d., 35. All further Thury quotations have been taken from this book.

 

2021. December 1. - 2022. January 16.
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2021. October 29. - November 28.
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Pet’R – Drawings, Pictures. Memorial exhibition of Péter Kovács