Travel to Israel and the mystical period in the work of Georges Mathieu


The canvas entitled Ahinoam the Jezreelitess and Abigail the Carmelitess was put on the auction block on June 2, 2015 at Sotheby’s in Paris, so let’s take a moment to consider Georges Mathieu’s 1962 travels to Israel with the help of the detailed catalogue notes.

In March, 1962, during what we call his mystical period, Georges Mathieu journeyed to Jerusalem, where he stayed about ten days and produced eighteen paintings. These works were exhibited at the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem in March-April, 1962, and then at the Tel Aviv Museum in November-December, 1962.

Ahinoam the Jezreelitess and Abigail the Carmelitess refers to two women in the Old Testament, Achinoam of Jezraël and Abigail of Carmel, wives of David, the second king of Israel. Ahinoam and Abigail are mentioned in Chapter 27 of the First Book of Samuel, when David takes refuge with the Philistines. Georges Mathieu took the titles of his eighteen paintings from this biblical story. These include This is David’s spoilThe Lords of the Philistines passed on by hundreds and by thousandsThe Ark of God is sent to EkronAphekThe Philistines came to Gilgal et The Battle of Gilboa, which was actually painted in public. These are among the rare occasions when Georges Mathieu, who at age 22 briefly taught English, uses that language for the titles of his work.

In the booklet created for the Jerusalem exhibition, famed poet and art critic John Ashbery wrote:

« (…) It is vital for us to decode the messages that Mathieu has set down for us —for our own good — in a ravishing cipher whose elegance is somehow connected with danger. But already the difficulty of the language, the speed with which things happen, the inexorable preciseness of the forms have given us a clue. And without realizing it we have already begun to live in his world — like our own with the difference that everything is carried to its extreme — a world of pure motion in which we are not always aware of what it is that lacerates us, that makes us rejoice. »

Over the course of his journey, impressed by the great mystical fervor of the Israeli people, Georges Mathieu wrote Homage to Israel, published in the paper Combat in August, 1962, and then in the daily Haaretz, and finally in the journal Ariel, in July, 1963. Here is a brief passage from the text.

“It may be too cliché to say that from this Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth — you can only go up from here, toward heaven and a communion with God, but the fact is that the people of this land, where the Seal of Solomon was pressed, where the Cross was planted, and that the Crescent leaned on, are more than any other shaped by the tumultuousness of faith, subjected to the dictates of religious doctrine, surrounded by the halo of mysticism, living in an inexorably searching, obsessive fatalism. What is no less obvious is that here everything orchestrates the redemption of man, without him even suspecting a thing.

O people of Israel, let me say to you and say to you again, with you I celebrate a triple communion, as a man, as an artist, and as a spirit.”

The complete text is available in “Au-delà du Tachisme” (Beyond Tachism, Éd. Julliard, 1963) and in “De la révolte à la renaissance” (From Revolt to Renaissance, Éd. Gallimard, Collection Idées, 1973).

Édouard Lombard, Georges Mathieu Committee