Levente Thury is a golem-maker. For more than 15 years, the Budapest ceramist has sculpted representations of the golem, the clay, servant like creature brought to life by a spell or incantation. The golem, Hebrew for “something shapeless,” has been a compelling figure in Jewish mysticism since the Middle Ages.
The most famous golem of Jewish legend is connected to Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel in the 16th century in Prague. Loew, who died in 1609, created the golem to serve him and to protect the Prague Jewish community. As in other versions of the golem legend, the artificial clay man ran amok, forcing Loew to deactivate him.
Even today, legend has it that Loew’s golem lies in the attic of Prague’s famous Old-New Synagogue.
Thury is among those artists inspired by such tales.
Over the years, the golem legend has fascinated artists of many media because of the implications of the myth: technology spiraling out of control, the foiled attempt to compete with God, the failure to manipulate the universe.
Thury’s golems do not resemble the robotlike representations that are sold in Prague today of the artificial being said to have been created by Loew.
Each one of Thury’s thousands of golems is a different interpretation of the legend.
“I would like to make things that are a mixture of spiritual and material,” he said in an interview. “That is the most important meaning of the golem.”
“The body of the golem is material: clay, stone and earth – the oldest materials,” said Thury, whose piercing dark eyes look out from under a thatch of prematurely white hair.
“The message, the amulet, the spell” that brings the golem to life is the spirit, he added.
His golems range in height from shorter than an inch to larger than life.
Except for tiny figurines, which he said he often gives to friends as talismans, he rarely sculpts an entire figure. Instead, his golems are compositions of faces, heads and other body parts.
All the parts are distorted to some extent, as if their emergence from the clay was halted before it was finished.
A hand grasps an armless torso. A baby’s features form a beautiful face on one side of a partially modeled head. In some pieces, tiny golem figures emerge from larger, partial forms.
The expressions on the faces are serene but soulless. The eyes are unseeing.
There is no explicit violence in the compositions, but the elements of Thury’s work are arranged together in ways that can be eerie and disturbing – as well as highly sensual.
Thury, who maintains a studio in an alcove of the living room of his Budapest apartment, said, “I make the surfaces a little bit raw – raw human bodies, details of bodies. I don’t want to make a complete human body. I prefer to make parts.”
“They aren’t human people, but remembrances of the body,” he added. “They have no soul, no wish. The owner, the maker, has to give a soul to them, give direction, like a computer program.”
Sometimes Thury includes wood, metal or other nonceramic elements in the works.
“Golems of the Beginning” consists of three distorted sections of a body that, if put together, would almost form a full figure. Strips of wood penetrate each sculpture, forming shelves. A bottle of wine is placed on one shelf; a feather on another.
Thury, whose mother was Jewish and whose father was Christian, said his interest in golems was partially inspired by his family history. Most of his Jewish relatives died in the Holocaust.
“One of the reasons that I got interested in the idea of the golem is the fact that according to family tradition, my mother’s family was related to Rabbi Loew,” he said.
“Not only that,” he added, “an ancestor of my father’s was granted nobility by Emperor Rudolf II, who was a friend of Rabbi Loew’s” Thury has the actual decree of the ennoblement in his possession.
Rudolf, who ruled from 1576 to 1612, was interested in astrology, alchemy and the arts, and he is known to have met at least once with Rabbi Loew.
Thury’s golems have been exhibited in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe as well as in the United States.
Last year, his work won first prize in Hungary’s Holocaust in Art competition. This year, the works are being shown in Prague.
In 1988, his golems were shown as part of a large exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum.