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Marta Moriarty
Calle Doctor Fourquet 39,
28012, Madrid

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Letter to Benji Liebmann

Benji Liebmann's publication (TSU libros) on the occasion of his exhibition at our Art Window starting on May 23th.

--Versión del texto en español más abajo--

Benji,

Over the years, and using the threads you give me cautiously, bit by bit, I’m weaving a tapestry with your name. The warp and weft are good, I’m making progress and the central design is already taking shape: it’s a labyrinth.
Yesterday I dreamt of that gentleman portrayed by Bartolomeo Veneto in Ferrara around 1510. He’s a dark-haired man with a plume on his cap, secured by a cameo that shows a solitary sailor steering his frail wooden boat, and there’s an inscription with his motto: Hope guides me.
The gentleman is elegantly attired in velvets, brocades and ermine; the four rings on his fingers look like open eyes, and a hidden medallion hangs from the gold chain round his neck. Spreading across his entire chest is the gold-embroidered image of a large circular maze. His right hand forms a fist at the centre of the labyrinth, the thumb pointing to his heart.
In my dream, I knew with unshakeable oneiric certainty that the man of the labyrinth was Benji Liebmann.
The labyrinth: mystical spiral, symbolic archetype, metaphor for the journey of initiation that our life can be. Those who voluntarily enter the labyrinth choose a path of spiritual elevation and submit to the discipline of the longest, hardest, most winding road. Union is achieved at the heart of the maze; travellers come into direct contact with the absolute that resides in the innermost core of their being. When they return to the world, they are never the same, for their individual selves have been dipped in the whole.
It’s no coincidence that you decided to build an aromatic maze in your garden three years ago, and that you continue to work on and stroll through it.
……………………………………………………………………………………………

I looked at your drawings for the first time in 2013, and I’m still looking. They evolve and take on new meanings. Slowness and time are their allies.
In 2013 I looked but I had not yet learned to listen to you; I didn't know that you rarely speak without a purpose, and that when you say something it’s because you truly want to say it and you mean every word. As you’re sparing with adjectives, emphasis and excitement, it took me a while to understand the intensity behind your calm and seemingly casual statements.
Back then, you told me you liked a book by Trevanian called Shibumi and that you’d read it seven times. I thought it odd, but I didn’t look beyond the literary context.
Now I understand that Shibumi is one of your “style guides”: “…shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquillity that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that…”
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On my last trip to South Africa, I didn’t leave your territory in the Cradle of Humankind: I enjoyed the bush, the storms, the monkey grove, the eroticism of the tortoises, the maze, the slopes of flawless grass, the coconut water, the sunrises, the rippled lake, the works always in progress, the long hours I spent in your studio alone with your drawings, working together at the computer, the rocks and our conversation.
We talked about meditation and enlightenment. It was one of those perfect afternoons you only find there, when the universe makes its presence known, the sky merges with the earth in an endless sphere, and the sounds of all the animals and the wind punctuate the harmony of the vast silence. You said (forgive me for paraphrasing) that you saw no sense in the traditional antagonism between matter and spirit because we are both things, and if we are here and endowed with our five senses, we must use and enjoy them as instruments of knowledge and spiritual elevation. Material harmony and beauty connect us to spiritual beauty and transcendence. You were talking about nature and sex, and you later wrote: “There is nothing between me and nature; between me and women. We are at once the same and separate. At once in conflict and in harmony. Intimate and in love… permeating everything I do, everything I am and everything I make… Always there is the co-presence of the land and sex. Causelessly entwined… which is all just a way of seeing how these forces in the process of making are so overwhelming…”
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What did I see when I began looking at your drawings then, before I’d learned to listen to you?
I was surprised that they didn’t surprise me. Your art was a hidden but not different facet, it was consistent.
I was moved by the skill, the careful lines, the concentration, cleanness and economy of means, a man with paper and pencils.
I recognized the legacy of Dalí, but only in the line, nothing in the spirit. You’d told me about that summer in your youth when you camped out in front of his house in an unsuccessful attempt to meet him.
Colour appeared as a rare visitor; the action unfolded in black and white. The subtlety of the greys transported me to the Atelier Suisse, 4 Quai des Orfèvres, Paris, 1864.
The drawings maintained the balance between land and sex. The two spheres, living nature and bodies in action, aided each other in sketching a new geography that aspired to spread beyond the boundaries of the frame. No matter how large or small the pictures were, they always seemed to be fragments of the limitless.
The sexual content was explicit and straightforward, devoid of obscenity, pornography and subjective emotions. A reality of bodies and hills, semen, sweat and rain. I instinctively recognized them as “inner hidden landscapes”, which is what makes them so pure and perturbing.
“Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups,” Walt Whitman wrote.
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Everything in your life and work ends up composing a landscape. In certain Chinese Taoist schools, landscape painting is considered a higher form of meditation in which various factors are evaluated: slowness, the way the brush is held, the artist’s skill, concentration and discipline, his patience and ability to repeat a single motif until its essence is finally revealed. When I was a girl, I met a Chinese gardener who told me about the rock gardens of Suzhou; I’m reminded of them when I see how carefully you look after your rocks at the farm, and I discover them in your drawings.
That providential gardener would give me magnets and tell me stories. One of my favourites was the tale of Pan Gu. There’s a Chinese myth that explains the creation of the world as beginning with a cosmic egg which contained both Yin and Yang, and from that egg the giant Pan Gu emerged. Pan Gu separated the earth and sky and, after completing his mission, fell to earth exhausted, to rest or to die. His recumbent body was transformed into mountains, his blood into rivers and his muscles into fertile fields; his hair formed forests, his bones turned into precious stones, and his marrow became jade and pearls. His sweat fell like rain on the fleas (they must have been cosmic fleas) that infested his body and turned them into human beings who were scattered by the wind.
I remembered Pan Gu when I looked at your drawings, and I still see that anthropomorphic oriental cosmogony running through them. But Pan Gu, the creator, lived and died alone, whereas in your work nature is always dual and needs the complementary other to reflect itself and be fertile: it needs desire.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
The passion rebuilds the world for youth. It makes
all things alive and significant. Nature grows
conscious. Every bird on the boughs of the tree
sings now to his heart and soul …the clouds have
faces … the trees of the forest. He is twice a man …
The heats that have opened his perceptions
of natural beauty have made him love music and
verse. ... The like force has the passion over all
his nature. ... In giving himself to another it
still more gives him to himself. He is a new man ...
he is somewhat; he is a person; he is a soul.
……………………………………………………………………………………………

You were in the library and casually mentioned that as a young man you read Walt Whitman voraciously, and that he was still one of your favourite poets. I didn’t give it much thought at the time; I’m a literary person and I have great loves like Stevenson, Henry James, Shakespeare, Lorca, Homer and Lewis Carroll, whom I read and quote often but who rarely interfere with my life or my values. But you’re not like that, as I soon recalled. Through the sensual mysticism of Whitman—the poet of body and soul, so closely associated with Emerson—I discovered another gateway to your work.
“The unseen is proved by the seen,” Whitman said in “Song of Myself”. In the poem, there are no fissures between creator and creation; body and soul share a divine nature and only find “absolute fulfilment” in their union. Material reality is not the illusion (maya) of which the Upanishads speak, nor is it an obstacle. While Christian mystics mortify the senses to prepare themselves for union with the divine, Whitman exalts them and through them finds meaning in all that exists: grass, flowers, earth, birds, himself.
This experience of nature in Whitman’s poetry is also inseparable from its sexual content:
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
……………………………………………………………………………………………
We often see adults in whom we do not recognize the child or young person they once were. I always ask myself, how did it happen? When did they cut the umbilical cord to themselves? They strike me as stateless, defenceless, dangerous people.
In your case, I can easily identify the sacred thread leading back to that boy who played truant to draw and read Walt Whitman in the fields. In the course of your long, hard, winding journey, I think you’ve managed to maintain your freedom and an obstinate loyalty to yourself; hope guides you now as it did then.
You presented your first solo show at an art gallery in Johannesburg when you were twenty-two years old. I recognize you in those dreamy little pictures, and in them I recognize the technicolour time which I also experienced. Those small, delicate watercolours do not fear beauty and revel in technical virtuosity. Your distinctive lines and characteristic concentration and cleanness are already apparent in them; they’re loaded with extra pictorial content. With their close-ups of flowers out of scale, silhouettes of celestial women, and idealized landscapes, they’re almost musical. Also, magic never dies: in these works Merlin usually appears in the distance.
Richard Cheales (1922–1988), a respected South African watercolour painter, wrote a review of your exhibition for a local newspaper and titled it “Man Out of This World”. He said of you, “He has the look of someone with supernatural powers, as though he might be tuned into another time dimension.” He spoke of “a kind of dream world remoteness like visions glimpsed on astral journeys away from the body.” The mysticism you have today was already present then.
……………………………………………………………………………………………

In The Real Nature of Mystical Experience, Gopi Krishna said, “In the highest states of mystical ecstasy every object springs to life and the whole of Nature becomes alive. One incredible living, feeling Ocean of Being connects the mystic with every object in the Universe.”
Saint John of the Cross wrote in his Spiritual Canticle:
O my Beloved, the mountains,
The solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands,
The roaring torrents,
The whisper of the amorous breezes;
The tranquil night,
At the approaches of the dawn,
The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love.
Benji, I think these experiences that transcend religions, centuries and latitudes are not foreign to you, because I suspect you’ve been there. It’s not something that can be conveyed or even understood through rational narrative, but I sense that, consciously or unconsciously, this is what your works are about, and this is how I receive them.
You wrote to me:
One day, in my efforts to understand this all a bit better, I decided to give titles to works using words that came to me spontaneously. I wrote these on torn paper and randomly scattered them beneath the works… I was surprised how often the word God came up… not, I think, in its exulted form but rather connecting god and sex and nature as one.
The word “God” is vast and unfathomable, but we should not fear it or reduce it to the versions of others. It’s also inaccessible, but we must always seek God in the mist.
As Thomas Malory told us, “We shall now seek that which we shall not find.” You know.

Best
Marta
21 March 2019

Text form the book Benji Liebmann, Drawings (TSU Libros)

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Benji,

A través de los años y con las hebras que con cautela me vas dando, estoy tejiendo un tapiz con tu nombre. La urdimbre es buena, avanzo y ya se empieza a ver el dibujo central, es un laberinto.
Ayer soñé con ese caballero que retrató Bartolomeo del Veneto en Ferrara hacia 1510. Es un hombre moreno, lleva una pluma en su sombrero, va prendida a un camafeo en el que vemos a un navegante solitario al timón de su frágil barquita, hay una inscripción con su lema: La esperanza me guía.
El caballero viste con elegancia, terciopelos, brocados y armiño, lleva cuatro anillos que parecen ojos abiertos y una cadena de oro de la que pende un medallón oculto. Todo su pecho lo ocupa el bordado en oro de un gran laberinto circular. Su mano derecha se cierra en el centro del laberinto, el dedo pulgar señala su corazón.
En el sueño yo sabía con irrebatible certeza onírica que el hombre del laberinto era Benji Liebmann.
El laberinto, la espiral mística, un arquetipo simbólico, la metáfora del viaje iniciático que puede ser nuestra vida. Quien elige entrar en el laberinto, opta por un camino de elevación espiritual y se somete a la disciplina del trayecto más largo, difícil y sinuoso. En el centro del laberinto se alcanza la unión, el viajero toma contacto directo con el absoluto que reside en su ser más profundo. Cuando vuelva al mundo ya no será el mismo porque su yo individual se ha bañado en el todo.
No es casual que hace tres años decidieras construir un laberinto aromático en tu jardín y sigas trabajando y paseando por él.
……………………………………………………………………………………………

Miré por primera vez tus dibujos en 2013 y los sigo mirando. Evolucionan y adquieren nuevos significados. La Lentitud y el tiempo son sus aliados.
En 2013 yo miraba pero aún no había aprendido a escucharte, no sabía que rara vez hablas en vano y que cuando dices algo es porque realmente lo quieres decir y vas en serio. Como adjetivas, enfatizas y te exaltas poco, he tardado tiempo en entender la intensidad que encierran tus manifestaciones tranquilas y aparentemente casuales.
Me dijiste por entonces que te gustaba un libro de Trevanian llamado Shibumi y lo habías leído siete veces. Me pareció raro pero no fui más allá del contexto literario.
Ahora entiendo que Shibumi es una de tus “guías de estilo": … shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquillity that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that…
……………………………………………………………………………………………

En mi último viaje a Sudáfrica no salí de tu territorio en la Cuna de la Humanidad, disfruté de la sabana, las tormentas, el bosquecillo de los monos, el erotismo de las tortugas, el laberinto, las laderas de césped inmaculado, el agua de coco, los amaneceres, el lago rizado, las obras siempre en curso, tus dibujos con los que me quedaba a solas largos ratos en tu estudio, el trabajo frente al ordenador, las rocas y nuestra conversación.
Hablábamos de meditación y de enlightenment, era una tarde perfecta de esas que solo se dan allí, en las que el universo se hace presente, el cielo cierra una esfera infinita con la tierra, y los sonidos de todos los animales y del viento puntúan la armonía del gran silencio. Decías (perdona que utilice mis palabras) que no encuentras sentido en el tradicional antagonismo entre materia y espíritu ya que somos ambas cosas y si estamos aquí y dotados de nuestros cinco sentidos, hemos de usarlos y disfrutarlos como herramientas de conocimiento y elevación espiritual. La belleza y la armonía material nos conectan con la trascendencia y la belleza espiritual. Hablabas de naturaleza y sexo, más tarde escribías: …There is nothing between me and nature; between me and women. We are at once the same and separate. At once in conflict and in harmony. Intimate and in love… permeating everything I do, everything I am and everything I make… Always there is the co-presence of the land and sex. Causelessly entwined…which is all just a way of seeing how these forces in the process of making are so overwhelming…
……………………………………………………………………………………………

¿Qué veía yo cuando aún no te escuchaba y empezaba a mirar tus dibujos?
Me sorprendió que no me sorprendieran. Tu arte era una faceta oculta pero no distinta, era coherente.
Me emocionó la pericia, el cuidado del trazo, la concentración, limpieza y economía de medios, un hombre con papel y lápices.
Reconocí la herencia de Dalí, pero sólo en la línea, nada en el espíritu. Me habías hablado de aquel verano de tu juventud en que acampaste frente a su casa con la intención fallida de conocerle.
El color parecía estar de rara visita, la trama transcurría en blanco y negro. La sutileza de los grises me llevó al Atelier Suisse, 4 Quai des orfebres de Paris, 1864.
Los dibujos mantenían el equilibrio entre paisaje y sexo. Los dos ámbitos, naturaleza viva y cuerpos en acción se apoyaban para dibujar una nueva geografía que quería extenderse fuera de los límites del marco. Por grandes o pequeños que fueran los cuadros, siempre parecían fragmentos de lo ilimitado.
El contenido sexual era explícito y directo, sin obscenidad, sin pornografía y sin emociones subjetivas. Una realidad de cuerpos y colinas, semen, sudor y lluvia. Instintivamente los reconocí como inner hidden landscapes, eso los hace tan puros y perturbadores.
Dentro de mí regiones, mares, cataratas, bosques, volcanes, archipiélagos, escribía Walt Whitman.
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Todo en tu vida y obra acaba componiendo un paisaje. En ciertas escuelas taoístas chinas se considera la pintura de paisajes como una forma elevada de meditación, y se valoran diversos parámetros, la lentitud, el modo de coger el pincel, la destreza, concentración y disciplina del artista, su habilidad y paciencia para repetir un solo motivo hasta que éste al fin revele su esencia. Cuando yo era niña conocí a un jardinero chino que me hablaba de los jardines de roca de Suzhou, pienso en ellos cuando veo el mimo con que cuidas tus rocas en The farm y las descubro en tus dibujos.
Aquel jardinero providencial me regalaba imanes y me contaba historias, una de mis favoritas era la de Pan Gu. Hay un mito chino que explica la creación del mundo a partir de un huevo cósmico del que surge el gigante Pan Gu, que contiene en sí mismo el Yin y el Yang. Pan Gu separa el cielo de la tierra y cumplida su misión, exhausto, se tumba para descansar o morir. Su cuerpo yacente se transforma en montañas, su sangre en ríos, sus músculos en las tierras fértiles, su pelo forma los bosques, sus huesos se convierten en piedras preciosas, su médula en jade y perlas. Su sudor cae como lluvia sobre las pulgas (serían pulgas cósmicas) que poblaban su cuerpo y los transforma en seres humanos que esparce el viento.
Recordé a Pan Gu cuando miraba tus dibujos y sigo viendo esa cosmogonía antropomórfica y oriental que respira en ellos. Pero Pan gu, el creador, vivió y murió solo mientras que en tu obra, la naturaleza es siempre dual y necesita al otro complementario para reconocerse y ser fértil, necesita el deseo.
Escribe Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The passion rebuilds the world for youth. It makes
all things alive and significant. Nature grows
conscious. Every bird on the boughs of the tree
sings now to his heart and soul… the clouds have
faces… the trees of the forest. He is twice a man…
The heats that have opened his perceptions
of natural beauty have made him love music and
verse; the like force has the passion over all
his nature… In giving himself to another it
still more gives him to himself. He is a new man.
He is somewhat…He is a person, he is a soul!
……………………………………………………………………………………………

Estabas en la biblioteca y comentaste de pasada que de joven leías a Walt Whitman sin freno y que seguía siendo tu poeta de referencia. No le di mucha importancia, soy una persona literaria y tengo grandes amores como Stevenson, Henry James, Shakespeare, Lorca, Homero y Lewis Carroll, a los que leo y cito con frecuencia pero que interfieren poco en mi vida y mis valores. Tú no eres así, pronto lo recordé. A través del misticismo sensual de Whitman, el poeta del cuerpo y del alma, tan vinculado a Emerson abrí otra puerta hacia tu obra.
The unseen is proved by the seen, dice Whitman en Song of Myself. En el poema, no hay fisuras entre creador y creación; cuerpo y alma comparten naturaleza divina y sólo en su unión alcanzan el absolute fulfillment. La realidad material no es la ilusión (maya) de la que hablan los Upanishads, ni es un obstáculo. Mientras que los místicos cristianos mortifican los sentidos para preparase a la unión con lo divino, Whitman los glorifica y gracias a ellos encuentra significado en todo lo que existe, hierba, flores, tierra, pájaros, él mismo.
Esta experiencia de la naturaleza en Whitman es también inseparable de su contenido sexual:
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
……………………………………………………………………………………………

A menudo vemos a personas adultas en las que no reconocemos al niño, al joven que fueron, siempre me pregunto ¿cómo ocurrió, cuando cortaron el cordón umbilical hacia sí mismos?, me parecen apátridas desamparados y peligrosos.
Me resulta fácil identificar en ti el sacred thread hacia aquel chico que se saltaba las clases para dibujar y leer a Walt Whitman in the fields. A lo largo de tu viaje vital largo, difícil y sinuoso, creo que has sabido mantener tu libertad y una obcecada lealtad a ti mismo, la esperanza te guía hoy como entonces.
A los veintidós años presentabas tu primer solo show en una galería de Arte de Johannesburgo. Te reconozco en aquellos cuadritos soñadores y reconozco en ellos aquel tiempo en tecnicolor que también viví. Son acuarelas pequeñas y delicadas, no temen a la belleza, son virtuosas técnicamente. Ya está en ellas tu trazo y esa concentración y limpieza características, están cargadas de contenido extra pictórico. Hay primeros planos de flores fuera de escala, siluetas de mujeres celestiales, paisajes idealizados, son casi musicales. También, la magia nunca muere, suele aparecer en ellas Merlín en la distancia.
Richard Cheales (1922 -1988 ), un respetado acuarelista sudafricano, escribe la crítica de tu exposición para un periódico local y la titula Man out of this world. Dice de ti: He has the look of someone with supernatural powers, as though he might be tuned into another time dimension, habla de a kind of dream world remoteness like visions glimpsed on astral journeys away from the body. Tu misticismo de hoy ya estba allí.
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Gopi Krishna dice en The Real Nature of Mystical Experience : in the highest states of mystical ecstasy every object springs to life and the whole of Nature becomes alive. One incredible living, feeling Ocean of Being connects the mystic with every object in the Universe.
San Juan de la Cruz escribe en su Cantico Espiritual:
… Mi amado, las montañas,
los valles solitarios nemorosos,
las ínsulas extrañas,
los ríos sonorosos,
el silbo de los aires amorosos;
La noche sosegada,
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora…
Benji, creo que estas experiencias que trascienden religiones, siglos y latitudes no te son extrañas porque sospecho que has estado allí. No se pueden transmitir ni siquiera entender con narrativa racional pero intuyo que, consciente o inconscientemente, es de esto de lo que hablan tus obras y así las recibo.
Me escribes:
One day, in my efforts to understand this all a bit better, I decided to give titles to works using words that came to me spontaneously. I wrote these on torn paper and randomly scattered them beneath the works… I was surprised how often the word God came up… not, I think, in its exulted form but rather connecting god and sex and nature as one.
La palabra Dios es inabarcable, no debemos temerla ni reducirla a las versiones de otros, es también inaccesible pero siempre hay que buscar a Dios entre la niebla.
We shall now seek that which we shall not find, nos aconseja Thomas Malory. Ya sabes.

Best,
Marta
21 March 2019

Texto del libro Benji Liebmann, Drawings (TSU Libros)

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