Hamming it up with hats – Bro. Ari Roussimoff and his wife strike a pose.
“I love the holiday season,” said Ari Roussimoff, beginning his presentation Monday night at La Petite Auberge. This second annual dinner-lecture is the doing of the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library, whose trustees selected the topic “Freemasonry and the Arts.” The fine arts and various performing arts, and even a by-gone era’s ways Masons promoted the arts were the subjects discussed. “It’s Christmas. It’s Hanukkah,” Roussimoff added. “I wish it would snow!”
Praising what he called the universality of this season of Jewish and Christian holy days, Roussimoff introduced the two paintings he brought to the restaurant. The pair are two-thirds of a triptych devoted to Masonic symbolism. All three components are oil-on-canvas paintings that lead the initiated eye through multiple Masonic degrees. Both of these measure 24x36, but the third portion was too large to transport. The complete triptych is on exhibit at the Livingston Library, located at the Grand Lodge of New York at 71 W. 23rd St., near Sixth Avenue.
Roussimoff spoke on “Freemasonry and Painting & Sculpture,” and he is worthy and well qualified to do so. The prolific painter and sculptor has had his work exhibited in 80 galleries, museums and other venues around the world, where his Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish imagery has won accolades. When not tending to those labors, Ari is a prize-winning maker of documentary films.
“The contributions to Freemasonry of artists are seen in aprons, tracingboards and too many artifacts to mention here,” he said. “Before standardized aprons, Masons wore hand-painted, individualized aprons. They used water-based paints, and some aprons even had jewelry. Still, you can’t call them folk art. For example, Jeremy Cross and Amos Doolittle actually signed their painted aprons.” He then lauded diverse artists who contributed to culture, from the famous Masons, like William Hogarth, to lesser known creators, including Lovis Corinth, Juan Gris and even Grant Wood. (The “American Gothic” painter also created a lithograph titled “Shriner’s Quartet” in 1939.) Roussimoff described Gris’ career, lamenting how despite being Master of his lodge, he never painted a Masonic picture. “It’s ironic. Gris was a Cubist, so he worked in geometry, in cubes.”
Focusing on his own work, Roussimoff displayed the two outer portions of his triptych, which he dubbed a “Parable of Light and Dark.” It is for the enjoyment of Mason and non-Mason alike, he explained. They parallel the legend of Hiram Abiff. The left portion is titled “Foundations.” It challenges the eye to keep pace. From the top left, the All-Seeing Eye surveys a cultural evolution. From the bottom, the operative workmen swing their tools. Emerging above are the Grand Masters of legend. A menagerie of architectural styles leads the viewer around the center of the painting. Beginning with the Beehive, a building of nature, the trail leads to classical temples, medieval cathedrals and Yakovlev-like towers, with Enlightenment icons the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower along the way. Observing from above are Pushkin (poetry), Wilde (theater), Twain (fiction) and Mozart (music).
Ari discusses his ‘Rebirth.’
The other painting available to us Monday was “Rebirth,” the third story of the triptych. Similarly it gives the eye a lot to consider. I suppose I ought to convey the artist’s explanation of the obvious eye-catcher: that double-vision pair of peepers denoting the supernatural Hebrew figure Melchizedek. “ ‘Rebirth’ is about today, not tomorrow. It is a rebuilding,” Roussimoff said. “The two sets of eyes show spirituality/creativity and the mind/intellect. I wanted to convey heart, soul and logic.”
Part III to come!