There’s still a secret there, in that period some fifty years ago which influenced and gave a direction to my path as a painter and shaped my personality. I keep coming back to it, and generally at times when I lose my way – and in this connecting with it there’s something strengthening and clarifying and even radiant for me.
I’m 73. I’ll try here to write about what was there.
And first, a few words about what came before.
In late ’63, twenty years old and totally romantic, I fell in love passionately, twice. First with an inspiring young man who wanted to be a writer and danced rock’n’roll wonderfully. I also married him, hastily and resolutely, to the passive distaste of my parents and my sister. And very soon after this, and with the same resoluteness, I fell in love with my desire to be a painter.
There was a similarity between my first meeting with my young man and my first meeting with painting, which was at a drawing class with a model at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv. In both I gave myself entirely. Already when I drew the first line with the charcoal chalk in my hand, I felt loved by painting. Easily and fearlessly I gave myself to this abstract sensual lovemaking.
Romantic falling-in-love dissolves and cracks when it encounters reality, and when you marry from such love, you can also expect destructive explosions. For me, these left me without confidence, ashamed, angry, and not knowing how to hold on to the couplehood that I wanted. In painting, however, the process was different. My falling in love and my lovemaking with painting made me curious to learn the language of painting, I wanted to make painting my good friend. I felt sincere and direct with it, and glints of self-appreciation began lighting up in me. I enrolled as a student at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. and like all the students in those days we drew and painted landscapes, still-lifes and people, and did composition exercises in diverse techniques. I quickly discerned that there was an additional quality in the paintings when I painted people from observation and in physical closeness, especially women. Without prior planning, the painted figures took up all of the format, the learning was intuitive, line pursued line in a musical rhythm, my fingers and the materials responded to me, I engaged my consciousness in looking at and concentrating on what was in front of me until I forgot my own existence, and what I created on the sheet of paper was most of all a projection of my existence at that moment. I felt exposed, this aroused me and also frightened me, I said to myself: Just how I paint, that’s how I make love. And the painting knows more than I do.
At the end of that school year my husband and I planned to travel to Australia, to live in Melbourne, the city where he grew up as a refugee from the war, to meet his mother who was a widow and in poor health, and that was a great opening of hope for me.
I brought with me a letter of recommendation from Yosl Bergner to the director of the art academy in Melbourne, who was a friend of his. I wanted to be as far away as possible from the expectations of my parents and the people I had grown up among, to be a foreigner in a big city but with a partner who was generous and who, despite the disappointments, was the only one who knew me, who believed in me, the only one I wanted. I believed I would find a way to live my life as I wanted to. I set out on the big journey.
Melbourne, I felt, welcomed me, as it did my husband who had arrived there with his mother in late ’46 together with many other Jewish refugees. A large city, with a center that impressed me with its public buildings, churches, museums and huge department stores. Spacious suburbs, green parks, a large beach, a network of trams, British bureaucracy and English manners. We rented a flat in St Kilda, a suburb close to the beach, still inhabited by many Jewish refugees and immigrants, who to me looked like my parents and others of their generation in Israel. Richard found a job as editor of a Jewish weekly, and in his free time and in the evenings he would go on writing poetry and prose. We visited his mother once a week and even adopted two kittens we found abandoned in the street. I would bounce from feeling foreign to the new place and feeling close to it, between English and Hebrew, between who I had been and who I wanted to be, between chores of life and teaching Hebrew to earn some income, between painting and printmaking at the school and organizing a working space in our living room that I could use as a studio.
But that can’t be all, I said to myself, that can’t be all that painting can give me and that I can give it.
From nude drawings I made when I arrived in Melbourne, on paper (65/45 cm)
I decided to start painting from a new place, from a place of intention that is more like writing letters to myself.
I made a plan: to start painting from an idea that was formed in my imagination, not through a direct physical encounter, to paint larger than my own size, to remember that I was embodying myself, and to let a woman’s form express this. To use those very mediums and techniques that aren’t friendly to me, so as to slow down the tempo of the act of painting. so that I won’t feel too comfortable.
For my first work in this method I chose to paint in acrylic on tightly-stretched and framed canvas. For the form of the body I chose one of the drawings I had done of a model (the large drawing in the group of drawings above). I liked the jug shape the woman’s body formed, a container that contains, with the heaviness of the base and the delicacy of the upper part, a body form that reminded me of a drop of water before it disappears.
The idea was to fill this slack body with content, to tell about the anger that can fill the body entirely. In my imagination I saw a river of men’s heads with exaggerated facial expressions, dense and pressed together in distress.
I painted the form of the woman’s body on the large canvas and started filling its inside with men’s faces. and to activate my imagination I looked at photographs of men in the Time magazine we used to get in the mail every week. In the painting the faces took on various expressions – angry, astounded, despairing, sealed – and the chalky whiteness hinted at an atmosphere of phantoms.
Below are the only two photographs I have of this work, which was lost in our life’s travels.
The painting was in monochrome colors, the woman’s body conveyed a sense of passive and impotent melancholy, allowing the ”river of rage” to flow through or from her and to release the heavy and noisy mass that filled her body and shaped its form. Her small expressionless face turns to the side, towards a dark unquiet space, as if pulling and stretching the body’s mass upwards. The body is exaggerated in its size, heavy, motionless, and its form hints at a body that is pregnant.
Despite the feeling that “This could be better…”, the familiar feeling that accompanies the completion of any work, I felt a satisfaction with the exercise I’d taken on, the same satisfaction that comes with the expressing and shaping of a feeling that can perhaps reach others. Richard was my only viewer of this painting, and then this was enough.
To this day it seems strange to me, but after this episode I decided that I wanted and was ready to start a family of my own, children and responsibility, and marital love, which is also parental… and I have no way of explaining it to myself, what happened and how and why, but I know that it was connected in an almost magical way with the large painting I made and with what I went through with it.
In the year and a half after “the large painting” my body went through a lot –a pregnancy, a miscarriage, a removal procedure, trying again to become pregnant and succeeding, and the birth of our first son. At the age of 24 I became a mother, in a strange land, just myself and Richard.
During this entire period I created a big series of works, like diary-writing, first of all for myself, so I wouldn’t forget the difficulty.
In these works I continued the line of action I’d taken: first the idea and then the execution. The technique I moved on to was engravings and etchings that I made in the printmaking studio of the art academy. The technique was very suited to my goal because before I began an engraving or an etching I had to plan and know what I wanted to do, and what I wanted was to embody in a figurative and “narrative” visual image the essence of emotions that I knew but couldn’t communicate in any other way. In each work I wanted viewers to identify the pregnant woman, my “literary heroine”, in the emotional space that she created for herself.
Here I’m showing only a few examples, because I will want to relate to this series in another place.
From the series of etchings and engravings I made during my pregnancy
Preparing ourselves for family life with a baby, we moved to an old but relatively spacious terraced house in South Melbourne. Apart from the family rooms, Richard had a work room on the intermediate floor, and I had a large studio with large tables on the top floor, where I could be alone and get things “dirty” without worrying.
In the seventh month of my pregnancy, when my belly had grown, I stopped making prints at the crowded printmaking workshop – what particularly troubled me there was the smell of the acid – and started working with a different printmaking technique, large lino-cuts and wood-cuts, which I could both cut and print in my studio at home.
The gouging of the large plates suited me, there’s something very clear in the act of gouging and in knowing that every mark I gouge out will remain white in the print, and you can’t erase or blur anything. The linoleum is rigid yet soft, there are no fibers in it as there are in the wood, the free hand movement activates the entire arm, the gouged lines are reminiscent of drawn lines on paper. There are no grays here, only the density and the depth of the gouging can give the effect of shading. I was fascinated by the dynamic interactions between the black and the white.
In one of my old sketchbooks I found the idea that I used for my first lino-cut.
Yes, there was a story here too. The figure of the pregnant woman split into two different woman figures whose movements and representations complement one another to form a unity that recalls the yin-yang symbol. Both are in movement in the same direction. The black figure, sensuous, earthy and heavy, is stepping forward, her head turned backwards, hinting at some hesitation or fear, and her hand at her belly supports her developing fetus. In contrast, the white figure is light, in a movement of flight forward and upward, with her arms leading the way.
I was already in the eighth month, the time of the birth was getting close, and – before I sat down to knit a woolen suit and a soft blanket for the baby, both yellow, because at that time we couldn’t know if it would be a boy or a girl – I made two last works before the birth: expressive works that surprised me already then. Even if I had a story in my mind, it dissolved from the power of an emotion I hadn’t yet processed. An urgency overcame any will to tell a story. I was quite scared. More than I allowed myself to feel.
This time the pregnant woman was no longer depicted in a narrative composition with a man or a group of people. The figure took up the entire format, with a strong physical presence, laid down with much energy, and one cannot know if this is a descent or a fall, or perhaps a final surrender.
Jonathan was born, a difficult birth the doctor told me afterwards, they had to use forceps, and they also cut me quite a lot. Yes, giving birth takes everything, and also gives everything. It took us time, me and my first-born son, to get used to one another. We had both been born.
The last two works from this period were done after I gave birth, no longer letters to Richard, nor a diary of emotions, more like a “declaration of intentions”. I remember that doing them brought me much pleasure, pleasure from the process itself and from my ability to draw.
In the first of these I wanted to define the space of my world as a mother and an artist. What I want and what I can. I remember that I said to myself: “When I feel that my child is protected and breathing calmly, I can always long for and tough my imaginary world of feeling and embody myself again and again and I’ll be OK, and it doesn’t matter if life hurts me, everything will be OK…”
And that is what I painted, and attained a kind of serenity.
After giving birth. Prints of two states of a lino-cut, 35/45 cm
The second work, too, was one that I did to heal myself and get stronger. I wanted to bring together all the figures that were like recurring personae in my world of imagination and fantasy, with whom I was constantly quarreling. I wanted to combine them into a strong and growing form like a tree-trunk, like my spinal column.
I started the work at the bottom of the sheet of linoleum, with the figure of the desiring and desired woman, and then I started adding the other figures, rising and weaving together one above the other. Figures that expressed the mystery, sadness, terror, innocence, corruptness, cynicism and bestiality, until I reached the highest figure which also surprised me then and to this day – emaciated, sexless, stable in her yogic squat. protecting a baby between her legs and giving breath from her interiority through her hands until it’s like a sound in the air.
On Growth. Lino-cut print, 97/60 cm. To the right: A preliminary sketch for this work
Jonathan & I, Melbourne, late 1967
During the next 5 years I was taken by life’s events. In my actual life no trace remained of the “declaration of intentions” I’d outlined for myself.
In my personal life, our couplehood went through some hard tests, all the conservative frameworks of married life were burst, a strong wind of changing conventions was blowing in the world, free love, physical and spiritual experiences, enhanced by hashish, marijuana and LSD, the revolution of the flower children.
We traveled, we returned to Israel, we lived in Rosh Pina, we were high, we were down, I was torn up inside, life was intensive to a dangerous degree, I didn’t want to give up on our couplehood, the mother in me protected my sanity, I gave birth to two more sons, but I didn’t paint. I did some craft work that calmed me, works combining knitting and sewing. I thought I had lost myself but I also knew I had protected my family.
In 1971, after the birth of my youngest son, we started rehabilitating ourselves from the great frenzy that had taken hold of our lives, and returned to Tel Aviv, the city where we had begun our life together. I taught in art workshops and slowly began to return to painting. And then I again opened the collection of works I’d made five years earlier, and I said to myself, yes, I’m a painter and perhaps one day I’ll also be able to call myself an artist. All I need to do is not to stop painting whatever happens. And how one returns to painting, I and my body, after a long cessation – that’s another story, and not necessarily the next one.
English translation from the Hebrew (& all photographs) by Richard Flantz