Artists: Contemporary Anglo
Those visitors to the Rubies and Rebels: Jewish Female Identity in Contemporary British Art exhibition held in London in 1996 who expected an aggressively feminist approach emerged either disappointed or relieved. The days when women artists intent on making a feminist statement felt compelled to adopt an overtly critical, even didactic attitude in their work are over. Not because the Women’s Movement has won all its battles and “post-feminism” now holds sway; but because most women no longer hold the view (a view that in retrospect seems both naive and yet perfectly logical) that the key to victory over men lies in the assertion of unwavering unity among women—irrespective of color, class or creed. Women artists for whom gender matters now tend to take a more oblique and subtle approach. Indeed, dominant themes within feminist discourse in the 1990s appeared to be a realization of the daunting complexity of identity politics, an acknowledgement of difference as a prerequisite of true understanding and unity among women, and an emphasis on solidarity in spite of difference.
Many early feminists (particularly in America) were Jewish by birth and upbringing, but made little of that fact—just as, perhaps, at the time of the Russian Revolution, many leading revolutionaries were Jews, fuelled by their disadvantaged circumstances towards a fervor for change, in the pursuit of which, however, their Jewishness was subsumed by a greater cause. Feminist artists, such as Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero and Mary Beth Edelson, tended in 1970s America to adopt a similarly dismissive stance to their Jewishness. In Britain, both feminism as such and feminist art took considerably longer to emerge and make their mark. Yet there too, many of the artists active in the Women’s Movement in the 1980s—Jacqueline Morreau and Mouse Katz, for example—were indeed Jewish, but at the time felt this to be of secondary importance, even perhaps of little relevance to their struggles.
There were, of course, other artists who felt that neither gender nor ethnic and religious issues had any bearing on their artistic identities; Jewish women who—wary of labels—wished to be seen purely as artists, independent of all other considerations. Some continue to feel this way. Indeed, historically, Jewish women who had artistic aspirations (in Britain as elsewhere) had to do battle not only with the prejudices that reigned against all female artists and against all Jews, but with the male-dominated Jewish establishment as well. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many of them chose, chameleon-like, to integrate themselves as inconspicuously as possible into the artistic establishment.
In both America and Britain, women intent on remaining loyal to their religion yet newly alert to the inequalities highlighted by feminism, sought a satisfactory way of participating more fully in a religious way of life. And indeed, a small number of women artists, mainly from within the religiously observant Jewish community, over the years revealed a consistent preoccupation with Jewish themes: above all, the anguish of the Holocaust and the reassuring power of domestic religious ritual—which to the non-observant Jew might seem mutually exclusive. Born out of a sense of familiarity with, and acceptance of, tradition, the art produced by such artists—however sincere—tends to be intellectually and aesthetically unchallenging, even somewhat predictable in its imagery, a confirmation of truths already known rather than an exploration of the unknown.
Jewishness, however, to many—and certainly to most of the artists who were featured in the London exhibition—entails a strong sense of “racial” loyalty, a culture and a history held in common, more than it does a strict adherence to Jewish ritual practices. The realization that antisemitism exists even within some feminist circles, combined with the disturbing resurgence of neo-Fascism, racism and anti-Jewish feeling in society at large caused many Jewish women to reassess their allegiances. Secularized Jewish women artists, whatever the extent of their previous commitment to the Women’s Movement, therefore began increasingly to look to their Jewishness as fertile source material for their art. It is striking how many artists who are only half-Jewish have chosen to acknowledge that half of themselves as the more important.
The response of British women artists to the challenge of a renewed confrontation with their Jewishness has, for the most part, been slower and less emphatic than that of their American counterparts. But in Britain, too, there are now large numbers of women intent on confronting their Jewishness in all its troubling complexity, and on giving that complexity artistic form. The gender of these artists remains of crucial importance, however, even if the ways in which it finds expression in their art is sometimes oblique, even veiled. The most obvious manifestation of this is the frequency with which it is the matriarchal line, and its history, which fascinates them—it is after all the mother who determines whether a child is halakhically Jewish, who traditionally, albeit in a circumscribed way, exercises a powerful influence within the Jewish family. Whether it is the role of the family, the problematic experience of immigration and assimilation or the yet more problematic legacy of the Holocaust, a reassessment of the Bible or a concomitant exploration of spirituality that the artist is addressing, it is nearly always the woman—and often, unsurprisingly, the artist herself—who forms the pivot of her attention.
These areas of concern of necessity overlap considerably, with the Holocaust in particular appearing as a dark undercurrent in many works. In the paintings of Marlene Rolfe, the uneasiness of her position as both daughter and mother—memorably expressed in Family of 1990—is inextricably bound up with her awareness of her mother’s and her aunt’s past, dealt with more explicitly in other paintings. Her mother Ilse, who was born into an assimilated Berlin Jewish family, was active in the German Communist Party and spent three years as a political prisoner in concentration camps before her release in 1938, when she emigrated to England and later married a non-Jew. Her mother’s twin sister Else, a Social Democrat, was also interned and released, escaping to Norway and thence to New York.
The artist herself, born in London in 1946, refers to her parents as eccentric. Her “terribly English” father took her to church on Sundays, an experienced that created in her a love of stained-glass windows and the high voices of choirboys. The beauty of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible may even have provided the stimulus for studying English at Cambridge University and, later, fine art and critical studies at the Central St. Martin’s School of Art. Rolfe does not remember hearing the word “Jewish” before she was ten years old. Initially, Rolfe knew virtually nothing of her mother’s history but since the 1980s, with the “old age, frailty and death of [her] mother and aunt,” she has “increasingly wanted to recreate the lost worlds of their past and of [her] own childhood.”
Rolfe belatedly realized that her mother’s inexpressible experience had marked her whole life and particularly her old age. She always felt herself to be in exile, “torn up by the roots from her family, her Heimat, her language.” Only when her mother was old and frail, when she gave up first speaking and then eating, did Rolfe, desperately wanting to know her story and reclaim the “lost worlds of the past,” begin researching her mother’s life and background. She went to Berlin, visited the sites of imprisonment (KZ Lichtenburg and KZ Ravensbrück) and tracked the details of her grandmother’s deportation to Belzec.
“How,” she eloquently asks, “can I deal visually with questions of the small action against the massive sweep of events; of personal, private histories and continuities; of female as opposed to male courage; of women’s work and women’s language? While I was in Berlin … to research my mother’s story, I found some clues on a tiny scale, such as miniature subversive leaflets in false covers, or illicit embroideries and playthings made by the women at Ravensbrück. There is an alternative approach to the public, heroic struggle with past and present of some male artists. Such an approach might be private, adventitious, female. It might be small in scale. It could aim at simplicity, function expressed through decoration, and modesty of scale and intention: all features of women’s work through the ages.”
Many of Rolfe’s own paintings are correspondingly modest, seemingly ingenuous productions, in which “feminine” elements are knowingly juxtaposed with dehumanized, abstracted forms suggestive of the architecture of the concentration camps, though often in fact based on scenes of urban dereliction in her native London, where as a child she played on bomb-sites with fireplaces and wallpaper on the exposed walls. Other paintings, larger in scale and more intense and non-naturalistic in color, depict her mother and aunt, now old but reunited, pathetic in their physical frailty but spiritually indomitable. The title of Wandervögel, literally “Wandering Birds,” alludes primarily to the two women, but also ironically to the name of a nationalistic rambling organization popular in prewar Germany.
The Holocaust casts a powerful and deeply personal shadow over the work of Julie Held (b. London, 1958) as well. Both parents of this artist came to Britain as children just prior to World War II; their apparent (and by no means uncommon) inability fully to articulate their own sense of loss meant that this loss loomed even larger in the life of their daughter, who at an early age was aware that she had a different home life—one broadly based within the German-Jewish tradition—from that of her school friends. “The direct experience of pre-war Nazi Germany of my parents influenced me,” she says. The long illness and subsequent death of Julie Held’s mother when the artist was only eighteen compounded and intensified that sense of loss still further. A self-portrait of 1995 entitled Myself Remembered, with its reference to the traditional Jewish practice of covering mirrors during the seven-day period of mourning known as sitting shivah, speaks vividly of a childhood and adolescence deeply marked by loss. In many of Held’s paintings, however, the often somber, even tragic subject matter is transfigured by the richness of the paint surface, a reveling in the emotive power of color.
In an on-going series of canvases depicting family gatherings at a table set to celebrate a Jewish High Holy Day, strident color and angular composition vividly convey a sense of tension and anxiety verging on neurosis. When we learn that the protagonists include members of the artist’s family who perished in the Holocaust, these images become almost unbearably poignant. The latest painting in the series, Supper is, atypically, unpeopled—except that the dark shadow cast over the festive table speaks eloquently for those who are absent. Equally if not more moving is the intimate Dying Woman, depicting her mother on her deathbed—an event which she was for many years unable to confront. Most striking of all the elements in this unforgettable painting is the luminous bridal quality of her mother’s body beneath its transparent nightgown—a disturbing acknowledgment of both the continuing sensuality and the vulnerability of the female form.
The Wedding, typically for Held, is both melancholy and celebratory, its central female protagonist fragile, set apart, but strong nevertheless. The dark, ill-defined and shadowy figure of the groom, turned away from both his bride and the viewer, contrasts forcibly with the three generations of sisters—the artist’s grandmother and her sister; her mother and aunt; and her sister and herself—in the background, all—like the bride—facing outwards towards the viewer. Held’s renderings of Biblical heroines, be they Judith or Eve, are similarly ambiguous—vulnerable and defiant at one and the same time.
Stylistically far removed from the hot colors and turbulent brushwork of Julie Held and, to a lesser extent, Marlene Rolfe, but nonetheless permeated with an awareness of the Holocaust and its rupturing not only of European Jewry as a whole, but of individual families, is a haunting series of oil paintings begun in 1993 by the Hove-based artist Barbara Loftus. Loftus was born in London in 1946 to a lapsed Irish Catholic, communist father and a German Jewish mother, who for many years divulged virtually nothing of her traumatic past. She had come to England in 1939 as a refugee from Nazi Germany and had tried to obtain visas for her family to escape. However, she was too late; the war started and her family, trapped in Germany, were eventually transported to Auschwitz, where they perished. She was the family’s sole survivor. Only in old age did she begin to talk more easily of her past, describing events, both happy and sad, with a vividness that made her daughter want to reconstruct them in her image-making. Loftus has taken her mother’s hesitant and fragmentary recollections of the day in November 1938 when the Nazis “confiscated” the family’s fine collection of porcelain and translated these memories into a compelling sequence of exquisitely crafted narrative paintings.
These works are reminiscent of Balthus in their refined and delicate paint surfaces and quietly enigmatic action (but with none of the erotic undertow of that artist’s work). Their deliberately understated quality, a stillness in which the viewer can almost hear the intake of breath as the family must have looked on helplessly, only emphasizes the menacing nature of the events being depicted. Typically, it is a very “feminine” scene of bourgeois domesticity that is being desecrated: the artist’s maternal grandmother presides over a game of bridge in her comfortable Berlin home; a young girl dances. … Interestingly, although Loftus’s mother was already in her early twenties in 1938, the artist has chosen to depict her as a child—not only, one assumes, to elicit greater sympathy from the viewer, but also to focus attention on the problematic mother-daughter relationship. The short film which accompanies A Confiscation of Porcelain carries the artist’s evident interest in sequential imagery a step further. As in the case of the paintings, however, any tendency to be overliteral or over-literary is offset by her self-conscious and technically consummate manipulation of her chosen medium.
The complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, once again in the shadow of the Holocaust, forms an important leitmotif in the work of Sandra Brandeis Crawford. The artist’s mother was a Viennese Jew who, unlike most of the rest of her family, escaped Austria in time because in 1938 her mother decided, against the will of the rest of the family, to send her daughter on the last Kindertransport from Prague to an uncertain future in England. Crawford herself was born in London in 1955, but in 1959, at the age of four, she accompanied her mother to Australia, where her maternal grandmother had remarried. After childhood in Australia, her teenage years were spent somewhat unhappily, first in England, then in Vienna, and again in England, where she later attended art school. The very embodiment of the Wandering Jewess, she now resides in Vienna, resigned to the fact that she will never feel completely at home anywhere, but determined to use that rootlessness as fertile raw material for her art. Her unequivocally matriarchal legacy is compounded by the fact that the artist, herself the daughter of a single parent who was very dependent on her own mother, is now the mother of a daughter.
It should therefore come as no surprise that many of Crawford’s powerful mixed-media compositions allude to the complexity of these female relationships. Guardian of the Swim deals primarily with the artist’s protective attitude to her daughter; her own text, written to accompany this image, runs as follows: “I have become the constant Watcher. I am rooted to the spot. I cannot join in the activity because I have to watch to see that nothing terrible happens. But in fact anything can happen. The Child is free to choose. I do not own the Child, I just care for her.” Dear Mother—as the title suggests—concerns itself with the artist’s relationship with her own mother: Blurred fragments of letters written to her mother but never sent, form collaged elements in a composition which also contains references within a quasi-geometric structure formed by letters suggestive of the word “mama,” to female archetypes from other cultures, which stand in pointed and poignant contrast with the mother figure in her own life. In Crawford’s own words: “You are the Mother I always wanted, the nurturing all-good Mother, bountiful and soft, as in a dream. Reality is a letter I would never send because it is pointless to judge the past.” Another body of works on the theme of Jewish cemeteries, alluding both to her own family’s history and to the collective history of European Jewry, are similarly resonant and multi-layered in their imagery.
American-born (1939), London-resident Liliane Lijn has long concerned herself with archetypal female imagery, embodied in her own inimitable combination of elemental and “high-tech” materials. Her later sculptures are an arresting homage to the complexity of being female and to the intimate alliance of the physical and the spiritual within a single, female body. My Body, My Self incorporates life-size bronze fragments cast from the artist’s own body, layers of translucent ruby mica (a naturally occurring geological material) and a (neon-like) argon infrastructure which surfaces triumphantly at the top of the sculpture to form a radiant head-cum-halo. Seen in conjunction with another corpus of recent work inspired by her own mother’s reminiscences, My Body, My Self can also be construed as an image of womanhood that is specifically Jewish in its awareness of the burdens and challenges of history. Lijn has described herself as never feeling that she belonged to a specific group, whether national, ethnic or religious. Her parents were not religious Jews and she grew up with a broad humanist education. Her grandparents both spoke Yiddish and between them and her parents at least five languages were routinely spoken. In 1990 Lijn began working on a series of self-portraits made from cast bronze fragments of her body. At the same time she began to write about herself and rapidly realized that she had very little knowledge of her family’s history of fragmentation and dispersal. She therefore spent two years taping interviews with her mother. Book and video works such as Her Mother’s Voice deal explicitly with the artist’s increasing preoccupation with her mother’s story and its impact on her own life. The pain implicit in that story is kept at bay, rendered “safe” by the artist’s technical ingenuity, impeccable craftsmanship and poetic elegance.
Best known for her technically brilliant, psychologically incisive portraits and, more recently, her evocative, abstracted renderings of desert landscapes, Sarah Raphael (Suffolk, England, 1960–2001) was also haunted by her family’s European past. During the early 1990s she created a number of meticulously crafted, enigmatic acrylic paintings of tiny figures in landscape, alongside monumental, claustrophobic charcoal drawings, all imbued with a strong sense of menace—accentuated (as in the canvases of Barbara Loftus) by the tense stillness of the compositions. These images were inspired on one level by her awareness of the suffering of her mother’s Polish-Jewish family in the Holocaust; on another, by her reading of certain key literary texts. Although willing to divulge her sources in a general way, she is reluctant to discuss these references in any detail. Naming as artistic kindred spirits painters such as Piero della Francesca, Balthus, Kitaj and Michael Andrews, she clearly favors an art that tantalizingly hints at a hidden narrative while never allowing the viewer to forget the physicality of her chosen medium.
Thus, in Triptych of 1993, the left- and right-hand panels relate to passages from short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, while the central image alludes to incidents in The Painted Bird by the Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski. Although knowledge of these sources confirms the artist’s preoccupation with Eastern European Jewish experience, the deeply disturbing, almost surreal nature of the image is self-evident. Another charcoal drawing, The Emigration Game, draws on two very disparate sources: one, the chance hearing by the artist of a poem read on the radio about the game a Jewish family played while waiting to leave Prague before the war—picking a sweet and guessing from the flavor of its filling what their destination might be. The second reference is to a black woman servant the artist encountered on a trip to the West Indies, who had not seen her own family for many years. A sensitivity to these two very different, and yet in some ways kindred, experiences informs this powerful and compassionate composition.
In the recent work of Rachel Lichtenstein (b. Rochford, Essex, 1969) family allegiances and a sense of history that is indisputably Jewish are once again inextricably linked. Since the death of her grandfather in 1987, she has been much preoccupied with perpetuating through her art the memory and legacy of her family’s Eastern European roots. Her grandfather was the last survivor of Polish Jews in her family and the last bearer of the family name, since her father and his brothers anglicized theirs to Laurence. Determined not to allow her heritage to disappear, she reclaimed her family name by deed-poll. She embarked on a series of personal and creative journeys that map the trail of her ancestors, traveling repeatedly to Poland, Israel, London and New York. Following the family story took her to London’s East End, where in 1991 she became artist-in-residence at the Spitalfields Heritage Center, on the site of London’s third-oldest synagogue. Currently resident in Arad, Israel, Lichtenstein has become increasingly aware of the even longer continuum of Jewish history. In Kirsch Family (1996) she created a life-size floor mosaic based on a photograph of her grandmother’s family taken in ?ód?, Poland in 1915, but constructed of ancient shards collected from archaeological sites in Israel. (The large scale of this work is, she has stated, a self-conscious rejection of the predominantly male assumption that monumentality and masculinity form a natural partnership.) Attempting to escape from persecution, the family emigrated to England soon after the photograph was taken, They found it impossible to settle: the grandmother and one brother decided to stay, two sisters emigrated to Argentina, two brothers to New York. The other six family members returned to Poland—none survived the Holocaust. The photograph that inspired Lichtenstein’s work is the only remaining record of her entire family. A wall panel, listing the names of the family members depicted and giving details of where they met their death, tells a story both unique and horribly typical; yet in one sense the family is preserved intact—a particularly female preoccupation—by the materials with which the artist has memorialized it. Her sense of the complex layering of historical experience and memory is given further expression by means of the deliberate fragmentation and stratification of the image.
Family and an ambiguous sense of continuity also haunt the work of sculptor and printmaker Gillian Singer, who was born in 1954 in Leeds, where she still lives and works. Singer’s interest in giving artistic expression to these issues was also prompted by the death of a close relative—in this instance her father. This event, combined with a visit to Prague and in particular to its impressive and poignant Jewish cemetery, where the “tombstones are stacked like cards,” led in the early 1990s to a preoccupation with images of mortality and decay but also continuity, represented by Jewish ritual objects and ancient symbols such as the menorah and the flame. Initially exploring these themes through the intimate medium of etching, Singer later moved into the more public medium of relief sculpture. A monumental forty-nine paneled relief, Untitled, incorporates images borrowed from her earlier work (as well as family photographs, photocopied so as to become intentionally blurred and difficult to read) into a textured plaster background, molded and incised so as to suggest—among numerous other references—both the organic forms of roots and branches (with their allusions to a symbolic tree of life) and ancient Hebrew calligraphy. Of this work Singer herself wrote: “It contains a history within itself, a general history and a personal history of memory.”
Edori Fertig was born in New York City in 1957 and settled in London in 1984. The tragic death of her mother while she was still at art school at the Rhode Island School of Design led to an obsession with images of maternity, reminiscent of the work of artists such as Amanda Faulkner and Eileen Cooper, but more powerfully ambivalent. Since becoming a mother herself, a preoccupation with motherhood and fertility has begun to combine (especially since her partner is not Jewish) with a wish to explore the symbolic and emotional legacy of her Jewish origins. The Menorah, with its references to the tree of life, to organic life forms and to flame, has proved a particularly rich source of imagery for this technically inventive and versatile artist. In the etching Hannukiah, for example, the Hannukah candelabrum fuses visually with the rib-cage of the central female figure, its inverted form suggestive not only of bones but of a tallit (prayer shawl normally worn only by men). Ancient symbols combine in other works with imagery of a more directly personal nature, relating to her mother’s and her grandmother’s past. In “Shabbat” (My Grandmother’s Gloves), for example, she incorporated a plaster imprint of gloves actually owned by her grandmother into an image resonant not only of the Sabbath blessing but also of the abstracted hand motif (or hamsa) traditionally worn as an amulet to ward off the evil eye. The matriarchal lineage is presented once more—indeed, one of Fertig’s works is actually entitled Maternal Line.
The father of Abigail Cohen, an Orthodox Jew born in London in 1972, left the family home when the artist was a young child; unsurprisingly, her attitude to her own Jewishness in her formative years was ambivalent in the extreme. Later, she returned to religious observance with a new sense of self-assurance. She is also well attuned to current feminist debates. Indeed, her monumental series of paintings Psalm I, II and III originated in a wish to investigate the problematic dynamic of a woman artist painting a female nude. Having asked a female friend to photograph a naked model bending down to light two candles, accompanied by other symbolically laden objects such as an apple and a hairbrush, Cohen was struck by the fact that the form of the woman in the photograph almost exactly echoed (albeit in reverse) that of the Hebrew letter shin, which, as the first letter both of the word Shaddai, one of the sacred names of God, and of Shekhinah, the female element in divinity, is one of Judaism’s most potent spiritual symbols.
Out of this serendipitous event grew the Psalm triptych, a young woman’s painterly meditation on the complex relationship between female sexuality and women’s spirituality. (Significantly, the paintings were once due to be hung in the hall of a London synagogue; but the rabbi deemed them too “immodest” for such a venue.) The Hebrew letters inscribed, graffiti-like, on the surface of Psalm I allude to a poem written by Cohen herself, which reads as follows: “Welcome/a woman of worth/standing in generations, the bride/lights her kind of writing/and she makes the spirits dance.” In two other works, readable detail is progressively eliminated, the forms increasingly abstracted, so as to emphasize both the symbolic power of the imagery and the rich physicality and glowing colors of the paintings as paintings.
For Carole Berman (b. London, 1952), Jewishness has always formed an important part of her life. At the age of only three she became aware of her Jewish ancestry, prompted by sitting at the Passover seder table at her grandparents’ home. “It was a very colorful and awe-inspiring evening which is embedded deeply in my memory.” The colors combined with her grandfather’s sonorous reading and commentary on the Passover story: slavery and redemption. “Thus … I was introduced to a dramatic and archetypal source.” Her connection to religion is, she says, a mystical rather than an orthodox one. Jewishness co-exists in her art with a fascination for other religions and cultures—even when the ostensible subject matter derives from the Bible. Her complex mythic images are a striking amalgam of the visionary and the intensely personal, with a focus primarily on the female form and the female psyche. Although William Blake, Cecil Collins, Frida Kahlo and Francesco Clemente are some of the artists who have clearly influenced her, her artistic voice remains unequivocally her own.
Thus, The Three Sisters (1995–1996), suggestive, in Berman’s own words, of “both a personal and a collective sisterhood,” was originally inspired by images of Cretan fertility goddesses seen on a visit to that island with her two sisters and their daughters. The original drawing traveled with the artist to Jerusalem, where she lived for a few years, immersing herself in the Zohar and other Jewish mystical texts. Some of the diagrammatic illustrations to these texts further inspired her, suggesting “associations between the Sefirot in the Tree of Life and the chakras of the body.” The strange homunculi that people The Three Sisters thus allude to these symbolic energy points of the human body in both Yogic and Jewish mysticism; they also, more generally, imply the “potential for new lives that will hopefully come into being.”
Eve, in which “these homunculi have extensions into the outside world, which I hoped might suggest a metaphor for oscillations of energy or prana,” followed shortly after. These “extensions” are also reminiscent of the extra hands of Hindu deities, and in particular those of the powerful and fearful goddess Kali. Eve is thus in part transmuted into the more threatening figure of Lilith, Adam’s first wife who dared to defy his wishes and was thereby relegated to the world of demons. Adam in Carole Berman’s rendering of him is allied firmly with the animal world—in marked contrast to Eve, whose links, for all her physicality, are firmly with the spiritual realm.
Rachel Garfield (b. London, 1963) hails from a religiously Orthodox, but otherwise liberal, Ashkenazic family. Thus the ritual artefacts that inhabit her canvases form an integral part of her being—in spite of the fact that—since she is no longer a practicing Jew—she now regards what they represent with a more critical eye. She is strongly aware, too, of the need to pay her ambiguous homage to these potent symbols in a contemporary aesthetic idiom and has chosen for that purpose the language of monumental color-field abstraction. Her awareness of gender, though not dealt with directly in her work, can be seen to express itself in a self-conscious preoccupation with surface pattern and with religious rituals from which women are virtually excluded or, at best, in which the status of women is deeply ambivalent.
Garfield’s canvases, although easy to appreciate on a purely sensuous, even decorative level, are never entirely abstract. The artist herself has spoken of her interest in the concepts of layering, revelation and concealment—both iconographically, in terms of her symbolic vocabulary, and technically, in terms of her handling of paint. Motifs derived from such ritual objects as seder plates, Hanukkah candelabra, amulets, festive goblets and so on from a wide range of different Jewish communities (including those now extinct, in Spain and Portugal) speak eloquently of their users, even when fragmented and decontextualized, while Hebrew calligraphy also serves to anchor the imagery in an age-old but still vibrant tradition.
Thus, the title of The Wicked Son is a reference to the passage in the Passover Haggadah in which four sons question their father as to the significance of the Seder. The fact that the artist has chosen to focus on the wicked son (the Hebrew word for wicked, rasha, is literally inscribed upon the picture surface) suggests her own identification with the position of defiant outsider represented by that son. Equally, the fact that the first letter of the word rasha is “imprisoned” behind a grille in a composition reminiscent of a fortress testifies to Garfield’s fascination with Jewish life in the Middle Ages and, more generally, with the complex interaction between Judaism and its host cultures throughout history.
The abstract art of Angela Baum is of an entirely different kind, although she too hails from an Orthodox background. She was born in London in 1945, at a time when the horrors of the Holocaust were filtering back to her family, themselves fortunate recent immigrants. Since her birth, she says, she has been “positioned in a paradox”: engaging with the sacred and profane, the religious and the secular. Her parents were emancipated, liberal, cultured and optimistic while her remaining grandparents lived a shtetl life, restricted and Hasidic, in Golders Green. Her mother died suddenly when Baum was hardly six years old and thereafter she spent her time shuttling between her grandparents’ home and a very English boarding school. In 1967, when she married, she “plunged with fervor” into the life of a typical Jewish homemaker and bore four sons. When the youngest went to nursery school in 1983, she embarked with serious intent on art studies, becoming a full-time student when the family moved to Bristol in 1985. Whether both she and Rachel Garfield chose abstraction partly—even unconsciously—under the influence of the traditional (but now, it has to be said, virtually obsolete) Jewish suspicion of the “graven image” cannot be proved, but at least provides food for thought. Baum’s ambivalent position as a feminist negotiating a space for herself within Orthodoxy first found expression in a series of paintings produced in the early 1990s entitled Silent Letters, comprising a calligraphic meditation on the significance of the letters ayin and aleph, both of them silent but essential components of the Hebrew alphabet—and hence metaphors for the position of women within traditional Judaism.
A painting of 1992, Agunah, in which a photocopied fragment of the artist’s own ketubbah is held prisoner by a threatening abstract grid, alludes in a powerfully symbolic fashion to the dilemma of women trapped in unsatisfactory marriages by Jewish religious law. Similarly, a more recent sequel to the Silent Letters series entitled Kaddish, virtually monochrome in homage to the funereal theme of the work, stands both as a reproach to a religion that—in its Orthodox form at least—denies a woman the right to recite the prayer for the dead (in this case, Angela Baum’s own father) as part of a synagogue service; and as the means whereby the artist can indeed mourn her father in public.
Very different in mood is the series of celebratory images collectively entitled Matriarchs which Baum produced in 1995. The artist describes these vividly colored, vibrant compositions as “abstract portraits of the matriarchs ... which relate to my deep interest in the women in the Bible, their lives and more importantly the stories behind the stories.” However, unless the viewer knows those stories already, they can only be guessed at; for these are explosive painterly meditations on the idea of matriarchal power (with only the occasional Hebrew name to anchor them more precisely) rather than explicit descriptions of historical figures. Although Baum’s Chava (Eve) stands in striking visual contrast to Carole Berman’s emphatically figurative rendering of the same subject, both—in their different ways—seek to celebrate the intimate alliance of the physical and the spiritual—a concern shared, as we have seen, by a number of other artists.
Surprisingly few Jewish women artists have focused on the self-portrait as a means of expression. Julie Held and Marlene Rolfe are notable exceptions; another is Judy Bermant (b. London, 1939), who grew up in a deeply observant North London community. The trauma suffered by survivors of the Holocaust who resettled in the neighborhood augmented the fears experienced by earlier residents, who were greatly troubled by anxiety for their loved ones in Europe. This was a crucial part of her formative years. She specialized in illustration at the St. Martin’s School of Art and learned printmaking at the Camden Institute. Long well-known in the mainstream Anglo-Jewish community for her sensitive portraits of its members (including her husband, the writer Chaim Bermant), images of Israel and her illustrations to her husband’s books, it is only in Bermant’s troubled and penetrating self-portraits that she allows herself to vent the tensions she feels as an Orthodox woman struggling to combine the demands of her religion, her family and her artistic creativity. Negative/Positive Self Image graphically embodies these tensions and the way they impinge upon her sense of self. Other prints similarly testify, both by their slightly self-mocking titles and the nervous energy of their surface textures, to the fragmentation with which she has to contend in her everyday life. Most recently Bermant has worked on a series of London cityscapes which seem to hark back to her East End roots and reflect something of the devastation left by the Blitz and all that is invoked by that period. They also suggest something of the tension, dislocation—and even fear—on these same streets today, when the area is largely populated by immigrants from Pakistan and other Asian countries.
Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1948, Jessica Wilkes, the daughter of a Jewish father and a mother of North Country and Scottish descent, has gradually come to understand her identity as both Jewish and non-Jewish. Baptized in the Church of England, she grew up knowing nothing of Judaism. But as she grew older it became increasingly apparent that she could not ignore her Jewishness. Teaching painting at a home for older Jews, she learned about Jewish customs and the calendar of festivals and holidays. She also visited cousins in New York, where she attended her only synagogue service at the Lesbian and Gay Synagogue.
While not Jewish, her parental home was profoundly conscious politically. Her father, a left-wing intellectual, campaigned against National Socialism while he was still a student at Oxford in the 1930s. After serving in the British army he was elected Labour MP for Newcastle Central in 1945.
Although not only or straightforwardly a self-portrait image, the artist herself forms the unequivocal focus of Wilkes’s monumental canvas, Carousel (1989–1991). While unashamedly autobiographical, Carousel also makes reference to pre-existing images and symbols: most obviously to Mark Gertler’s 1916 The Merry-Go-Round (itself an expression of outsider angst), and the fascination felt by many artists since at least the eighteenth century for the circus or fairground as metaphors for human existence, and, more specifically, for the marginalized position of the artist. Unlike Sarah Raphael, Wilkes (who was in therapy for some years during the making of this painting) is happy to “explain” the manifold references in her work. Thus, for example, the falling male figure on the right of the composition represents her Jewish, socialist father, whose sense of self Wilkes now perceives as having been very fragile; the red-haired child, a composite figure based on the artist’s favored younger sister, her (non-Jewish) mother and her niece, also represents her own better self. The sexy, half-naked female figure clearly represents both female sexuality in general and the artist’s own sexuality in particular; the monkey behind the central figure stands for the artist’s past (but traditionally stands also for lust); while the word “Star” refers not only to a much-loved horse from the artist’s childhood but also to her own refusal to be inconspicuous.
Less iconographically complex, though more symbolically resonant are her more recent large paintings of a female fire-eater in harlequin costume. Strong yet vulnerable, the woman transgressively “playing with fire” was originally intended as an exploration of female sexuality; but soon became overlaid with references (at first barely conscious) to the Holocaust. This first manifested itself in the canvas Torch Song, which in the background featured a tall brick tower based on a structure close to the artist’s London home, which only later took on more alarming references. In Devil’s Stick, these references are more veiled, but undeniably present.
Hilary Rosen was born in London in 1953. Her maternal grandparents, first-generation English children of Russian immigrants, lived in the East End during World War II, in a flat above a kosher butcher shop whose bloodstained implements made a lasting impression on the artist. Her paternal grandparents had been in England longer and were considerably more affluent. Both grandmothers had a strong influence on Rosen’s becoming an artist. When she was five her maternal grandmother entered one of her paintings in a competition and it won first prize, the first of many that followed throughout her years at Jewish primary and secondary schools. She trained at Trent Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art in London. A visit to Berlin and her encounter there with the works of the German expressionists also influenced her profoundly.
Rosen’s attitude to bourgeois Jewish festivities—above all, to wedding parties—as well as to the social niceties of synagogue worship is both witty and profoundly ambivalent. In The Selection, her fascination with social mores and the seductiveness of ritual is compounded by a darker undercurrent. Inspired in part by her memories of a Jewish wedding in which dancing couples were paired off by a master of ceremonies, the idea of “selection” also brought to mind the terrible process whereby the fate of Holocaust victims on arrival at the death camps was decided by the wave of a hand (hinted at in the painting both by a figure seen from the back with outstretched arms and by the suggestive title). In her restless, crowded compositions—most often executed in watercolor on an unusually monumental scale for that medium—the celebrants are depicted in a floridly exaggerated manner bordering on caricature, stylistically reminiscent of those mordant critics of Weimar culture, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and George Grosz, but possessing a warmth and a humor far removed from the angry cruelty of so many Neue Sachlichkeit images. The recurring motif of a disproportionately large single figure occupying the center foreground is clearly inspired by a device also to be found in the work of George Grosz—but in Rosen’s work that figure is nearly always female, both alienated from, and an unwilling participant in, the action behind her.
Rosen’s strong identification with the immigrant of any race and color—as witnessed, for example, by her lively and sympathetic renderings of London street markets—undoubtedly has its roots in her vivid childhood memories of London’s East End, home of her maternal grandparents. It expresses itself, too, in images of quite a different kind, in which a somber, empathetic awareness of the plight of the refugee, the evacuee and the homeless, born of her own family’s experiences as poor Russian-Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms around the turn of the century, reaches beyond the particular to the universal. For many of these images, Rosen abandons the fluid sensuousness of watercolor in favour of charcoal applied with a stark dramatic power.
Anne Sassoon’s family on her father’s side was of Iraqi origin. She herself was born in North Wales in 1943 but grew up in South Africa (acutely aware, it seems, of her disadvantaged position as a woman in a tightly knit Sephardi community). She returned to settle in Britain in 1986 and studied Fine Art at Middlesex University. A year spent in the United States further reinforced, and compounded, her already complicated self-image and her strong sense of the dislocation felt by all immigrants. Indeed, in South Africa her work revealed a strong empathy with the migrant black and colored populations of that country. It was in America that she painted a series of images inspired by a photograph of her father’s family taken just before they left Baghdad in 1918 to settle in Britain. She admits to being fascinated by the slightly strained formality and the exotic clothing of the sitters—and to being moved by the piquancy of the image, the sense of alienation it conveys to her, which she in turn conveys by means of a hot palette and a restless, nervous brushstroke.
The family of Verdi Yahooda (b. Aden, 1952) left Yemen in the early 1960s, bringing much of their Sephardi culture with them. Although her photographic work since 1984–1986 frequently makes reference to that culture, she had previously tended to play down its significance, instead stressing the more conceptual and formalist aspects of her work rather than her Jewish faith and Orthodox background with its particular set of traditions and customs that hitherto had been kept private. One might indeed argue that the cerebral, almost detached nature of her imagery suggests a suppression of that background’s emotional importance to her; certainly, a tension seems to exist between the apparent coolness, verging on sterility, and a sense of nostalgia for the world to which it alludes. The result of this tension is a poetic body of work of greater poignancy than the artist may have intended.
Seven Wrapped Objects makes use of artifacts, some of them purely domestic (a set of table knives, a delicate woven handkerchief), others associated with religious ritual (a piece of afikoman, a rolled-up ketubbah) found in Yahooda’s parents’ home. The act of wrapping and unwrapping these objects in white cloths alludes not only to an ordinary physical act (albeit one that brings to mind the white kittel, the prayergown-turned-shroud, in which Orthodox Jews are buried), but also a metaphysical one—a metaphor for concealment and discovery. A Question of Faith juxtaposes three objects (one of them a mezuzah) used for mainstream ritual purposes with three others used in more obviously superstitious rituals (the collecting of nail parings, for example), thereby implying that superstition, however primitive, forms an integral part of the Jewish —or indeed, any—religion. The title of Sifting Through alludes to the domestic, exclusively female practice in Yemenite Jewish culture of sifting grains for culinary purposes; but it also suggests, when allied to the motley assortment of domestic objects depicted in this series of photographs, the complex layering of identities faced not only by the artist herself, but by all immigrants.
Clearly, the problematic status of the immigrant and the displaced person informs a great deal of the work of all the artists discussed so far, if only obliquely. In contrast, much of the work of Jenny Polak (b. England, 1957) in the early 1990s concerns itself explicitly and directly with the experience of immigration. Like It Or Not is a vivid and disturbing work, comprising a lightbox showing a photograph of Polak’s mother’s head, eyes closed, grimacing as if drowning, and framed by a flower-like structure made of papier-maché, inscribed uncompromisingly with the words “Jew,” “Mother,” “England.” Repatriate (England Still) of 1993 invites the viewer to relive the immigrant experience of walking up a makeshift jetty, which incorporates another version of the same luminous image of the artist’s mother found in Like It Or Not, as well as some disconcerting statistics, alerting one to the fact that at no time has immigration to Britain ever exceeded emigration.
Created after she emigrated to the United States, To Self Destruct: To Identify (with the deliberately provocative and self-conscious subtitle, Jew Life in a Christian Country No. 6) sets out to analyze—in a manner that, typically for Polak, is both conceptually acute and visually arresting—illness, particularly of the female, as a metaphor for “otherness” inscribed upon the body. In her own words, this is “a personal story of illness as a Jewish signifier in relations with Christians.” It relates to Rahel Varnhagen’s statement: “For do what I will, I shall be ill, out of gêne, as long as I live: I live against my inclination, I dissemble, I am courteous.” Quotations from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe referring to Rebecca, the epitome of the exotic, “beautiful Jewess,” combine in this work with references to the childhood illness of colitis, suffered by Polak herself and particularly prevalent among Jews, these texts being superimposed on photographs of the artist’s own naked torso.
Not all of Polak’s work is concerned with specifically Jewish issues. Since she moved to America, her work has become more openly political and confrontational, tackling issues of black/white female relationships as well as the collusion of the Diaspora (and the United States in particular) with right-wing forces in Israeli society. A work entitled Jews Join Palestinians, displayed in Brooklyn in 1994, invites viewers to play David to a Goliath: representations of US interests in the Middle East; weaponry and oil; settlements and settlers in the West Bank. It caused fury among Orthodox Jews, who shouted at her the “ominous question”: “Are you a Jew?” Like several other artists, Polak is acutely aware that her position as a Jewish woman entails an almost moral duty to empathize with the underdog, to alert the world to injustice, inequality and suffering, irrespective of tribal allegiances.
Lynn Leon (b. Tynemouth, 1947) is certainly a case in point here. Whereas for Carole Berman a sojourn in Israel led to an immersion in centuries-old mystical texts, it caused Leon—whose daughter now lives in Israel—to produce images more topical, provocative and implicitly political than anything she had created heretofore: namely, a series of small pen-and-ink drawings collectively entitled Identities. An earlier body of work, a powerful group of large-scale, composite black and white photographs from the mid-1980s, used the artist’s daughter as her model. These visually compelling and technically inventive images form a disturbing exploration of the nature of confinement and violence, many of them containing references both to the Holocaust and to the latent tensions of life in Israel as well as to the vulnerability of the female body.
When exhibited in Haifa, Israel, Identities caused a furor among right-wing extremists, who chose to interpret the intentional ambiguity of their imagery as deliberate blasphemy. Leon was subjected to threats and abuse. The cunning allusion in these pairs of heads to Magritte’s unsettling painting of The Lovers, not surprisingly, went unheeded. While it is perhaps understandable that some people, even in Britain, might find Leon’s device of bringing together the Jewish tallit and the Palestinian keffiyeh unpalatable, her motives are unimpeachable, fuelled by a humanist desire for communication and, through communication, the possibility of dialogue and eventual understanding between erstwhile enemies.
The title of Lynn Leon’s Identities series might well stand for the 1996 London exhibition as a whole. If Rubies and Rebels had a thesis, it was that identity can never be fixed; but that the search for identities is a fascinating and necessary one. By focusing on Jewish women artists working in Britain today, whose Jewishness and gender are central to their artistic output, it offered valuable insights into the diverse ways in which women perceive their Jewishness in contemporary Britain. Aware of their complex “otherness” as women, Jews and artists, they put that awareness to good creative use; and in so doing, proved that art has a crucial role to play in exploring—and perhaps crystallizing—issues of identity.
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First published in 1996 by Lund Humphries Publishers, London. In: Rubies and Rebels: Jewish Female Identity in Contemporary British Art.