Hava raucher - Secular Icons by Prof. Avishai Eyal
"four By Five" May 1993
Hava Raucher is exhibiting at the Wielfried Israel Museum a show called “Immigration”. At the center of the show are nine large oil paintings of nudes, mostly women, and a number of large charcoal drawings. The nudes – realist paintings of large-bodied women facing the viewer – are impressive in their sharpness and in the nearly fatalistic atmosphere they convey. This show is especially interesting when compared to a previous Raucher exhibition which was held at the Arsuf Gallery in Rishpon this February. At Arsuf Raucher showed works from the early 80’s, including a large series of portraits of the artist drawn by amateur artists (friends and neighbors) directly onto the canvas.
The surprising element in the present show, which displays the artist’s development during the past seven years, is Raucher’s shift toward figurative-realist-observational painting – ostensibly a regression from her works of a decade ago. Hava Raucher is one of many artists who during the 80’s asked themselves pointed questions about the path of Modernism. A huge wave of new figurative painting swept the art world with the appearance of the new German Expressionist painting, the Italian Trans-Avant-garde, and artists such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle in the U.S. Concurrently, many artists, such as Philip Pearlstein from the U.S. and Lucian Freud from the U.K. to name but two, continued developing a modern form of realistic-observational painting centering on the human figure: nudes, portraits, figures in a room.
Hava Raucher gave classes in the 80’s at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv, where she met fellow teacher and artist Israel Hershberg. Hershberg, who began his artistic career painting in a post-impressionist style, was at the time developing a method of painting based on a close, uncompromising scrutiny of the object. Raucher recalls the first steps of the process: “I remember I went to ‘Avni’ and a student asked me in class, ‘Hava, how do I paint a guitar?’ Well then, how do you paint a guitar? I didn’t know how, although I did have the ability and I was always considered to have good eye-hand coordination. So I began that whole boring thing, sitting in front of a still-life. At first it seemed like something quite simple and obvious, but slowly I realized how complex it is…”
Her recent paintings are, then, nudes only, nudes of “New Immigrants from Russia”, standing in a frontal posture on a tall canvas (160 X 200 cm), somewhat larger than life size, with a typical Land-of-Israel landscape in the background. The choice of subject matter is not arbitrary: their body shapes, their misery and their estrangement remind Raucher of her mother, who immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria in 1948. The models rekindle her memories of the 50’s and her family’s arrival in a new country in the years following the Holocaust.
But this presentation of female nudity is by no means idealized or sentimentalized. Raucher is interested in a precise representation of the female body as a conduit of psychological insight and not as an object of aesthetic pleasure. She chooses seasoned, full-bodied women, standing (in the paintings) or seated (in the drawings) with a mute and static demeanor. These women are not displaying themselves as sexual images, and in fact don’t seem to take pride in their bodies. There is therefore no sense of eroticism in their nudity, and it seems rather to be an attempt to diagnose a certain phenomenon using the moralistic power of observation. The inquisitive eye of the woman-artist reveals each vein and each wrinkle, and treats the sagging breasts and the flabby stomach with the same dispassionate, if sympathetic gaze with which it depicts the face or the hands. These characteristics are not aestheticized, but neither are they treated with irony: the artist lingers on them out of genuine curiosity and engrossed interest, since they represent for her the very phenomenon that is called woman, especially “foreign” woman, a woman from “the Diaspora”.
But scrutiny of “the foreigner”, the “other”, is of course also a scrutiny of “self”. Raucher says: “When I painted a man, my work had an erotic dimension. In painting women I feel a sense of self-connection through her, through the painted woman… I connect to myself, my childhood, my femininity… it’s like a self-portrait through a woman who has come a long way”. In the paintings from the early 80’s the artist’s portrait was made by others, creating on her canvases; now the artist ventures out to find her self-portrait in the “foreign” figures.
Like any penetrating realistic painting, Raucher’s work presents several unresolved paradoxes that deepen the gulf between its quasi-real “concreteness” and its “fictitiousness”. Since the painting process takes up many hours divided into sittings, sometimes up to 15, there are always differences between the various sittings. The posture of the body is determined during the first sitting, and on each consecutive sitting must be readjusted; there are differences in lighting, and needless to say, differences in the mood of the artist and the model. Raucher paints the figure separately from the background, in undiluted, flat oil colors. Due to the breaks between the different sittings there is at times a sense of disruption between different parts of the painting that represent various stages of observation. A close look at the painting reveals a figure seemingly made up of mosaic pebbles or of pieces of collage. The background, the landscape, is added later with a painter’s knife, using thick color mixed with sand. The body, painted with crystallized delicacy, contrasts with the thick, blunt background in dark brown colors. The lack of communication between the figure and its background, due to the different textures applied to each – as if they were two different kinds of space – creates an acute sense of uneasiness which strengthens the “fictitious” nature of the painting. This effect emphasizes its “collage-like” nature, reminiscent of the artist’s earlier works.
The centrality of the figure and its symmetry, combined with the search for structure in the brushstrokes, create a sense of geometrization. This is doubly so in the drawings: made with charcoal, on 140 X 100 cm paper, a half-nude set in the large, empty space of the paper, the lack of color and texture in the drawings accentuates the geometrical composition of the shapes, visible for example in the bulky appearance of body parts and in areas of shading stylized as triangles and squares. This geometrically motivated emphasis on the structural aspects of the body, contrasts continually with the psychological conception of the drawing, which is a portrait of a nude from the waist up: the expression of the figure is introspective, a thoughtful look of a mature woman. The body and the face become a whole, presented in an unaffected manner, in a sober and un-ironic solemnity.
This pattern of contrasts heightens the paradoxes inherent in the lack of uniformity of the works, and intensifies their enigmatic nature: the gap between the fragmentary, time-limited painting process and the aspiration towards uniformity and wholeness; the discrepancy between the morbid immobility of the figures and their overflowing vitality; the uneasy contrast between the figure and its background, and the unending friction between the tendency towards geometrization and the psychological exploration of the women – all these underline the sense of imperfection and disquiet that these works give rise to.
It is easier to understand the nature of these works when one compares them to Greek or Russian Orthodox icons. In icons, the saints are depicted as easily identifiable symbols, always frontal, clearly portrayed and whole. They seem cut off from the celestial space surrounding them, which is meant to give them prominence. The glance of the Christian saints wanders in space and comes to rest always above the heads of the spectators. They are motionless, stylized and depicted using simple geometrical means that emphasize their spirituality. Furthermore, many paintings of icons are built as a sort of box or “house” with two “wings” or “shutters” on either side, allowing the icon to be opened and closed. This construction of an “open” or “closed” house transforms the icon into a small altar or mini-church.
Some of Hava Raucher’s paintings are also fitted with a pair of “wings” on either side of the canvas, like the “shutters” of an icon. These “wings”, triangular at the top, recall the shape of a house, although since they are affixed lower than the upper edge of the canvas they serve to elevate it. The figures of the women are painted with their feet below the frame, their toes “cut off”, so that their “elevation” detaches them from the ground. This hovering above the ground echoes the general dissociation of the figures from their backgrounds and emphasizes the sense of “foreignness”. These women have left one culture, never arriving in another. They are cut off from any context and not only are they unclothed, there is also no material object in their vicinity that might attest to their personality or their past. In this sense these are women that do not belong to any place or any time, they are lost in empty space, in a hostile environment and all they have left is their tormented body and their memories. It takes only a small step to see these paintings as “secular Jewish icons”, free of any religious mystery, presenting these women in a sort of eternal “selection line” before the eyes of an invisible officer who will seal their fate. The attributes of these figures as “women”, “aged”, “Jewish”, “exiled” and “foreign” categorically define their status and their future.
Hava Raucher strove to depict her memories and the figure of her mother through realistic portraits of new immigrants from Russia. In the process, perhaps unwillingly, she found herself creating a monumental icon of the figure of the female-saint, the eternal victim of historical upheavals and the claws of time.