Testimony by Hava Pinchas Cohen
This exhibition can be described quite literally as configuring “the feminine presence”. Nine nude female figures, in the prime of life or older, standing “fully nude” in painterly terms, or, to use a literary expression, “baring all”. Nine women on a canvas two meters high, all but one set adrift from their backgrounds, seemingly emerging towards the spectator with a slow step from the surrounding space. An illusion is created whereby the figures issue forth from their backgrounds, threatening to invade, with all their enormity and nudity, the space of the spectator. This is such a significant physical presence that it obliterates the customary aesthetic distance between the spectator and the work.
This is a painting “straight out of life”, a mutual, unmediated observation of the model by the artist. Tens of hours spent together, in most cases with women models, new immigrants, professionals in various fields (doctors, engineers, scientists), and we are faced with eyewitness testimony that at this point in their lives they are obliged to stand upright for their livelihood, fully nude in the most elementary meaning of the word.
This is a post-postmodern exhibition. Aware of the existence of the camera, but attempting to depict the figure with a sense of the precedence of the human eye over the camera eye, and showing complete control of color and the hues of human flesh, of its vitality in the very throes of decay. “I feel there is a crucial difference between real bodies, and the image of the body as it appears in the electronic media (computers, television, advertising, etc.) – a superficial, stylized image suited to conventions of beauty defined by the needs of the ‘media’, a ‘beautiful’ image that has no connection with reality. I feel that painting should ‘open up’ and create a new image in the very places that the image borrowed from the electronic media aims to hide”, says Hava Raucher, and confronts us with “the irreducibly human”. The human – specifically, the woman – is here as divested of her concealments as in the day of her creation in the Book of Genesis. And as compared to paintings from the Renaissance, the Baroque and other eras, in which the “female nude” was featured as monumental, the figures of “Natasha” or “Ida” or “Anya” in Raucher’s installation are concrete images of the naked woman in all her transience, bearing a psychological burden laden with recollections. In contrast with the exhibitions of journalistic photography held in Israel and attempting to capture the “relevant”, to document the “action” of the present, this exhibition documents with great precision the record of time inscribed on human flesh.
These nine women embody a group presence, but each work can also be viewed on its own terms. The show is a sort of cross-section – an installation reflecting a certain stage in the life of a group of women who are “immigrants” despite themselves, “Olot” (“Ascendants”) to use the historical-Zionist term. But these women belong to a stage that is beyond the myth and the pathos of the Zionist narrative – women who constitute, in their very physicality, “the desert generation”. In this sense, this is perhaps the most relevant show being exhibited at present. It offers a contemporary statement regarding our social and personal situation as Israelis, while holding a dialogue with the tradition of Social Realism, albeit an inverted and even a subtly ironic one. Thus, when the generously endowed figure of Natasha, the central painting in the installation depicting the new Olah (make of 1990), is seen emerging from the stereotypically nostalgic and mythological background of an Israeli valley landscape, one senses an ironic tension and the creation of a new interpretation of historical reality. A different sort of ironic tension is created through the very fact of seeing these women, so “anti-mythical” in their identities, painted “larger than life” (the size of the paintings is 2 by 1.60 meters).
The tension between the breakdown of the body, formerly feminine, erotic and desired, perhaps bearing children, and its very size and devastation, demands from the viewer an attitude of sincerity and the removal of emotional barriers, sometimes to the point of inflicting cruelty upon him- or herself. A message of militant Social Realism is not to be found here, but rather a sympathetic observation of a human phenomenon involving both the artist and the model, creating a sense of their equal importance and stemming from a position of reconciliatory attestation. This is a moment in time at which the personal-biographical dimension of the artist encounters a socio-historical phenomenon; a moment that engenders a process of scrutiny that exposes pain in its naked state, while accepting and documenting it.
In terms of art history, Raucher holds a dialogue with a lengthy Realist tradition, in which the “female nude” is seen as a central theme, as an artistic-aesthetic challenge of the first order. The viewer is made aware of the associations of this theme with a tradition that harks back to classical Greek sculpture and Renaissance and Baroque painting. One thinks of classical works such as Praxiteles’ sculpture, the Cnidian Aphrodite, or even the Caryatids – admittedly clothed women, standing in relaxed postures, seemingly leading nowhere; women carrying the whole world on their heads, displaying ideal proportions, mythological “eternal beauties” – these are faced at the other end of history with the women presented by Raucher. Thereby the notion of “Realism” is imbued with new depth and significance.
Another cultural association is brought to mind, arising from the unique arrangement of the works: a sort of triptych, constructed from a central canvas with two “wings”, icons of the “holy” women in the Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox church, presented to the believer “en face”, nearly immobile, representing a world of religious aspiration. This cultural association is countered by an ironic diminution of the present as compared with the past; a diminution that endows a historical, indifferent present with psychological meaning. (See the article by Avishai Eyal, “Four by Five”, May 1993).
A protracted perusal of the works makes it quite clear that Raucher’s treatment of the female nude differs from all previous treatments. Perhaps this is due to the fact that past artists dealt with the way in which men see women – a manner of looking which is drawn to and strives to depict the erotic and aesthetic side of the figure and her movements. Whereas when a woman turns her gaze on the nude female body she sees other things. She sees with her eyes, but also with her mind. She sees herself and the other, she sees with compassion and with cruelty. It seems as if through her eyes, feminine nudity is first and foremost a biographical document.
Ostensibly this is realist, objective, documentary painting, but one can detect in it a subjective self-expression. The quality of the work and the treatment of color brings to mind the style of the Renaissance fresco, though it is also powerfully expressionistic. Two artistic options which seem at first to be mutually exclusive are incorporated in the same work, creating a sense of both restraint and intensity.
A glance at the artist’s biography: the women who posed for these paintings present mirror images of the artist herself and perhaps of her departed mother. There is some similarity between the biography of Raucher’s mother, who came to Israel from Bulgaria, and the various biographies of the women posing as models for the artist, serving as mirror images of people who have uprooted themselves and gone from country to country and from one culture to another in midlife, people whose sense of belonging and rootedness has been cast in doubt. These works present a sort of journey, a quest after the physio-mental characteristics of the process of immigration and absorption and the marks it leaves on the female body. Raucher’s brush captures woman’s soul, beyond the bodily form.