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Venus reaches up By Liav Mizrahi

Artist House, Tel Aviv, 2014

“We had a nude model in our painting classes – Felicia, an Italian girl, - and I was so enchanted by the full and tanned roundness of her arms and thighs, with proud and sassy sensuality emanating from them, that the in my pencil hands trembled with excitement, deviating from the route that I had outlined for it, and the sketch looked more like a kind of open-mouthed orchid than the model. When Professor Tunick, a strict and conservative academic teacher, passed by and looked at what I had done, he said reprovingly: “Are you trying to be surrealistic?”  I later thought that there was indeed something ‘surrealistic’ about me, not in my drawings, but in my proclivities.”[1]

The initial temptation is to call Hava Raucher’s current exhibition a retrospective, since it brings together under one roof a variety of projects carried out over the course of three decades. Nevertheless, this is not a classic retrospective in every sense of the word. It is a collection combining works with a common denominator that recurs over the years, parts of bodies of works selected to be kind of ‘stop sign’ to allow observation of Raucher’s personal development and a warning mirror for Israeli society.

The exhibition centers on body image, mainly the female body as an object of painting and sculpture. No yet another ideal body, young, bright, solid and strong, but a mature aging body, black, wrinkled and flabby. The current exhibition at the Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv is an exhibition of a subversive feminist artist, who does not accept the hostile attitude of the consensus surrounding her. Raucher began her artistic journey in the mid-1970s at the Avni Institute, then a renowned art institute on the Israeli art scene, and her teachers included some of Israel’s leading artists at the time. For several years, Hava was a member of the Institute’s board. Her realistic style of painting is not academic par excellence, but based on conceptual foundations. The figures in her paintings are drawn from observation by the outer eye and inner eye alike, so the result is not naturalistic but expressive, with slight distortions of the drawn figure, with each such distortion shifting the observer from the photographic image of the figure to its psychological depth. The space in the picture is a conceptual collage detached from reality. The seemingly realistic, collage-like perception of the space in the picture is a direct evolution of her previous work done in the United States during her MFA studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Self Portrait series of works centers on a portrait of the artist as perceived by other people. She asked friends, family and acquaintances to draw her portrait exactly as they see it. These are people who have never studied art; some are children and some are adults whose drawings are naive and childlike. The common denominator of all of them is the inability to copy reality, i.e. the artist’s face. Raucher collected these drawings and copied them onto canvas. This action is conceptual assemblage. On the canvas we see a naturalistic imitation, a trompe l’oeil painting of torn and cut sheets of paper painted by the artist, superimposed by sketches of her face made by unskilled individuals, directly on top of the painted collage. This is a deceptive realistic painting that confuses the human eye. Alongside these sketches of her face, they also drew her naked body, combined with gloomy and expressive shadows. Her paintings during this period range from German Expressionism to meticulous American realism, which developed against abstract art and against replicative art in the pop art movement.

The choice to begin with this part of her early works, although they are not placed right at the entrance to the exhibition, marking a recurrent move - constant preoccupation with the relationship between artist and society, through questions of identity, place, wandering, transience, rootlessness, and simultaneously with the constant determination of the search for truth as it is perceived in the mind of the artist. Raucher’s works are works of art that knowingly relate to the sociological level of art. They incorporate ethno-geographic aspects, ageism[2] and aesthetics. In her works, Raucher seeks to see society as it attempts to see art, and it is as if she is saying: “Modernism as logical, rational, thinking, with all its inventions, ‘gimmicks’ and presentations, has reached the point of cancelling itself, cancelling the medium. In contrast, we painters of realism return to the medium according to its basic definition, and try to understand how the eye sees and what it sees.”[3]  This quotation also maintains both the technical aspect and the human aspect of ‘seeing the other’.

Raucher is not a painter of mass and physical weight of paintings. The body of her work is not measured in quantity, but in her courage to confront unusual subjects in her paintings, subjects requiring generosity and forbearance. Therefore, she has not produced a large quantity of her own works of art, and she spent a number of years devoting long periods to the creation of series of paintings with a common denominator. These series of number between three and nine paintings each, and deal with the female body.

The first in the sequence of series is Testimony - nine elongated large-scale paintings from the early 1990s, depicting older women, immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, most of whom recently immigrated to Israel. The nude women are painted in a standing position, slightly larger than life and emerging from a dark background that jolts their rotund, flabby, wrinkled and scarred bodies. Their heads are tilted sideways, toward the front of the painting, like the Virgin Mary lamenting over her lost son. To the sides of the canvas, Raucher connected panels that turn the painting into a kind of altar painting standing on two legs. The churchlike format is seamlessly integrated with the original placement of the exhibition, simulating a sort of long basilica, except that here the women are heavier, devoid of any external sign indicating their status, supplanting male saints draped with flowing fabric. The work on each painting took about 80 hours. The painting process was accompanied by long conversations with the female models. The artist was evidently the only one who succeeded in conducting such conversations, unlike social services or any other authorities. Their occupation is secondary and marginal, since they all have an academic degree, and none of them is working in her profession. Being a model is an option for making a living, as stated by Natasha, one of the models: “This work strikes me as very intriguing and I wanted to see if it suits me. In Russia I was an optical engineer and amateur actress, but because I barely speak Hebrew, and my English is poor, I knew in advance that I was giving up the possibility of working in my profession ...”[4] The Testimony series, which created a sensation,[5] is somewhat pioneering in the field of Israeli art. I do not remember any artist from Israel who directed his or her gaze to the fringes of Israeli society and the transformation created by the mass immigration from the crumbling Soviet Union. Raucher took upon herself a mission in which her own personal past reverberates. A sense of detachment as a result of migration is a state of mind that Raucher grew up in during the late 1940s with the mass immigration to Israel from Europe after World War II.

Raucher’s nudity in this series is devoid of eroticism. In these paintings there is no need to hide what Manet’s Olympia is hiding, and there is no need to ignore the model’s head as in Courbet’s painting, The Origin of the World. The painting is not sentimental. On the contrary. It’s a meticulous painting that caresses every centimeter of the model’s body. There is evidence of brush strokes and gentle but determined hand movements, to convey a social message. This is a diary, the memoirs of the artist and the model together. This is physical mapping of the body which, on the one hand, stands lonely against a uniform, almost abstract, background and, on the other hand, is standing shamelessly and declaring, I am here and it is I “standing naked before God.”[6]

In fact, one could argue that Raucher’s realistic paintings are a diary documenting in time, devoid of unnecessary gestures, mannerisms and affectation. She paints what she sees as a chronicle of withering foretold.

“Because the work clothes of women - high heels, nylon stockings, makeup, jewelry, not to mention hair, bosom, legs and waist - has long since become part of the pornographic accessories, it’s no wonder that a judge can draw the conclusion that any young woman brought before him is a prostitute who only invites harassment, just as he can draw the conclusion that every older woman is a withered crone who must be gotten rid of.”[7]

Between 1996 and 2004, Raucher painted a new series entitled Temptation. The series consists of several large paintings depicting mainly seductive older women. This series led to a sub-series entitled Calendar Girls, which is being exhibited in the show. This mini-series consists of three life-size paintings of the body. It is not a triptych in the classic sense of the word, but the paintings have a common denominator. They are positioned in close proximity, forming an unequivocal statement of intent: Even older women can be the object of eroticism, even old women have sex and enjoy it, and even older women like to feel loved. In addition, the issue of aging arises of its own volition. This issue is still considered taboo in the plastic arts, and it raises questions about sublime beauty, the coveted fountain of youth and ageism. Each of the paintings shows a mature to old woman. Their sagging skin and the erotic clothing they wear do not suit them. Some are thin and tired from their race against time. The spatial perception is different this time. There are spaces that enter into each other, and a fluorescent office lamp that creates ominous diagonals. Windows and ceiling surfaces divide the space in the paintings into a kind of jigsaw puzzle or fragments of a broken mirror. Two of the works portray a male marionette with a disproportionate penis, which may or may not be usable. In all three of the paintings, a portrait of the artist peers at the scene, as if painting an allegory of her own image. Art historian Nurith Kenaan-Kedar writes that the old woman was seen as having finished her duties, whereas the man, the more mature and older he gets, the more he is perceived as wise and prudent.[8] The description ‘old woman’ was reserved primarily for describing witches or other grotesque demonic beings. When it comes to sculptures of old women, writes Kenaan-Kedar, “the old woman is the radical epitome of pain.”[9] This mini-series provoked reactions and elicited a broad public debate, when one of the works was displayed on the façade of the Tel Aviv Artists House, along with a few poems by Hava Pinchas Cohen, from her collection Poems of Sluts. Raucher relates that this series incorporates many social strata. First, as I mentioned, the unconventional theme. This is not a specific old woman, the artist’s mother, as Durer or Rembrandt painted, this is an anonymous old woman wearing erotic lingerie. In the online magazine, Erev Rav: Art. Culture. Society, Raucher wrote an article in collaboration with Dr. Tal Dekel, Esther Elam and Ora Reuben. In the article, entitled Angry Old Women, Raucher writes about how hard it is for older female artists to find exhibition spaces. It is difficult, if not downright impossible, to find a commercial gallery for an exhibition. It is difficult to break into the field of Israeli art field if you’re an older woman, especially if you have frequently been prevented from taking part in the discourse due to your incompatibility with the prevailing fashion. Many female artists have reiterated this.[10] In any case, Calendar Girls and Poems of Sluts, printed on huge sheets of oilcloth like advertisements, triggered mixed reactions among the residents. Young people loved it, while adults were less enthusiastic. One of the neighbors complained to the Municipality of Tel Aviv, which sought to remove the work. Among the aging bourgeoisie of north Tel Aviv, the placement of pictures that serve as a mirror of themselves was apparently unbearable.

The artist’s likeness peering between the spaces in the painting arouses interest. Her likeness serves as a punctum - stabbing the observer’s heart as he or she looks at the painting. Her likeness gazes back at the observer, to the point where it seems that everything happening around her likeness is nothing but a daydream of hers while painting. This surrealistic mood gives her work a morbid touch, along with its meticulous realism.

Questions about the values of beauty and morality, which arise and accompany this article and appear in the appendices at the end of the catalogue, give rise to the sensation that once again Raucher’s works are under censorship. Censoring the nude body and the aging body is related not only to the art world, which is already perceived as a world plagued by conservatism, but also the economic world associated with beauty. It is reasonable to assume that if the figure on the façade of the Artists House had been a young female model, no male or female neighbor would have seen it as a problem.

Written in Amharic is a series painted between 2004-2010, centering on a triptych of Ethiopian women of different ages. The figure in the central panel is Haya, an Ethiopian immigrant, who wrote the story of her life, as she remembered it, directly on the canvas. Her portrait is in the front plane and she is watching us gently.[11] Raucher returns once more to the subject of mothers and women in the margins, the fringes of society. This time, the woman is not necessarily old, nor is she young, but still a woman who is trying to break free from the shackles of tradition. The paintings have a very light background, highlighting the presence of the dark-skin women - Haya the mother, flanked by her daughters. There is something stiff in these paintings, possibility flatter and less realistic, paintings that have a sculptural character. With her paintbrush, Raucher managed to convey the difficult journey to the Land of Israel, the blazing sun, the cracked skin, the acclimatization, the Westernization and the ultimate absorption in Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated society. The women look like ancient Egyptian statues: long necks, eyes wide open, and they are telling a story. The lower half of their bodies is cut off, and they are positioned on a light surface, like chess pieces. Between them are miniature greenish images, adding a note of theatricality to the painting. These paintings are somewhat reminiscent of her early paintings from the 1980s, especially the excessive use of shadows and flattening. It is as if these women have been cut out of their cultural world, exiled from it and seeking the creation of a new world. This aspect of creating a new world arises from the life story of Haya, the mother of the family, and even more so from the hair color of her daughters. Their dark hair has been lightened, and it is almost the color of a fair-haired European girl. The composition of the series (and other paintings) is a window composition. The subject of the painting is at the center of the work, or at least occupies a large part of the canvas, and face in the painting is slightly tinged with nostalgic sorrow. This is a sort of a close-up of a world, the sum of whose parts is not present in the work itself.

This composition, which is repeated in quite a few of Raucher’s works, but has been honed in this series, is reminiscent of Issam Abu Shakra’s series of sabra (prickly pear) cactuses. Abu Shakra spent a long time painting the sabra, the most Israeli and most controversial symbol. The word sabra is also used to denote native-born Israelis who, like the prickly pear, are purportedly prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. In Abu Shakra’s paintings, the sabra is also a portrait of the other, especially in the context of the Israeli art scene. His paintings are politically charged, and embody an attempt to assimilate and belong to Israeli society, coupled with a protest against the symbols of Zionism that have been borrowed from other realms. By analogy, in Raucher’s paintings in the series Written in Amharic, the behavior of the younger generation of Ethiopian women, i.e. bleaching their dark hair, removing the traditional scarf and wearing their hair loose, represents an attempt to obscure their original color and assimilate into Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli society.[12] Moreover, bleaching their probably stems from a distortion of the concept of beauty and from surrender to the dictates of Western white society, which prefers blondes. This series was also exhibited on the façade of the Tel Aviv Artists House, but this time it didn’t arouse anger or lead to a protest. Don’t any of the neighbors on Alharizi Street in Tel Aviv find the Ethiopian community interesting, even as a subject of art?

“When I did my self-portrait, I left all the pimples out because you always should. Pimples are a temporary condition and they don’t have anything to do with what you really look like. Always omit the blemishes—they’re not part of the good picture you want.”[13]

Among the diverse portraits of women there are also portraits of men. The exhibition includes three portraits of men. In opposition to the aggressiveness inherent in Raucher’s paintings of women, the men in her paintings have been emasculated by the power of Eros. They are flaccid, soft, feminine, and appear to find it hard to move. The exhibition includes two portraits of a thin man wearing women’s clothing. The spaces in the paintings are different from each other. One is a play of abstraction of color and form, and other is composed of surfaces that give the picture depth and reveal the likeness of the artist peering out. Both paintings are saturated in the lexicon of the gender discourse of the art world. The third picture is of a fat man in his underwear. He holds a bowl of food in his hands, and his sinister shadow is already asking for another plate. Whether these are anecdotes and whether they are stopping points in the course of Raucher’s career, these paintings are also loyal to the formulas of her work. In contrast to the opening quote by Andy Warhol, Raucher does not leave out a single detail of her models, or of herself. The ugly is a paintable, and the beautiful is doomed to destruction. 

The various portraits that Raucher created in recent years have moved to the medium of sculpture. In the installation, which was displayed at the Tel Aviv Artists House, she positioned dozens of nude figures of men and women, all aluminum castings and hand painted in oils. Their height is around 80 cm, half the average height of a human being. The project was entitled The City Square. She learned the art of sculpture on her own, just as she learned the art of realistic painting, by observing the masters of the Western art world, including Rodin and Giacometti. The exhibition features just four characters - a composition tribute to Charles Ray’s work, Family Romance, 1993.

Hava Raucher is a unique artist in the Israeli art scene. This is her fourth decade of casting a sharp and critical eye, examining Israeli society and the art world, a world whose gates she enters and exits. She looks, but she is not assimilated into it silently. She stands outside the gate and sometimes goes to the center of the field, proudly pointing her paintbrush at passersby and painting what she sees.

[1]Megged, Aharon. Mandrakes from the Holy Land, Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1998. Pages 99-100.

[2]  A term referring to discrimination on grounds of aging. In women it is characterized by sexism, among other things.

[3]  Luria, Zippora. The Place Influences Me - four conversations with artists about the new realism, Dimui, 1989.

[4]  Palti, Michal. Merely a Woman in a Foreign Land, Haaretz, November 6, 1994.

[5] The exhibition provoked reactions and drew criticism regarding the exposure of the women, claiming that the artist humiliated the women whom she painted. The artist herself expanded on this in the chapter attached to the catalogue.

[6]  Foir Shinold, Shuli. Twelve Naked Women.

[7]  Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth, Hakibbutz Ha’meuchad, Tel Aviv, 2004. Page 48 of the Hebrew translation.

[8] Kenaan-Kedar, Nurith. Model and Representation: the Ages of Woman in the History of European Art, Motar - Journal of the Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts, Tel Aviv University, 1996, p 20.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Angry Old Women

[11]  See footnote Number 4.

[12] To read more about the paintings of Issam Abu Shakra: Shapira, Sarit.  Sarit Shapira, Cactus in a Flowerpot, Kav, 10, July 1990. Pages 37-41.

[13] Warhol, Andy. From A to B and Back, Babel, Tel Aviv, 2010. P. 78 of the Hebrew translation. 

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