A Line to the Life of the Eggplant

By: Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld


“Not Still-Life nature,” says Sigal Tsabari – “I paint living nature.” With this simple word-game, with typical succinctness, Tsabari opens a window on the feeling of inner contradiction in her paintings, the great challenges and the enormous obstacles that stand in her way – and mostly, the existential experience on which they are based.

In the nature of things, there is no painter or sculptor who is unaware of the fact that a painting “freezes”, that there is a sudden transition from the axis of time and movement, to the expanse and the quietness of color and stone. Art has always swung from the classic “Greek” solution that refines “Eternal” lines from their inherent quality, from fleeting reality; to present the viewer with a “sculpted moment”, pregnant, quiet, (“The fertile moment” as Lessing named it) suited to enduring continuously, even before becoming a sculpture or a painting. In contras, the quick “Roman” solution seeks to freeze the transient, truly random moment – like those quick paintings the Romans painted on coffins – portraits of people already dead, their wrinkles, the unshaven hair of their beards, and their various blemishes. These artists, the forefathers of Velasquez, Frans Hals and the Impressionists – the quick painters who wanted to “grasp the moment”, to touch the movement, the flash of light, the flight of the impression between the world and eye.

There is no line or spot of color in Tsabari’s painting that is not the fruit of her new, unique inner struggle with the question of painting and transience. The painting Pregnancy and After (5) summons to one canvas a pregnant woman and a new-born baby; the pregnant woman (the painter herself) appears four times in different positions, one superimposed on the other, as though she is actually in a state of movement, and as though, the panting is really a section of a sequence. The woman is eating a large apple, biting it while in the process of painting. The baby is painted in relation to the mother as though actually emerging from her, changing the diverse material of the painting into a never-ending cycle, vital basic and mythological. (I will return later to this painting). The first canvas, in which the body of the pregnant woman is viewed from above, is joined by another canvas – Pregnancy with Sunflower, (1999, not in current exhibition) which has a sunflower whose stem emerges from between the legs of the woman in the first canvas. “The sunflower simply grew in the process of painting, “says Tsabari. However, the solution is not all the “simple”. Tsabari broke the accepted, rectangular format, so that it would conform to the ongoing process of painting, realizing the objects in it. One does not need a particularly discerning eye to sense that the pregnancy, the growth and the birth are the subjects of the painting, and that the work of painting is focused on them contends with them and tries to encompass them. The additional canvas that emerges from the first like a ray, depicts the flower as though is coming out of the very place of birth; the painter is pregnant and she gives birth to the painting – the big yellow flower, the symbol of light and fertility.

Perhaps there is nothing new in combining pregnancy, birth and creation in conceptual dimensions, but there is something exciting an stimulating in presenting the fertile female body as both object and subject of a painting at one and the same time. The painting is not even a mirror reflection, but a representation of the body of the painter in the act of painting. The missing hand (the left!) is the hand holding the brush. Tsabari has created, somehow, a double and multiple continuity between the head and the hand and the body, between the body and the “world” of painting the and the view pint of the painter, from an intimate and flowing proximity to the body, the act of painting, and the painting that is born from it.

Almost all Tsabari’s paintings include flowers and vegetables in a state of growth. They are not picked or bought, nor laid on a table in some kind of “pretty” composition (that would transform them into the “eternal moment,” in the Classical formula). They are still in the process of growth, and they appear in the paintings complete with their stems and the soil from which they grew. The keen attention to the colorfulness of the tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers is not only connected to questions of composition, but to the question of age an growth of the fruit: the green of the young tomato (11), the green and purple of the eggplant beginning to ripen (10) or the yellow, ochre, and brown of the over-ripe eggplant (Trans-Season, Over-Ripe, Pregnancy and After), or on musical transitions (Crescendo – 12; Sequenza -2), rather than on more defined and permanent elements.

The paintings of eggplants certainly express wonder the beauty of these vegetables, their rare colors, the sharp contrast of the rough, bristly texture of the thorny stem, and the smooth, glossy texture of the fruit. But it is impossible not to feel the deep significance that Tsabari attributes to these vegetables, and fertility. The simple affinity of the apple, the breasts, the belly, the pregnancy, and the new-born baby in the painting Pregnancy and After, the same as in the paintings of eggplants – like giant globules of a fertility, pregnant with seeds and overflowing sap, is almost frightening in its elementarily. The viewer can actually sense the movement of dispersal, growth, and swelling of fruit.

Sigal Tsabari is a student of Israel Hirschberg, and from him she received, no doubt, the support of that intensive observation on her environment, and the efficient, pedantic exploitation of the simplest and closest reality to create pictorial significance. But there is a substantial difference between the grasp of well-known paintings of a dried sunflower lying on a table. That is definitely a “Still-Life” in Hirschberg’s sense, and Tsabari’s concept of “Living Nature”. One of Hirschberg’s well-known paintings is of a dried sunflower lying on a table. That is definitely a “Still-Life”. The dry flower appears as a wonderful mineral crystal. The painting is redolent with profound stillness, and leads the viewer to prepare for a long observation on the endless stasis of the dead plant, and the “transfiguration” generated by the death of the flower. Hirschberg laid bare the inorganic in the organic; the mineral nature of the living. Sigal Tsabari aspires to exactly the opposite – to lay bare the living at the peak of its vitality. Decomposition, too, is conceived by her as a particularly acute revelation of life.

All the dimensions of the painting are devoted to revealing that fertile dimension, that movement and experience, However, Tsabari is not a “quick” painter. The long contemplation and the meditative construction of the pictures – lessons learnt from her teacher – are also Tsabari’s way. The contradiction between the growing and changing movement, and the slow work of painting, becomes an open drama in her works.

Hirschberg, like the Classicists, uses something that is already dead, or kills it before painting, as though to prepare it for the stasis of the medium. Tsabari always faces growing plants, bodies in movement and a multiplicity of phenomena. She is often torn between the focused glance that seeks to deign volumes and textures, images of reality in form and color, and the hovering view the does not pinpoint, and may comprise numerous details with a few lines, skimming from one thing to the other. Hence, most of her painting includes a wide range of stages of finish. The most extreme example of this is Trans Season (21); part of a terrace, pot plants, and another part of an urban landscape in the distance. Some of the things only sketched, some are drawn, and some fully developed in detail, painted in black and white. Only the tomatoes, the iris flowers and the sunflowers are fully realized in bright pastels. But that is not all; just as the panting displays different levels of design, it also attempts to show different stage s of growth. Thus, the viewer who looks closely will discover notations of dates and heights; the painting was painted over a period of time, and is a collection of different “time patches”, side by side or superimposed. More than that: the upper part has been painted during morning hours, and the lower part – at midday…

In Tsabari’s work, her detailed, accurate, and pedantic rendering of objects is not felt to be construction, but its exact opposite – deconstruction. The parts brought to greater refinement do not look more “illusory” but rather more analyzed, and as though the whole painting is perceived as a search for another, less accurate modus that could catch movement and color without decomposing the. ‘When I paint and dig to the bottom, to the smallest vein of a leaf, for instance, then – after a short time it looks to me as though it’s enough. If I continued I would become a worker. That’s boring,” says Sigal Tsabari. The key word here is “dig”, that is, there is painting which is observation, and there is painting which is digging, that is painstaking “burrowing” under the surface of things, to their tiny details. The “digging” and the ‘hovering” are the poles between which Tsabari’s paintings move.

Sigal Tsabari did not reach this flow between the static and the hovering that technically represent the essential flow that she seeks for, the flow of fruit, flowers, and live bodies. For many years Tsabari dealt with painting her immediate surroundings – various corners of the house, their association with the body or her own figure. In many pictures she included a mirror, sometimes more than one. Her preoccupation with reflection and transparency raised a number of serious technical problems for her: dealing with different perspectives in one painting, complex analytical division of the “perceived” as opposed to the “thing,” diverse refractions of light and shade. Anyone who has followed her painting from the first half of the 90’s, can see an ongoing obstacle race, with Sigal Tsabari setting herself stiffer and stiffer challenges: an ordinary mirror and a curved one, two mirrors facing each other, three mirrors at surprising angles. The surface of the painting seems to fracture before one’s eyes, and becomes a window onto a strange maze of rays, and as the rays become increasingly entangled, so her technical ability to represent her surroundings in colors, increases. At a certain stage, Tsabari began to work in pastels (influenced encountering Degas’ works!) It is very noticeable that she desires to subdue the medium, and to coerce the soft rubbed textures of the pastel, to contend with the rays breaking on glass or shining plastic, or a silver bottle. Dealing with mirrors, certainly some kind of an intensive practice in the field of realism has made Sigal Tsabari a virtuoso in texture and space design. (Some of these paintings were exhibited at the Israel Museum in 19995.) Today, when her paintings are getting farther and farther away from this arrogance, one can find in them small areas of illumination: a towel (Planted, 1) or the surface of a cauliflower (17), or a stream of water (Living Nature – 18) which are models for overcoming optical problems, and thus you will find, here and there, amazing ability in perspective design, (in particular, see Planted, 1)

However, in canvas after canvas, with the virtuoso obstacle-race that Sigal Tsabari set herself, there blossomed that special view, both personal and feminine, that planted the whole painted world in a continuum extending from the neck, the hand, the womb, the legs to the world. The first among her mature works is a painting of her two feet soaking in a bath, viewed from above (1988), and since then many of her paintings freeze that view, going downwards from the head to the body, and from there to the floor. That flow is the mother of the other streams – the flow from the earth to the eggplants and from the mother to the baby.

The two large self-portraits (Unfinished, 8 and Planted, 1) reveal something of Tsabari’s expressive power. We are talking about expression in its most fundamental meaning; the expression of the human face, and the expression of the whole body in relation to its environment. The “I’ stands in them in the midst of the act of painting, holding the attributes of her art; the Woman-Artist, with all the pathos that concept. In her last painting, planted, she seems to be growing from inside an undergarment, and actually from all the objects and clothes that surround her. Her feminine nudity is easily recognizable from under the baby-carrier she is wearing, and reflects in the polished palette held in her hand. The palette, the instrument for mind and trying out colors, becomes, in this painting, a medium in itself; the inverted reflection of the body of the painter (like a message concerning the transformation the artist’s spirit undergoes on the road to creation), and at the same time, it is a tool for colors, the starting-shot of the painting, when all its colors are still concentrated in dots of pure color. And above this brilliant metaphor, Tsabari defines her own face – bisected and eyeless, but nevertheless her tongue lays outstretched from her mouth. This facial expression, seemingly defiant, is nothing more that a sharp presentation of the total lack of expression that the artist’s face assumes while he is painting. The side-slanted tongue is nothing but part of the total self-absorption, entailed in perfect concentration, of the observer. It is exactly be means of this expression that Tsabari points to her remoteness from being a “painted female object” –the woman usually seen as “beautiful” , “feminine” and so on. The empty, turned aside face, exposes something of that incomprehensible mysteriousness of the creator.

This expression has already been seen in Tsabari’s works in two self-portraits (Self-Portrait With a Third Eye, 1997, and Self-Portrait With a Hood, 1998 – not in current exhibition). The self observation in these two portraits is almost cruel. The face, strained in a supreme effort of concentration, also reveals resemble sacred depictions. In Portrait With a Third Eye (an eye that remained from a previous painting, Bellini (in the Vatican), and the first self-portrait of Albrecht Durer. Tsabari charges the lolling tongue with a kind of halo that is giving a slight suggestion of madness, and at the same time, a hint of distinction or holiness.

It seems that the most complex condition arises in the self-portrait, Unfinished: the artist stands in the dense studio, that opens onto an illuminating world, populated by plants, trees and dwellings, and behold – at her side two more images are seen – her own silhouette, a kind of dark naked double, painting together with her, and to her right on the left – her little daughter, Or. The expression of the painter here is very close to the “Martyr” portraits, but here a split dimension is exposed: one separate side in which the face of the woman becomes almost dead, her naked body exposed to all eyes, and opposite, the other side – the motherly side, connected to the child hugging her from behind, growing from her, peeping and playing with her, pushing her hand into her mother’s pocket, while she is painting. This human block, split up and entangled, caught in powerful conflict, and no less powerfully joined, is surely among the most exciting expressions seen in recent years of the fundamental questions of “creativity and life” in the feminine context.

In these portraits, Tsabari does not set “the object” in the center of the picture, but the “creative invention”, the creative intuition, that combines figures, shadows and dreamy images, to a picture of the “world”. These portraits, surely reminiscent of Courbet’s Studio, are Tsabari’s most daring outbreaks. In them she claims from the viewers, not only concentrated meditation, but alert coping with challenges of interpretation.