The Tree of Life

By:  Dror Burstein

Where to begin? There is so much going on here. Standing opposite the large painting of apples, "Notes in the Apple Tree,"  I thought for a long time about "where to begin," until I understood that this question is the whole point. Not a chance difficulty but the subject of the painting. The primary question: the question of time. Where to begin? It's like asking "where did this apple begin? Where did the painting begin?"
I sat in Sigal Tsabari's studio and thought about the apple I had eaten that same morning. How far it is from this painting. All that you do not see in an apple as you bite into it: that which surrounds it, its context, its history - all these return to you in this painting. Imagine a guest knocking at your door. You identify him and invite him in. He will enter, but he is not alone. In the stairwell behind him you see his entire family, old and young alike.
Some are no longer alive. Some are yet unborn. They have come along with him, and here they sit in your living room.
Flowering, wilting and all the stages between. The outline of an apple, a bit right of center. An apple plucked by the wind. Uprooted from the branch and from the canvas. This work deals with the essential difficulty of the art of painting. How to paint a plant without lying. Portrait painters face a similar problem. A plant grows and changes. That's its point. Painting it as a static object, a still life, is missing the point. How arbitrary it would be to paint an apple as it appears at a specific moment. Is that the apple? Of course not. Beyond this moment's apple lie great fields of time. Past and future. They too are the apple. The seed. The naked branch. The broken branch. The green fruit. The ripe fruit. The plucked fruit. The rot. The windfall and the terrible blow hitting the ground, at the foot of the trunk.
Sigal Tsabari sees them in this painting with chilling clarity. With long exposure. A single apple tree as an entire world of memory, of grief and loss, of possibilities realized and missed, of strength and weakness, of youth and of wilting, of perennial erasure of all that is, which becomes, of itself,               a rewriting. It is difficult to think of a self portrait of a single person which can contain so many possibilities on the same canvas. It is the interweaving of all these which so moves us here. One could think of this painting as an abstract map of an entire life, of one person and perhaps of a large family. You follow the branch, waiting for the flowering and the fruit, and your path is split by the drawing of a branch. Is this a different branch? Is this "your" branch at some other time? Past? Future? Innocent budding pink appears - and has already traced the contours of the drawing of a leaf. What happens there? Wilting? Or the beginning of growth? What is so beautiful, so mysterious in this drawing is that the two possibilities live one alongside the other. But that is how it is, exactly like that, in nature.
The eyes want to rest and I turn my gaze briefly from Sigal's painting to the window and to the sky. When I return my eyes meet the sky within the painting. They can suddenly be seen. See how the apple tree leans against the sky, interwoven with it, not just alone by itself. See how the sky is painted, here and there, with its colors. Pink, green. And in the precise center of the painting there is a leaf painted so that the sky can be seen through
it. Sketched leaves are fixed in the sky like roots of air, like flutes. It is not possible to "begin" to talk of this painting in any specific place because this apple, in reality and in the painting, is attached to something so far and so transparent. The beginning is there. In order to see this painting one must also see the sky, the light.
"Growths of awful beauty upon hidden waters." I thought of this phrase from Israel Berama's story "A Different Hour" while gazing at Sigal's paintings of apples. Berama's prose reminds me of these growing apples. This beauty is neither pleasant, realistic nor decorative but rather crowded, dense, swarming, beautiful and awful. Caravaggio's famed still life is in this category. This is a gaze at nature which clearly sees that the force of growth is the force of wilting. The gaze which sees the seeds of the rotting apple as the possibility of the apple as well, and the apple as racing headlong to its crumpled peel.
"Awful beauty": See the pink flowers budding like an innocent bouquet above the dead apple. This is a heartbreaking moment in the painting. And all this happens "on hidden waters," which may also be called the force of life. These are also the hidden waters of Sigal Tsabari's paintings of vegetation. These are "nature paintings" in the full sense of the word. Where does this growth belong? In what space is it possible? I looked up once again
from the painting and was amazed to see above it a large reproduction of Masaccio's fresco "Expulsion from Paradise" (1425, Santa Maria delCarmine, Firenze.) I gazed at the gate on the left, with rays of light emerging from within, and thought to myself that had Adam and Eve been able to look back they might have seen such growth in the garden they had left, where fruit is found in all its ages at once. Alive, flowering, wilting, all at once,
passing from one moment to the next. Death has no dominion over this apple tree because the life hereafter (and before) are already visible to the eye.
A sweet child's wreath has been tied to the head of the dead. Life is already present. Perhaps this is the virtue of the paradise tree whose fruit has remained uneaten: no eternal life, but rather the knowledge that life never ends. Sigal Tsabari's apple tree remembers this. I will call it the tree of life.
The painting "Hidden" takes place, as it were, on the right side of Masaccio's gates of paradise. This is the side of the world after the expulsion, the side of time which we know. A time where the future is hidden, and so there are hope and fear. This is the side of pain. The side of effort, grief, birth, pains of labor and sweat of brow. Sigal calls this painting "Hidden." It's interesting. The expulsion from paradise began with hiding - under
the tree. "And Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.(...) And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. (Genesis III, 8-10, King James Version). These phrases begin the chapter which ends with the expulsion from the tree and from the garden. But the act of hiding is itself expulsion in every sense. In this state of "and I hid myself" we find the artist. The pain is revealed to the eye. Look at the region between the eyes of both women. The hand which should grasp the paintbrush seems stumped or pushing off an unseen enemy. One of the eyes is not only closed but missing. The artist curls up in the fetal position within a transparent chair, as a womb from which she must give birth to herself (the painting is the newborn), a womb which so resembles the cornea of an open eye. That is the metaphor of this painting: the birth of a gaze. And so it is also an allegory of painting. Everything is in a fragile balance. The scales are only apparently equal. One side tilts, the other is missing strings. The artist's feet are almost placed on this scale; they are almost intended to weigh her, or her balance. The eye pierces your eyes, like the eyes of the inviting character which Alberti suggested that painters include in their works. But against this eye an elbow is raised, flooded with light, launched at your gaze, elbowing your eyes. The balance between painting and observer, too, hangs on a thread, on disturbed scales. If this is an allegory of painting, if the metaphor is of birth, then the curse of pain of expulsion
from paradise is the outward subject of the painting. The work of the artist bears the punishment of both Adam and Eve as one - the punishment of the effort of work intermixed with the punishment of the pains of labor.
One can imagine the silver basin placed on the side as a cover for the transparent chair. We enter into the painting at the moment where the hidden-ness of the title is broken. The metal cover is lifted. This is a sort of Perseus' shield, preventing a gaze by reflecting the gaze of a threatening external world. At the bottom of the painting, almost hidden, there are two openings. And they are joined on an axis, on the glowing diagonal of the chair legs. These are the scales of light and dark. On one side a deep blue opening, sky, egress and light. There perhaps lies the land where the apple flowers, from there the rays of light emerge in Masaccio's fresco. On the other side is a door of mystery, brooding darkness, a pit in the studio. Between these two openings, in a distance which can be crossed in two or three steps but is an enormous distance, there the artist is found. And from the center of these scales the diagonal of light is born, and so is this painting.