Melancholic Bliss

Seven artists competed for the 2012 Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art, which was awarded to two recipients. One of these two is Sigal Tsabari. Much has already been written about the return to classical painting techniques among Israeli painters in the twenty-first century. Most of the Israeli scholars concerned with this trend trace its inception to the work of a single artist, Israel Hershberg (b. 1948), who immigrated to Israel from the United States and founded a school of painting in Jerusalem. Tsabari studied with him prior to the foundation of this school, at the Avni Institute inTel Aviv. Most of the artists who began their studies at Hershberg's school imbibed his teachings and then went on to further develop the method he taught in individual ways.


Their examination as a group is based on the assumption that their mature styles define them, for lack of a more precise term, as "realist-figurative" artists. This term, however, does not do justice to the unique characteristics of their individual painting practices, including that of Sigal Tsabari.


Imprecise understandings of the term "figurative-realist" exist in both an international and an Israeli context.

To begin with, contrary to accepted notions, mimetic painting was never abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century. Parallel to the Cubist revolt in the early twentieth century, realism continued to give rise to highly significant achievements both in Europe and in the United States throughout the twentieth century.

Secondly, the term "realism" has often been used in the history of Israeli art to refer to a number of unrelated artistic trends such as the academic style of teachers and students at the Bezalel School in the early twentieth century, or the automatic affiliation of the term "realism" with the Soviet social-realist style.

Further confusion has been caused by the use of a term related to "figurative-realist" – that is, "painting in the style of the Old Masters." The application of this term in an Israeli context is far from accurate, since it refers to artists whose origins are Flemish, Dutch, Spanish or French, and definitely not to English or American artists.


The individual styles of Israeli artists such as David Nipo, Aram Gershuni, Daniel Elnekaveh, Eran Reshef, Meir Appelfeld, Eli Shamir, Israel Hershberg, and Sigal Tsabari have no particular link to Old Masters such as Velázquez, Ingres, Vermeer, or Van Eyck; They do not remind us of these artists' styles, and are definitely not based on them.


In order to distill the unique qualities of Tsabari's style, especially given the complex nature of her artistic process and its evolution over time, I found myself observing her paintings at length and studying their minute details in order to try to verbally reconstruct their formal aspects, which are inseparable from their content. Yet before I turn to discuss her paintings, I will attempt to unravel the tangled skein so typical of scholars' intentions whenthey lable Israeli artists as "realist-figurative". Ever since the early modern period – that is, since the inception of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century – artists have sought out ways to faithfully represent reality.


Beginning in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, painters shifted to studying and investigating the medium of painting itself, and to reexamining the traditional roles of its formal components.

In some instances, they relinquished all attempts to imitate reality, while in other instances they explored modern, contemporary ways of representing it in painting. Each of these artistic attempts put its own unique emphasis on one (or more) formal elements. A significant turning point in the pictorial depiction of reality took place in the mid-nineteenth century following the publication of various studies in optics, which were devoted to the perception of color. The interest of painters in color theories led, among other things, to novel, modern ways of depicting light in painting.In Italy during this period, a group of artists known as Macchiaioli (from the Italian macchia,or patch) turned to painting outdoors in order to create convincing and moving descriptions of light in nature.


These painters argued that areas of light and shadow, which are created using patches of color, are the most important components of modern painting. In contrast to the French Impressionists, however, their palette did not embrace the entire spectrum of colors, and they did not paint the entire composition outdoors in the spirit of artists such as Monet. Rather, they created quick sketches in the open air, and completed the paintings once they had returned indoors to their studios.The American Precisionists active in the early twentieth century were known for their preciseand detailed depictions of their subjects, most of which were modern, industrial objects.

This style of painting built, in a sense, on the trompe l'oeil style of painting popular in late-nineteenth century America – a genre that focused on still-life compositions of Americana, and was appreciated by numerous art collectors.

During the 1950s and 1960s, American painting concerned with the imitation of reality was overshadowed by abstraction. Nevertheless, American painters continued to strive for faithful representations of reality, while infusing them with a personal dimension. This is the tradition of painting that Israel Hershberg affiliated himself with at the inception of his career, importing its basic principles to Israel. These principles were based on the work of nineteenth and early-twentieth century American painters such as William Merritt Chase (1849–1916),

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), and their students and followers, including Charles Webster Hawthorne

(1872–1930), Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978), and Lennart Anderson (b.1928).


The Painting and Drawing Workshop that Hershberg founded in Jerusalem in 1988 appealed to a significant number of Israeli artists interested in returning to classical models of painting.

Dickinson, one of Hershberg's mentors, was known for his psychologically sophisticated self portraits, rapidly painted landscapes, and enigmatic depictions of human figures and objects based on prolonged observation.


Sigal Tsabari imbibed several of these characteristics in the course of her studies, and they have come to serve as the basis for her unique painterly style.



Sigal Tsabari: Describing an Internal Reality by Depicting an External Reality  


The remarks made by the English artist, art critic, and aesthete John Ruskin (1819–1900) over 150 years ago concerning the observation of highly detailed realist paintings are equally pertinent for the study of Sigal Tsabari's contemporary works:"…I can easily understand that to many persons the careful rendering of the inferior details in this picture [Ruskin refers here to a painting by English artist William Holman Hunt] cannot but be at first offensive, as calling their attention away from the principal subject… The perfect finishing of it becomes matter of curiosity, and therefore an interruption to serious thought… I would only observe that, at least in this instance,it [Hunt's painting] is based on a truer principle of the pathetic than any of the common artistic expedients of the schools. Nothing is more notable than the way in which even the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent and distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or measure, or learn them by heart. Even to the mere spectator, a strange interest exalts the accessories of a scene in which he bears witness to human sorrow… There is not a single object in all that room, common, modern, vulgar (in the vulgar sense, as it may be), but it became tragic, if rightly read.


The extensive knowledge and experience that Tsabari acquired during her studies, and later in the course of her process of exploration, have led her to engage in a careful and sophisticated process of selection, choosing a few subtle principles learned in Hershberg's workshop in order to transform them for her own needs. A significant issue, which we take for granted, is the fact that Tsabari is a woman artist. The battery of mentors mentioned above is composed solely of male artists; Tsabari's paintings, meanwhile, are shaped by a female gaze, through which she depicts her subject matter. Tsabari's painting process changes in accordance with the location she paints in: compositions created in the studio are made differently than ones painted outdoors.

The studio paintings begin with a sinopia, a linear drawing that "etches" the compositional elements by means of assured, powerful lines. Tsabari creates a cartoon that shows the objects located in the depth of the pictorial space, and then "pulls" from them a depiction of the objects that are located in the foreground. Using assured, "architectural" contours, she builds the illusion of depth by means of a linear "visual shorthand." She does all this with the natural ease of someone who appears to have studied perspectival drawing at a very young age.


Tsabari then turns to making a preliminary cartoon of areas of light and shadow, painting it in a process similar to the classical process of underpainting. This process is carried out by means of dynamically throwing and spreading patches of almost transparent, which also serve to map the narrative of the future painting.

The next stage involves creating areas color that both define the objects by means of local colors and serve to create the illusion of light, thus also endowing them with the illusion of credible volume. Having attended to the application of color, Tsabari cannot hold back from drawing certain additional elements that reveal her virtuosity as a drafts woman. She uses dark outlines, which are superimposed on the patches of color, to undermine the imitation of reality so typical of her painting technique, thus creating significant formal tension.

Although they appear as authentic as the branches of an apple tree, these dark lines are inevitably perceived as flat; in contrast to other areas of the painting, they are not mimetic. Her investigation of each painting's formal aspects enables Tsabari to visually document the penetration of her gaze into inner emotional states.


Her paintings typically capture still-life arrangements – household utensils, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

In some instances, she distances her gaze from these arrangements, expanding her vantage point to make them into paintings of interiors; in these compositions, we discover the interior space of her studio or the rooftop of her house.


Another genre that Tsabari is concerned with is portraiture, and especially self-portraiture. Her paintings, however, exceed the narrow limits of this genre, which usually involves the depiction of a human figure against a neutral ground. By opening up and expanding her vantage point, she includes in these portraits views of the interior,

or positions herself alongside still-life arrangements. Something appears to be concealed beneath the surface of the narratives depicted in Tsabari's paintings – something disturbing and perhaps even frightening and threatening. The peaceful atmosphere that initially seems to suffuse her realist images dissipates upon further scrutiny; we discover the artist's conscious decision to infuse them with a sense of impending danger, which seems to have stolen into the narrative as if by chance.


A Walk on the Arbel Cliff (p. 35) is a landscape painting which initially appears as an innocent, credible mimetic description of reality (a precipice and a valley flooded with natural light under a blue sky). A more attentive gaze, however, reveals that this painting does not capture an actual "walk"; rather, a pair of legs depicted at the bottom of the composition hints at a potential danger – that of falling off the edge of the precipice down into the valley below. This underlying sense of discomfort and threat is even more palpable in Tsabari's self-portraits, in which she documents herself in states of emotional suffocation, self-flagellation, and self-controlled torment – states that may be conceived of as different aspects of melancholic experience. Melancholy Beginning in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages and the modern period, artists were viewed as melancholic, introverted people. Melancholic individuals are perceived as excessively reflective creative types, such as poets or visual artists, who tend to revolt against the tragic cruelty of existence. They are often perfectionists, a quality typical of many artists, and are negatively viewed as overly self-involved, and thus as tending to ignore those around them.


In 2006, the exhibition "Melancholy: Genius and Madness in Art," was shown at the Neue Natioalgalerie in Berlin. As the art critic Laszlo Földeny wrote,"…We have a feeling for what it is being referred to [the term 'melancholy'], a sort of enormous black (or better, grey) abyss which contaminates and sucks up everything in its vicinity.

Is [melancholy]…a powerful emotion? A condition? A perspective? A disposition? Yes, and even violent when it takes hold of those who want to evade it…Cunningly, it dons the mask of feebleness, of passivity.

Its victims forced into a yoke of passion…Can this peculiar manner of channeling the energies of the soul be depicted at all? [Throughout Western culture] mere hints were enough for the intended viewer, who could both see and understand the image, realizing immediately that it dealt with melancholy…The rapacious and occasionally even aggressive character of the visual arts in the modern era finds its expression in such a way that when melancholy installs itself in the work, it no longer needs to cloak itself in its traditional accessories, or take a form familiar from antique or medieval representations.[…] A direct result of the modern 'liberation' of painting is the increasing appearance of works which attempt to visualize melancholy while explicitly rejecting the traditional and binding modes of its depiction…The point is that beginning with modern painting, and especially with Romanticism, we no longer contemplate a painting for the sake of what it depicts, but at least as much for the pleasure derived from losing ourselves in it.


Földeny's observations offer a point of departure for exploring the implicit melancholic aspects of Tsabari's paintings. These aspects are most notably given expression in terms of her palette –a range of brown, green, yellow and orange earth tones accompanied, in some cases, by the subtle introduction of contrasting colors.

This chromatic range reveals Tsabari's love for the colors of Italian light, which is entirely different than the light captured in French, English, or German painting. Indeed, the patches of color typical of paintings by the Italian Macchiaioli seem to have guided her in creating an atmosphere far removed from the "joyful" atmosphere radiating from the works of the French Impressionists.

Tsabari's technique facilitates the focusing of light sources, which in turn underscore the presence of the surrounding shadows. Another salient melancholic aspect of her paintings is the manner in which she depicts herself in her self-portraits. The scale placed on a piece of furniture in the foreground of Hidden (p. 30) is a device used for precise measurements, which has served in the history of art as a symbolic embodiment of equilibrium and stability – the qualities required for the execution of a perfect painting. In Tsabari's work, however, the left pan is lower than the right one, disrupting the expected equilibrium. The scale's vertical and horizontal beams are positioned close to her exposed genitalia, and the contrast between this sharp tool and the soft human flesh is disturbing, provoking a sense of discomfort. Tsabari seated herself in front of a mirror, so that her gaze at it indirectly establishes eye contact with us spectators. In this manner,

she invites us to partake of her inner experience as she exposes herself in a highly personal, intimate manner that is anything but "hidden." Works such as Untitled in Underpants (p. 24) and Changing Nature (p. 45) similarly reveal the artist's lower body, and thus enhance the sense of vulnerability exuded by her self-portrait.

In several of these self-portraits, Tsabari creates a visual parallel between her body and an adjacent plant –

a flower, bush, fruit or vegetable. This concern with plants directs her, at times, to the mesculled from Classical mythology, whose symbolic charge contributes to the transmission of a certain message and to the creation of various emotional states. In Classical mythology, as in Western culture more generally, the sunflower is a symbol of female subservience to, and adoration of, a male figure. One myth tells of the water nymph Clytie, who fell in love with the sun god Apollo. When he refuted her love, she became deeply depressed, rejected all food and drink, and continued to follow his daily journey through the heavens. Filled with pity, Apollo transformed her into a yellow flower, which continued to worship him by turning its face to follow his trajectory across the sky.

In Western culture, sunflowers subsequently came to symbolize Woman's obedient gravitation towards Man. Vincent van Gogh, who identified with the life cycle of flowers and saw them as mysterious metaphors of supernatural experiences in human life, infused the sunflowers in his painting with a mystical quality far removed from traditional still-life arrangements. Whether or not Tsabari's paintings allude directly to the Classical sunflower myth remains unclear. Her rooftop garden includes pots of sunflowers that appear in a number of paintings and drawings, and they are undoubtedly imbued with a significance that lies beyond their appearance as decorative details.


In Pregnancy (p. 26), Tsabari is seen lying on the floor (actually, she painted herself seated on a chair).

Our elevated vantage point creates the impression that we are standing above her and looking down at her belly, while a sunflower rises up between her legs. In Syrinx II (p. 27), the artist portrays herself playing the flute in the guise of another Classical mythological figure. The nymph Syrinx was pursued by the god Pan, who tried to rape her. She fled to the bank of the river, called upon the river god to save her, and was transformed into a clump of reeds. According to the myth, Pan then picked one of the reeds, perforated it, and created the first "Pan flute."

By casting herself in the role of Syrinx, Tsabari examines the relationship between a violent act and the creation of art. Music is an inseparable part of the life of this artist, who is also a fluteplayer…Syrinx is depicted alongside

a corn plant – a species that came to Europe from the New World, and thus does not appear in Classical mythology. Corn, like other plants depicted in Tsabari's paintings, grows in pots on the roof of her house, alongside eggplant, cauliflower, and kohlrabi plants.


Umbilical Knot (p. 23) contrasts Tsabari's young body (depicted in the lower part of the diptych) with the kohlrabi plant depicted in its upper part. The purple plant's stem has thickened, and its edible part, or "fruit", has developed into an almost monstrous growth. The artist depicts her body frontally; her underpants have been pulled down and her shirt is tied below her chest, exposing herbelly. If such a young female body were depicted unaccompanied by a kohlrabi plant, it would have radiated a captivating, powerful, erotic beauty. However, the underpants folded down to reveal her pubic hair bespeak an act of undressing; consequently, the painting is incapable of conveying the erotic charge of the "beautiful". Tsabari infusesthis self-portrait with a threatening, "ungainly" quality, which echoes the ugly appearance of the aging kohlrabi plant. On the Mirror is a self-portrait that demonstrates, among other things, Tsabari's virtuoso depiction of visual foreshortening; it succinctly presents her unique approach to painting by offering a representation of reality alongside its reflection in a mirror. Tsabari introduces a sense of confusion into our perception of reality; is the towel seen in the upper part of the painting lying on the floor, or is the artist holding it in her hand? The answer remains unclear. Tsabari's feet, depicted as she sees them in reality, are placed directly above their reflection in the mirror. This same sense of perceptual confusion, which charges the painted scene with tension, is created by Tsabari even in compositions that do not include human figures – ones where the narrator's role is assigned to silent objects, as well as to her beloved plants. Tsabari employs this mode of perceptual confusion in order to momentarily delude us and test the acuteness of our perception.

At first glance, Endless Cauliflowers appears to be a faithful representation of reality, so that we expect the pot placed in the sink beside the mirror to be depicted in the painting alongside a visual study of its reflection –

a familiar everyday phenomenon. When we observe this painting with greater attention, however, we are confronted with an absurd detail: water flows out of the faucet reflected in the mirror, yet no water flows out of the "real" faucet affixed to the wall above the sink (aside, perhaps, from a single lingering drop). This detail imbues the composition with a sense of tension; it awakens in us a certain degree of discomfort, which diffuses the simple pleasure we could have experienced if presented with nothing more than a detailed depiction of reality.


Tsabari's enigmatic painting, however, provides no such experience. The artist repeatedly paints an apple tree and apples growing in a pot on her rooftop. The very fact that this plant grows in a pot, rather than in an orchard,

out in the open, is symbolic. It is not inconceivable to think of Tsabari's paintings of apples as alluding to the biblical fruit, which is charged with two different symbolic meanings in the Judeo-Christian tradition: temptation and knowledge. In her paintings of apples, Tsabari creates representations that faithfully imitate reality and are depicted one alongside another, even though they occur at different chronological points in time.

This is the case, for instance, in her depiction of a tree in bloom that is simultaneously laden with ripe fruit like the tree in Notes in the Apple Tree – an image that defies the laws of nature and the chronological development from flower to ripe fruit. In this and other paintings, Tsabari introduces a formal manipulation that undermines our understanding of real phenomena. This tactic is also given expression – especially in her drawings – in the attention to the confusion that may arise from our perception of reality. In the lower part of the composition Gravity, a bowl is place on a tile floor receding into perspective depth, while an apple tree laden with fruit is seen in the background. Yet where exactly is this tree growing? The answer remains unclear. In this case, Tsabari creates

a sense of confusion by representing the apple tree as a drawing on a sheet of paper positioned against a wall in the background.She thus presents us with a complex depiction of reality, a "story within a story": a drawing of an object on a sheet of paper rather than an apple tree that exists "in reality".

It is no wonder, then, that this preoccupation with the apple tree drew Tsabari to taste its fruit. 

The confusion created by the simultaneous representation of events occurring at different moments in time similarly appears in Pregnancy and After, where the artist portrays herself at anadvanced stage of pregnancy in shades of gray and black; the drawing also features a subtly contrasting depiction of the newborn baby, drawn in color. The baby's position is unclear, as is the question of how, or by whom, it is supported. Tsabari bites into a green apple, and her thin face appears battered. Her right eye stares straight at us, while her left eye socket is marked by deep pain. The joy customarily related to the birth of a new being is absent from the drawing;

it is replaced by a melancholic atmosphere, and suffused with pain. The wisdom and knowledge acquired by biting into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge offer the artist no pleasure or enlightenment; rather, they appear as the source of restrained melancholic suffering.


Tsabari's complex approach to painting, which seemingly "imitate reality," captures the "bark", or "skin", stretched over the "flesh", which both conceals and acts as a container for the inner soul. The vicissitudes of the human soul may be depicted in painting solely by means of visually capturing the "vessel" that encloses it.

Tsabari does this in an authentic and convincing manner, repeatedly turning to examine existential issues in her paintings. The intimate personal subjects reflected in her works thus simultaneously refer to a universal experience of being, thanks to which we are drawn to her paintings. In perfect contrast to the concern with political messages related to contemporary Israeli reality in the works of many local male artists, Tsabari, as I have shown, turns inwards, to her own personal experiences. Indeed, one may also argue that her personal concern with sensations and emotion simplicitly expresses, in the cultural context in which she lives and works, the sense of threat, frustration, and anxiety experienced by every individual living in contemporary Israel.