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, contrar yto 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, sincethe inception of the Renaissance in the fifteenthcentury – artists have sought out ways to faithfullyrepresent reality. Beginning in the late nineteenthcentury and throughout the twentieth century,painters shifted to studying and investigating the medium of painting itself, and to reexamining thetraditional roles of its formal components. In someinstances, they relinquished all attempts to imitatereality, while in other instances they exploredmodern, contemporary ways of representing it inpainting. Each of these artistic attempts put its ownunique emphasis on one (or more) formal elements.A significant turning point in the pictorial depictionof reality took place in the mid-nineteenth centuryfollowing the publication of various studies inoptics, which were devoted to the perception ofcolor.2 The interest of painters in color theoriesled, among other things, to novel, modern waysof depicting light in painting.In Italy during this period, a group of artistsknown as Macchiaioli (from the Italian macchia,or patch) turned to painting outdoors in order tocreate convincing and moving descriptions of lightin nature.3 These painters argued that areas oflight and shadow, which are created using patchesof color, are the most important componentsof modern painting. In contrast to the FrenchImpressionists, however, their palette did notembrace the entire spectrum of colors, and they didnot paint the entire composition outdoors in thespirit of artists such as Monet. Rather, they createdquick sketches in the open air, and completed thepaintings once they had returned indoors to theirstudios.The American Precisionists active in the earlytwentieth century were known for their preciseand detailed depictions of their subjects, mostof which were modern, industrial objects. Thisstyle of painting built, in a sense, on the trompel'oeil style of painting popular in late-nineteenthcentury America – a genre that focused on still-lifecompositions of Americana, and was appreciated bynumerous art collectors.During the 1950s and 1960s, American paintingconcerned with the imitation of reality wasovershadowed by abstraction. Nevertheless,American painters continued to strive for faithfulrepresentations of reality, while infusing themwith a personal dimension. This is the tradition ofpainting that Israel Hershberg affiliated himself withat the inception of his career, importing its basicprinciples to Israel. These principles were basedon the work of nineteenth and early-twentiethcentury American painters such as William MerrittChase (1849–1916), John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), and their students and followers, includingCharles Webster Hawthorne (1872–1930), EdwinDickinson (1891–1978), and Lennart Anderson (b.1928). The Painting and Drawing Workshop thatHershberg founded in Jerusalem in 1988 appealedto a significant number of Israeli artists interestedin returning to classical models of painting.4Dickinson, one of Hershberg's mentors, wasknown for his psychologically sophisticated selfportraits,rapidly painted landscapes, and enigmaticdepictions of human figures and objects basedon prolonged observation. Sigal Tsabari imbibedseveral of these characteristics in the course of herstudies, and they have come to serve as the basisfor her unique painterly style. Sigal Tsabari: Describing an Internal Reality byDepicting an External RealityThe remarks made by the English artist, art critic,and aesthete John Ruskin (1819–1900) over 150years ago concerning the observation of highlydetailed realist paintings are equally pertinent forthe study of Sigal Tsabari's contemporary works:"…I can easily understand that to many personsthe careful rendering of the inferior details inthis picture [Ruskin refers here to a painting byEnglish artist William Holman Hunt] cannot butbe at first offensive, as calling their attentionaway from the principal subject… The perfectfinishing of it becomes matter of curiosity, andtherefore an interruption to serious thought… Iwould only observe that, at least in this instance,it [Hunt's painting] is based on a truer principleof the pathetic than any of the common artisticalexpedients of the schools. Nothing is more notablethan the way in which even the most trivial objectsforce themselves upon the attention of a mindwhich has been fevered by violent and distressfulexcitement. They thrust themselves forward witha ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if theywould compel the sufferer to count, or measure, orlearn them by heart. Even to the mere spectator, astrange interest exalts the accessories of a scene inwhich he bears witness to human sorrow… Thereis not a single object in all that room, common,modern, vulgar (in the vulgar sense, as it may be),but it became tragical, if rightly read."5The extensive knowledge and experience thatTsabari acquired during her studies, and later inthe course of her process of exploration, have ledher to engage in a careful and sophisticated processof selection, choosing a few subtle principleslearned in Hershberg's workshop in order totransform them for her own needs. A significantissue, which we take for granted, is the fact thatTsabari is a woman artist. The battery of mentorsmentioned above is composed solely of male artists;Tsabari's paintings, meanwhile, are shaped by afemale gaze, through which she depicts her subjectmatter.Tsabari's painting process changes in accordancewith the location she paints in: compositionscreated in the studio are made differently thanones painted outdoors. The studio paintings beginwith a sinopia, a linear drawing that "etches" thecompositional elements by means of assured,powerful lines. Tsabari creates a cartoon that showsthe objects located in the depth of the pictorialspace, and then "pulls" from them a depiction ofthe objects that are located in the foreground.Using assured, "architectural" contours, she buildsthe illusion of depth by means of a linear "visualshorthand." She does all this with the naturalease of someone who appears to have studiedperspectival drawing at a very young age.Tsabari then turns to making a preliminarycartoon of areas of light and shadow, paintingit in a process similar to the classical process ofunderpainting. This process is carried out by meansof dynamically throwing and spreading patches ofalmost transparent, which also serve to map thenarrative of the future painting.The next stage involves creating areas color thatboth define the objects by means of local colorsand 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 certainadditional elements that reveal her virtuosity as adraftswoman. She uses dark outlines, which aresuperimposed on the patches of color, to underminethe imitation of reality so typical of her paintingtechnique, thus creating significant formal tension.Although they appear as authentic as the branchesof an apple tree, these dark lines are inevitablyperceived as flat; in contrast to other areas of thepainting, they are not mimetic.Her investigation of each painting's formalaspects enables Tsabari to visually documentthe penetration of her gaze into inner emotionalstates. Her paintings typically capture still-lifearrangements – household utensils, flowers, fruitsand vegetables. In some instances, she distancesher gaze from these arrangements, expandingher vantage point to make them into paintings ofinteriors; in these compositions, we discover theinterior space of her studio or the rooftop of herhouse.Another genre that Tsabari is concerned with isportraiture, and especially self-portraiture. Herpaintings, however, exceed the narrow limits of thisgenre, which usually involves the depiction of ahuman figure against a neutral ground. By openingup and expanding her vantage point, she includesin these portraits views of the interior, or positionsherself alongside still-life arrangements.Something appears to be concealed beneath thesurface of the narratives depicted in Tsabari'spaintings – something disturbing and perhapseven frightening and threatening. The peacefulatmosphere that initially seems to suffuse herrealist images dissipates upon further scrutiny;we discover the artist's conscious decision toinfuse them with a sense of impending danger,which seems to have stolen into the narrative asif by chance. A Walk on the Arbel Cliff (p. 35) is alandscape painting which initially appears as aninnocent, credible mimetic description of reality(a precipice and a valley flooded with natural lightunder a blue sky). A more attentive gaze, however,reveals that this painting does not capture anactual "walk"; rather, a pair of legs depicted atthe bottom of the composition hints at a potentialdanger – that of falling off the edge of the precipicedown into the valley below.This underlying sense of discomfort and threat iseven more palpable in Tsabari's self-portraits, inwhich she documents herself in states of emotionalsuffocation, self-flagellation, and self-controlledtorment – states that may be conceived of asdifferent aspects of melancholic experience.MelancholyBeginning in antiquity and throughout the MiddleAges and the modern period, artists were viewedas melancholic, introverted people. Melancholicindividuals are perceived as excessively reflectivecreative types, such as poets or visual artists, whotend to revolt against the tragic cruelty of existence.They are often perfectionists, a quality typical ofmany artists, and are negatively viewed as overlyself-involved, and thus as tending to ignore thosearound them.In 2006, the exhibition "Melancholy: Geniusand Madness in Art," was shown at the NeueNatioalgalerie in Berlin. As the art critic LaszloFöldeny 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 andsucks up everything in its vicinity. Is [melancholy]…a powerful emotion? A condition? A perspective?A disposition? Yes, and even violent when it takeshold of those who want to evade it…Cunningly, itdons the mask of feebleness, of passivity. Its victimis forced into a yoke of passion…Can this peculiar manner of channeling theenergies of the soul be depicted at all? [ThroughoutWestern culture] mere hints were enough forthe intended viewer,6 who could both see andunderstand the image, realizing immediately thatit dealt with melancholy…The rapacious and occasionally even aggressivecharacter of the visual arts in the modern era findsits expression in such a way that when melancholyinstalls itself in the work, it no longer needs to cloakitself in its traditional accessories, or take a formfamiliar from antique or medieval representations.[…] A direct result of the modern 'liberation' ofpainting is the increasing appearance of workswhich attempt to visualize melancholy whileexplicitly rejecting the traditional and bindingmodes of its depiction…The point is that beginningwith modern painting, and especially withRomanticism, we no longer contemplate a paintingfor the sake of what it depicts, but at least as muchfor the pleasure derived from losing ourselves in it."7Földeny's observations offer a point of departurefor exploring the implicit melancholic aspectsof Tsabari's paintings. These aspects are mostnotably given expression in terms of her palette –a range of brown, green, yellow and orange earthtones accompanied, in some cases, by the subtleintroduction of contrasting colors. This chromaticrange reveals Tsabari's love for the colors of Italianlight, which is entirely different than the lightcaptured in French, English, or German painting.Indeed, the patches of color typical of paintingsby the Italian Macchiaioli seem to have guided herin creating an atmosphere far removed from the"joyful" atmosphere radiating from the works ofthe French Impressionists. Tsabari's techniquefacilitates the focusing of light sources, which inturn underscore the presence of the surroundingshadows. Another salient melancholic aspect ofher paintings is the manner in which she depictsherself in her self-portraits.The scale placed on a piece of furniture in theforeground of Hidden (p. 30) is a device usedfor precise measurements, which has served inthe history of art as a symbolic embodiment ofequilibrium and stability – the qualities requiredfor the execution of a perfect painting. In Tsabari'swork, however, the left pan is lower than the rightone, disrupting the expected equilibrium. Thescale's vertical and horizontal beams are positionedclose to her exposed genitalia, and the contrastbetween this sharp tool and the soft human fleshis disturbing, provoking a sense of discomfort.Tsabari seated herself in front of a mirror, so thather gaze at it indirectly establishes eye contactwith us spectators. In this manner, she invites usto partake of her inner experience as she exposesherself in a highly personal, intimate manner that isanything but "hidden." Works such as Untitledin Underpants (p. 24) and Changing Nature(p. 45) similarly reveal the artist's lower body, andthus enhance the sense of vulnerability exuded byher self-portrait.In several of these self-portraits, Tsabari creates avisual parallel between her body and an adjacentplant – a flower, bush, fruit or vegetable. Thisconcern with plants directs her, at times, to themesculled from Classical mythology, whose symboliccharge contributes to the transmission of a certainmessage and to the creation of various emotionalstates.In Classical mythology, as in Western culture moregenerally, the sunflower is a symbol of femalesubservience to, and adoration of, a male figure.One myth tells of the water nymph Clytie, who fellin love with the sun god Apollo. When he refutedher love, she became deeply depressed, rejectedall food and drink, and continued to follow hisdaily journey through the heavens. Filled withpity, Apollo transformed her into a yellow flower,which continued to worship him by turning its faceto follow his trajectory across the sky. In Westernculture, sunflowers subsequently came to symbolizeWoman's obedient gravitation towards Man. Vincentvan Gogh, who identified with the life cycle offlowers and saw them as mysterious metaphors ofsupernatural experiences in human life, infused thesunflowers in his painting with a mystical qualityfar removed from traditional still-life arrangements.Whether or not Tsabari's paintings allude directlyto the Classical sunflower myth remains unclear.Her rooftop garden includes pots of sunflowers thatappear in a number of paintings and drawings, andthey are undoubtedly imbued with a significancethat lies beyond their appearance as decorativedetails. In Pregnancy (p. 26),Tsabari is seen lyingon the floor (actually, she painted herself seatedon a chair). Our elevated vantage point creates theimpression that we are standing above her andlooking down at her belly, while a sunflower risesup between her legs.In Syrinx II (p. 27), the artist portrays herselfplaying the flute in the guise of another Classicalmythological figure. The nymph Syrinx was pursuedby the god Pan, who tried to rape her. She fled tothe bank of the river, called upon the river god tosave her, and was transformed into a clump ofreeds. According to the myth, Pan then picked oneof the reeds, perforated it, and created the first"Pan flute." By casting herself in the role of Syrinx,Tsabari examines the relationship between a violentact and the creation of art. Music is an inseparablepart of the life of this artist, who is also a fluteplayer…Syrinx is depicted alongside a corn plant – a speciesthat came to Europe from the New World, and thusdoes not appear in Classical mythology. Corn, likeother plants depicted in Tsabari's paintings, growsin pots on the roof of her house, alongside eggplant,cauliflower, and kohlrabi plants.Umbilical Knot (p. 23) contrasts Tsabari's youngbody (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 itsedible part, or "fruit," has developed into an almostmonstrous growth. The artist depicts her bodyfrontally; her underpants have been pulled downand her shirt is tied below her chest, exposing herbelly. If such a young female body were depictedunaccompanied by a kohlrabi plant, it would haveradiated a captivating, powerful, erotic beauty.However, the underpants folded down to revealher pubic hair bespeak an act of undressing;consequently, the painting is incapable of conveyingthe erotic charge of the "beautiful." Tsabari infusesthis self-portrait with a threatening, "ungainly"quality, which echoes the ugly appearance of theaging kohlrabi plant.On the Mirror is a self-portrait that demonstrates,among other things, Tsabari's virtuoso depictionof visual foreshortening; it succinctly presentsher unique approach to painting by offering arepresentation of reality alongside its reflection ina mirror.Tsabari introduces a sense of confusion into ourperception of reality; is the towel seen in the upperpart of the painting lying on the floor, or is theartist holding it in her hand? The answer remainsunclear. Tsabari's feet, depicted as she sees themin reality, are placed directly above their reflectionin the mirror. This same sense of perceptualconfusion, which charges the painted scene withtension, is created by Tsabari even in compositionsthat do not include human figures – ones where thenarrator's role is assigned to silent objects, as wellas to her beloved plants.Tsabari employs this mode of perceptual confusionin order to momentarily delude us and test theacuteness of our perception. At first glance, EndlessCauliflowers appears to be a faithful representationof reality, so that we expect the pot placed in thesink beside the mirror to be depicted in the paintingalongside a visual study of its reflection – a familiareveryday phenomenon. When we observe thispainting with greater attention, however, we areconfronted with an absurd detail: water flows out ofthe faucet reflected in the mirror, yet no water flowsout of the "real" faucet affixed to the wall above thesink (aside, perhaps, from a single lingering drop).This detail imbues the composition with a senseof tension; it awakens in us a certain degree ofdiscomfort, which diffuses the simple pleasure wecould have experienced if presented with nothingmore than a detailed depiction of reality. Tsabari'senigmatic painting, however, provides no suchexperience.The artist repeatedly paints an apple tree andapples growing in a pot on her rooftop. The veryfact that this plant grows in a pot, rather thanin an orchard, out in the open, is symbolic. It isnot inconceivable to think of Tsabari's paintingsof apples as alluding to the biblical fruit, whichis charged with two different symbolic meaningsin the Judeo-Christian tradition: temptation andknowledge. In her paintings of apples, Tsabaricreates representations that faithfully imitatereality and are depicted one alongside another,even though they occur at different chronologicalpoints in time. This is the case, for instance, in herdepiction of a tree in bloom that is simultaneouslyladen with ripe fruit like the tree in Notes in theApple Tree – an image that defies the laws of natureand the chronological development from flower toripe fruit.In this and other paintings, Tsabari introducesa formal manipulation that undermines our understanding of real phenomena. This tacticis also given expression – especially in herdrawings – in the attention to the confusion thatmay arise from our perception of reality. In thelower part of the composition Gravity, a bowl isplace on a tile floor receding into perspectival depth,while an apple tree laden with fruit is seen in thebackground. Yet where exactly is this tree growing?The answer remains unclear. In this case, Tsabaricreates a sense of confusion by representingthe apple tree as a drawing on a sheet of paperpositioned against a wall in the background.She thus presents us with a complex depictionof reality, a "story within a story": a drawing ofan object on a sheet of paper rather than an appletree that exists "in reality."It is no wonder, then, that this preoccupationwith the apple tree drew Tsabari to taste itsfruit. The confusion created by the simultaneousrepresentation of events occurring at differentmoments in time similarly appears in Pregnancyand After, where the artist portrays herself at anadvanced stage of pregnancy in shades of grayand black; the drawing also features a subtlycontrasting depiction of the newborn baby, drawnin color. The baby's position is unclear, as is thequestion of how, or by whom, it is supported.Tsabari bites into a green apple, and her thin faceappears battered. Her right eye stares straight atus, while her left eye socket is marked by deep pain.The joy customarily related to the birth of a newbeing is absent from the drawing; it is replaced bya melancholic atmosphere, and suffused with pain.The wisdom and knowledge acquired by biting intothe fruit of the Tree of Knowledge offer the artist nopleasure or enlightenment; rather, they appear asthe sourceof restrained melancholic suffering.* * *Tsabari's complex approach to painting, whichseemingly "imitate reality," captures the "bark,"or "skin," stretched over the "flesh," which bothconceals and acts as a container for the inner soul.The vicissitudes of the human soul may be depictedin painting solely by means of visually capturingthe "vessel" that encloses it. Tsabari does this inan authentic and convincing manner, repeatedlyturning to examine existential issues in herpaintings. The intimate personal subjectsreflected in her works thus simultaneously referto a universal experience of being, thanks to whichwe are drawn to her paintings.In perfect contrast to the concern with politicalmessages related to contemporary Israeli reality inthe works of many local male artists, Tsabari, asI have shown, turns inwards, to her own personalexperiences. Indeed, one may also argue that herpersonal concern with sensations and emotionsimplicitly expresses, in the cultural context inwhich she lives and works, the sense of threat,frustration, and anxiety experienced by everyindividual living in contemporary Israel.