Solo Artist 

(extract, first part only)   

 

By Dalia Karpel 

Wednesday, July 02, 2003  Ha'Aretz

 

Tamar Getter was 22 when she took the world of art in Israel by storm. Thirty years later she has faded from the public consciousness and become more of an artist's artist.

 

Tamar Getter's studio is located in Givatayim, in a beautiful building built in the 1930s: This is the place her revolutionary grandfather came to from Russia in 1922, and it was in this building that he took his own life in 1976. "Because there is no God and you are the master of your fate, and at age 84, he didn't want to get any older," his granddaughter explains.

The old iron entrance gate leads into a lush and blooming garden. Getter lives on the building's second floor and has a spacious studio on the ground floor. The studio is spotless and perfectly organized at the moment, now that she has just completed a major project. Numerous paintings done by Getter, 50, one of the most interesting artists in Israel since the 1970s, are neatly set against the walls. "This is the cemetery for my works," she comments sarcastically. She has never had a solo exhibition at one of the big museums in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

The wide table has been cleared. A pot of espresso has been made and Getter has taken out a little notebook in which she has written down the main points she has prepared for the interview. Thin and muscular, she moves about the studio with bouncy energy that hints at her past as a high-school sprinter. There's a restlessness bubbling beneath her disciplined exterior. On the local art scene, she has earned a reputation as an intellectual artist - for one thing, because of her work's ongoing affinity for the history of Western art. She is serious and diligent and her curriculum vitae is filled with a long and impressive list of projects and paintings produced over a period of close to 30 years.

It was surprising to discover that, until now, she had never been interviewed in the popular press. The only comprehensive interview she'd ever done was published this past April (the month of her birth) in the journal Studio, in connection with her latest project: "Binyan Hahevra Ha'asiyatit 2003" ("The Asiatic Company Building 2003"), which was originally displayed in Weizmann Square in Holon and since the beginning of the month, has been on display at the Ein Harod Museum of Art.

 

"The Asiatic Company Building" was the name of a merchant shipping company building in Copenhagen that was painted about 100 years ago by a Danish artist named Vilhelm Hammershoi.

In 1905, the poet Rainer Maria said this of Hammershoi: "[He] is not one of those one need talk about in a rush. His work is long and slow and at whatever moment one turns to it, it will always offer ample reason to talk about the most crucial and fundamental things in art." 
But Hammershoi, who died in 1916 at the age of 52, is only now attracting renewed interest in Europe, with a retrospective of his work currently on display in Hamburg. Getter's love affair with the figurative painter began purely by chance. In the winter of 1996, Getter stopped in Copenhagen on her way back to Israel from Tokyo, where she had just finished a project. After exploring some of the city streets, she decided to go into a museum to warm up.

 

When she looked up, her gaze fell on a painting called "The Asiatic Company Building" by Hammershoi. Done in oil on canvas, it showed two perspectives - open gates with a ship behind, and with gates closed. "I looked at it and I said to myself: `That looks so much like Tel Hai,'" she recalls. The series of works entitled "Hatzer Tel Hai" that she did at age 22 established her status as one of the most original and intriguing artists in Israel. She bought a Hammershoi catalog and returned to Israel.

`Gloomy modesty' 

In April, as part of a group project curated by Noa Zayit and Galit Elat of the Center for Digital Art in Holon, Getter installed in Weizmann Square huge reproductions of Hammershoi's "Asiatic Company Building" paintings. In the paintings, which were done on plywood, Getter copied the symmetrical 19th-century European building; then she painted six versions of the building with its gates open to the port and six with the gates closed and placed them in the square and the surrounding stores. She says she connected Copenhagen with Holon.

"I came to the square and I saw a branch of a bank that gives loans to teachers. Its windows faced onto the square and all at once I realized that this project would include the immigrants and workers in the square. This connection between Copenhagen and Holon was very important." She painted 12 portraits of passersby - workers or small business owners from the area - and then added two series of photographs, the first taken in the square, and the second comprised of photos of her ascending the steps of various buildings in South Tel Aviv. Getter says that, for the purposes of his project, she is pleased Hammershoi was not well-known in Israel, and that she had some profound reasons for using him: "I'm doing this because of his ethical position, and because I find his cultural perspective vital," she says. "Hammershoi is an artist who worked at the twilight of the Romantic period and on the cusp of the modernist movement. He despised romanticism because of the problematic legacy that it bequeathed to modernism, with its rapid dedication to the culture of ostentation with all its familiar trappings - the enslavement to the shocking, the amazing, the deviant - anything but the `normal.' 

"His aversion to this and his fear that art was deteriorating into mere entertainment, and his hatred for indiscriminate bourgeois taste, made him a unique kind of painter. On the one hand, he was clearly a conservative whose ideal of classic art and devotion to formalism were the antithesis of post-Romantic modernism. But he was also an enthusiastic fan of the modern avant-garde and openly clashed with the academic painters of his time whom he scorned.   When you think about it, he was quite remarkable - being consciously and critically conservative at the moment when modernism was flourishing. Hammershoi's aversion to modernism is very reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's view. Like him, he foresaw a whole process of values being destroyed, and this is what inspired him to portray the special ethic of "The Asiatic  Company Building."

But it's a slightly boring painting of a rather standard European building that sometimes looks like a one-dimensional backdrop. 

Getter: "True, it's a `boring' painting of an even more `boring' building, but that's the point. The gloomy modesty of this `dead' classicism is what fascinated me. It fascinates all those who are examining it today, from the other end of the 20th century. And I'm very interested in this flip-side to spectacular modernism, because in so many varied ways, it touches on things that are familiar to me from here, whether it's the yard at Tel Hai, the museum that Samuel Bickels designed in Ein Harod or Weizmann Square in Holon. This place in Holon is a tiny urban island of sanity and
restraint, something different within all the ugly and ostentatious urbanism that is taking over the cities here."

`Charity begins at home'

Getter's friendliness cools a bit when the questions get too personal. She's not the type to talk about why she doesn't have a husband or children. She is a total artist and has always seen herself this way. Born in 1953, she began painting as a child, but at age five, she told her parents that she wanted to dance ballet. They took her to the Givatayim studio of the legendary Gertrude Kraus, and at this tender age, way before she ever heard of Hammershoi, Getter had what she describes as "a massive encounter with modernism, but also with an old yekke who would hit you on the legs with a ruler. This encounter was my first acquaintance with work and persistence and discipline."

In addition to studying with the strict Kraus, Getter also studied modern dance with Hilde Kesten. Her parents, Eliahu and Batsheva Getter, took their ambitious daughter to see the Stravinsky ballets "The Firebird Suite" and "The Rite of Spring" performed by the Maurice Bejart ensemble. Tamar's paternal grandmother, the artist Louisa Getter, introduced the girl to an impressive collection of art books and to modern art classics, reproductions of which hung on the walls of her apartment. When her maternal grandfather Shmuel Grossbard arrived in Israel, he was a devout communist and not exactly a Zionist.

Getter: "When they let him and his family off the boat in Jaffa and he saw the Arab porters being watched over by the British policemen, he said: `You see? This is what it will be like here in Palestine. Here is the master, here is the slave and we Jews will be master No. 2 in this land.' Grossberg wanted to return to Russia immediately but his wife refused and said that she was staying here with their daughters. The building I live and work in today was, in the 1920s, just a tent that later became a tin shack and then a wood cabin and then a two-room building."

Grossberg and his wife Dvora arrived with three small girls. The middle one, Batsheva, grew up to become a teacher. She met Eliahu Getter in Givatayim when he was just 12 and she was 14 and they married 13 years later. The Getter family immigrated from Berlin after the Nazis came to power. After spending most of his youth helping to support the family ("He cleaned bathrooms in Jaffa and worked as a porter"), as part of his military service, Eliahu was sent to the United States to learn about x-ray photography, which he later helped establish in Israel.

"When I was born, my mother was very sick. As a child, she'd had malaria and she later spent four years in a sanatorium because of tuberculosis. Her body was worn out. She had a hard time getting pregnant and my birth was very difficult for her." Tamar was born with a deformed left hand. "In those years, there wasn't any penicillin," she says. "Something became twisted around the arm when I was in the womb and prevented it from developing beyond the elbow. After I was born, my mother was in very bad shape so they separated us. My mother's sister lived on Kibbutz Kedma so I was placed in the children's house there until my mother recovered and my father came to take me home." That must have been tough. "I've never been helpless for a minute in my life, and neither has my mother. That's how I was raised. There were no breaks. From a very young age, I got dressed by myself and tied my shoes by myself and braided my hair all on my own. I climbed trees and rode a bicycle. I didn't get any special treatment and complaining wasn't allowed either. If I got into a fight with other kids and came to complain to my parents about it, they'd say: `Go fix your own problems.'  
"I didn't choose Hammershoi for no reason. Hammershoi is the house in Givatayim where I was raised. There was a certain Puritanism in my parents' home, but there was still a lot of affection, though it was restrained. My mother was more reserved. My father was always warm
and laughing and full of humor and extraordinarily generous - but the restraint was still there. The house was full of children and there was a lot of gaiety. A lot of families with children lived in the neighborhood. My parents worked all their lives and I like to think of the `Asiatic Company
Building' project as a tribute to my parents."


In what way?

"My parents were never part of the `we' culture. From the time I was born, I heard that we conquered and took and that it's complicated. My parents, who were much more moderate than my radical communist grandfather who was always shouting, they were realistic about what was
happening in the country. But they were reticent and shy and were mostly working people. They weren't political people and I think I learned a lot from them. The most important value that I learned from my father is his total human dignity, which is something that I find in Hammershoi, who looks at the Asiatic Company Building in this dry, factual way. The point of view is that you are here - so don't fantasize about something else. Charity begins at home. Don't worry about charity somewhere else. First of all, do justice on the island that is the closest to you."