oil-tempera on canvas
H 120 X W 200CM.
Mousonturm FFM, Aug. 1989
"In the year 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday, I saw this vision in my sleep; Many waters fell from the sky and the first one struck the earth four miles ahead of me with
tremendous power and with a noise that encircled
the whole earth. In great fear, I awoke before the second one fell. I painted everything just the way I saw it and may God turn all things for the better."
TAMAR GETTER: "DüRER'S TROUSERS"
An extract of an article By Sara Breitberg-Semel
'KAV' ('Line'), An Annual Review of Art and Criticism Nu.10,1989-90. Ed. Yona Fisher.
This article was written at the time when Tamar Getter was working in Frankfurt on a big cycle of works called "The Recruits" of which the basic material was several military documents, snapshots taken of young men during the process of their registration and enlistment. One of the major concerns of this cycle is the clash of two gazes: The gaze of the recruit sent aimlessly from the picture plan into a non-defined space 'OUTSIDE' the painting, a gaze which never meets the second gaze, the one of the observer, the one who 'sees more', and with 'purpose'. This observer is built as a problematic art connoisseur to whom Getter shows, 'behind the recruits back', some marginal drawings and watercolors of great European masters. In several works of this group the artistic scenery 'behind' the recruit is replaced by modernist architectural pieces.
"Dürer's Trousers", a new painting not yet shown in Israel, seems to me, like many other paintings by Tamar Getter, good and interesting even before I have any clear notion of what exactly it wants 'to say'. After I have considered it
carefully, and I can offer one or another interpretation of it, I still enjoy it as I enjoyed it at first glance. This is a type of pleasure that is being increasingly denied today, especially when the new norm of writing has set one's experience of artwork under analysis, to be almost always secondary to its theoretical challenge. The zest for theorizing has taken many critics far away from the works they wanted to make us see.
An opposite impulse would seek to confer upon the work's 'silent moments' - the true moments of bliss, which are different from those of the victory of decoding - the honor they deserve. The interval of the time prior to the interpretation process is vital: it is impossible without it.
I do not wish to offer an Innocent Eye'. Those who take interest in Getter's work know that Getter has dealt, for years already, with the question of the visual presentability of Israeli culture on various aspects of its problematics, to which central is her awareness of the special complex relation it shares with Western thought and esthetic models.
Getter's regular strategy pertains to the beholder's theater of response, where the painting's coherence is always put into doubt. The 'weak' junctions between the image-units, the emphasis on laying bare a 'world' dismembered and
internally fictive and inconsistent, are likely to be understood as a general metaphor, or rather, as an analogy to the difficulty inherent in the work of constructing the 'state' of affairs of Israeli culture. This difficulty is not confined to painting alone: and Getter, as evident in her comments, is well aware of this problem.
I would like to start by letting the 'silent moment' lead me in my discussion of the work, let that instance in which the artwork transmits a sensual order, images, and materials, bear the maximal weight upon the process of my decoding, and do so as if to forget all that "I know" of Getter's Work, were possible.
Getter's mid 80s works shown in her last two shows at the "Bograshov" gallery, had the structure of a "mad" 'pictures- domino'; The canvases were so congested with images, at times, to the point of 'ugliness' - ignoring almost any notion of 'good taste - that they looked as if they were ordered by somebody who 'fails' to follow the rules of the game. The beholder was deliberately led to reject and recoil towards the agglomerated images, the modus of the 'stuttering' realism in which they were rendered, and the contradictory clashings of color-sets. Very different are the new paintings done in the last months of 1989. The mood of the new works is restrained, and they reveal a decisiveness. The 'Tower Babel' of images and possibilities is no more present. In their powerful presence - indeed the new works are so highly suggestive, that, any 'talk', so I am afraid, will do them injustice - they remind me of the 'Tel-Chai' Cycle (1974-78), where a single, or very few images - as in the present group - dominate the entire canvas. This time we are confronted with something intensive and incisive, which opens itself to spaces of latent anxieties.
How these works seem to affect the viewer has to do with their setting up an obtrusive imbalance between the look of the painting - restrained, geometrically ordered, cool, presenting itself clearly and quietly, and its rather opposite effect upon the beholder, who is left distracted and is intrigued to seek the reason for it in the less plausible aspects of the work. Within the quietness one senses a potentiality for terror threatening to nullify the very possibility of quietness as if somewhere a fuse was lit, lit yet a bomb had not exploded.
"Dürer's Trousers", I wish to say it again, is a quiet painting. It haunts me, above all, because the few images in it are alien to each other. Is it the disjointedness, the 'difficult whole' we are familiar with from our experience with collage-work? Not quite; this work is an oil-tempera on canvas. Indeed it is done on one support by one technique, yet the painting does everything to make its elements foreign to each other, disconnected in such a way, that a unified space would not seem possible. True, by its structure and color this painting is somewhat similar to Getter's early collage works of the '70s, but it is rather her idea of the inversed collage (the painted collage) which is of interest here. Her concept reveals some affinities with late attitudes to collage in Jasper Johns's work of the '80s, and in David Salleys' works. She explores these late conceptual frames for new ends.
Getter's rigid and conceptual demand that a painting would always set forth its theoretical presuppositions is accompanied by denial, at times a sharp denial, of the qualities traditionally expected from a hand-made painting. Her work does not offer the erotics, warmth, or the sensuality normally associated with the very making of paintings; the 'painterly' touch of the brush on the canvas, as it was formulated throughout the history of European painting. To the same extent and contrary wise, she refuses to accept the sealed finish, the cold and at times ironical finish of the American paintings born from Pop-Art. Getter has never constructed a painting's space in a traditional manner and has never dealt with the sensuality of paint application in any conventional sense. Rather than 'paint' the surface, she 'fills it up' in a laconic manner, extremely thin and flat, creating vague support, a sort of a colored wall background, or a blackboard upon which the units of the images will be placed. This is a deliberate and conscious attitude intended to create didactic, severe conditioning: A classroom atmosphere. And it is the quietness of a lesson which is sough rather than sensual gratification. This impassiveness towards any 'artistic' quality, provokes a sort of instruction to the beholder to not fall in love with the craft of painting, or any of its seductions, but rather to invest him/herself in a 'reading'. It seems to me, however, that "Dürer's Trousers" deviates slightly from the standard didactic severity of Getter's work.
The painting is a large, mostly 'empty' rectangle, (120x200 cm.). Its color is the color of sand, or of bright pottery. The climatic dryness associated with this color, the hue of the desert, is not of the type of colors that carries one away. There is something anemic in the pallid look of the picture, moved about slightly by the strong yellow stripe in the corner. Another disturbing element is the image of the youth in black and white stuck in the upper part of the picture, put in - or, as I would later argue - rather forced into a bond with a wide, panoramic landscape, quite sandy too, which seems to me at first glance like a desert landscape.
The close-up of the youth's face terminated with a black stripe together with the landscape attached to it bordered with its yellow stripe shuts a complete unit on the color field. Besides this unit, in the lower part of the painting, and worked into the pottery-colored field, one sees a chalk drawing of a boat-shaped rocker - a boat without a passenger.
It is undoubtedly the black and white face of the youth which strikes the eye as it scans the entire work. It is this face that breaks the sandy uniformity of the painting, 'sitting' in it as a sudden flash of light. But more than this: A face and a straightforward glance of this intensity make one stop. This face has an anti-intellectual power which 'disobeys' the contemplative display of the work. The face is painted like a crumpled, spoiled black and white photo. It is worked out with the help of a knife which blotted and re blotted it out of the canvas to the point it got the look of a mask or a ghost. Despite this, pure materiality bursts forth from under the blotted-out, immaterial presence of the photo-like image. This pure materiality engages barbarism with youth as if it was its synonym. I find it a very cruel coupling. The attempt to get rid of this young man's expression results in a perfect presentation of the quality bursting through this face, and despite it. And perhaps it is not so much this quality, but rather the face itself, which is the victim of that quality bursting through it.
It is no coincidence that I have chosen the word 'victim'. It has quite a lot to do with this man; It is not known whether he is dead or alive, (in general how much can be known from a painting devoid of identifying attributes?) But the association with 'the photo' proves or at least suggests his introduction as a memory. It is enforced by the black stripe to his right which echoes the newspaper's convention of framing the portraits of dead soldiers in black.
This youth is both a killer and a victim; Innocent, he is the incarnation of the crime itself. Getter causes us to almost touch this double quality, see the tragedy of it. The figure was made after a recruit passport photo, one of many photos she found in a big military archive file she got access to. The fact of his being a recruit endows him with status and reinforced his Israelness. But even without this piece of information, there can be no doubt; The young man with his familiar physiognomy is a Mediterranean man or a middle-eastern. This head shares something of the popular characteristics of Caravaggio's boys or Velazquez's boys, but no less it recalls the figures of Warhol's "Most Wanted Men".
It is as if the horror of his glance leads him out of the picture, straight forward towards the observer; it makes of him our mediator, our leader into the painting, which includes us in the circle of threat and shock out of which his figure has been born. In a sense, 'We' are 'He', in another sense - we are those who caused him to be what he is. One way or the other, however, we may study him, the observer is forced into a strong involvement with his portrait.
Adjacent to the youth's portrait is an image of a sandy landscape. The pictorial impact of such a cut, the equalization of lengths between the face and the landscape, forms a purely pictorial comparison. The fictitious scale prevents any realization of a 'place', for either head or the landscape. When one recalls the deep landscapes opening next to the Renaissance portraits, the window convention, it becomes evident that 'Durer's Trousers' plays upon such a reading of picture space in order to confound it. For Getter, the generic clarity of the flat painting is dim in a cultural sense; the lack of depth, the destruction of perspective becomes a token of blindness, refuted and repressed differences. I shall later argue once more upon this compositional 'pun' which is crucial to her work at large.
The rectangle of the landscape is a remaking of a watercolor by Dürer. We are told so also through the name of the work. The oil-tempera used in Getter's work is historically a favorable technique for achieving high transparency. Getter has 'squeezed' any moistness out of it to lend her work an almost fresco look. It is only within the image-unit of the landscape that she switches her attitude, but not to 'obey' the technique, but rather to push it to the other extreme; Make it behave like the water-color technique, another type of 'pun'. The landscape is painted from a high vantage point revealing a meager settlement at the far distance, and soft, gently subsiding desert hills. They remind me of Yehuda desert - according to the maxim - a rather 'feminine' landscape.
In the center of the landscape, there is an erected swollen, bluish column and several blue bodies cross the landscape vertically. Under the original Dürer appears a lower appendix in his handwriting. Here is the text missing from our painting:
A flood then. A moment before the end of the world. Getter's dry, desolate landscape is misleading. The solid block in its center, the salient phallic image, is the primal water hose which in a moment will flood the landscape, inundate the roundish hills, and the picture of the landscape will vanish before our eyes. In as much as her re-made image is a marker, or an indication of an impending catastrophe, to no lesser extent, it is a statement about the lie inherent in that which meets the eye, a reflection on the time dimension missing from the painting. The question of optical perspective versus flatness is convolute with a time discrepancy; Us and Dürer, us and the soldier, the Dürer-soldier, an old biblical-mythical wet dream - an actual military archive document. Getter plays with the assumed perceived at-oneness of the modernistic flat support to expose its incompetence in matters of what she considers to be 'looking at a painting' - for her, it is inherently a matter of time, a process occurring in history as much as it is a writing of history. By speaking in terms of dryness yet threatening us with a flood, the Dürer image dismantles the work of its sandy calmness, thus, subtly disguised, the catastrophe imposes the far, detached contemplative appearance of the work.
I wish to return to the question of the Renaissance's convention. (portrait near the window) and show how the termination of the landscape with the portrait on its left side and the yellow stripe on its right side is thought out to build Dürer's catastrophe in new terms.
Formally, we fail to reconstruct the depth of a 'window' scene; The two terminators flat it off. Neither by their location within the monochrome nor through shape, color, tonality, or their very content, do they suggest any interior space to 'put before' a window. The Renaissance Window is, therefore 'there', only as an emptied form. Yet, it is this flatness that causes the entire unit to evoke another presence, an exterior, and the exteriority of a road sign. Occurring in the sandy monochrome it recalls indeed the famous desert signpost - 'Stop, Border Ahead!', which in Israel implies the knowledge that behind this sign there is likely to be a minefield, that is: an implication of death by explosion. Thus Dürer's 'Many Waters' is 'translated' into the horror of a war scene in the desert. And it is important that war is absent from the painting as it is absent from the youth's gaze who does not 'see' the Dürer that we see, and whose wide-open gaze staring into a void is ours to 'fill'.
During her work on the 'Recruits' cycle, Tamar Getter run across a drawing done around 1820 by Theodore Gericault which made an enormous impression on her. It depicts a public hanging in London showing three prisoners seconds before their execution. She described it in a conversation:
"They see nothing! All three of them. These are all stages of absolute blindness in the face of death: beyond tragedy, fears, any feelings, beyond the human. Look at Gericault choice: A one, his eyes wide open stares into nothingness, the other one, utterly calm, his eyes and mouth shut, his head already covered with the hanging hood but strangely enough it is depicted as though it were a transparent cloth - let me say canvas, it's a canvas. It is even THE canvas. Why this? I think he is already a dead-mask, a cast. I do not feel it is a painting done by an eye-witness! Gericault must have painted it from INSIDE HIS OWN BODY, it's his 'thing' with death smeared on these three faces...Trust me, It is hardly at all a public hanging in London, and much more a private hanging in the studio! And the third one is 'all mouth', his eyes too, seem like black holes. The canvas is a block, you see? And you don't cross it anywhere, you see? What can you do? You can wear it. On your body. This is what I want with my Recruits."
Theodore Gericault Execution in London
Tamar Getter Detainees
In this context, it is of interest to recall Getter's Torsos from the '70s whose eyes are always covered with a bandage. The painting which does not 'see', or does not show a horror scene present only by implication was a central theme in the Tel-Chai Cycle and it is dominant in the present body of works which are even more static, tensely arrested, and frozen.
The third image of "Dürer's Trousers", the boat-shaped rocker, is a chalk sketch. As with the Window convention so here as well, Getter plays with the observer's need to get his illusion of a real space, no matter how explicitly may a painting demonstrate its flatness. The line under the rocker placed a little above the basis of the painting, stretched to meet its edges, detours the self-referential monochromatic support simply by miming it. The 'boat' thus appears to be 'floating' in some new sort of a 'desert landscape', as if the painting builds a desert within a desert, both functions to offer and cancel the illusion of space.
The same ambiguity occurs on the vertical axis: As the 'boat' is located under the Dürer-Portrait unit, one is tempted to read it as standing 'before' it. Disabused, the eye, supplying the missing depth, is forced back into a flat reading. The ambiguity is accentuated with the white chalk smears over the 'boat'. Either we are to read this for what it is: A left-over of a dry erasure on a flat support, or - since by direction and shape the white smears duplicate the Durer's 'Many Waters' - we are forced into the illusionistic reading: We translate the dry chalky 'fog' into another fog, read it as water signs to include the 'boat' in the catastrophe scene. A rocker is a small object, a children's toy built for the size of a four to six years old child. In this painting, smaller than its real size, isolated from its real surroundings, the rocker affects the eye as a huge sunken, abandoned ship. In the book of Genesis, Noach and all other living species escape the flood in the 'Teyva', the biblical lifeboat. Getter's lifeboat- I trust this analogy is not forced, is a gnawingly empty children rocker, fixed on a line. Even as a rocker, it is 'out of use', so to speak.
Getter's work makes use of three genres: The Portrait, the Landscape, and the Still life. The points of view, the scale, and the option of space differ in each. The three shifts from the standard use of the oil-tempera technique follow the genre division; A dense knife-work for the photograph imitation in the Portrait case, a diluted brush-work for the imitation of Dürer's watercolor landscape, and the use of pure pigment with no medium at all - the chalk work - for the technical drawing of the rocker. Photographs, watercolors, and technical drawings are usually done on paper, by transmitting them to the canvas, and to the oil-tempera, Getter has worked out her wetness/dryness ambiguities to build her painted collage as a 'Death Cell'.
"Dürer's Trousers" is a tragic statement about painting, sensation, sight, and blindness. It transmits its mood wordlessly prior to any interpretative specification. The basic mood of Getter's oeuvre; a stifling atmosphere, a very small faith in reasoning yet a stubborn insistence upon it, is very much present in this work.
The routine Israeli discussion of Getter's oeuvre favors an oversimplified translation of her images into a political parable. A commentary following this line would have regarded her Recruit, an image of the brutal militaristic Israeli shaped by wars. By a similar spirit, the flood and the rocker support this parable. What bothers me is not so much the question of whether such an interpretation can or cannot be sustained, but rather what it misses - Getter's far more universal concerns, be it brutality, or the fate of painting itself.
As I was trying to avoid the narrow path of interpretation I felt that the fact this painting was done by a woman is of significance - Getter's work was hardly ever considered in this regard - at least for one reason; The sexual imagery of "Dürer's Trousers" presents itself quite openly; Durer's nightmare is, before all else, a man's wet-dream, Getter's is a woman's account of it. The mythical, indeed violent copulation between sky and earth, so dried off by her treatment, vouch for some extreme possibility of sexual exploitation. At least one aspect of this piece could be made plausible once we link the woman gaze, the feminine anxieties, to the nominal, Israeli, theme.
In this context, it would perhaps be worthwhile to reflect upon the ties between the Recruit and another human figure of Getter's stock of images, frequent in her recent work (after the '70s "War Heroes with Joan", "Madame
Cezanne", "Pierrot Lunaire", "Cochava Levi", "A letter to Joseph Beuys") I am thinking of the 'Woman-Idiot'. It was mentioned before that Getter employs a host body of images that she has been accumulating from the very beginning of her artistic work. These images, or rather roles and situations, are drawn from many sources, and they have turned, worked over through the years, into a personal 'code' with its detectable inter correspondencies reflected as well.
It is precisely the differences accumulated in the history of the works which determine the very reading of any singular work, in the sense that one work of Getter does not lend itself easily to a kind of wholeness of its own.
The logic of her idiom is therefore slightly different from a logic offered by any poetical universe as such.
The Victim-Killer dualism of her present Recruits cycle is a twist upon the Artist-Terrorist dualism of the Tel-Chai Cycle, in particular the "Giotto-O'Kamotto" image. When I am thinking of Getter's remark on Gericault - "They (the prisoners) are him!" - I can't resist the temptation to think that both the old and the new dualism are a mazy representation of a self, her self as an artist, much before they are any pictures of the Israeli state of affairs.
A similar conclusion offers an account of the correspondence between the Recruit and the Idiot-Woman. On the nominal level, both images were interpreted as icons of an Israeli degenerated existence. The two figures
appear in separate works, in similar roles. It is somewhat provoking to find that a male figure who was thought appropriate for the role was that of a young soldier, whereas the female is - an idiot. Since Getter's female idiot is
a fictive figure (unlike the recruits which were made after documents), there was, an operative option at least, to invent some sort of a male idiot, but Getter insisted upon a woman, and what's more, her choice was to represent her in the nude, the classical role of women in the history of art. One wonders why would Getter adopt a traditional male view, and particularly so, as to be the idiot, was the very classical role of the woman in a world of male wisdom. Getter's Woman is a purely passive being. She has no other existence outside of her self-contained hermetic imbecility. The Recruits, in as much as they do indeed look stunningly idiots, are still somehow responsive, are related to the world of action. At least so in the sense that they are threatening - they are 'killers' and 'terrorists', and they are - for good or bad - soldiers.
Is it then that Getter obeys the traditional man-woman binary opposition? I think she does, but I think she knows that she does. It is the mode of distortion by which the Idiot-Woman is painted which - without the common clank and clamor concerning these issues - subtly works the conventional female nudity not so much into a new role as into a somber account of the old one. Leaving only the body itself to be looked at, Getter's Idiot-Woman is hardly an object to look at at all. Nor can she in any sense be associated with fertility, and is more of a clumsy envelope wrapping nothingness, more of a doubtful container than a human body. She is desexualized, her body is bestial, brutish, and unconscious. Three paintings clarify a kind of a struggle around the naked feminine body: 'Three Generals', 'Start with Legs, Start with Flags', and 'Garin Bli Ken' (which is impossible to translate)* All three of these works date from
1988. 'Three Generals' depicts the Idiot-Woman, passive, her hands folded on her back, her entire image isolated in a bright-orange rectangle. She is surrounded by pairs of active hands; Hands checking things, measuring, examining, holding stones, cigarettes, springs, and porcupine thorns. Even though the hands do not touch her, there is a threat of danger if not a conspiracy, much like in the famous medieval formula for The Mockery of Christ. But is it indeed a mockery scene? Or are the hands there to protect, to guard the Idiot-Woman? And to whom belong the bussy hands? I tend to read Getter's account of the binary opposition man-woman as a struggle within the self, herself, where a biological woman, a body, the idiot, comes into conflict with the spiritual, the artist-woman represented by the active hands. And, once again recalling her remark on Gericault, it is not surprising of Getter that she chooses to represent the artistic aspect in terms of activity, and that for this end she would dismember the hands from the rest of the body. Because the hands in the painting are brain and eyes, relating and responding to the world, while the body of the woman is related to nothing but itself, far from being sensual. Under the rectangle of the woman appears an adjacent square functioning as her attribute - a landscape of pale desolate hills resembling somewhat the hills in 'Durer's Trousers', a 'feminine' landscape, parched.
oil-tempera on canvas
H 145 X W 350CM.
Start With Legs Start With Flags
oil-tempera on canvas
H 138 x W 204 cm.
Garin Bli Ken (A Nest without A Kernel) 1988
oil-tempera on canvas
H 116 x W 142 cm.
Stone in Hand 1989
oil-tempera on canvas
H 115 x W 140 cm.
Two Idiots And Two Entrances
oil-tempera on canvas
H 116 x W 140 cm.