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To Paint Opposite the Sea

Ofer Lellouche

To Paint Opposite the Sea

Remarks on a Painting Stematsky Painted From My Window


Stimazki, jaffa 1984

This work on paper was painted by Stematsky from the veranda of my studio. At that time he often painted at my place — he loved Jaffa very much. I think he painted this particular landscape painting at a time when I was abroad — at any rate I didn't get to see it while he was still alive. 


After some time, when I saw the painting, I identified it at once — despite the changes he had introduced into it, and although he had turned it into something almost completely new. For this was a landscape I had painted myself many times. I had always seen a kind of quiet power in it, a kind of anachronistic tranquility, a very open landscape, full of air and so silent that at nights one could hear the sea. 

I was surprised to see in Stematsky's watercolor a kind of colorful and slightly nervous ceremoniousness. The landscape I was accustomed to had turned into something that reminded me of Impressionist or Fauvist paintings of the 14th of July procession — a little like seeing one of Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes painted by a Futurist painter. 

This ceremoniousness, however, is not a monumentality — such as that of Friedrich: a monumental approach in painting, in terms of form, means to diminish the details in relation to the great rhythms. For example: in an etching by Rembrandt, the window is small in relation to the facade of the house, and the man inside the window is very small in relation to the window-frame. Another example: how much air there is around a figure by Giacometti, and how concentrated and cramped the little details are. Whereas in Stematsky's painting the window is larger in relation to the facade than it is in reality — and the key-hole is large and emphasized in relation to the door. He eliminated the empty spaces almost entirely. He brings distant houses near and evokes the feeling of a narrow and noisy alley. He blurs the heroic palm-tree to the left of the house — a palm-tree that is cut so dramatically against the background of the sky, and which has been so meaningful to me. 

Stematsky's brush technique, too, is not a "monumental technique", which means to start the painting with a brush the size of a broom and to complete it with a brush the size of a pin — Stematsky was a painter who used only a medium-sized brush. 

This painting was painted vertically, whereas in reality the things included in it are spread out horizontally. Arrangement with respect to height has an interesting meaning in Stematsky's work. For example, in a small watercolor of his which appears to have been painted from the roof of Yosef Zaritsky's house in Mapu Street, the same roof that appears during the '30s in the foreground of views towards Ramat-Gan on pages which Zaritsky painted horizontally, Stematsky paints the same vista vertically,2 as though it were an excuse to climb up the page, mounting the ladder towards the two circles in the sky. 

In fact, Stematsky usually spoke of broad, open horizontal landscapes as "those perspectives", or "those panoramas", in a tone of contempt and revulsion. 

What surprised me most of all in the painting that Stematsky painted at my place was his erasure or ignoring of the sea — that sea which one cannot help but see, that sea which was so important in my eyes — in terms of the sensation with which it imbued the entire landscape, but also in formal terms — color, a sharp horizon line, a feeling of material. Moreover — how can one paint opposite the sea and not paint it? 

Stematsky was not the only painter who ignored the sea. A long line of Eretz-lsraeli artists have refused to grapple with a sea vista (in contrast to painters like Reuben Rubin, Nachum Gutman, Shimshon Holzman and others). Zaritsky — who could see the sea from his roof — chose not to paint it even once. He also spoke about the subject: "This sea is epos, it is grandiose." I never understood that sentence. What?! What is more grandiose than the dramatic skies that Zaritsky paints? 

Perhaps the repression of the sea was an expression of the rejection of prettiness, of sentimental romanticism, as a contrast to Friedrich's monk opposite the sea, which symbolizes a passive contemplation, mysticism and narcissism, so characteristic of the nineteenth century. It is easy to give a psychological explanation for the phenomenon — these artists were new immigrants who had arrived from the sea to the Promised Land and wanted not to look back, but forward, into the depths of the Return, the life of activity, of modernity. It is also possible that what these artists sought in the Eretz-lsraeli landscape was the landscape of Eastern Europe — perhaps here they painted Russia. 

But I want to talk about painting, not about psychology. Painters like Matisse, Bonnard and Cezanne painted the sea incessantly, without prettification. (These were painters especially loved by Stematsky, as also by Zaritsky). The problem is not one of prettiness, but of painting, of language — the sea, as perceived by a large portion of the painters in Israel, is a foreign element — foreign in terms of its materiality, in terms of color and of form. 

In Zaritsky's landscape paintings, for example, there is primarily a sense of dust. The sky is dust, the hills dust. The link between earth and sky is blurred — the rhythm of the sky responds to that of the earth. The sea would have separated between them like a razor blade — it would have introduced between them an element in another color, another materiality . 

In Stematsky's painting the sky mixes with the houses — most of the lines are vertical. The sea would have introduced a horizontal line as taut as a string — it would have separated between sky and earth, braked the climb upwards, introduced a sort of seriousness, a sort of quietness, and that would undoubtedly have disturbed Stematsky. 

Artists like Stematsky, who were so preoccupied with developing a new, homogeneous language, preferred to paint a simple, uniform subject. 

The sea would also have made the landscape "deeper", more three-dimensional. A long line of artists have hesitated between the conception of painting as three-dimensional, as a window to reality, and the conception of painting as flat, as an object. They express a kind of bewilderment. Stematsky himself, in a film produced by the Israeli TV, spoke two contradictory sentences about "depth" in a picture. He hinted that on paper, depth is permissible — one may paint a landscape with a feeling of depth; but the canvas — the oil-painting — has to be flat. 

This contradiction — this bewilderment — is at the core of Stematsky's painting, and it is this that makes his art so interesting. 

In my view, Stematsky was a painter who, in contrast to myself, was never afraid of "getting lost", was not afraid to lose control of the page. Perhaps it is because of this that I appreciated him so. 

I think that he was at his best particularly when he had second thoughts, and got confused again, and returned to the work, and in some miraculous way, out of this hesitant questing, found a kind of perfection that I always found inexplicable. 

First of all he was a painter of the "School of Paris", and for a part of the public (especially in Israel) there is a problem with painters of the "School of Paris". Many people think their painting is confused, not noble, not consolidated, sentimental. People didn't forgive them for ignoring all of Modernism and connecting themselves directly with the period before the Impressionists, with Gustave Courbet. I once heard the art-dealer Claude Bernard say: "I don't like it when they mix the colors on the canvas and not on the palette". Stematsky would say about himself, during the period when he painted in Jaffa, that he didn't have the "discipline" right now for watercolors — which was why he used all kinds of mixed techniques. He eschewed control, he eschewed the nobility of a clean application of color. He lost in one place in order to gain in another. I feel that in this stuttering there is a very strong statement — there is more than a mere sensuality of materials. 

He was both a modernist and a traditional artist — a prettifier and also an ascetic — but in a miraculous way these contradictions "work" together and create a perfection . 

During a visit to a museum in Lisbon I was privileged to see works by Vieira da Silva which the artist had bequeathed with instructions that they not be shown to the public at large but only to artists and students. The works strongly recall the School of Paris. It was there that for the first time I heard the concept "The Second School of Paris ". 

Stematsky, Streichman and Zaritsky were part of an international current, together with painters like Vieira da Silva, de Stael, Atlan, Esteve, Bram van Velde and others — a whole line of painters who worked from nature, from observation, who moved away from nature, to abstraction, then returned to-nature, then moved away from it again... They tried to combine traditional painting with modernism. They worked as lone wolves, on the margins of the mainstreams. They eschewed sharpness, clear ideologies, straight paths — but for a more sublime purpose.