Four Reflections on Ori
A. Ori Reisman and Nicholas de Stael
|Great works are alt alike; It is the mediocre ones that are "original". (after Marcel Proust)*|
Today, more than ever, it is important to write about the affinity between Ori Reisman and Nicholas de Stael (1914-1955). Firstly, because only a few in Israel remember the artist who had such impact on Reisman; secondly, since most of the essays written about Israeli artists refer to the uniqueness of localism, rarely perceiving Israeli art as a part of a broader international current. Only a few, for example, know Jean Fautrier, Bram van Velde, Vieira da Silva, Germaine Richier, and many other artists who worked in Paris during the 1940s and 1950s and had crucial influence on Israeli (and not only Israeli) painting and sculpture in the 1950s and 1960s.
In all my conversations with Reisman we never mentioned de Stael. Perhaps because we both knew that he had a certain influence on Reisman, mainly in some external qualities of the work (such as a certain perception of perspective and depth, or in laying pure color on the canvas). But Ori Reisman's painting was always, ultimately, painting with distinctive personal qualities. I am not sure, for example, whether Reisman was familiar with deStael's La Route d'Uzes (1954). It is a relatively late painting from a series created after both Reisman and de Stael left Paris, ond it is no* typical of de Stael who usually painted landscapes with more static compositions. But the remarkable similarity between that landscape and Reisman's indicates their closeness as artists.
Reisman's paintings, like those of de Stael and other artists who belonged to the group called the Second School of Paris, speak a language backed by a similar artistic philosophy, a similar agenda, and even similar work routines. The artists of the Second School of Paris did not operate as a group per se, like New Horizons. They worked in Paris in the mid-20th century, and used to meet every evening in the cafes of Montparnasse. Many of these artists were foreigners in Paris (de Stael was Russian), and Alberto Giacometti was unquestionably the most dominant figure among them.
Two major attributes come to mind, connecting these different artists. First, they worked under the great shadows of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and equally so — under the new threat of young American art. The French call those years the "sandwich years" — slim years pressed between giants. Since the artists of the Second School of Paris could not confront the wild creativity and the virtuosity of their elder colleagues, they had to opt for an opposite direction, the path of reduction and restraint. In those very years Samuel Beckett chose to write in French, which was less immediate for him than English, his mother tongue, partly in order to abstain from virtuosity and avoid competition with literary giants such as Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Like Beckett, these artists were inclined toward frugal art. They chose simple, classical themes — no longer historical compositions such as Guernica (Picasso, 1937), or multiple figures in elaborate compositions placed within exotic furniture-filled spaces with windows overlooking the Mediterranean, They preferred a single figure, two at the most, against a neutral backdrop, a simple landscape on the verge of minimalist abstraction, and at times, beyond it. a table with still-life — a bottle, or apples; no mandolins and no skulls.
The second characteristic shared by these artists was their ambivalence toward modernism. These were hard times in Paris: the horrors of war, the Nazi occupation, and the liberation by a nation which the French considered culturally undeveloped -all these left very modest expectations in comparison to the great expectations and belief in progress that prevailed between the two World Wars. There was tremendous disappointment with modernism, the very ideology that incorporated a linear progression of history toward a better future and a complete break with the past. Modernism, which brought great breakthroughs in the fields of art, literature, science, and technology with it, concurrently spawned terrible monsters. There is a great difference between a modernist painter such as Piet Mondrian who burned all the bridges with figurative art as soon as he arrived at abstraction, and the artists of the Second School of Paris who oscillated between abstraction and figuration, between tradition and avant-garde, trying to have their cake and eat it too. They may have suspected modernism, fearing that in its paradisiacal promises dreadful dangers were embedded.
The artistic perception of these artists attests to fragility, lack of confidence, and many contradictions The best among them, such as Giacometti, managed to transform these problematic qualities into powerful statements. Ori Reisman, like many artists throughout the world, was raised on this painterly tradition.
B. On Painting from Nature
The architecture of Notre-Dame in Paris is all that is left after one deconstructs the structure stone by stone, (after Andre Breton) For Ori Reisman, as for de Stael and the other artists of the Second School of Paris, painting from nature was not necessarily figurative painting. A Reisman nude is much closer to the compositions of Lea Nikel or Moseh Kupferman than to a nude by Lucian Freud, for example. It is somewhat difficult to understand this today, at a time when the art world is predominated by a type of realism oblivious of Paul Cezanne.
Working from nature does not mean copying nature. Cesar, an avant-garde artist who taught at the Beaux-Arts in the 1970s, demanded that his students paint from a nude model — not as a basis for "modern" art or as a preliminary course, but as a type of mundane hygiene. He used to pass between the students and tell them: "Exercise, don't produce works." Giacometti used to say: "The more you fail, the more you succeed"*. It was in that atmosphere that Ori Reisman emerged .
There is a family relation between the nudes of Reisman, Richier, de Stael, Cesar, and Giacometti All these artists endeavored to paint (or sculpt) that which the eye cannot see, rather than focusing on the surface flesh like Lucian Freud. The artist's approach to the nude model is not voyeuristic. Stephare Mallarme maintained that: "The dancer is not a woman who dances, for the juxtaposed reasons that she is not a woman and she does not dance." In the same vein one may say that "a nude model is not a nude woman who models..."
For the artist family to which Reisman belonged, nude meant monumentality, and was associated with the great powers of nature. It is not accidental that many nude paintings bear the names of natural phenomena (Reisman's Mountain Woman; Richier's The Storm). "One must link the women's shoulders with the mountain ridge," wrote Cezanne, thus binding human fate with nature via inner architecture. The artist's role is to unearth this architecture rather than to paint flesh. Since this is an invisible architecture, however, the artist works somewhat like a blind man He does not know exactly what he ;s seeking. He constructs and destroys, constructs and destroys again in an endless process, until he gets tired or loses interest. "A finished painting is a lost painting," Giacometti used to say This is how Ori Reisman worked, and this is how Avigdor Stematsky. Yehezkel Streichman, Kupferman. Nikel, and many others worked as well. Freud, on the other hand, draws the figure's contours, filling them with color. For him. when the surface is filled, the painting is finished! These are diametrically opposed artistic-philosophical perceptions.
C. Reisman and Zaritsky: The Story of a Tomato
Things did not come easy for Ori Reisman. For a long time he was considered an outsider. But his 1979 exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery, Tel Aviv, curated by Miriam Tuvia, took the Israeli art community by surprise, forthwith placing him in the first rank of Israeli artists. Up to that time Reisman was "an artist who goes by bus from Cabri to Nahariya with a lxl m painting in order to participate in an exhibition of the Nahariya Artists' Association." as he put it, Reisman once went to visit Yosef Zaritsky, The wonderful, wicked artist welcomed him frostily, and said to him with a typical shrewd cruelty: "So? You grow tomatoes on the kibbutz?" Reisman told me that he left, slamming the door behind him, and never spoke to Zaritsky again. Years later Zaritsky visited Reisman's exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery and asked to tell him that "there are no tomatoes in his paintings."
What did "tomato" mean to Ori Reisman? Hard work, sweat, Borochovian ideology. Socialist Realism, rural naivete — everything that is antithetical to artistic nonchalance. But a tomato also means pure, bright color (the majority of the New Horizons artists worked with grays and whites, and used liquid paint). A tomato is also a definite object that must be positioned at the center of the canvas, and not as a part of broad, blurred compositions that treat the canvas center and margins equally.
The crude quality of Reisman's painting is revealed on all levels of his practice: in the choice of themes, the centrality of the depicted object, the intense use of pure colors, the unhesitating crude, non-beautified drawing. That crudeness must have disconcerted Zarifsky, until it finally convinced him and won his heart.
D. Meeting with Ori
I first met Ori Reisman in 1980, several months after his exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery. I saw that exhibition several times and admired his work. I was deeply thrilled to learn that he was going to visit my first exhibition at Gordon Gallery. In my mind's eye I saw a tall man, with impressive looks and a colorful personality, somewhat like Gauguin. I was thus greatly surprised when a short, bespectacled man with a moustache, dressed like a kibbutznik and lacking any artistic charm whatsoever, entered the gallery. But the moment he started talking, you could sense the total artist within.
His first sentence was obscure to me at the time, and only in recent years I seem to have managed to fathom it. "Ofer," he said, lifting his finger up in a typical gesture, "Be careful not to burn yourself out! Be careful!" He used to repeat this sentence in almost every meeting. He referred mainly to himself, it seems. Reisman was a total artist, seized by the fire of creation. His mode of speech, his mode of work — all resembled a great fire followed by a long silence. He used to speak loudly and vehemently — it was difficult to follow his train of thought, and then he would suddenly fall silent and withdraw, closed to his surroundings.
In 1984 I spent two months in Kibbutz Cabri painting landscapes. During that time we became very close. I used to visit him at home and in the studio every day. I drew him — without a shirt, sweating, excited, talking about painting. He talked a lot about the "magic triangle," the triangle created by the mouth and the eyes, which was, for him, the essence of the face. He talked about his only ambition: to put a figure into a frame, like situating a human being in the universe. He did not speak in grand, philosophical terms, but rather expressed a great passion to get to the other, to cling to the other. And then he would fall silent, assume the blank look and cut himself off.
One night he solemnly declared that he wanted to draw me. He prepared paper and pencil, but did not touch them. We talked and drank a lot. All of a sudden he stopped in mid-sentence and said: "Now." He drew nearer and started drawing wildly, as if he were possessed. After several minutes he put down the paper and said: "That's it!" He gave me the drawing and went silent. In the following period he almost stopped painting entirely. I used to meet him in the dining room, where he did his turn of duty.
We met for the last time when he was admitted to the Nahariya Hospital for an arrhythmic heartbeat. From his hospital bed he once again spoke enthusiastically about painting, while I glanced worriedly at the constantly jumping monitor. "Don't get burned out, Ofer, don't get burned!" he repeated those words that still echo in my mind.
* All the quotations incorporated in the text were translated into Hebrew from the author's memory, and freely translated into English