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Striped bare before the exalted

Mordechai Omer 

"Striped bare before the exalted"

  But in later years I understood that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes lay in the great part played in each of them by its symbols, while the fact these were depicted, not as symbols (for the though symbolized was nowhere expressed), but as real things, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to their meaning, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson they imparted. 

Marcel Proust, The Remembrance of Time Past

In recent years Ofer Lellouche's painting, with their immediate accessibility and their harsh and purposive appearance, suggest a concrete and direct experience: the self portraits, the nudes and the landscapes are all taken directly from life and are suffused with a distanced and isolated self-consciousness, but to the same extent, his canvases have become strong with the symbolic power they bear as it were without premeditation, and the pictures combine into and aggregate where the details lose they importance in the presence of the whole, which points to something beyond them. "In any exhibition", Lellouche claims, "The distance between the pictures is more interesting than the pictures themselves. The pictures cut spiritual columns on the wall, which support the ceiling. Between one picture and the next something happens" 

Earlier, in 1980, Lellouche described his experiences in the Louvre: "A visit to the Louvre: a window, through which I see the Louvre garden, busses, sculptures by Maillol, people. A few steps on and I'm in front of a picture, a landscape by Constable, for example. A few more steps, again a window: the Louvre garden is not the same garden — and I ask myself who was the crazy man who managed so quickly to paint all the green trees a bright pink. Not to imitate nature, but to change nature. The place of a significant paining is between two windows — a painting that imitates nature blocks a window. An exhibition is meaningful only if, when I go out into the street, the street has changed — in this sense every meaningful painting is a political painting". 

Indeed, the images that Lellouche paints are primarily instruments, reference points that allow the artist and the viewer to re-examine the vitality of cultural perspectives. The "optic ethic", as Daniels Liebeskind calls it, is present in all it's demandingness in Lellouche's canvasses, and it obliges him again and again to dare to stand at the same initial point — "stripped bare before the exalted". 


Since the beginnings of his path as an artist, the self-portrait has been a major channel in Ofer Lellouche's stubborn and compulsive work. The early portraits reveal the influence of Giacometti and the spirit of French Expressionism. They were done mainly in the graphic techniques of drawing and printmaking, in open series that emphasized the awareness of failure that originates in the limitations of matter, and the frustration that "the process of erasure has not yet reached its conclusion" (Giacometti). In the catalogue of the Self-Portrait exhibition, in 1980, Ofer Lellouche remarked: "From the other side of the mirror I get an answer to a question I have difficulty formulating. Narcissus, who was drawn to touch his reflection, was engulfed in the tremor of a wave. As for me, what interests me is on this side of the mirror, the moment of the touch of my finger on the glass, the privileged moment when the water becomes troubled". 

Painting the self-portrait was for him first of all an attempt to reduce the gap between Lellouche is the painter and Lellouche is the model. The model Lellouche responds toe very demand made by the painter Lellouche. He lowers his shoulder a little, raises his nose a little, changes the angle of the eyebrows. An experienced painter waits several minutes until his model finds a natural and relaxed posture. In the case of the self-portrait, the posture changes slowly according to the painter's demands. Before I finish wanting my model to turn his head a little, the head is already turned in the desired direction. I look for the impression on the paper. I look for the posture in the mirror. I build the paper exactly as I build the mirror. The form I put myself into in the mirror frame is a creative and determining act exactly like the drawing that I put on the paper. One could imagine a self-portrait without paper. For the painter, looking into the mirror suffices. He moves slowly until he finds the right posture exactly as a drawing appears slowly on paper (of course, behind his shoulder is an art critic who photographs, draws, and leaves an eternal echo to the event)". 

But this narcissistic activity actually receives its full conceptual meaning in a later essay that Lellouche devoted to Duchamp's nude descending a staircase. In this essay, he tried to deviate from the conventional, Freudian definition of narcissism (self-love, or egocentricity), and to return to the narcissistic myth in its classical form. "The narcissism of Ovid is a problem in self-identification, not self-love, a problem in the differentiation between reality and a model of reality, an aspiration to eliminate the distance between 'inner feeling' — an undefined, unclear yet certain presence — and the sign that appears in the mirror: the narcissistic aspiration is to unite the 'reality' with its sign — the only absolute sign of this reality... When Narcissus tries to touch his reflection, to grasp the figure in the depths,, the water becomes troubled, the figure disintegrates and turns into a kind of flat echo of the original figure. When Narcissus touches the water, his reflection t urns into Echo. In Duchamp I see a lot of longings for the complete figure, the classic one, even when it crumbles between his fingers. Nude Descending a Staircase is a metamorphosis of Narcissus, who turn into Echo. 

Since the mid-'80s, Lellouche has intensified the encounter between the self-portrait and the space is occupies. In canvasses such as Figure in Landscape (1987), which were shown at the 19th Biennial of Sao Paulo, or in series such as Self-Portrait in sunset (1993-1994), the artist's "psychological portrait" is positioned in front of backgrounds with a vast, panoramic depth of field. The inverse proportion between the figure and the background brings to mind the moving way in which Lellouche described the portrait of Gauguin painted by Odilon Redon: "The figure in the painting by Redon is closed in on itself, introverted, pointed, opaque from a surfeit of existence, floating in a space that is endlessly disintegrating". 


During a visit to Paris in 1990, on his way back to Israel from Sao Paulo after participating in a group exhibition there, Lellouche felt the need to return to the school where he had studied, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and to visit the studio where he had worked under the instruction of the sculptor Cesar. Cesar had already retired from the Beaux Arts, and in the sculpture studio Lellouche found an empty hall, with an empty platform and a long line of sculptures of the female nude in various stages of completion, The human effort involved in the attempt to capture the elusive figure of the model was dramatized most forcefully before his eyes, and left its mark on his continuing attitude to the nude, Fragmented body parts, crude masses of matter and an almost desperate attempt to breathe life into them, started appearing in his canvasses. The nudes arranged themselves in rows, as though getting ready for some death procession or protest march. The bodies were all turned in the one direction, and the rhythm of their appearance and disappearance in the pictorial space remained a mystery, like some rite whose meaning is lost to us. 

The first paintings of this series depict a model who is pregnant, her body stretched upwards, and her posture noble. Her heavy and distended limbs are shown as a very vibrant entity, and she carries them as though her whole body were suspended from the top of her skill. The nude, the design of which seems to blur the idea of pregnancy, recalls the pregnancy of the kitchen-girl that enables Proust to "grasp" Giotto's personification of "Charity" in the Arena Chapel: "And I can see now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in another respect as well. For just as the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which se carried in her body, without appearing to understand what it meant, without any rendering in her facial expression of all its beauty and spiritual significance, but carried as if it were an ordinary and rather heavy burden, so it is without any particular suspicion of what she is about that her powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label 'Caritas' and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. The compulsive return to the shame body, with no desire to complete it or to connect it with its environment, preserves the tension of disparities between the reality and its sign, and reinforces the sense of disintegration of both the mother and fruit of her womb, of both the image and the painting that is to be born of it. The sense of the death that is in material life is present in every one of the nudes and it grows stronger as the series progresses. In the later versions (1994), the acts of erasing, squashing and dissolving make it almost impossible to preserve the human appearance of the bodies. On the one hand the later model is a figure with the tension of a stable and classical athletic body structure, in which one can read no pity or feeble-mindedness, and on the other hand the same figure, in the metamorphoses of its procession along the surface of the canvas, goes through the most violent processes of being cut up, removed, and eroded. Indeed, in these nudes the moment of lose of the human image paradoxically also constitutes a moment when they are "restored to life", as though they were obliged to sacrifice themselves in order to breathe a new spirit into their still bodies. 


More than to any other landscape, Lellouche keeps returning to the Judean Hills and especially to the vistas of Nes Harim. These landscapes harmonize restless powers of primordial spaces with longings that seek to arrive as a state of being at peace with their surroundings. From the hills that surround Jerusalem there rises a firm and uniform world of infinite spaces. The branching lines are presented as vague reflections of the forms of the hills, and the deep expanses are exposed in parallel to those successive levels of terraces which were built, so it seems, without any method. Even the radiant light of the gleaming white Jerusalem stone has been dulled, darkened in a way that seems to unify the natural and the artificial which seep into each other by means of common tones and parallel structures. These contrasts between contracting and expanding movements, between lights and shadows that continue to conquer each other and between the consolidation and the decomposition of the symmetrical structure, imbue Lellouche's landscapes with their intense sense of drama. 

From some of the later works in the series there arises a feeling, a slightly threatening one, that the accumulation of experiences and of the specific energies of the material blocks the space of the painting with a compression that fills everything. In several of the broad landscapes, so much energy has been accumulated that it produces a kind of black of a lunar eclipse or a brilliant and blinding glow that covers everything with a uniform and impermeable hue. Despite that hard moment of immense charging which ends in a discharge that sweeps all, in these paintings too the steps that led to the event have been preserved. Although their general appearance is suffused with a sense of timelessness, they also evoke a sense of timeliness of detail — echoes of a time and a place which pass in some charged eternal flow. 

In these landscapes of the Judean hills, too, one can see the narcissistic anxiety, which is expressed n the infinity of vanishing points that return to the artist as infinity of images of his selfhood. On this kind of state of being in the landscape, Lellouche has said: "Perhaps it was this that Freud meant when he described narcissism as the basic state of the libido: one has to be in motion, like an amoeba, to disintegrate and reintegrate incessantly — this is the state of the 'healthy' subject. T .S. Eliot, in an early poem entitled The Death of St. Narcissus, also uses the metaphor of a landscape in the shadow of which "something different" may be seen. 

Eliot later quoted this passage in his poem The Waste Land, but there he already dared the "something different" as "fear in a handful of dust".

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you,
I will show you fear in a handful dust.