One of the first things Roni Taharlev did, once I sat facing the paintings, was to quote Degas, something to this effect: "Conversation in real life is full of half-finished sentences and overlapping talk. Why shouldn't painting be too?" In this spirit, I could have ended this short piece now as a "half-finished sentence". This because Degas's quote encapsulates some of the works in this exhibit. Overlapping talk.
Still life with apples and milk; sill life under the table rather than on top of it as one expects; a shell on a shoeshine box; green apples and a red wine bottle… On a table in the studio I spotted some bullets and some grapes: next to each other. I said nothing, only paused and wrote this down.
This, then, is the heart of the matter: overlapping talk. Many of the still life compositions here combine elements that at least at first glance appear foreign to each other. The immediate result is an act that shakes the genre of the nature morte, also in its Israeli realist form. The consequence is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is always in danger of becoming bourgeois. These unusual juxtapositions have a whiff of the modernist collage, internalized in the traditional mimetic genre of the still life.
But unusual juxtapositions is not yet the full story. In one of the paintings a shell sits on top of a shoeshine box. Two objects apparently welded together inseparably. But on second glance, interestingly, what seems like a forced welding of strange elements is discovered to be a natural combination, almost a harmonious one. Since both the shoeshine box and the shell have one thing in common: the slit. Both are sound boxes, one raised from the bottom of the sea to the realm of the studio, one raised from its lowly social role to the realm of art. Realizing the affinity between the two forms does not undo their external foreignness to each other; the power of this painting is precisely in mixing strangeness in the explicit level, "overlapping talk", with a whiff of an implicit connection. What the juxtaposition does is change the meaning of the separate objects. One can imagine holding one's ear to the shoeshine box, and hearing an unsurprising rumble of the ocean waves. The affinity to the shell filled the lowly apparatus with the voice of the deep.
The same goes for the green apples and the milk. The contrasting juxtaposition works both on the level of color, white versus green, and on the level of their effects on imaginary taste buds. But here too one realizes that the juice of the fruit is not all that far from the milk, and that the glass and the skin of the fruit have much in common. A metaphor suddenly emerges: a fruit skin is a vessel for the apple. Just as on the studio tabletop the grapes link with the bullets. How? The blood, of course.
The juxtaposition of disparate elements in some of the still lifes have a corollary in another juxtaposition – that of some of the paintings to old masterpieces of the past. Here once again the affinity is not simple or comfortable but rather challenging, mixing tastes. It interrupts with a mixture of hutzpah and respect the speech of the ancient painting. Taharlev's affinity with Balthus, De la Tour, Carpaccio and others resembles the taste of a green apple in milk. This is not our usual apple-and-honey. Put differently, this is a self-aware critical act that rewrites tradition from within, and not simply a naïve act of continuity.
Vittore Carpaccio, The Dream of St. Ursula, 1495, Tempera on canvas, 267x273 cm., Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
In Taharlev's Ursula's Dream a woman lays in a horizontal position, her gaze introspective and rather opaque. The connection suggested to the title of Vittore Carpaccio's painting, The Dream of St. Ursula (1495), is associative. In the Venetian painting a woman lays on her back, asleep. An angel enters the room. Taharlev has no angel, and no blanket to cover Ursula. All is revealed, pulled back, and the woman turns towards us without any eye contact. If there is an angel in the painting, Taharlev insinuates, it is you, the spectator. Most of us can't quite bask in our hinted angelic nature, we will find it difficult to fulfil the angel's role. Taharlev's Ursula does not make it easy on us. We intrude into the painting's dream space, into the painter's. Suddenly I see why she is not attentive to us: she knows we have no annunciation to make.
Another difference has to do with the one conspicuous physical detail that Taharlev borrows from the Italian painting: the arm. Carpaccio's arm perhaps supports the woman's head, perhaps welcomes the angel. Roni Taharlev assigns the arms a completely different role. The two arms and elbows are turned toward the viewer not as a welcome but as a defiant gesture, one that fends us off. Laying the figure on its side creates in the painting a complex configuration of several vertical couplings: a lemon above its reflection; an eye above an eye; elbow above elbow, breast above breast. The eye above an eye corresponds to the lemons above their reflections: thus, what is supposed to be a pair of seeing eyes is skewed by the proximity to the lemon paired with the lower eye, which is but a blotch, a sketchy and unseeing "eye". The protruding elbows likewise disturb the eyes of the viewer as they strive to view the body at leisure; and thus the chest is also secreted in white and replaced with a pair of hard elbows sticking out. On the crotch are geometrical vestiges of vertical lines – not exactly an erotic shape.
It would seem that the whole pictorial arrangement is deliberately set to protect this woman from the danger of aesthetic idealization, a danger well discussed already by many. The colors themselves are material, heavy, and undiluted. The woman created here is not borne of Adam's rib, that is, she is not an aspect of the Man, but is created "from the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7), and in our context, pigment from the ground. This is not the place for waxing in feminist criticism, but it would seem that these paintings of women can be explained through the negations of various female images held by men, as explained by Simon de Beauvoir. Women for de Beauvoir and for Taharlev are not "love" or "beauty", are not "poetry" and not "nature" or "the wonders of nature". Such figures and other similes like them turn many women in literature and art into "the only possible salvation" for romantic men. It would appear there is no harm in that, but the flip side of such idealization, even when its intention is admiring not condescending: sooner or later the disappointment of man; and more to the point, as regards woman, this idealization forgets the most important point, that a woman is "only herself", "merely a human being", as de Beauvoir aptly puts it. These paintings, it seems to me, strive to attain these female models painted as "but themselves", without additions. These paintings wish to wipe themselves clean of the vestiges of the male gaze from the tradition of nude painting (and its descendants in the beauty and advertisement industries). The general move of these paintings in relation to the old masters (men painting women) is demystification, or, put differently, restoring the humanity and selfhood of the painted women.
Balthus, The Golden Years, 1944-5, oil on canvas, 148x200 cm., Hirshhorn Museum, Washington
This move is especially evident in the largest painting in the exhibition. A nude woman wearing socks is leaning back in a chair, holding a rounded mirror. The painting refers to Balthus's work The Golden Years. The woman's pose is similar, but turned around the length axis; the table and the bowl on top correspond with Balthus's, as do the white footwear; the handheld mirror also finds its way into Taharlev's painting. But no less interesting than identifying the source is realizing the differences that occur in Taharlev's painting in relation to Balthus's exemplum. First, conspicuously and almost comically, Balthus's fire-stoking man is removed. His elimination accords with what I described above as wiping clean the purported male gaze.
Balthus's girl matures some in Taharlev's painting, and this maturity entails a change in her self-perception: she is not gazing at the round mirror, and thus is not gazing for the pleasure of the spectator gazing at her. In Taharlev's citation of Balthus's mirror it becomes a non-functioning mirror, an opaque object held by hand only to underscore its uselessness. If in the western painterly tradition "the mirror identifies the woman as responsible for her fate" (to quote Leah Dovev), Taharlev's painting eliminates the mirror. It eliminates it by simultaneously representing it and evacuating it of its traditional meaning, indicating an elimination dependent on an awareness of the role of the mirror in the tradition of painting, and a rejection of this role. Like Tintoretto's Susanna and the Elders (1555-6), discussed by Dovev, the woman in Taharlev's "Balthusian" painting "inhabits her beauty like a fortress that is unconquerable and incomprehensible". Taharlev removes the man from the painting and thus expands further the width of the walls of the female fortress. She puts out and takes out Balthus's open fire, which can be interpreted without too much subtlety as stoked male eroticism. In front of the round mirror she places a round wooden table, as if hinting that the mirror is mere materiality rather than an instrument of reflection and representation, one that generates a bright image. This mirror is in a nutshell the poetics of the paintings of women in this exhibition.
Where once Balthus had a man and a flaming fire are left in Taharlev's painting only a cool vase with a flower – a memento of the flame. If Balthus's painting is a sentence, Roni Taharlev's painting is a half-finished phrase, a partially aware citation of the complete exemplum, and thus inevitably an interruption of its speech, an overlapping talk with the exemplum that also to a certain extent silences it.