Guest artist: Pavel Feinstein
Curator: Dr. Doron J. Lurie
Roni Taharlev: Berlin-Jaffa
This is not “just another painting exhibit” by a superb Israeli painter, but rather a “chronicle of a plague year.” Roni Taharlev’s current exhibition documents a year that has been fateful for so many. The year is not yet out, but the world as we knew it has already, to a considerable extent, collapsed into itself.
Who had ever imagined this could happen? As an aficionado of British history, the first notion to come to my feverish mind was the one used by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II in her 1992 speech that marked the 40th anniversary of her coronation. She had all the reasons in the world to consider that year as a cursed one: instead of joyful celebration, she witnessed embarrassing affairs involving three of her four children. Two of them announced with a festive air that they were sick and tired of their marriages (eternal heir Prince Charles, and Prince Andrew), while their sister, Princess Anne, notified all that she was simply getting a divorce. Even worse, at least from the queen’s viewpoint, was the huge fire that broke out in Windsor Palace.
It is not by chance that the Jews have a proverb, “Man plans and God laughs” (in Yiddish it even rhymes…). One can hardly remember that 2020 had an entirely different beginning for each of us, with all sorts of plans. Roni Taharlev, for example, set out for Berlin, full of hope for a sabbatical, armed with a clear plan to paint clothed and nude portraits. This was to be a series that would study various perceptions of gender and identities in a cultural world very different from the Israeli world which she studied in her previous exhibition held at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art (curated by Dr. Aya Lurie). The Berlin series was to lead to a new exhibition in Israel. However, as we all know, her year is about to end in an entirely new place, with a terrible pandemic – COVID19. Without parallel since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1919, the Coronavirus pandemic claimed hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe.
And so, departing from the original plan, the exhibition “Berlin-Jaffa” explores turning inward, lockdown, fantasies, ageing, fears, and the range of possibilities open to a person alone with oneself in one’s room. In these works, Taharlev’s intense realism begins to tread the narrow line between Magic Realism and Realism. A huge white bird with broken wings, the portrait of her mother wearing a strange feathered hat seated at a table with dark grapes, within a composition threatening to push the viewer out of the painting, and standing figures in undefined landscapes without a specific time or place.
In the first section of the exhibition, “Berlin Portraits,” Taharlev documents seemingly androgynous characters in a variety of nationalities and skin color. Needless to say, for us Berlin is “not just another city,” but one with whom we have a long score to settle. Under circumstances such as the present, we tend to adapt the worldview of the well-known philosopher Clint Eastwood, “Never forget, never forgive.” But reality intervened and changed Taharlev’s plan. The artist planned to portray models who would allow her to explore German perceptions of the body, so different from Israeli models in appearance, skin color, and the understanding of the human body. This exploration was to take place in Germany, where there is a dominant presence of the FKK movement – the Freikörperkutur, or freedom of the (nude) body. However, the models in Berlin 2020 are more representative of “multi-kulti” – the multicultural urban center with its multiple ethnicities – than any “German attitude” to the body. Here, too, the ethnic mix together with gender fluidity is well-known from Taharlev’s earlier works. A young Italian woman from Trento who has lived in Berlin for years, sits at a table; despite being bare-breasted, her gender remains unclear. Or take Matthias, whose gender identity is also not entirely evident, or another model – a young woman from a peripheral city in Germany, daughter of a dark-skinned father from Mozambique and a German mother. Paintings from Taharlev’s series “The Lady of the Lake” also belong to this section, such as the painting of a boy wearing a dress, with darkened lakes of a Berlin winter behind him. It is not clear if this is a pastoral scene or one evoking a mood of darkness.
The last work Taharlev made in Berlin is on view in its unfinished state. Nina, a waitress from Munich, reclines on her side in a painting corresponding with the 19th century French painter Fantin-Latour’s Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud. Nina was supposed to recline and look out on her unknown, magical future with all of the wisdom of her 19 years. However, a short time after Taharlev began the painting, Nina contracted the Corona virus (at a time when there were only about 500 cases in the whole of Germany!). The work ceased, and Nina marked the moment when “life as it used to be” came to an end. The main element that took shape successfully in the painting of Nina was her gaze that unknowingly points to a world that no one knew then nor now. What is it that the model’s whitish-pinkish innocence observes, gazing at a glorious future like the beautiful, brilliant 17- year-old Rimbaud without knowing what was in store for him, when something in the optimistic gaze already predicted darkness?
The world turned upside down. Berlin closed. The state of quarantine which Nina caused Taharlev to enter actually began from that same tense moment at which no one yet understood what it meant to have contracted the virus, and continues to this very moment. The “Berlin Series” leads to the second half of the exhibition taking place in the city of Jaffa at the height of the lockdown (or, the siege). Still Life with Pink Dress is a portrait of a window grille and a pink dress, in homage to Antonio López Garcia. The gaze from the interior outwards, the iron grille, the light passing through the dress: the painting depicts the gaze from behind the grille, without a model. Nina’s pink cheeks remained in Berlin; what remained in Jaffa for Taharlev was the sculpted head that she made by herself for herself, to paint in lieu of a model. Another painting is a small still life, What I Brought Back from Berlin, documenting three objects purchased in the charming Berlin flea market – a silver tea kettle, a porcelain cup, and a string of red beads. Roni Taharlev passionately loves flea markets, and particularly those in Berlin. She is fascinated with the second (and third) lives of objects. Objects all bear history and meaning, not least of all when they are German objects, such as a porcelain cup from the 1930s, a silver tea kettle, and a chain. It was here, while Taharlev painted the memories of the unknown lives of others from her quarantine in Jaffa, that the objects were transformed into longing – longing for an open world. The same yearning may be seen two other self-portraits, and again in the painting of the boy with the white bird. Within the seemingly pastoral landscape we sense approaching fear. The dark winter lakes of Berlin became the background of the painting Birds’ Milk. The Berlin swans became the large white bird threatening to fly outside of the painting with an almost magical presence. Following them – once again – is the boy in an orange dress, also staring into the future.
The portrait of the Buzaglo Sisters brings us back from colorful Berlin to our Middle Eastern reality. These are obviously two Israeli sisters, touching as sisters do. This is not eroticism, but another kind of intimacy. It could have been a saccharine painting of young sisters – a theme treated in art with almost unbearable intensity. Without sensing it, Taharlev has led us back from young German womanhood to the local. The Buzaglo Sisters have a strong presence, reminiscent of the unique effect of the ancient portraits from Fayum, Egypt. We are in the Middle East, in a familiar place, yet nevertheless, strangeness and darkness persist, along with the strong sensation of a world turning inwards onto itself. Did we mention “local”? A second look at the painting can invoke the specter of Paul Gaugin’s depictions of Tahitian girls.
Alongside the series in the exhibition from 2019-2020, the group of self-portraits from this year and earlier are also on view, paintings that intensify the sensation of the gaze leading nowhere. The gaze into an unknown future, simultaneously documenting herself undergoing processes of aging and maturing, runs through Taharlev’s oeuvre, whether in a portrait of her mother (poet Nurit Zarchi) seated at a table, or the two sisters standing in a grove. These seem to be standard situations - an elderly woman sitting, two sisters standing – but in Taharlev’s works, nothing is ever standard, as if to say, “Never trust your eyes.” She roams through art history, picking quotations and homages in a completely natural manner. Using a very limited palette, intense, lean brushwork, and chromatic precision, she creates the feeling that there is something deep beneath the surface of the seemingly banal situation that is not entirely all right, whether in a portrayal of two sisters, portrait of a young girl, or a still life with a dress and table. Taharlev’s portraits exude intensity and power that divert us from engaging with the specific portrait, sometimes even generating a strong sensation of discomfort. Old age, androgyny, and “borderline personalities” still remain in the realm of realism, but also move the current exhibition closer to the Magic Realism of Antonio López Garcia, Giorgio de Chirico and their like. This is realism that is less magical because of the fantastical nature of the situation, and even more due to the strong sensation arising from Taharlev’s paintings that nothing is what it seems.
As part of the documentation of the recent period of her life, Taharlev has invited an excellent artist she met in Berlin to exhibit with her as a guest in the exhibition, his presence deepening the sense of “here vs. there” in the exhibition. Pavel Feinstein, a Berlin-based painter from observation is presenting a self-portrait next to another painting of an ape painting a nude (imitating the painter imitating reality), as well as two additional paintings that are still lives using a unique technique of gouache and aquarelle on panel. Feinstein’s sure hand transforms a fish on a plate or a reflection of a silver vessel into a free, abstract celebration of the painterly experience at its best. His paintings correspond with Dutch and Spanish still life painting, but without any attempt to imitate them.
Dr. Doron J. Lurie