THE POMEGRANATE, THE BEAST AND THE AUTUMN LIGHTS
ON THE OEUVRE OF MIRIAM NEIGER-FLEISCHMANN
By Ariel Hirschfeld
Even in Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann's sophisticated installations and in the gloomy and oppressive paintings of her Apocalypse series one is readily aware of the presence of a little girl playing with colors. An unmistakable childlike sensuousness envelopes her entire oeuvre: It is the colorfulness of children, or, more precisely, OF little girls: strong pinks, purples and azures, gold dust and candy colors. Even for the most ironic viewer, encountering these colors arouses a memory of a child's contact with colors -- direct and unmediated, a daub that is a bedaubing, a swirl that is a whirl. When children are drawing, in moments of especially intense concentration and pleasure, they stick out their tongues, flicking and licking, as if to remind themselves of the nearness of intense color to the taste and texture of good food. This is the realm from which Neiger-Fleischmann's oeuvre emanates and to which it returns.
But from this primal and stable realm, the source of this artist's concept of "the beautiful," issue the inner journeys that take on the form and texture of painting. They leave far behind the pleasant, well-lit space of this "beauty." From the depths of consciousness they dredge up materials and images that express anguish and distress, at times the most extreme reaches of pain and fear: the realms of horror and "threat."
This tension, between the childlike "beauty," which drives her work but also "tones it down," and the painful "content" -- inimical to aesthetic appreciation -- underlies the ambivalent, paradoxical impression created by all Neiger-Fleischmann's work. And it is, I believe, the portal to an analysis of her work.
Shortly after Neiger-Fleischmann completed her studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (1981), she participated in "A turning point," an exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum. There she showed an untitled object, 50 by 70 centimeters, a cross between painting and sculpture, a "thing" that protrudes from the background (made of cloth, glue and paint). It's impossible to discern just what it is and whether
it's upside down or right side up. And yet, it is not abstract. It protrudes yet is totally amorphous. It is painted red, purple, black, white and gold. It glistens as if it were coated in mucous. It looks like a living creature that has been flayed or like a huge tumor excised from a human body. But mainly, it looks like "something" disturbing, alive, quivering, threatening, but also arousing great curiosity. It is both repulsive and beautiful. It is not abstract both because it is not a "form" that can be judged on its own and because it is perceived as the precise form of something you can't put your finger on.
This is a catapult for Neiger-Fleischmann, who has turned her back on the concepts of "painting" absorbed in her youth. Here, despite her groping for vehicles of expression, she suddenly discovers an imagistic solution for the difficult challenges she has set herself: expressing a trauma whose inner shape is totally chaotic. "Chaos" is an expression Neiger-Fleischmann returns to again and again, in relation to many aspects of her world. And it is clear, from very early on in her
work, that she is trying to deal with chaos itself, without imposing on its final expression a set of images that is artificial or external to that chaos. The object exhibited in "A turning point" is one of a series of objects of similar technique in which Neiger-Fleischmann has constructed a sensuous image for an internal state -- an image that is vital, but also dangerous and horrifying. The similarity to a tumor, which might be malignant, is not accidental. The viewer can't tear his eyes away
from these "things." A dreadful curiosity, drawing one’s gaze into this terrible wound, or human mutation, is at work here. It is the colorful, so sensuous, strategy that creates that attraction. But the viewer who focuses on the object also discovers its muteness. He is drawn to touch it, then discovers that it is hard and dry to the touch. All sculpture is probably experienced in this way. But here the meaning of the
"muteness" is not "memorialization" but rather "killing": The painful thing has been excised and killed.
In 1983 Neiger-Fleischmann exhibited in the Israel Museum a large and
complex installation named "Haunted Environments." [Translator's note: The Hebrew title of the exhibition was "Rakevet Shedim,"Svivot Rigshiyot," which means "Roller Coaster, Emotional Environments." literal translation of Rakevet Shedim is "demons' train."] This is an "emotional environment," as Neiger-Fleischmann calls it, consisting of a kind of frieze of a mythological scene. Together, paintings and sculptures create an inner journey among nightmarish images, in a beautiful, magical wrapping. Yigal Zalmona wrote in the catalogue of that exhibition: "Stylistically, this is a Baroque environment. It is sensuous, emotional and antirational. It is based on color, which tries to charm, rather than on a defining line. The composition is open and centrifugal. Even the combination of painting and sculpture is akin to the Baroque tendency to blur the line between the arts." And Zalmona even connects the image of the "demons' train" that Neiger-Fleischmann uses with the rocaille caves of Rococo gardens, which were meant to frighten as much as to please, or, actually, to please by frightening. Invoking the Baroque style in connection with Neiger-Fleischmann's art
is a fruitful and sound insight. The extreme theatricality of the Baroque, its tendency toward sharp juxtaposition of the grotesque and the beautiful (basing Baroque opera on castrato singers, for example), the search for the "affect" that "amazes," the search for the structure of chaotic lines, all these are certainly present in this installation
by Neiger-Fleischmann. But it has something else, rooted in the Twentieth Century: the search for excitement that gives no pleasure at all -- which derives from Expressionism. By joining the "beautiful," sensuous, colorful, brilliant and attractive with the horrifying and repulsive, which climaxes in the central creation in that "environment" -- "Warning Station" -- Neiger-Fleischmann is trying not only to join
the grotesque and the beautiful, but also to contrast them and to sound
the disturbing screech of their impact. This work has a spiral shape, emerging from (or drawing back into) a center that may be a flower or female genitalia, an explosion frozen in time or an apocalyptic meteor. The trail leading to it is studded with eyes, like the angel of death who is all eyes. The theatrical "beauty" of this painting works only for the first few seconds, before one's gaze is led to the strange, gaping and disturbing center of the composition. The repulsive yet attractive "inside" of the composition is indeed formal, but it is experienced as contradicting and destroying all beauty. The eyes scattered along its trail do not gaze at it in wonder but rather gaze at the viewer as a host of torn-out eyes, eyes that comprehend nothing. The "beauty" disturbs and gazes at you, keeping you from understanding it as a pleasurable theatrical performance.
In this "environment" there was also a sculptural installation titled "Love of Motherland": two sculptures set against a "sky." One is a donkey or beast and the other is a huge pomegranate levitating on a train of metal ribbons. Both are made of aluminum and cloth and are painted in glorious opaline hues. The donkey seems to be falling apart and collapsing while the pomegranate shoots off into space with the
power of a continuous explosion that propels it upwards, like a missile. Apart from the blunt irony this casts on the Land-of-Israel symbols on postcards and tourist literature, there is an exciting treatment here of the contrary elements of the lofty and elevated and the low and collapsing. Here Neiger-Fleischmann demonstrates her
spectacular control and inspired grasp of forms by combining these different movements with the classic symbols of the pomegranate and the beast. The pomegranate is all a folding in on itself, focused toward the upper center. The fruit and the corona rise, like something emerging from chaos and gradually becoming a more and more organized object until it crystallizes in the splendid form of the pomegranate (symbolizing fertility and wisdom). The beast, by contrast, seems to be
collapsing from the force of gravity pulling it down and from the force of disintegration emanating from inside it -- it is falling to pieces. It won't be long before it sinks back into the chaos. The pomegranate and the beast are presented here as dialectical forces in Neiger-Fleischmann's world that have achieved perfect formal and symbolic refinement: the skyrocketing and the sinking, the procreative
and the dying, the happy and the sad, the sublime and the low. There's no need for a particularly interpretive eye to sense the pathos and irony of these symbols and the exceptional expressive force in juxtaposing them. But, to be precise, one must say that juxtaposing them generates a rich ambivalence: The pomegranate is not only the
refinement of classical beauty (that is, Jewish classical beauty, the paragon found in the decorations of the Tabernacle and the Torah), but it also calls to mind its dangerous inversion -- the explosive (specifically, a grenade) that, in Hebrew, has the same name as the pomegranate ("rimon"). At the same time, the beast is not just a body -- flesh and disintegration -- but also the quintessence of wearing the yoke, of suffering and patience. It is that in-between state that Neiger-Fleischmann captures in her figure of the beast. Here the form, hovering between perfection and disintegration, transforms the beast into a multivalent image: the personification of the willingness to wear the yoke, despite the price of disintegration and sinking inherent in the burden and the suffering.
Neiger-Fleischmann's sudden maturation in the early Eighties creates a
kind of inner map in her work on which she finds new paths. This inner map has become her unique language, the language of "flamboyant expressionism."
True, the exhibition titled "Siege," which developed in stages from 1985 until its presentation at Ben-Gurion University in 1988, was inspired by photos and archaeological finds at ancient sites of destruction in the Middle East. The destroyed fortified cities are the starting point for a series of paintings that touches on critical points of battle and defeat ("The Battle of the Gate," "The Fall of the Wall," etc.). But it is easy to see that for Neiger-Fleischmann the images of the besieged city are not more than new vehicles for the inner drama of the body's contact with chaos,
of order with disintegration. The city has always been the symbol of the female body ("I am a wall and my breasts like towers" -- The Song of Songs), or of human consciousness, and Neiger-Fleischmann has responded far more to this symbolism than to the historical or archaeological aspects of the subject. In this exhibition Neiger-Fleischmann's "emotional environment" achieves its most theatrical or narrative form: The siege is the narrative sequence of the exhibition, and its climax is the "The Collapse," a space like a city plaza surrounded by images of breakdown and
destruction. The sequence is similar to the composition of "Warning Station": Following the "trail" leads one to "the explosion." The images of destruction are abstract and lack political or sexual identity. It is difficult even to claim that the besiegers are more "male" than the city or its buildings. It is not clear at all who is
the destroyer and what is destroyed, who is "evil" and who is "good." It is clear, however, that "The Collapse" is the breach of the creative front by chaos. But the precise moment of final collapse is painted in bold, almost pure colors: bright yellows, flaming reds and blinding blues. The same play-colors of childhood appear here and they seem to be the heroes of this drama, even more so than the "noise" or
the "cacophony" that the turbulent compositions generate. What is the meaning of these colors here? Examining the "plot" sequence of "Siege" may explain something about the meaning of these colors in Neiger-Fleischmann's world. First, it is readily apparent that the colors become purer and brighter as one moves along the sequence,
reaching their climax in "The Collapse." Thus it is clear that for the artist these colors have a kind of musical dynamic. The movement is a crescendo -- from piano to fortissimo. The pure, bright colors are perceived here as very loud voices, and their combination, precisely because of their elemental power, generates a terrible noise. Second, the colors behave differently from the images. They are not the "quality" of
a "thing," as of a flower or a person, but rather they are an added, different, energy acting within it. The color in the drama of "Siege," perceived as the forces beyond concepts like "city," "society," "victory," or "destruction," are the primordial forces in this drama. They are like the gods in the Iliad, moving and driving things beyond their understanding or essence. The stunning presence of these color-forces in "The Breakdown" expresses their victory over all civilization, including all its victims and victors. The silence that remains after the total disappearance of the city will be, according to this composition, pure color, with no form at all.
Here, too, Neiger-Fleischmann has created a powerful dissonance between
the sensuous temptation, the "childlike" or "lickable" quality of artistic beauty, and the social and moral content of the works. But here she has done it by attributing qualities to pure colors. Perhaps the "nihilism" inherent in pure sensuousness, in asceticism, and in the anarchic indifference implicit in pure hedonism, has led
Neiger-Fleischmann to attribute such violent qualities to her "childlike" colors.
But even here the characteristic other side is implied: Total destruction is expressed, too, in absolute beauty, and you can't tellwhich side the artist is on.
Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann is also a poet who has already published two
collections: Words in a Visual Space (Carmel, 1992) and Images Reproduced" (Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1999). Her first book contains a poem that refers to Claude Monet and his "Water Lilies," and that offers fascinating insight into Neiger-Fleischmann's approach to color:
LIGHT OF THE LILIES
The water lilies have been anointed with yellow
Red dots are flowers.
The water blue and violet brush strokes.
And different kinds of green.
Your painted lilies, Monet, are flowers of evil.
Between the spots of colour
The unknown tiptoes
Up to me,
Allows the imps of Bosch
To complain before my eyes,
To tickle my restraint,
And when they leave
Their double-meaning giggle through the air
Like the Cheshire Cat in times gone by,
I weave among
The touches of colour
A leaf of light upon the water. (Page 41)
Poem translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Rudolf and the author.
The connection between the bold color and the image of the flower, on the one hand, and "evil" (as in Baudelaire's famous juxtaposition), on the other hand, is very clear here. But even more interesting is the sequence that emerges from this connection: from among the patches of color steals in the "unknown," and on it, as on a track prepared for this purpose -- demons come to complain and also to "tickle the
restraint," that is, to undermine the barrier of shame (note that Bosch's name, in Hebrew, is identical to one of the forms of the word "busha" -- shame). And from this arises the "double meaning giggle" that remains, like the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, even after the cat has disappeared...
Neiger-Fleischmann sees color as the gateway to the demonic. True, the origins of color (the flower) and its purpose (the light) link it to absolute ideas of "the beautiful," but it passes through an associative process that leads to the realms of evil, anarchy and destruction.
This fascinating poem directs the analysis of Neiger-Fleischmann's work
to her exceptionally meaningful, and cautious, treatment of the cultural foundations of her world. All the discussions of her work mention Czechoslovakia, the country in which she was born and from which she came to Israel as an infant, and her being the child of Holocaust survivors. It is clear that the Central European Jewish heritage is the primary formative factor in Neiger-Fleischmann's identity, and it is clear that the Holocaust left an indelible impression on her personality as it did on all the members of her generation. But these foundations are too abstract to characterize the individual. Neiger-Fleischmann has built her world on strata that are quite far from each other: On the one hand she draws on the central stream of Israeli Modernism, "the lyrical abstract," taking it to more extreme realms of expression. She also
draws on the concepts of the installations and the performance of the Seventies, which she uses in a way that is more psychological and less intellectual than is customary. But she also draws on Romantic art, and especially the metaartistic
literature of the Romantics: Goethe, Hoffmann, Balzac and Baudelaire.
The concepts that inform her oeuvre, some of which appear in the poem above, reveal associations that are extensions of definite Romantic modes of thought. The notion of the "demonic" and its connection to the "beautiful," and the construction of the inner movement (from the eye to memory and from memory to myth), are clearly Romantic modes that have entered modern philosophy via Freud and psychoanalysis.
Neiger-Fleischmann relates consciously and critically to this European
heritage in her world, in one of her more impressive poems, in the second book:
German land generated within me a permeable tranquillity like the clover grass with its heart-shaped leaves, which penetrate with cosmic patience my organic hollows, plug roots between veins and tissues, and rise budding from my body. I was Little Red Riding Hood in a wood of deer and hares, leading a hound along tight paths. I was the burning blossom of the grass, snuggling up to the velvet moss over the tree stumps
My legs sink in dust
In my sack, ashes (Page 21)
Poem translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Rudolf and the author
The poem opens with a description of the tranquility and the spiritual fusion the poet experiences with the soil of Germany. She becomes an organic part of the idea of the forest, the so-basic idea in the world of German Romanticism. She becomes the figure from this sylvan, legendary world: Little Red Riding Hood. But this description also incorporates powerful tensions: The pleasant tranquility permeates her like weeds penetrating a corpse, or as if some true Romantic process, the merging of a person with nature, were taking place here, its outcome a demonic or grotesque creature, "forest girl." The sensuous pleasure in the snuggling up to the velvety moss does not conceal the tree stumps and the constant presence of death. Then come the concluding two lines, like a coup de grace:
"My legs sink in dust / In my sack, ashes".
Death rises to consciousness from this picture, and there is no way to conceal it. The identity of the speaker, as a Jew of that generation, keeps her from waxing nostalgic toward the Romantic world of this forest. But the poem reveals that the speaker's
contact with these reservoirs of "Germanic" culture is deep and totally
spiritual. This is no mere external layer of images and snatches of stories, but a totally natural merging with the European Romantic myth, which arouses in her, as a Jew, a sense of danger and loss.
Anyone who reads this poem and grasps the metacultural consciousness it creates will understand immediately that the conception of art of an Israeli artist like Neiger-Fleischmann cannot be explained only in terms of Western "Modernism" or "post-Modernism," and that her identity as a Jew of a certain generation defines her conception more than "global" processes do. Moreover, this poem shows us that Neiger-Fleischmann has retained, in a daring and direct way, her natural connection to European culture and that as an adult she has succeeded in incorporating the painful conflict that this culture arouses in her, without letting it erase the primal images of her world and her culture. This poem shows us that in her art she has learned to incorporate both the death that this culture wrought in her inner life as an artist and to transform it into something meaningful. The end of the poem, which is
epitomized in the duo "dust and ashes," is also a lament, a quintessence of Job's plight.
Neiger-Fleischmann's work has yet another link between literature and painting, which complements the poems. Since 1986 she has created a series of "books" -- bound painted pages that one can open and flip through. Their edges are cut roughly or torn; tears and holes on the pages are part of the composition. In some of the "books" Neiger-Fleischmann's poems or other texts appear. The artist has also
called them "diaries."
Neiger-Fleischmann interprets these "books" as "emotional objects" that, being tiny fragments of the "book of the universe," represent a part of a vast and unseen being. When one picks up one of these objects one is struck by the impression that it is a damaged book. The book, which has passed from one medium to another -- from the realm of literature to the realm of painting -- has lost its spiritual meaning, it has been torn and punctured, and bold colors cover the remainder. Only a few sentences remain in it, and they are barely visible. Here, too, the painterly medium, and especially the color, is understood as a tempting yet destructive element. The books seem to be undergoing a process of total destruction. The color resembles fire or some chemical solvent. The power of the sensuous, aesthetic medium destroys the verbal, refined medium that depends on a complex process of reading and comprehension.
Neiger-Fleischmann's painting, in the traditional sense, generally retains the characteristics described in connection with her more sculptural works. The composition of "Chapters of Observation" (1990), for example, is dominant in most of her works on canvas or paper: a light center surrounded by a darker area, which darkens as it approaches the margins. The center is the focus of the hazy, amorphous
movement and bears a tense relationship to the square frame. The energy emanates from the center but does not dissipate on its way to the "edge"; the edge stands in its way. The composition of "Warning Station" controls the energy beneath the surface,
as in all the paintings of "Jerusalem – Spiritual Landscapes" (beginning in 1990) and in many of the paintings in the apocalyptic series "A Day is Coming" . (1997-2000) It is interesting that in the Jerusalem paintings that have a clear "landscape" element (sky, horizon, mountains, houses), the inner, centrifugal, composition still is dominant, as if to say: "The world" is not stronger than the "I." The eye finds a focus of energy in "the world," too, and that focus operates like the flower that may be
female genitals or an explosive. The strange "tumor," glistening and mucid, is in the world and resembles... Jerusalem.
Just as in the sculptural works one can see the contrast and complement between the force seeking to rise (the "pomegranate") and the force falling down ("the beast"), so in the works on canvas and on paper one can see the contrast between the centrifugal compositions, which strive to spill over the boundaries of the frame, and the centripetal compositions, which strive to squeeze into the center and to crystallize around it. It is no accident that one of the important images in Neiger-Fleischmann's paintings is "The Galaxy" (1998). This series presents an interesting treatment of the concept "galaxy" as the center of a force field. Unlike the scattering compositions,
the "galaxies" strive to become focused and to become "form." The "galaxy"
is a model of balance between opposing forces and it presents a state of control, a hold on "chaos." But this is a state of balance and harmony rather than a despotic imposition of some geometric principle.
This, the pole of the "pomegranate" in Neiger-Fleischmann's works, achieves a state of perfect crystallization in the series "The Black-Yellow Phoenix." This is undoubtedly the most exciting and optimistic distillation of Neiger-Fleischmann's expressive abstract. The strange, living body in the center of the page has lost its threatening aspect: This is a living body of fire (the phoenix lives and is consumed at one and the same time), bounded by graphite pencil lines and surrounded by a kind of gray mist. The phoenix hovers in an amorphous void but does not melt away or disintegrate. It is the form, the being, the "thing" that she seeks to externalize and express, and it dares to be beautiful in a way that does not consume it entirely.
The tension between the destructive colorfulness (the "fire") and the thing itself is neither dissipated nor thwarted. The burning body is not consumed. The destructive paradox between the color and the "thing" is not resolved, but it no longer destroys. The ability to surround it with lines, quivering but distinct, is seen here as a spiritual and emotional achievement of the highest order. The expressive force of these papers is reminiscent of the best of Aviva Uri's drawings, in which a line is redeemed with suffering from the hands of chaos. Just as the "pomegranate" is the crystallization of energy that rises until it becomes a circle and fruit, so the "phoenix" is the crystallization of energy until it becomes a kind of bird-flower.
But there is another family of compositions, in works on canvas only,
"Glorious Departure" (1992), that is totally unconnected to this realm of dramatic tensions. It is, instead, an escape from the constant struggle between "high" and "low," between "the life giving" and "the death dealing." This is a quasi-Impressionistic series of wonderful canvases covered with patches of light and shadow and fragmented images of trees, branches and leaves in autumn light. This strange series seems to remind us that there is another realm, beyond the human,
Jewish, female dichotomies, and that one must cope with the artistic challenge that it presents to the eye and to consciousness. Through it Neiger-Fleischmann discovers that her palette has some other, very delicate colors that separate and come together as families, and that they have no connection with the elements of fire and destruction of the colors of galaxies and "Siege." Thus, the paintings in this series do not conform to the compositional dictate that focuses or scatters. The painting
fills the canvas but has no distinct center. It transfuses the medium with tranquility as if it were a pool reflecting a forest landscape. The tranquility emanating from these paintings is unique in Neiger-Fleischmann's paintings, but anyone familiar with her world will feel it all the more powerfully.
Perhaps the quasi-Impressionistic style that Neiger-Flieschmann adopts in these paintings expresses some nostalgia that she has released. But it may also be that for this artist there is one realm in which this old style is valid: gazing at nature as the seasons change. It is as if she is saying: Autumn still has a real existence, and in the face of it even the "I" and history have no significance; only Impressionism, with
its modesty vis a vis the "world," and its eager attempt to "seize the day," can express the relation to autumn.
The series "Glorious Departure" shows the deep decisions Neiger-Fleischmann makes in treating various subjects. Her discarding of her characteristic composition and the radical change in the vocabulary of her colors are in keeping with the different status of "the world" in painting. And it shows that the variegated repertoire of subject and form in her art is joined by a sophisticated repertoire of genres and
perceptions. Returning to the conceptual tools of Impressionism for this specific treatment of the subject of autumn light is no less daring an act than sculpting that inner tumor.
Thus, in light of the powerful tension between the "skyrocketing" and the "sinking," between "the pomegranate" and "the beast," that dominates Neiger-Fleischmann's work, one must add another realm, outside that tension -- the realm of tranquility that is achieved through the idea of autumn: the beauty in the falling leaves, withering, annihilation. Here beauty is no longer temptation, because it belongs to death itself. It is the expression of death. Here, beauty does not destroy, because even in reality it is entwined with death. The viewer finds powerful life in it precisely because it entails annihilation. In this realm Neiger-Fleischmann has found a bit of reality (and myth) that matches her inner sensations perfectly. One needn't invent the beauty that is seen in autumn and that is connected to annihilation; one need only imitate it. Thus, these paintings are not projections but rather
quiet reflections, mirrors or pools.
Surely this is the meaning of the great tranquility that emanates from
these paintings and the sense of amazing achievement felt in them --
the ability to revive the style and to imbue it with power, to
transform it into a true spiritual tool.
Translated from the Hebrew by Esther Hecht
Henry Street Settlement, New York, 1986, Meimad Katan, Tel Aviv, 1987, Habama, jerusalem, 1992, The Artists House, Jerusalem, 1995 and in group exhibitions in The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington .D.C, “Books as Art 3”, 1990 (The “book” is at the collection of the museum), in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, Touches”, 1993, Govio, Italy, “Miniartura”, 1997 and in a travelling exhibition in the US “Women of the Book”, 1997-2000.