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Women artists need chutzpah

"For a woman to be a success, she needs chutzpah, like red legs and high-heeled shoes," says photographer Ruth Oren, who catches the sexy, confident, on-the-go side of modern womanhood in a work entitled, "Red Feet" at a Tel Aviv exhibition marking International Women's Day (March 8).

Oren's photograph of the lower part of "Woman," a life-sized Joan Miro metal sculpture (1.30 m high) on the terrace of the eponymous museum in Barcelona, is one of 64 works by an equal number of artists in "The Faces of Eve." The exhibition by and about women ran until April 4 at the Bible Museum (also known as Dizengoff House) on Tel Aviv's bustling, regentrified Rothschild Boulevard.

The show reveals "the incredible richness of women's roles in our society," says curator Zina Bercovici. "It is an eclectic exhibit of a variety of themes and media with works by primarily Israeli artists, who have contributed one work apiece." Topping the list of themes is woman as mother: nursing, joyous, grieving and pregnant. Woman is also depicted as angel, bride, clown, dancer, Eve, gypsy, mermaid, musician, queen, sphinx and temptress. One genre, however, is conspicuous by its absence: the nude. Bercovici explains, "Nudes are for men's eyes and delight. Our goal is to show how women see themselves."

Males are also largely absent as subject matter, with the exception of several sculptures of men and women dancing. Says Bercovici, "The exhibition is not about man versus woman or even the two in harmony. It is instead about how a woman artist perceives herself when she is not in the glare of a male gaze." If "feminism" can be defined as a movement that concerns itself with gender inequalities, the art in this exhibition would be more accurately described as female, not feminist art.

Do women have a different approach than men when creating or portraying women in art? Exhibition-goer Dina Levy, a 63-year-old housewife from Tel Aviv, believes that subjects like childbirth and breastfeeding are more authentically portrayed by women. Moshe Katz, an Israeli artist who has worked in Paris and Chicago, disagrees, saying that those subjects are "banal, lacking depth, even kitschy," and that an artist of either gender can paint a woman breastfeeding. It isn't the subject itself but the treatment that is significant, says Katz, adding: "I would prefer to see a female artist take on something serious, like the Oedipus complex." Katz was also offended that only women were invited to the opening.

"Imagine the outcry if it had been 'for men only.' Men have something valid to say about women," he adds.

Artist Liliana Livneh, who came to Israel from Argentina in 1977, concurs. She believes that men have special insight into women, sometimes even better than a woman herself, citing the cinematic works of Spaniard Pedro Almodovar. Livneh's work "Faces" depicts a woman as a caryatid (a sculpted female figure in the shape of a column or a pillar serving as an architectural support). "First you see the external beauty, the usual way we approach a woman," Livneh explains. "Then we notice that she is hard at work supporting the architecture. The capital above her head represents her responsibility both as a mother and professional."

Another exhibitor Marlen Ferrer, a 55-year-old painter and environmental artist from Tivon, who came to Israel from South Africa in 1978, says she treats a figure of a woman gently, using gold leaf to show a jewel-like quality in her "Eve and Apple." Ferrer's working method is to begin with tar applied to the canvas, and through rubbing, to watch a shape begin to form. "This is the strength of women, from the dark sticky tar, a gentle soul arises," she says.

Bercovici, 50, a freelance curator from Haifa, initiated the project, which was supported by Bank Hapoalim and the German Embassy in Tel Aviv, after noticing that Israel's response to International Women's Day was minimal. "When I started to work, I was the only person preparing an exhibition." (Subsequently, Beit Ahoti, a gallery in south Tel Aviv mounted "The Silence of the Butterflies," by Hanan Abu Husein, a female Israeli-Arab artist from Umm el-Fahm in the north of Israel, who deals with the plight of Arab women in Palestinian and Israeli society). The city of Holon also joined the festivities (see box on page 39).

Bercovici, who emigrated from Bucharest, Romania, in 1983, says she was fortunate to have had a muse to guide her on this mission. Advising her both on the importance of Jewish women's artistic achievements as well as where to find them was Hedwig Brenner, who has recently completed the final tome of her three-volume opus on "Jewish Female Artists in the Visual Arts" (Hartung-Gorre Publishers, 1998-2007). It features comprehensive biographies of 1,030 artists and their work from Israel, the United States, England and Western Europe.

Like Bercovici, Brenner is a Haifaite who arrived from Romania, in 1982, following a career as a physiotherapist. She began her research on female artists in 1987. Now 89 years old, she is a vivacious, multilingual and outspoken champion of female artists, especially Jewish ones. Brenner, who studied art history at the University of Vienna until the Anschluss (Nazi takeover) of 1938, believes that female artists are more attuned to creativity than their male counterparts because they are closer to nature and its cycles. "Women are more sensitive to love, nature, flowers, children, animals. Men cannot be so near to children as women," she contends.

Brenner is passionate about female artists. She supports them not only because of their artistic talent but because they were shunned in the art world, and frequently not taken seriously once their gender was revealed. "Many times they had to exhibit work anonymously or under their husbands' names," she said during a speech on the opening night of the exhibition, going on to note that women suffer the extra burdens of marriage, home and children.

"Many female artists had to relinquish or seriously curtail their ambitions to suit their husbands' careers; or if they were married to artists, to stand in their shadows," she told The Report in her Haifa home, singling out artist Lee Krasner and her better-known husband Jackson Pollack, who were both American abstract expressionists; and sculptor and graphic artist Camille Claudel, model, confidante and lover of French sculptor Auguste Rodin.




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