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Naomi Aviv – The First Cut Is The Deepest

2002 | Article

On the Works of Haya Graetz-Ran.

Hebrew Woman, who shall  know your life.
In darkness you came and in darkness you shall go”

Yehuda Leib Gordon

 In recent years the life and times of the New Hebrew Mother are being gradually revealed. The woman who became a pioneer alongside a mate who directed his love and passion to the land of the homeland rather than at her. Haya Graetz-Ran, Born with the State of Israel, experienced first hand the ideological trials of a domineering mother who appropriated a monopoly on suffering. The suffering of her own mother, who immigrated to Palestine as a young girl during the 1930s, is processed by the daughter, linked with the confessionals of women pioneers, who came from Eastern Europe. They are depicted in hindsight as modernist martyrs who spent all their strength in the struggle to fulfill an ideology; a struggle for survival that took a toll on a personal level – as women, as lovers, as mothers. Their active participation in the Zionist revolution shrouded them with the kind of pathos one sees in the socialist realism paintings. In film, photos and journals from the period they appear as heroic figures, clad in a vigorous almost uniform membrane of a stubborn toughness. However their eyes, their gazes and their presence, granted to the photographer and for posterity, preserve not only pride, but also an existential metancholic experience that could drive much academic research in women and gender study programs.

Reading through the Community Journal A collection of personal journals written by members of Zionist cooperative agricultural communities in Israel, one discovers that almost every page is full with grief, distress, frustrations, and internal conflicts. The theme running through the women’s confessionals is a yearning of “the soul aspires for something more”, on the one hand, and words of encouragement like “there is much to suffer for, there is still a need to suffer”, on the other.
Here arc a few quotes from the journal of Tzvia, a member of the Sharon group (1924-5):” .. and she is besides him – full of doubt and torment, forever. She sings her song welcoming every spring, and dance her life-dance for every flower – and within all of these, a mysterious sense of autumn … the days pass over me and they are days of such sorrow, that there is not even a glimmer of light in them. The feelings have faded away, and no one excites, me, no one wakes my feelings. All the colorsof the rainbow have passed on, and only the gray heavens and the gray, endless, earth. I did not notice as the sorrow spread through my soul … I knew that sad days would come, but so soon? … reality just spread around us and inside us, and who shall mind our insides, the tearful eyes, the sorrow? Who would pay any heed to such nonsense? … and I weep for all that passes! And me, I cannot go along with this decadence, no way! … I went to the department store to get some clothes, shirts. And after a few moments, while looking through the merchandise I felt a miracle: from somewhere the sounds of a piano seeped in .. and when they entered my soul, my head started spinning around me and I was suddenly disgusted with these rags I came for … my hands dropped to my sides, and my head filled with memories. And the sounds continued to infiltrate into the insides, enhancing the restlessness. And all life was as nothing compared to that which is unattainable, which wakens a nostalgia to the world .. these sinful thoughts about the precious secret – how long shall I endure them?”
Haya Graetz-Ran has unfinished business with her own mother, but she_prefers to settle the score with the “character of the pioneer mother.” The merging between her own mother and-the “pioneer” takes place in (he verbal plane as well. Statements like “Suffering is temporary but worthwhile” (echoing the masculine myth of “It is good to die for our country” A statement reprted as the dying words of Yoseph Trumpeldor, a pioneer who died in 1920, defending Tel-Hai, In the Northern Galilee.) appear in her artworks as part of the painting or as the title for a painting. Such statements are quoted from both the women pioneers’ writing and from the self-pitying letters her mother used to write to her routinely since she was a very young child. Haya Graetz-Ran started confronting the issues with the “Mothers’ Generation” over 25 years ago through various series of paintings, in a subtlety masquerading as nostalgia. Gradually the paintings gain focus, meanwhile it becomes clear that the pioneer mothers from Eastern Europe did not have a monopoly on suffering, nor did they retain such a monopoly. The suffering of the mothers, which had part in the textualization of the ideology of the period, was a burden thrust on the brittle backs of their daughters. The daughters, however, remained without the ideology, and thus, their “mundane” suffering was denied, suppressed, “it didn’t count.”
Haya Graetz-Ran’s paintings take on a melancholy aspect as the portraits of the women depicted in them, She paints both the group and individual portraits of women pioneers on used breadboard in oil paints, as if they were classical icons of martyrs. The gashes ‘left by the knives on the cutting surface are intertwined with the painted faces as existentialist gashes, and enhance the reading of the portrait of the pioneer woman as a woman who lived through much suffering. The suffering becomes the icon of those women also through the shape of the breadboard, often evocative of the cross (“Women Pioneer”, 1). Additionally, the association to classical Christian icons of martyrdom is further enhanced by the use of oil paints on a (hick wooden foundation, to paini a realistic painting. The cropping of the painted frame also contributes to this effect -the painting is cut off just above the kerchief covering the women’s heads and foreheads, and just above the chin of in the middle of the nose. This emphasizes the eyes, and the look in their eyes, and makes the characteristics of the period, such as period clothes appearing in other scries, disappear. The portraits that emerge from the breadboards -labor surfaces associated with the woman in the kitchen, complete with stains and scorch marks, appear to allude to the history of classical art. In one of the works, for instance, the scorch marks create an aura burned in wood around the head of the woman.

There is something in the sad, pale expressions, in the gentle brush strokes around the eyes, in various shades of blue and brown, that takes the viewer centuries into the past. In the series of the used breadboards there is also direct seminal work, blunt and untypical of the sum total of Haya Gratez-Ran^s work (“Beddings”,2-4): on the top part of the breadboard she glued an old diaphragm of the kind that could be found in the mother’s drawers during the 1950s. Under the diaphragm’s ring she pasted a photo of her mother as a young woman. On the lower end of the breadboard she added the caption “SeXY SeXY Woman”. The diaphragm ring around the mother’s portrait is reminiscent of a sentimental piece of jewelry, not unlike a pendant safeguarding the photo of a departed loved-on. On another breadboard from the same series she returns to the portrait of the mother as a young girl, recently arrived in Palestine, a portrait she also painted as a triptych on canvas (“Mother”, 5). It depicts an urban woman, well shaped, dressed fashionably, with high-heeled shoes – with the sands of Tel-Aviv in the background. Her face appears contorted with pain in this picture as well, but in this case, it is due to the blinding Israeli sun. “…and you shall walk, and in the summer / the light will hurt / and then / time will, ” The poet Shulamit Appe! wrote in her poem “The Time.”
Haya Graetz-Ran is a consistent and poetic painter, who chose to adapt her life story according to photographs: first photos from family albums, and later, from anonymous abandoned albums. Every new series is another step in the narrative that moves from the autobiographical to the collective and back again. Every step supports the credibility and sincerity of her work. In one of her latest series called “Pure & Simple Penmanship”(6), exhibited currently as part of a large exhibition called “Focus on Painting” (curator: Daniela Ta!mor), it seems that she succeeds, for the first time, to put together what appears to be the self portrait of a little girl (even though the photo serving as a basis for the series is actually her portrait), and thus, she touches the hidden trauma. This time it seems that Graetz-Ran dared to go back to the “scene of the crime”, and to summon evidence in the form of stains, and something that may look like blood stains.
This unique and intriguing series comprises six artworks. All of them depict nearly identical variants of a girl in “holly-hoby” style dress. The girl in the painting is ‘head­less’. She is cut off below the shoulders at breast-level. The hands are pale and strive to be assimilated by the folds of the dress. The feet are often in sandals, sometimes in shoes. Sometimes the right ankle is bandaged. In some of the variations it seems she uses a touch of red near the groin? By mere chance? In one of the painting in the headless girl series there is a red stain at the rim of the dress, near the panties. A reddish echo answers that reddish stain, not quite apparent at first glance, from the girl’s shadow, like a shameful puddle gathering itself between the legs of the innocent girl. The painting also preserves the down-looking viewing angle, as children appear in photos taken by adults. The girl, seen from an adult viewpoint, exhibits pitiful vulnerability, innocence and sweetness. The cropped off head, the bandaged leg, and the red stain signal a trauma. A trauma that was sealed off by shame, and now it surfaces auain and breaks out, wanting to cry out that some bad happened to the girl in the painting. Possibly something sexual.
Every new painting with the bandaged, cutoff girl is part of the obsessive process of dealing with trauma. Six large, clean painting, all showing almost the same girl, no background she is alone and abandoned in empty space, and she has no head, only the edges of a dress and feet. This reminds me of one of the early works, also one of my favorite works, by Michal Ne’eman “Vania (Vaizata)”, 1975 (Tel-Aviv Museum). A photo-image of a girl, cut off at the waist, appears several times in this conceptual work. The girl has a dress and legs. Her panties are pulled down to her knees. She is headless. Across from the row of headless girl images there is a row with another recurring photo-image: a ceiling fan. The fan is offered as a head substitute, as something that is located way up, and puts on airs. The fan and its blades also look like a weapon, dangerous. Something that can cut a head off is one is not careful. Michal Ne’eman offers us a critical discourse in the form of a woman as a victim of a male chauvinistic stereotype which reduces her to a provocative sex object, a headless, mindless body, but with pulled down panties, exposing the Freudian observation that anatomy is destiny. Haya Graetz-Ran also “cuts off’ the head of the girl from “Pure & Simple Penmanship” and forces the observer to focus on the “disaster area”. The chilling act of cutting literally represents an abuse against something whole and innocent: a castration, rift, break, trauma. But it also focuses our eyes on the girl’s lower half. As far as the painting itself is concerned, the girl’s legs are painted using at least ten plies of oil paint. The dress, however, is hardly touched. A couple of plies, no more, the flesh, the skin, the exposed, vulnerable spot, are the focus of attention. Our eyes are pulled immediately to the girl’s crossed legs. The bandage is there as a diversion, as another attempt to silence something that one learns to keep even from a mother’s eyes. More so from the eyes of a demanding, manipulative mother, so deeply immersed in self-pity, that she is oblivious to the suffering of her daughter.
In one of the last paintings in the wounded girl series, Graetz-Ran no longer holds herself back, and she seems to no longer trusts the observer’s eyes to know that something bad happened to the innocence. Among the folds of the dress, a red stain appears, exactly over the girl’s genitals. The nagging stain reappears as a wound in the girl’s shadow. The stain in the shadow diverts the empathy from the bandaged leg of the girl. It is obvious that the blood does not emanate from the ankle wound, rather it is a real or metaphorical reflection of something hidden under the dress, between her legs. Great rivers of water won’t wash away that stain. Is there any woman who docs not carry within her a faint or clear memory of sexual harassment? The intensity of the trauma varies, but there is not single woman who was not subject to sexual harassment. The girl, herself a self-portrait, represents every girl, and every woman who was a once a girl and is not a mother. Every image of a girl on her own is always an image of a girl with no mother.
On the one hand, it seems that the artist has a hard time to complete her dealing with the image of the mother. In my view, a woman becomes a feminist only once she has learned to identify with her mother’s biography. Haya Graetz-Ran is facing up to issues of mixed emotions regarding her mother. The mother who used to single her out of her four daughters, and include her in her daily troubles, in her distress, and in her sacrifice of personal happiness for the sake of the state.
Reading the sum total of Haya Graetz-Ran’s work reveals a reflective arc drawn from adapting the portraits of mother-woman-girl, while a theme of suffering and pain runs through them. The thematic suffering and pain, seen not only through the expressions of the painted Figured and the other figurative symbols, but also in the surface, its shape, the cropping of (he images, the signs of the passage of time, in the scratches, gashes, burns and dirt. The tone of the paintings is sentimental and romantic. Alongside the saccharine, one also sees restrained criticism of Woman’s loneliness within an ideological system, of the attitude towards the homeland, of the tragic legacy of a woman’s destiny – a cultural and aesthetic legacy which molded generations of women – and of the role of art in the textualization and representation of women’s suffering through the ages.
We see before us a different reading of the character of the Hebrew Woman, a character marginalized by the history books. From the viewpoint of the official history only “He walked the fields.” “He Walked the Fields” – a 1947 novel by Moshe Shamir about a a native-born Kibbutznik, stuggling with issues of family, society and army. A fresh reading of Moshe Shamir’s great novel from a feminist view point is unsettling . She, the overcasting shadow of our best boys, also walked the fields, an indecent vessel to secondary passions (to the land of the homeland). And the little respect she gets is only as a womb where she carries the dead protagonist’s offspring. The following is the confessional of Shenka Cahani, from a kibbutz journal published in the anthology “Our Community” :
” .. and sometimes I meet a man whose blood boils, and he suffers – I know it and 1 feel it. Why does he come to me now? Because the loneliness, is too hard on him? Or does he wish for us to suffer together, and thus case the pain for us both? .. he wants to take her whom he minds not, mocks, the one whom he sees as a hollow creature, with no waking soul. yes. take her and walk all over her, take her when she is weak -but do not mock her when she is of sound mind again. Fear not your theft, and do not complain of your weakness. I have neither forgiveness nor hostility for you. I cannot understand you, but I will not, and cannot be merely the creature that caresses and comforts you. 1 think we won’t find (he path to one another as long as we cannot find within each other the equal human value, as long as we do not see the other’s soul.” There were not many 20th century artists who dared to deal with the portrait of their mother. Some that come to mind are Arshiie Gorky, VVillem De Kooning, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Hannah Wilke, Michael Gross, Nan Goldien, Janine Anthony. Woody Allen has a mother as well. Can’t miss her. She reaches an all time high in one of the segments o!” “New-York Stories”. A giant face in the sky. She keeps following her son’s every move and interferes in everything he does, because like every Jewish Mother, and when it comes down to it every mother is a Jewish Mother, “she knows best.” because she is the oniy one who really knows what’s best for him, and without her lie i.s nolhing, a perfect loser.
Out of all the relevant associations ] am reminded of Nurit David’s mother, also painted according to a family photo, in the yard, in the Israeli summer, surrounded by her children, including little Nurit. But there’s a completely different atmosphere. And then I am reminded of a touched up photo from Michal Heiman’s family album, Heiman’s mother is seen wearing a soldier’s uniform, sitting on a hill next to a road sign showing the directions to Tiberias and Bet-Shean. She appears to be very sure of herself and very proud.. Those were the first years of the state of Tsrael, a few years before the soldier became a mother. The mother’s portrait as a soldier was blown up to a publicity poster size and was first shown in the exhibition “Sorting” in 1990. One of the possible contexts for reading the portrait leads to Heiman’s treatment of the “reclining woman” image. She has a whole series of conceptual works dealing with various bedridden, sick, dying, and fading women. And then they are mythologized, and their myth is also intertwined with suffering, Among the “Great Mothers”, those “Mothers of Inspiration”, she included touched up photos of Rachel the Poet The poet Rachel-Blubstein Scla, a Hebrew poet who lived in Degania, an agricultural settlement near the Sea of Galilee during the early 1900s. Died of tuberculosis in 1931., Aviva Ori, and Eva Hesse ( a minimalist American artist who died of cancer in 1975). Free original artists. All three died of illness or suffering.
Haya Graatz-Ran is attached to the suffering. She has been painting for over twenty years. Every morning throughout the day, until the evening. This is her life. She started with aquarelles, then moved on to oil and tempera in the style of the Old Masters. Then she started painting works that look like confrontations seeped with symbolism and pathos between the glittering European, heavily colored painting, and objects, toys, and quotes from her mother or from books. About a year ago she gave up the tempera, that is, she gave up the sisyphean process required for this technique. The technique requires a year or two for every painting. Since she returned to Israel after half a year’s stay at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris, France (1999), she paints in oils, directly on the canvas, f ler palette also transformed into a brighter one, as if she finally adopted the local Israeli sunlight.
Graclz-Ran was never drawn to the individual paintings. She always worked in series of works. This option conformed to the obsessive need to deal with the subject again and again, hoping to get it out of the system. The process of painting is accompanied by her writing. In 1999, Graetz-Ran had an exhibition together with her sister, the artist Varda Yaiom. The exhibition, shown in Karmiel, was called “Twosome”, and it was put together of objects found in the apartments of their deceased parents (they lived separately but died three months apart). One of the objects in the exhibition was a mannequin with multiple layers of authentic white cotton aprons. One of the aprons, previously used by the mother, still had the original stains. On the edge of the apron, (iraetz-Ran sewed on her mother’s last photo. She photographed her in her sickbed, in the hospital, a small, helpless woman. Looking not at all like the fetching young woman in Tel-Aviv of bygone days. In this work, “Aprons”(7), Graetz-Ran used those secret, unilateral letters her mothers used to write to her as a child. Many letters included confessions and personal frustrations that were not edited in any way. In another exhibition, in 2000, Graetz-Ran returned to the letters from those years, and this time she sewed them into cushions that were left in the parents’ homes after their death. She called that series “Lie Quietly”(8).
 On March 2002, Haya-Ran opens a solo exhibition in the Beit Uri & Rami Nechushtan Museum, in Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov. The curator of the exhibition ‘White Lilies’ is Ruth Sadmon. The exhibition will include several series of paintings on canvas and on breadboards. Most of the artworks were made for this exhibition, with the exception of “Breadboards 1” series, which includes the aforementioned “Women Pioneers.” In all the works in the ‘White Lilies’ exhibition Graetz-Ran continues to perform various (eats of cutting and cropping of the photographed and the painted image. There is something in this obsessions – to cut, to break, to isolate, to emphasize, to repeat over and over again in variations on the theme – that enhances the sense of violence that permeates everything: within the works and outside of works, in the biographies of the photographed figures, in the period, the background, the daily reality of the time, and also in the political reality of today. It is obvious that the politics of the body, that same body which has become a modern battleground for all the social institutions – religion, science, technology, and politics – deeply concern Gratez-Ran. Is it possible to disassociate her obsessive preoccupation with the martyred body of Woman from the atmosphere of escalating violence on the eve of a new war which may already be happening right here between Israel and Palestine? It seems that Graetz-Ran’s gentle pendulum like movement between shattering the myth of the pioneer woman of the Zionist revolution ami the innocent girts tainted by various kinds of sexual abuse, between the autobiographical layer, which depends on the image of a real mother, and the collective layer of every ideological Mother, between the most personal plane and the general atmosphere of physical, emotional, and mental violence, an atmosphere of child abandonment and general anarchy.
As part of the preparation for this exhibition, Haya Graetz-Ran published an ad in the town of Tivon, where she lives, asking people who were born during the 40s and 50b to show her photos from their childhood photo albums. Only women answered the ad. The artist looked through the albums and selected typical and innocent photos, immortalizing the women in that same short white dress, high shoes with folded white stocking, or in short trousers with an elastic band on the legs, and leather sandals. The position of the arm is similar in all of them. Of alt the dozens of photos she collected, Gnietz-Ran selected to focus on just a few. The positioning of the girls in the photos must be attributed to the photographers: a girl lifting the edge of her dress as if she were a dancer curtsying, or a shy, bewildered girl hiding the palms of her hands behind her body, or a girl on the verge of puberty wearing a decorated shirt which fails to hide the budding breasts, and in short rubber trousers, holding limply one arm at the side oMlie body. Over and over the viewer realizes that he cannot ignore the hints placed us the supposedly innocent painting. The girls are innocent. The painting is not: panties are showing under the skirt at one place (as in the “Good Girl” series and the “Breadboards 2″ series”), at another, the dramatic folds cutting through the girls groin multiply and focus the eyes on “that spot”, the spot of trauma and shame, as if they were an array of arrows pointing at the triangle (as in the “Short Trousers” series). Generally, the posture, the bare legs , are all so sensitive and soft. The painter’s touch in the “living flesh” regions, that is on the bare legs (as in the triptych “Ora”) of the girl wearing short trousers and suspenders, reveals a different treatment, in terms of painting, than the treatment of the fabric of the white dress, for example, which softly fades into the white canvas. As I mentioned previously, the bare skin gets many layers of color: a primary layer of red covered by layers of off-white, ochre, pinks, blues, greens. The clues join together to create a disturbing experience. Is it possible that all of those girls, who had grown up since and became women, mothers, wives, even grandmothers, is it possible that they were all subjected to sexual harassment? Yes, it is. All of them. All of them, since I have yet to meet a woman who does not, at the right confessional moment, invoke a memory, either a vivid or a vague one, of some disturbing experience of this nature.
in one of the works in the series “Breadboards 2” the same girls in the white dress is depicted with her finger holding, gently lifting, the edge of her dress. The girl is cropped off just above the waist and just below the knees. Her body appears to above a scorched circle imprinted in the breadboard, perhaps due to a hot cooking pot that was placed on it. The circle is evocative of innocent childhood games such “duck, duck, goose” or hoola-hoop games, but the scorched circle also frames the image of the girl, as if it were the sacrificial fire where the best girl is sacrificed, like Iphigcneia at Aeolis or Iphiach’s daughter, two innocent girls to cruel and arrogant fathers, two incarnations of the same myth, a myth told in order to glorify the heroics of “the greatest of all men,” a celebrated war hero, but also a man with a word of honor, and a promise he keeps – even if it is done at the expense of his beloved, beautiful, loyal daughter, that “good girl” who dares not defy her revered, authoritative, menacing father, even when lie has strange ways to show his love. He creates stories of heroism in battle in the holy home land, she is there in order to please him, to celebrate his return from battle, to sacrifice her body and soul for him, to let her have his way with her, to love her in his way, even when it turns out, over and over again, that his way is warped, painful and traumatic.