DROWNING HORSE, 1942.
(photo credit: DANNY SHORKEND)
There is a wonderful little museum on Har Nof in Haifa devoted to the work of Emmanuel Mané-Katz. Mané-Katz was a leading Jewish artist of the School of Paris (Ecole de Paris) of the first half of the 20th century. Rubbing shoulders with likes of Chagall, Soutine, Lipchitz and Orloff, his work is clearly modernist and draws from expressionism of the time, though taking it to new heights and depths. While in Paris, he was able to overcome the traditions of the time that he grew up with, and he freely expressed this in his art. Nevertheless, memories of the shtetl and Jewish subject matter continue to crop up.
His subject matter includes traditional still life, landscape and figure studies, but it is the vibrant and often jarring color, his uncanny compositional flair and the bold outlines that will captivate the viewer. Many of his works capture a sense of the joie de vivre, much as Matisse is so well-known for, yet Mané-Katz does so in his own way. A sense of light and bright colors often clamors for attention and hence the exhibition is aptly named Sensuality and the Exotic as a visceral, dynamic and vigorous mark-making describe a truly alive canvas, a truly moving and enigmatic study of figures and vistas.
Yet that would be half the story. Often this expressive modality belies a certain distortion and garish sort of coloration as the artist perhaps contemplates the remnants of a not so beautiful world – the coldness and brutality of the Second World War as the painting drowning horse so testifies: a Europe in flames and ruin, a Europe that had lost all humanity. This period of work contrasts the much more optimistic earlier work, where the artist seems to sense a path towards a future of great abundance and light.
Mané-Katz expresses the human condition with arms that reach out, hands that question and motion towards something, female bodies that are fecund and contain vital energy. While some such works may be deconstructed post-modernity as the Romantic allure – perhaps ignorantly – of the so-called noble savage, of the exotic other, one cannot decry the eye that perceives the mystery of far-off places and the secret of the feminine subject. Consider his woman with a jug, where one gets a sense that her voluptuousness beautifully described in paint carries with it a sense of the mother archetype as well as the lover that contains and builds, both giving and receiving.
His Jewish themes – particularly of klezmer players – also seem to carry a sense of intrigue, but one senses a more intimate connection, not simply a far away exoticism. Mané-Katz’s passion for the figure never overpowers the kind of energy that is unseen and beyond the retinal flux. He thus captures both the vitality of the moving image, of song and physicality as well as that which defies sensual realities. Clearly drawing from Picasso’s ability to describe via the abstraction of but a few lines, Mané-Katz manages to describe form without overworking the image and though clearly locked in the modernist framework of the times, his work evolves where one sees a work of the 1960s almost dematerialized as it becomes abstract, barely relying on the material world and representation, yet with the knowhow to manipulate the elements of the arts to describe an alive, vibrant surface.
The text in the museum describes his art as the victory of Eros over Thanatos, the lust for life over the death instinct, the destructive urge. That is an appropriate description, and perhaps one might add that it precisely in that struggle that the artist is well-appointed to find beauty and to expiate darkness even when the environment is far from ideal.
It’s really worth a visit – a painter of great importance even today, especially in a contemporary climate where painting often lacks a certain emotional appeal, being side-lined by the digital, the witty and a certain anti-modernist trend.
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