South African-born artist Maureen Fain still feels like an outsider

Out on her own...

By MORDECHAI BECK
March 8, 2019 11:49
Maureen Fain

Maureen Fain. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Off the side of one of the narrow, short streets surrounding the Mahane Yehuda market, in downtown Jerusalem, an unobtrusive concrete stairway leads up to Maureen Fain’s studio. Inside the well-lit room the artist surveys the uncluttered stacks of paintings, prints and sculptures, which fill the small, refurbished studio to almost overflowing. It is a lifelong collection of work. Although she has sold a lot, she still says her children will not forgive her for leaving them so much work! That, of course, is one of the prices one pays for working steadily over the years. When you’re in your 70s, that adds up to a lot of art.

 “I was trained initially in my native South Africa,” Fain tells The Jerusalem Report. “I won a scholarship to London’s Central School of Art. I felt like a princess. I had come from a small town and then came to London. Wow! In 1963, England was still a poor country, but it possessed a lot of art and culture. Nevertheless one of my teachers said, ‘Our art department is not good enough for you.’ So I went back to South Africa. I wanted a career that I could take anywhere. I was also thinking about coming to Israel. I could have worked in stage design, which I had studied, and yet even though I was good at it, I felt it was not for me; in those years, if you weren’t male you were not considered. So I stopped. I did fashion drawing. I started ceramics, but I found I couldn’t do it. Then I got myself a corner in someone else’s studio, started to paint and never looked back. But the landlord kept raising the rent. So eventually we bought this present studio. For me it’s paradise.”

Early on in her career she took to painting the nude figure. In this she admits to being influenced by Egon Schiele, the Austrian painter (1890-1918). She brings out one of these early sketches from a pile of drawings, and the influence is clear, especially in the erotic line, and the expressionist style. It is a remarkably mature work for someone so young. Of her nudes she writes, “The nude is for me a portrait of a body – just as personal, just as individual and just as fascinating as a face. It tells the same story, but seems more vulnerable as it is usually hidden and secret. I feel that the body itself is mysterious, ephemeral, its surface shimmers with transient highlights. Its lines delight me. Sometimes the contours remind me of landscapes. At other times, I am appalled at how banal and repulsive the flesh appears. And I am always aware of the ravages that aging will bring to these powerful, graceful, fragile, naked figures. It is the elusive truth of the body – of each body at each moment – that I wish to capture.”

Another major subject was portraiture, of which she says “You have to enter into something very personal, to really capture the presence of your model.” This said, she took part in one local TV series called “Paint a Portrait,” in which three artists were asked to paint a portrait in real time while the cameras were on them.

“It was very frightening,” recalls Fain. “The camera crew got caught up in a traffic jam and when they arrived, we had only an hour and a half to prepare. I chose to use watercolor since that was my preferred medium. It was not an enjoyable experience. The portrait that was chosen in the end was like a photograph. That’s what was preferred. These painters who were good in their field wanted to show off; they used bright colors and so forth. But this was not the way I made a portrait. To do a portrait well, you have to know the subject. It takes time, patience. So knocking off a portrait in an hour or so was not really my thing.”

 Watercolor is a particularly tricky medium. The paint has to be applied rapidly and dries quickly. So the artist has to be very careful not to make mistakes. On the other hand when it is done properly, a watercolor painting retains a lively and spontaneous look. In Fain’s work this is noteworthy especially with her many nude portraits.

Fain studied with Joseph Hirsch, one of the famed teachers at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. “He was totally influential. After one hour I was drawing like him! But I worked in color, which is not the way Hirsch taught.” She was on her own.

 Among the many areas that Fain has touched with her canvasses is landscape. She is a great lover of the local landscape, and particularly of the desert of Israel. “I like the desert,” she says. “It has the color of skin.” There is a clear line, which goes from her many nude paintings to those of desert landscapes, one seemingly an extension of the other. The landscape of Jerusalem, on the other hand, presents different types of challenges. “There are parts of the city which are not always beautiful. The cliffs, for example.”

We mention Jacob Pins, whose woodcuts of the landscape reflect the powerful contrast of dark and light in the country. Fain takes it as a metaphor. “Pins captured an essential element of Israel. It’s a cruel country. Vicious. Thankfully I’ve never had to depend on having sponsors.”

One series of her paintings shows the viciousness of her own experience. It is called “Ravages” and documents her own encounter with cancer. “They are very hard to look at; they’re not pretty pictures. I painted them with oil on plywood, which gives them their grainy, rough look. The series took me a year to execute. But I wanted to tell it as it was, without pasting it over, prettifying the experience. As she wrote herself about the paintings, “The scars of invasive surgery, or of amputation, are intimations of mortality.... Personal anguish must be filtered, cooled and transformed through a contemplative distance. Only then can it become universal.”


Fain has been commissioned to do many portraits. These have been either oil or watercolor. Either way they carry the look of spontaneity and freshness and yet are fully finished works.

Fain has also worked as a teacher for many years at the Israel Museum. She became a teacher by a stroke of good luck. “Tami Bezaleli-Shohet had been a teacher at the Israel Museum and at Bezalel for many years. She asked me to teach as an artist-lecturer. At the time the idea was to invite practicing artists, not just art teachers, to teach. I told her that I didn’t know anything about teaching. She said to me not to worry, she would give me some lessons. And that’s how I became a teacher.”

As a teacher she has much to say about how art is or is not taught in Israel, “The state of art appreciation in Israel is very low, partly because the kids don’t have any art in schools. It’s confined to an after-school activity, if at all. So when they become adults they have no idea of what to appreciate. Moreover, almost no newspaper, other than Haaretz, has a regular art column. So the wider public are hardly exposed to it.

Then again what sort of art education is being offered? I think we were very lucky. Most artists, for example, don’t have the knowledge of anatomy that I have. When I attended art school we were given real knowledge – how to draw, color theory, how to paint, how to look. We were on the cusp. It was very exciting. By contrast, when I was in Oslo recently, I met someone who had been to the local art institute for four years. All she learned, she said, was computer graphics and Photoshop. She had to teach herself the basics after she left!”

Partly to improve this situation, Fain helped create a watercolor society that never existed before. “We set it up as the Israel branch of the International Watercolor Society (which exists all over the world). To promote our group we had an event showcasing about 10 master watercolor artists, half of whom were Russian and half Israeli. Then, about three years ago, I represented Israel in Turkey. It was a big step. And now we just had our first Israeli watercolor competition in which 80 painters participated. The numbers surprised me since I thought this was a neglected branch of art. But now we are going to have a major exhibition for the winners.”

The opening is on Thursday, March 28, at the Artists’ House in Kfar Saba.

The sense of being an outsider, despite all her years in Israel, is still strong.

“I’m not fashionable. I do what I do and I don’t care. I know I’ve put myself out of the market but I can’t do things any differently. I don’t relate to the art establishment in Israel. I was never ‘in the scene.’ Partly this was because I was older by the time I started working here. I also took a twenty year break while I was raising our four children. I was an outsider. But then I never wanted to get involved in the cutthroat atmosphere here. It’s even worse today. There are so many good artists here, who don’t have connections and, as a result, they are not considered. I know of someone who stopped painting because of the politics.”

This is not to say that Fain has not exhibited in the right places in Israel. “I had an exhibition at the Israel Museum. But it took so long to contact them. You have to beg. To push.” She is also recognized well beyond the borders of Israel. “I’ve had exhibits all over the world. In the US where artists are given beautiful premises to work in, I’ve had a number of solo and group exhibitions. I’ve also shown in Norway, South Africa, England, France and Germany. In Germany, they had an official group to promote women in art called Gadok. It’s for all the arts, poetry and music, and so on. I was invited along with another four Israeli women artists and we exhibited with five German women artists.”

As for her Israeli contemporaries, she declines to be identified with the current movements in the country. “I would say I’m not like them, although I have done a series on the intifada. Neither am I oriented towards religious painting. The younger ones have to find a language of their own among everything that is going on all around us. It’s not easy to be a contemporary artist here.”

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