There comes a stage in every artist’s oeuvre curve when they simply have to get down to personal brass tacks. In the jazz sphere, they call it “finding your own voice” and every discipline requires some degree of personal baggage.
While it is patently true that you can’t produce an item of coherent and comprehensible creativity without employing polished technique and mastery of the physical tools of your trade, an artist simply has to be invested, body and soul, in their work if it is going to be of any artistic value and convey some kind of message to the spectator.
Dov Heller has been aware of that need for around 25 years. Now in his 80th year, Heller has a visually and emotionally engaging array of paintings, etchings, prints and lithographs – with one installation on display at the Negev Museum of Art in Beersheba. The show goes by the evocative moniker of “Journeys.”
The transition-referential title is apt however you look at it. It conveys a sense of Heller – who has been a prominent member of the local artist community for half a century – having been through some formative events in his long life. It also refers to the geographical shift he underwent almost six decades ago, when he made aliya from Romania in 1949. In fact as, for example, can be seen from the diminutive works taken from his Primâvarâ series, which feature either a ship or a postcard backdrop, or both, travel to foreign climes predates his arrival in the new state of Israel.
Heller’s incipient travel-related experience occurred before he was even able to consciously appreciate its import. When he was just over a year old, with World War II making ominous rumbling sounds, his parents decided to decamp to Palestine, get settled and then pop back to Romania to pick up their infant son whom they had left, in the interim, with an aunt and uncle.
What was meant to be a stop-gap arrangement became a protracted separation as war broke out.
In the event, it took Heller a further 11 years to reunite with his parents, a year after the state was created.
That transition was traumatic on two counts. For starters, he had to leave the couple who, for 11 years, had been his de facto parents, and when he finally made it over here, the youth had to get know not only his biological parents, of whom he had no memory, he also had three younger siblings to take on board his traumatized teenaged consciousness. “That was very difficult,” says Heller with more than a touch of understatement.
The tricolor of the Romanian flag is often front and center in the Primâvarâ series, as is the boat that took his parents far away from him, before he was really old enough to know what was going on. Other items in the series incorporate postcard details, such as the Heller family address in Romania, or a Nazi regime postage stamp. This is a reference to a letter sent to the Hellers from post-Anschluss Vienna, by the artist’s aunt.
The whole show is suffused with a sense of intimacy and the unfurling of one man’s heartfelt innermost narrative. But it wasn’t always like that for Heller.
When he first began to make his mark on the local artist community and art consumer sector, over half a century ago, his work generally conveyed messages of a more strident and politics-laden nature.
While he doesn’t exactly deny the yesteryear classification claim, Heller is at pains to note that he is, first and foremost, an artist regardless of any subtext.
“I have a background in art,” he states, circumnavigating my suggestion that he has a political background.
However, when he began to set out his artistic stall he did so from a politically charged temporal and social milieu.
“The sector to which I belonged, Hakibbutz Ha’artzi [movement], produced political artists who were wonderful artists – people like Yohanan Simon, but he disappeared from the scene,” Heller notes, implying that, talent notwithstanding, Simon fell afoul of the political minefield which usurped his creative trajectory. There were others who, like Heller, had a political strain to their output but were not hell-bent on imparting clear political messages.
“Yechiel Shemi and [Moshe] Kupferman were considered artists, not ‘drafted artists.’ I began at the tail end of that period, but you could be tainted by that epithet – political.” That, Heller feels, could overshadow an artist’s gifts and the intrinsic value of their work.
“Simon gained widespread recognition, but for a long time he was a politically channeled artist, with [left-wing newspaper] Al Hamishmar and [left-wing political party] Mapam.” That may have buttered the artist’s bread, and even added some jelly, but there was a heavy price to pay.
“That brought with it some artistic stigma,” Heller continues. “Your art should be [pure] art. There are plenty of subjects to address, including one’s personal life.”
Fired by socialist ideology, as a long-standing member of the left-leaning Kibbutz Nirim in the Gaza Perimeter, it took Heller quite some time to shake off his political shackles and address his own storyline. Part of that was due to the aforementioned deep-seated emotional upheaval he experienced in early infancy and in his teen years, as he struggled to come to terms with a new family environment, and an alien culture and language.
Those scars come across loud and clear in the Primâvarâ sequence, and there are other bittersweet references in, for example, a small work based on a photo booth-format substratum of an image of his parents, then newcomers to pre-state Palestine. Symbolism runs through the entire exhibition with, for example, Heller’s father’s trilby alluding to his parents’ European origins, and how that placed them at odds with the Levantine zeitgeist they encountered on their arrival on these shores. There is also a charming yet, again, angst-tinged section of the Beersheba display entitled Mother Loved Cinema, citing Mrs. Heller Sr.’s fondness for the silver screen stars of the day.
Heller clearly needed to offload some heavy emotional baggage, which he had pushed to one side for much of his life and for the first couple of decades or so of his professional life. The floodgates were truly breached and Heller even permits himself to portray his mother behind bars, referring to her bouts of depression and suicide attempts. The seismic cultural transition the Hellers went through also comes across palpably in an item in the Hugging etching series, which, for example, shows Heller’s father wearing two hats.
The retrospective incorporates works that first saw the public light of day as part of an exhibition at the Kibbutz Gallery, in 1994, and in a six-artist show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art eight years later.
“Everything came flooding out,” says Heller. “I hadn’t done anything with colors for a long time. Here there’s a lot of yellow,” he says, indicating some of the Primâvarâ sequence. “Yellow, for me, of course, is the Holocaust,” referring to the badge of that color that Jews in Europe were forced to wear.
Heller’s home base of over 50 years, Nirim, also informs his oeuvre, with references to precious local water supplies. “We have water, and they on the side [of the border with Gaza] have their water. But that takes on a political factor here, of course.”
Heller didn’t get down to earnest full-time study until the age of 30, when he finally persuaded the kibbutz purse string holders to allow him to enroll at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, then a much more compact institution compared with today’s sprawling Mount Scopus-based institution. That was in 1967, prior to the Six Day War.
“I had my ideological dreams that, one day, we’d all live together in peace,” he recalls. “I’d look down toward the Old City and dream about going there.” A couple of months later the war broke out and Heller found himself walking through the New Gate as his wishes became a reality.
That optimism has waned over the years.
“I thought, then, that we were heading for that peace I wanted so much. But I won’t see it in my lifetime.”
That may be so, but Heller has clearly achieved much in his professional life over the years. The works in Beersheba convey a tender yet ever-inquisitive soul constantly feeding off his physical and cultural surroundings, emotive personal backdrop notwithstanding.
Heller says that, these days, he gets much of inspiration from his locale, including Wadi es-Salqa, near Nirim, which also features in “Journeys.”
Heller has traveled a long and winding emotional road, and his expresses that with great subtlety, vibrancy and sensitivity.“Journeys” closes on June 24. For more information: (08) 699-3535 and www.negev-museum.org.il