At home with Anna Ticho

Ticho’s output chronicles her personal and cultural baggage and her experiences, both in her place of birth, Vienna and Jerusalem during the early stages of the 20th century and thereafter.

AN EARLY self-portrait, from 1925. (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
AN EARLY self-portrait, from 1925.
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
What do we, the average Jerusalemite and/or non-Jerusalemite Israeli, really know about Anna Ticho? We may be aware there is a lovely edifice, with equally charming grounds, in the center of town called the Ticho House. Some may spend an hour or so at the upstairs eatery, while others may take the time to peruse some of the works on the ground floor. Besides a clutch of permanent exhibits created by Ticho herself, the building, which forms part of the Israel Museum, also houses temporary exhibitions by a wide range of artists.
The Ticho paintings and sketches on view all year round, to date, have offered the public a tantalizing glimpse of the Brno, Moravia-born artist’s oeuvre. Personally, I found the small selection intriguing, but also frustrating. I wanted to see what else this clearly gifted artist produced during her long lifetime, the vast majority of which was spent in Jerusalem.
If, like me, you wanted more of Ticho, your wish is now granted in the form of “Lifescape: The Work of Anna Ticho,” which currently fills most of the gallery’s ground floor and will be on display through until March 19.
The exhibition, curated by Timna Seligman, provides incontrovertible evidence of what I had long suspected – that there was a lot more to come where the permanently exhibited morsels came from. Seligman has served as curator of the exhibition facility for over a decade and just launched a new book about the artist, which goes by the same name as the exhibition.
Seligman is, naturally, steeped in Ticho’s work and life and, as the title suggests, the artist’s output chronicles her personal and cultural baggage and her experiences, both in her place of birth, Vienna and Jerusalem during the early stages of the 20th century and thereafter.
“What is interesting about her is that she touches on a much wider story of immigration, migration, movement and the 20th century,” she notes, adding that Ticho’s tale reflects much of the historical events taking place around her. “Obviously, she tells a very personal story. It is her story, but it reflects on the much wider story of the Jewish people, of the creation of the state of Israel, within her lifetime.
TICHO WAS born in 1894 and moved, with her family, to Vienna at the age of 15. It was a rewarding relocation for the talented teenager. She began to study drawing in Vienna at an art school directed by Czech-born painter Ernst Nowak. By all accounts, the youngster showed promise. She was certainly in the right place at the right time. Turn of the century Vienna was still the glittering capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was the epicenter of artistic endeavor. Ticho came under the spell of contemporary artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, from the Vienna-based avant-garde Secessionist group, and could nip out to galleries such as the Albertina, where she could get up close to paintings by the likes of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer and Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. At such an impressionable age, that facility made for a significantly formative phase in Ticho’s developing creative consciousness.
“She got exposure to the traditional, classic art of Europe and also what’s going to be throughout the 20th century,” Seligman explains.
All that came to an abrupt end only a couple of years after her move to the imperial capital, for the best of reasons.
“She leaves Vienna when she is 18 years old. She comes to Palestine,” says Seligman. It was a decision of the heart. “She came here to be with Albert Ticho, who was her cousin and whom she met in Vienna. They’d met before, but they fell in love in Vienna.”
Even though it was love, rather than a deep sense of Zionism that prompted the painter’s move away from one of the Western world’s great cultural centers to what was then a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, Ticho quickly took to Palestine and, particularly, to Jerusalem and its environs. “She is blown away by this country,” Seligman notes. “She talks about the power of the landscape when she first arrives.”
Once again, the budding artist found herself enamored with her surroundings, even if the physical and cultural lay of the land was very different from that of her previous home turf.
“She talks about the landscape more than the city [of Jerusalem],” Seligman observes, “although she was quoted as saying, ‘When I talk about Israel, I mean Jerusalem. Jerusalem is my homeland.’ So she has a very definite spiritual connection to Jerusalem. If you take the Hebrew concept of makom (place), but is also one of the names of God, it is that divine sense of place she is connecting to here.”
Then again, Ticho was not a particularly observant Jew, and did not relate so much to her new locale in a biblically historical context. “She doesn’t connect to Jerusalem in a traditional Jewish way, the curator continues. “She connects to the trees, she connects to the bushes; this is where she finds the connection to her love and her place here.”
Evidently that, together with her feelings for her cousin, a leading ophthalmologist who helped to establish the health system in this part of the world, more than compensated for forsaking a metropolis bustling with cutting-edge creative pursuit, not to mention several centuries of artistic derring-do.
Even so, it took her a while to adapt to the very different natural light of the Levant and she did not get out with her easel until after the end of World War I. Seligman says that Ticho was drawn so strongly to Mother Nature’s offerings here that she initially felt unable to put that down on canvas or paper.
“Her awe of the landscape stops her from working. She doesn’t work as an artist.” The youngster also finds herself gainfully occupied getting ready for her nuptials and thereafter setting up home.”
IT WAS a tough change of fortune that eventually led to Ticho rediscovering her passion for art. The Tichos were exiled to Damascus in the latter stages of World War I, where Dr. Ticho served a military doctor in the Austrian army. While they were there, Ticho contracted typhus and almost died, but her period of convalescence provided her with a time-out from her medical duties as her husband’s assistant and, at long last, she returned to her watercolors, pencils and charcoal.
The Tichos managed to find their way back to Palestine a year or so after the end of the war and in 1924 they acquired the building that now houses Anna Ticho’s works. Besides assisting her husband in dispensing his medical duties, Ticho found time to get out of the house, in fact around the country, to capture some of the country’s scenery in situ. It is fascinating to follow her artistic evolution as she graduates from romantic-oriented watercolors, such as a fetching 1920s rendition of En Gev by the Sea of Galilee, through to very intricate graphite drawings of nature in the 1930s and the almost surrealistic charcoal and pastel Sloping Hills, produced in 1980, the year Ticho died at the age of 95. She received the country’s ultimate official appreciation of her oeuvre, the Israel Prize, just weeks before she passed away. Ticho clearly spread her wings during the course of her half century-plus life as an artist here.
Despite living far away from the world’s major creative powers, Seligman says that Ticho did take other cultural influences on board.
Jericho, a graphite drawing from 1936, for example, is a striking case in point.
“In this work, you not only see the influence of traditional European art in the way of building up the perspective, you also see she was influenced by Chinese and Japanese art. If you think about Japanese scroll paintings, you often something like a pathway that goes in, that builds up. That’s the way that, on a very flat page, they build their perspective.”
Ticho also incorporated the actual physical substratum into the aesthetic end result.
“There is also the use of the page itself as an element of the work. In this water channel [in Jericho] the water is just the paper.”
Despite living in the Levant, Ticho did in fact make several forays back to Europe and also exhibited in the United States over the years.
“Anna would have seen things like Japanese scroll paintings in books, in Paris. She was a highly educated lady.”
That attention to detail is also front and center in Ticho’s best known works, such as her stunning graphite rendition of an olive tree from the mid-1930s.
“She had already exhibited in Paris and Vienna by then,” Seligman notes. Old City of Jerusalem, a graphite drawing from 1934, is also very precise and detailed creation, with some political undertones. In the accompanying wall text to the work, the Israel Museum’s Israeli Art curator Dr. Amitai Mendelsohn notes that Ticho depicts Jerusalem as “a dead and desolate city, a far cry from the ‘navel of the world’, holy to three religions.” Mendelsohn goes on to explain that an attempt on Ticho’s husband’s life in the Arab riots of 1929, impacted on her view of Jerusalem at the time.
TICHO MAINTAINED her evolutionary continuum. In the 1940s and 1950s, she tended toward a naturalistic and freehand approach, employing shading and flowing lines, and leaving areas of the page untouched, but as an integral part of the composition. Following her husband’s death in 1960, Ticho produced several somber-looking pieces, but also began to produce very intense, almost congested, landscapes, such as High Horizon from 1968. Seligman says that Ticho began to depict the hills and views around Jerusalem in a new way, “abandoning the traditional layered perspective for a single plane. It is only when viewing the work from a slight distance that the abstract chaos of these tight lines transforms into a recognizable image.” Part of that, the curator feels, can be attributed to widowhood.
“The dark nature of these works, their thicket of black charcoal lines, can be viewed as an expression of grief. Though depicting expansive views, they are introverted, trapping the viewer inside their dense lines.”
Ticho’s portraits of various local characters must also feature prominently in any retrospective of her oeuvre. There are several renditions of human figures in the exhibition that span almost the entire time line of Ticho’s work in this country. They take in an intriguing rendition of Ticho’s mother from the early 1930s, an emotive drawing of her husband in repose, a colorful “oriental woman,” a caricature-like Study of a Seated Man from the early 1950s, and a very differently rendered, more introverted, Oriental Woman, from the 1940s, complete with a couple of doodles.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, you start to see the influence of Ticho’s time in Vienna, of the avant-garde time in Vienna,” Seligman explains. “You start to see the influence of Schiele – the way she worked on the line drawing itself, and the hands with the distortion.”
Even after years of studying Ticho’s vast range of work, Seligman says she is still left second-guessing about some of the artist’s offerings.
“She has this stylistic progression from being figurative, being very faithful to nature, very descriptive, and then she starts freeing it and becoming much more expressive. Then she has sketches where she fills the entire page. There are works like the [incomplete] olive tree – which leaves me with so many questions and therefore is one of my favorite works,” Seligman adds with a smile.
Be prepared to have your eyes and heart opened by “Lifescape: The Work of Anna Ticho” but also leave with plenty of food for thought.
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