Shapely attraction

Remembering artist Moshe Hoffman.

Works by Moshe Hoffman: Self Portrait, mixed media on wood, 1971 (photo credit: RAN ERDE)
Works by Moshe Hoffman: Self Portrait, mixed media on wood, 1971
(photo credit: RAN ERDE)
Some works of art can be real dome scratchers. Just what did Pablo, Maggi, Damien or Eileen mean, exactly, when they added that squiggle, or placed that shape just there? Then again there are artists like Moshe Hoffman who wear their heart right out there, on their painter’s smock.
That is possibly the clearest message conveyed by Hoffman’s retrospective, “Fighting the Rule of Attraction,” which is currently on show at the Jerusalem Artists’ House.
Hoffman, who died in 1983 when he was just 45, was unapologetically passionate about the opposite sex. Some of his woodcuts and paintings spell out his enchantment with women in an unmistakable, possibly even naïve, manner.
He also had the facility of expressing that – and other sentiments he felt strongly about – through various mediums; Hoffman’s artistic skills spread took in woodcuts, print artistry, sculpting, painting, restoration and poetry. There are also a couple of written works in the exhibition.
While, like any artist, Hoffman aspired to matters on a higher plane, he always remained very much rooted in terrestrial and the corporeal realms.
“I could have given it wings,” he wrote in one of his poems, “but that’s against my nature.” That line resonates in the name of the show which is a play on words, and alludes to the Hebrew expression for the “law of gravity.”
A woodcut is in many ways an antipodal art form. The surface color of the wood is generally contrasted by the shade of the nether layer, revealed as the top level is stripped away. That can make for some checks-and-balances visual aesthetics, and that is a feature of several Hoffman works in the exhibition. One particularly attractive piece goes by the name of Segida (Worship). This is Hoffman at his tongue-incheek best with a scene that appears to be lifted straight out of “the good old days” when Zionism-socialism ruled the roost here, and anything that smacked of materialism was summarily pilloried.
The central element of the woodcut is a giant, totemic figure with a house-face, legs akimbo – with a cooker strategically positioned between them, and arms raised high, with a limo in one hand and banknotes in the other. The unseemly devotional scene is completed by a bunch of mostly prostrate male figures in various positions of adulation, their rear ends and feet neatly, and humorously, delineated in monochromic fashion.
RON BARTOS is clearly taken with Hoffman’s sensual approach, and also appreciates his nuanced method of expression.
“He is sometimes very cryptic,” the curator notes. “Look at this, for example,” he says as we view another black-and-white woodcut. The work appears to tend towards the surreal.
“There is a female figure sitting on a chair, leaning forward and she has a long glove on her hand and arm.” It takes a while to work that out, to differentiate between the physical and the ethereal, but once you get it, there’s no missing the fetching curvature.
“Hoffman’s art is very intimate. It is intimate because it is between him and himself, and his thoughts and his passions and his fantasies and dreams, and his daily routine.”
“This is where his poetry comes in,” Bartos adds, noting the artist’s self-deprecating humor. “He is a poet, but he writes himself: Hoffman, you’re never going to be the poet laureate. His poetry should interest researchers of art, not poetry researchers.”
The curator feels there is a degree of reciprocity here. “His poetry, to a degree, fuels his pictures. You can follow the spirit of the way he talks to himself.” Bartos believes Hoffman spells it all out for us.
“In his poetry, you can really read how he sits on a bus and, suddenly, a woman passes by and he fantasizes about her breasts and how her bottom wiggles and she passes by the rows of seats, but he says he doesn’t even dare to smile at her because it scares him and gets off the bus at the next stop.”
In real life, Hoffman may have been a closet Don Juan, but he lets it all hang out in his art.
There was more to Hoffman than humor and schoolboyish ardor. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, and his father perished in Auschwitz. His mother escaped from a concentration camp transport and rejoined Moshe and his brother Chanoch. The three led a peripatetic existence, managing to keep one step ahead of the Nazis until the Soviet Army liberated Hungary. Those childhood memories surface in Hoffman’s work in, for example, a self-portrait woodcut from 1976 which depicts an anxious-looking artist in striped garb, reminiscent of concentration camp inmate clothing.
Hoffman’s predilection for woodcuts and that natural distinctly demarcated style is echoed in his other work, such as an acrylic-on-wood painting of a desert landscape that, colors apart, could just as easily be a woodcut. Bartos is drawn to Hoffman’s unfiltered highly personalized artistic outpourings.
“Even in the Big Brother where you can see exactly what people are up to around the clock, you don’t know what they are thinking. With Hoffman you know exactly what he is thinking, because he tells you.”
ABRAHAM STORER’S “Against the Day,” curated by Yanai Segal, is a very different kettle of painted fish. Hoffman made aliya and, hence, possibly came to the Israeli cultural and social milieu with something of an outsider’s viewpoint.
Storer hails from the United States and has been living here with his family, temporarily, for the past six years. He is a practicing Christian and it is clear from his paintings that his point of observation, of life and nature here, is more objective and extraneous, offering a fresh look at scenes that for some of us locals may seem a little mundane.
Storer is drawn by contrast and form. He is also a keen observer, looking in from the outside with dispassionate clarity. That comes across in much of his work, such as his somewhat surrealistic stencil elements in, for example, the Heavy Body oil painting. The Jerusalem landscape backdrop is seen through a torso cutout that looks like it has been affixed to a window with sticky tape. It is a recurrent theme, with other perforated forms including an egg shape.
“Against the Day” is a variegated offering that straddles abstract-leaning elements, figurative and realistic works, that largely feed off Mother Nature’s scorched and brightly lit palette in this part of the world. That is set in higher visual relief by the inclusion of the Greenhouse oil painting, created back in verdant Vermont in 2014. Here, too, Storer plays around with planes, with the black wind chimes in the foreground starkly counterbalancing the floral display behind.
But nothing is really as it seems with Storer. He plays around with shapes, human and otherwise. A beach scene in Jaffa that depicts a traditionally black-clad Muslim woman puts one in mind of some of the geometric shapes seen in, for example, the expressionist pointillist works of late 19th century French painter Georges Seurat. The Figure in Black watercolor is another case in point in Storer’s oeuvre.
“I am interested in covering up obliterations, abstraction of the body in the black,” he explains. “It is a way of universalizing the figure. In a way it is more complicated than pure obliteration in the sense that it endows the figure with mystery and it points toward something that goes beyond individuality.”
The exhibitions close on June 2. For more information: