Arts: Family configurations

A new exhibition at the Israel Museum focuses on the family album and stars the first-ever Frida Kahlo painting to be shown in Israel.

frida kahlo 248.88 (photo credit: )
frida kahlo 248.88
(photo credit: )
Whether they like it or not, artists come from families. Some even institute their own. As individuals caught up in a reflective activity, they find themselves sometimes painting family portraits for others and sometimes examining and reexamining their own family roots. Some make this the subject of one or two works, while others can mine the familial field for long artistic periods - perhaps even their whole careers. The absorbing nature of this genetic and cultural inquiry - an investigation of oneself and of one's origins but also of other people that are like oneself and yet undeniably different - is currently on display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, in the exhibition entitled Family Traces. The show reaches across centuries and dips into collections from different museum departments in order to explore and present the interconnection between art and family. "The family portrait is about memory, identity, time," explains the show's curator, Tamar Manor-Friedman. "The exhibit looks at how art, especially photography, became a tool for the family's 'reproduction' - how the family album saves the family's visual DNA." The decision to focus on the family album and, in Manor-Friedman's words, its "accumulation of faces," came from the recent acquisition of a large work by Cuban-American artist Anthony Goicolea. The diptych Supper combines photography, painting and drawing, resulting in a positive-negative family portrait of a scene that never existed. The long dinner table, the lined-up chairs, the walls and doors and parquet floor in the background - they are all composed by the artist, who inserted different family members' faces either through collage or painting, creating a "positive" image that he then photographed and printed as a final work. The "negative" image, assumed to be a photographic print, is actually a hand drawing with graphite of what a photographic negative would look like. While Manor-Friedman admits that it's interesting to consider how the work was created technically, she says the more important question is Why? She goes on to highlight the ghostly nature of the negative image but also the impossibility of the positive one: The scene may look realistic, but because it combines faces from all over the artist's family albums, it isn't actually possible that these people were ever together. The deeper issue is one of exile and memory - being forced to leave a country out of political fear and having only images with which to recall the life that was lost. For the generation born in exile, the "recall" is impossible, and all that's left is a myth agitated by black-and-white images. In an action that complements Goigolea's focus on family faces, veteran Israeli artist Moshe Gershuni presents a set of recent etchings from the series "I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" on the adjoining wall. In it, he enlarged the hands of family members from a studio portrait taken a century ago. The hands, small in the original image, are made doll-like, no longer necessarily connected to a living being. Their puffed-up frozen quality, along with the exaggeration of the grain in the original photo, make them into the hands of statues, half disappearing into shadow. The Family Album room also includes My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), a small but intricate painting by Frida Kahlo - her first to be exhibited in Israel - which explores and plays with her mixed origins and identity. Kahlo, who was Spanish and indigenous Mexican on her mother's side, claimed that she was Hungarian-Jewish on her father's side, but the claim was later debunked by researchers who traced her father's roots to a long line of German Protestants. The suggestion has been made that in the Communist and anti-Nazi milieu of which Frida was a part, she made the Jewish claim in order to distance herself from her German background. Manor-Friedman adds that there is some evidence suggesting that the painting itself is a provocation-reaction against genetics classes that appeared in the German school in Mexico after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. In them, family-tree diagrams were circulated for students to fill out in order to show the purity of their blood. Kahlo had attended the school as a child, and by highlighting Kahlo's "mixed" blood, the painting is believed to be a protest against the school's Nazification. But the space that focuses on Family Albums, with its use of found or incidental images, is just one meeting point between art and family in the exhibit. Manor-Friedman used this first room and concept as a launching pad from which she set up a number of additional environments, including Memorabilia, Reproductions, Homeland, Ancient Tales Revisited, and Memorials. In Memorabilia, Picasso's The Shadow on the Woman hangs in one corner almost inconspicuously. The work was painted shortly after his separation from Françoise Gilot, mother of his two children, and presents the artist as an ominous shadow over her nude reclining body. The scene is both tense and calm, a kind of eternal yet disappearing everyday moment. The hall also includes a series of silhouette paintings by Israeli artist Larry Abramson, Vera Icon, in which the artist plays with the tradition of profile cut-outs to trace his wife and three children, but he adds floral elements as a signal of growth. The title relates to Veronica, who wiped Jesus's face on his way to crucifixion and was left with an impression of his face on her veil. A highlight of the Reproductions hall includes photo prints documenting the wife and sisters of photographer Nicholas Nixon. Titled The Brown Sisters, each photo shows the four sisters lined up and photographed in the same order in increments of two years. While one side of the Reproductions room deals with the multiplication of sisters, the other deals with the father-son relationship, with works by Gal Weinstein and Philip Rantzer that combine the artist's face with that of his own father. There is also the Dutch painting Portrait of a Family in a Landscape, in which the figures were painted by portrait artist Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp and the landscape by his son, landscape artist Aelbert Cuyp - though the painting itself highlights a set of sisters that are so alike they almost look like clones of each other. This work reflects on a contemporary piece by Uri Katzenstein titled Home, which presents dolls in various actions and positions, all of them in the image of the artist and all of them missing a bellybutton, suggesting a process of genetic cloning. The three rooms and one screening room that make up the Homeland section include strictly Israeli artists reflecting on their own family histories as immigrants and exiles, as well as the flight or exile of Palestinians who became refugees. As Manor-Friedman writes in her text for Shuka Glotman's Non-Historical Moments, "Through family photographs of the inhabitants of the Arab village Dir al-Kassi in the Galilee, which was abandoned in 1948... the artist strives to return to the 'non-historical' time of the place before the Israeli-Palestinian rupture perpetuated a state of conflict and displacement." This section also includes a video work by Guy Ben-Nur called Stealing Beauty in which he and his family act out different domestic scenes in a semi-humorous deadpan style within the background of an IKEA store, where all the articles they use still have tags, and shoppers occasionally pass by with their shopping carts. The final two rooms, Ancient Tales and Memorials, are darker and heavier, dealing with violence, myth and death. Of particular note is a Gothic smiling Madonna sculpture whose child is missing, as well as a large painting titled Portrait of My Father by Michael Gross. A perhaps morbidly jarring work is Gideon Gechtman's Hairbrushes, a set of brushes made with the hair of the artist, his wife and his two children. The sand-drawing Table by Micha Ullman is an ephemeral work that traces our own memory back to all the family meals we have already forgotten. And as modern and contemporary art turned inward to explore the inner being, artists began to focus more on themselves and their families as subjects. As Manor-Friedman explains, unlike during periods when artists were commissioned to paint portraits of other families, "Contemporary artists tend to look into family vis-a-vis themselves." In preparing the show, she juggled between old and new relations to family to create an exhibit that wasn't strictly about family and anecdotes but about representation of family in art.