Nira Lev’s bottled city of Haifa

The 71-year-old artist paints her memories from the 1940s and ’50s, when ‘Israel was so innocent, and so naive, and so pure.

Nira Lev painting 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nira Lev painting 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Anyone fortunate enough to have misspent a postwar American childhood reading comic books will no doubt recall that whenever his job at the Daily Planet got too stressed, or life in Metropolis became too intense, Superman would slip away to his weekend getaway place at the North Pole, which he fondly referred to as his “Fortress of Solitude.”
Hidden away in the windswept snow and ice, Superman’s Fortress was filled to bursting with myriad souvenirs, knickknacks, trophies, mementos and assorted bric-abrac gathered from years of fighting crime in Metropolis, safeguarding America, and patrolling the immediate universe.
Comic book junkies will also recall that among Superman’s favorite tchochkes at the Fortress was the Bottled City of Kandor – an actual, living city from his home planet Krypton, shrunk to miniature size before the planet was destroyed, and housed in a small climate-controlled glass bell jar which Superman kept in a cozy little wall niche at the end of an upstairs hall.
Whenever Superman felt that he needed to be with his fellow Kryptonians, speak a little Kryptonese, eat a bit of good old-fashioned Kryptonite cuisine and just generally lose himself in the culture of a now-vanished planet, he would enter the Bottled City and hang out there for a while.
Emerging from this sentimental journey a few hours later, a refreshed, recharged and remotivated Superman would leave the North Pole and fly back to Metropolis, back to his never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way – and to his somewhat complicated relationship with Lois Lane.
NIRA LEV, 71, has a Bottled City of Haifa, a Haifa of her memories from long ago, which she enters and in which she lives happily again every time she paints. She picks up her brush and is transported to a Haifa and an Israel of the 1940s and early ’50s.
Lev returns to a time of no TV, cell phones or personal computers, and few cars. As she paints, she sees children playing together outdoors, and adults sharing the latest gossip from one balcony to the next. Hot corn is again sold on street corners, and Egged buses have luggage racks on their roofs for families spending holidays with relatives on distant kibbutzim.
“I love it because I am painting my own memories from childhood,” she says. “Israel was so innocent, and so naïve, and so pure.
Maybe I am idealizing the past a bit, but this is what I feel and remember from my life, from my parents, from my house. This was my Israel, and I feel myself losing it a little more every day.
“I feel the memories, and I feel my yearning for the days they reflect, and I need to paint. I need to paint to be there. And you know, when I paint, I live in those times again. And sometimes, I really don’t want to come back.”
But come back she does, to paint again and again. And an exhibition of some of these paintings, “Once upon a Childhood,” is currently on display at the Gallery of International Naïve Art in Tel Aviv (GINA).
Says Dan Chill, GINA’s owner, founder and world-acclaimed expert in naïve art: “This is really an incredible exhibition by an incredible artist, who brings us into a time warp. What Nira does is something the best of the naïves do. She celebrates the human narrative. She celebrates Israel’s human narrative.
“And not only Israel’s human narrative, but she celebrates young Israel’s human narrative, which is an extremely important time of the country. And she does it in such a heartwarming and loving way, where she reflects in her paintings a bygone era, a time when things were simpler.
“Nira really dips her brush in her heart and begins to paint. And she lets her heart sing. I often give the image – and I think that Nira is a perfect example of this – of a naïve art painting being a song. Every brush-stroke is an additional note added to that song.
“Nira Lev allows her heart to sing songs of Israel, in praise of the Israel of long ago, when life was much more enchantingly innocent, perhaps naïve.”
SOMETIMES CALLED primitive or folk art, naïvism is a worldwide genre of art that, although diverse, is defined, according to Chill, by certain broad characteristics.
These include an almost childlike approach to perspective and scale; an exuberant use of bright, heartwarming colors; an enchanting, inviting innocence of the scenes; a punctilious attention to detail – if a tree isn’t depicted with 7,500 leaves, then it is not a “real” tree; an idealized view of the world; and an artist who is usually selftaught.
For Chill, Lev is the epitome of naïve art, and the very paradigm of a naïve artist.
One thing is certain: She is certainly self-taught.
Born in Haifa to parents who left Poland in the 1930s, Lev has lived in the city her whole life. She recalls, “My father was working in the Histadrut, my mother was at home. We lived in an apartment in a building that housed all the big generals of the Hagana. My parents were their friends. I grew up on the knees of all these people – Isser Harel and Isser Be’eri.
“My father was very involved with what was going on in the country. It was a very simple life in a very happy family. We spent every holiday and vacation with my grandparents on Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha. I learned in kindergarten, elementary school, high school, and then I went to a school for kindergarten teachers. I was also in the Tnua Meuhedet youth group of Habonim. This was a very important part of my life.”
Army service followed, along with marriage and the birth of three daughters, which kept Lev home for the next 18 years.
“Then I went back to study and I learned to be a teacher of retarded children. When I finished learning, I was invited to work at the Municipality of Haifa, in the Department of Culture. I worked there for 16 years, and then I retired.
“I was sure that when I left the Municipality of Haifa, it would immediately fall apart. That didn’t happen,” she concludes, laughing.
“And then one day, I woke up in the morning feeling like I had colors in my stomach. I felt this. I was 56. These colors had probably been inside me all the time.
“Back in the youth movement, I had always been the one to do the painting and the decorations. And all through the years, everybody who knew me asked, ‘Why don’t you paint?’ And I said, ‘When I have what to say, I will do it.’ “And suddenly that morning, I felt that I had it. And I began. I took a piece of canvas and painted a fish flying in the air, and a clown. Whatever I wanted. And suddenly I understood, that in my little, little painting room, I could do whatever I wanted.
“I did not know what is naïve art. At the beginning, when people asked me, ‘What is your style of painting?’ I said my painting was ‘Nira Style.’ I didn’t know. I only wanted to shpritz!” “That’s true of all naïve artists,” Chill comments later. “As opposed to all the rest of the art word, where most artists who are part of a particular genre are very familiar with what’s going on in that genre by other artists, the naïve art world is very independent and personal. Each artist is drawing from his or her own experiences and painting what his or her own heart tells him to. And so, they don’t know at the beginning that they are painting naïve art.”
Lev’s paintings are essentially love songs to a Haifa of the past. Like the American cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, who managed to insert the name of his daughter Nina at least once in every drawing, Lev can be certain to include the Haifa oil refinery and the Baha’i temple in the distant background of almost every scene.
“These are my two permanent symbols of Haifa. For me, they are Haifa, and I love Haifa,” she says.
And, she paints only the past. Asked why, she replies, “The present is present. And it’s not so beautiful to paint now. And I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes I’m happy that my parents are not alive. If they would see what’s going on now, they would be very sad.
“I’m not stupid, I know that those times have gone away. I remember the pride of building this land, before the war. But in my bubble, where I paint, everything is pure, innocent and beautiful again.”
Thus another criteria that Lev epitomizes is the desire to create an idealized view of life, to the point of improving on her memories to make them better than they really were. In the little room where she paints – which she describes as her “womb” – she is subject to no rules.
“I’m in the middle of a painting of my father making pickled cucumbers. We didn’t have fine china or nice Persian carpets, but in my room I can do whatever I want. I can give my mother long hair. She had short hair, but I want her to have long hair.
And I think I will paint my father with a crown on his head. Because on that day, when he was making pickles, he was the king of the house.
“I do whatever I want, and I love it,” she says.
This includes painting multiple appearances of herself in the same picture.
In A Workday at the Kibbutz, for example, we see three young Niras in the same red shirt and blue shorts, one on a ladder, picking oranges; another next to a banana tree, picking bananas; and a third lying on her back in the grass, taking a well-earned rest.
Lev also playfully includes angels in most of her paintings, as well as frequent appearances of an imaginary friend.
In her determination to idealize her memories, Lev even manages to flout one of the few “rules” of naïve art – the ubiquitous smile. Generally speaking, naïve art rarely depicts anything other than happy people and often whimsically funny situations.
Smiling people picnic, dance, play musical instruments, work in their gardens and do household chores. Smiling fisherman walk along seaside market streets holding their freshly caught fish which, charmingly, are also smiling, evidently happy to be caught.
Smiling girls with baskets of sliced watermelon on their heads stroll by people hanging clothes, trimming hedges, watering flowers, drinking coffee and feeding chickens – all smiling, including the chickens.
Lev, however, provides us with glimpses of memories that were not particularly happy – as shown by downcast facial expressions – and then fixes those memories in the same painting. We get first a hint of the reality, what was, before being drawn into a happier image of the way Lev would rather remember it.
Gesturing at her painting Dreaming of Ballet, Lev explains: “I wanted very much to dance.
But my mother said that a Polish Jewish girl must learn piano. I spent hours standing outside the window of the ballet class, so sad and jealous of the girls that got to dance. But in my painting, you see me standing outside the window, and you see me also inside, dancing.
“You see what I can do in my room? Anything I want.”
Before we part company, Lev brings us to her painting Youth Movement Campfire, a dazzlingly colorful scene that draws us in, excites the senses, and makes even the most jaded viewer wish that he or she could be there. Lev stands smiling, watching us enter the picture and reluctantly return.
She says, “Do you understand why I live in the picture while I paint? I don’t want to come back. It was so beautiful. Everybody there was a friend of mine. It was really like this – what can I tell you?“
Nira Lev: “Once Upon a Childhood” is showing until March 4 at the Gallery of International Naïve Art (GINA), Rehov Dizengoff 255, Tel Aviv. Monday-Thursday 12 noon to 9 p.m.; Fridays and holiday eves 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Call: (03) 544-4150, Fax: 03- 544-4160.