Friedel Stern was a trailblazer. She was the only female caricaturist and cartoonist among the field’s hegemony, in this country, for many a year, and irrespective of her gender, she displayed a singular and unflinching approach to life and her work.Stern, who was known in the profession and the media by her given name, died in 2006, shortly before her 90th birthday. She left her indelible mark on the way we view life in these here parts, and also helped nurture several more generations of professionals during a three-decade-long tenure as a lecturer at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.Her contribution to the field, her incisiveness and left-field viewpoint are currently being lauded in the Fig Leaves exhibition at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. It is one of four new shows there that celebrate the input of female creators. It will run until August 27.The organizers have lined up a series of gallery talks with 12 female members of the profession as part of the Bekitzur Yisraelit (In a Nutshell, an Israeli Woman) program, which takes in works by the said dozen. The guest speaker roster includes illustrator and comic book artist Rutu Modan, illustrator and educator Karen May Metcalfe, and veteran illustrator, caricaturist, comic book artist and educator Mira Friedman. (The latter received the illustrator of the year Golden Pencil Award from Holon Mayor Moti Sasson when the exhibitions were officially declared open this past Tuesday.) CURATOR VERED Ganchrow has clearly done a good job in putting the multi-layered offering together at the Holon museum. As a veteran illustrator and animator herself, she seemed like the perfect person to ask the most basic of questions: Can one say, with any degree of confidence, that there is a definitive female approach to the art form? “There is such pluralism among women artists, just as there is among the men, that it is very difficult to pinpoint a gender-oriented mind-set,” Ganchrow says. “I don’t think you can identify some kind of common denominator between female artists in terms of the aesthetic format.”
Then again, there are female issues as opposed to male issues in life.“There are, of course, areas of content [that relate more to women],” she states. “Bekitzur Yisraelit looks at the aspects of life that interest women, but it is not the main issue here.” Ganchrow says that not all burning matters of current affairs found their way into the work of women artists.“They don’t really touch on politics – which is good – and that is a sort of legacy from Friedel,” she says.Fig Leaves also marks the centenary of Friedel’s birth and the completion of the process of digitizing her vast archives in conjunction with Harvard University.The two institutions certainly had their work cut out for them, as Friedel bequeathed in excess of a quarter of a million works to the Israeli Cartoon Museum.She also set up a foundation to fund a couple of biennial prizes with the sum of NIS 10,000 awarded to the best amateur caricaturist of the year, and NIS 25,000 to the best professional.The name Bekitzur Yisraelit references Friedel’s book of that name, published in 1958, which comprises caricatures of Israelis from all walks of life. She was known for a humorous ethos and for eschewing politics – no mean feat in this country.
Through her work, she introduced Israeli society to itself, and often worked undercover to get the job done. In 1956, for instance, she disguised herself as a Moroccan immigrant and was treated with DDT. Other projects saw her gain street-level insight, working as a bus conductor and impersonating an ulpan student and a tourist.Above all, says Ganchrow, the late caricaturist and cartoonist had a well-developed sense of humor.“She laughed about lots of things, including herself,” she says. “But she didn’t make fun of people at their expense. She wasn’t a cheap stand-up act.”The exhibits include a slew of thought-provoking comic strips, and we are clearly not talking Disney here.“The comics items I selected relate to everyday life here,” Ganchrow explains.“There are all sorts of comics that are very professional and visually arresting about things that happened to the artist, say, abroad,” she says. “But I looked for substantial content, about reality in Israel.If you exhibit something which has more general appeal to which many people can relate, you draw an audience and create a sort of community sense.”The work of Racheli Shalev, one of the Bekitzur Yisraelit artists, is a case in point.“She has a regular comics column in which she describes her life as a mother to three small children and what happens at home,” continues Ganchrow. “It is not about everyday life in Israel out on the street, but it really is about life here. Lots of mothers can relate to this. It is very expressive. It is also apolitical. Friedel would have approved of that.”THE JOINT contribution by Einat Tzarfati and Hila Noam offers an enlightening take on an experience we have all had at some stage of our lives – taking a ride on an Israeli bus.“This is interesting, because it plays with the gray area between the reality of being on a bus and looking out onto what’s happening outside on the street, and the inner world of fantasy,” Ganchrow notes.The comics lineup takes in a wide variety of approaches and aesthetics, ranging from American-style art to works that appear to owe more to woodcut disciplines than pens and crayons. The “Iyurim Mefatpetim” (Babbling Illustrations) display of works by illustrator Aya Gordon-Noy includes some delightful collage cutout items. They appear to be simple but, in fact, are quite complex and detailed, and convey a whole bunch of ideas and sentiments. The visually appealing creations generally include texts, and go beyond complementing the written information.
“The content of Bekitzur Yisraelit engages in local life,” says Ganchrow.“Occasionally, the visual situation does not relate to a particular location, rather to a virtual, theoretic place,” she says. “But it stills addresses our public domain. The works were created as the result of a personal need for support and for identification.”This, says the curator, can help to generate some level of interaction between the artist and the observer.“The works generally reference the visual common denominator of the local reader,” she states. “Israeliness is a very specific experience. It sometimes involves an insider comic reference which a foreigner would not get, and sometimes our reality oscillates wildly between the mundane and the dramatic, and there is no need to look for an interesting ‘storyline.’ It’s already there.”Stern would, no doubt, concur.For more information about the exhibitions: (03) 652-1849 and www.cartoon.org.il.