Nir Hod Mother
opening at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY
March 28th 2012
Israeli artist Nir Hod's recent series entitled Mother is a group of paintings of a female figure that appears in a photograph taken by the Nazis in 1943. This photograph is the work of Nazi photographer Franz Conrad who was documenting Adolf Hitler's destruction or “ethnic cleansing” of the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war. The complete photo shows a group of Jews being held at gunpoint by Nazi Soldiers, a small boy holds his hands in the air in terror and to his left is an image of a woman doing the same. The boy with his hands held up shows a famously dark moment in history and is the central aspect of this photograph. The woman with raised hands pictured to the left of the boy has been isolated by Nir Hod as the central figure in his series Mother. This foregrounds her as the main theme of his paintings and brings out other readings of the image beyond the original source. The resulting Nir Hod painting is of a woman holding up her hands with a leather bag hanging down off each of her arms. Hod's treatment of this female figure intensifies the ambiguity of the woman's gesture, giving one the sense that it could be something other than a historical image, but rather something contemporary.
Her body is enveloped in a dark background with a kind of Gerhard Richter palette which shows a kind of blurred photographic or filmic treatment of form. This new context makes a casual reading of the image possible, yet imbeds a surprise meaning within the painting. The viewer assumes they are looking upon a woman's image taken from a fashion advertising campaign, yet at a certain point discover she is being held at gunpoint. Some have responded to the work assuming that she is simply holding up her arms for reasons of high fashion. Nir Hod expected the paintings to have a variety of readings and layers. The viewer's reaction and or delayed recognition is part of the concept behind these works. The leather bags hanging from her arms are almost like bags that one would see in a mall or shopping area hanging from the arms of a consumer. This female figure now could be mistaken for a model from a fashion magazine or an advertisement for Louis Vuitton. Hod's approach creates a deliberate blurring of meaning, a kind of layering of painterly execution and idea. But it was crystal clear to me, the first time I saw these works, that this woman was an excerpt from the famous Warsaw Ghetto image of 1943. Nir Hod has taken this female figure, isolated it from the original photo, darkened the background into a sort of luscious darkness -not an ominous darkness but the kind one would associate with chocolate or something rich and beautiful. Nir Hod has then painted ten almost identical variations of this female figure in a grand type of Warholian repetition. The effect is an intensely powerful almost film-like quality but a gesture which brings forth other angles and other questions.
Historical photography as source material for painting is something common to artists such as Gerhard Richter (a major influence on Nir Hod). Richter's Baader-Meinhof series is a perfect example of this approach to historically based painting, or paintings utilizing historical imagery. In addition, Francis Bacon's treatment of the nurse character found in Sergei Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence in the film Battleship Potemkin falls into this area of image making magic. Painting at it's best has a sense of history, either directly or through the natural influence of an artist's time. You could argue that Nir Hod 's new work is multiple Pop Art images about the Holocaust, but the subject some of Andy Warhol's most interesting works also deal with troubling or horrific subject matter. Warhol's Death and Disaster Paintings show a similar kind of horror one sees in Nir Hod's recent work yet have none of the monumental destruction found in the events of World War II. There is a difference between a painter from Warhol's background making a series of general images of disasters and an Israeli painter dealing with images from the Holocaust. Nir Hod is almost making a kind of hyper realized Pop Art which follows firmly in the path of his past work. Past works which have always balanced on the edge of extreme beauty and the beauty of extreme darkness. Great European classical music composers from history have this quality and contrast in their works and show the full expression of light and dark in their greatest compositions. But I was interested in Nir Hod's perspective and intentions so I arranged this conversation at his studio in the Meatpacking district of New York City.
Noah Becker: Upon visiting your studio a few weeks ago I found myself among this series of emotionally charged works painted in a repeated Warholian manner. I immediately knew this image of a woman with her hands in the air as being part of a historical photo of Jews during the Holocaust.
Nir Hod: Yes, you are the first person to recognize that.
Becker: Yes, and you were trying to kind of present this image as something other than it actually is?
Hod: No, because when people see it no matter what their background, they see it as being very much about a New York moment. Something like a girl shopping or a woman shopping, something related to fashion. Some of them argue if the bag is Louis Vuitton or Prada, this kind of reaction. When they see where it comes from they have such a feeling of guilt. When you have all this knowledge about it it your reaction to it changes. When they hear that the title of it is Mother they draw different conclusions or think again that it may be an image about consumerism.
Becker: Why have you made ten multiples of this image?
Hod: Everyone looks with their eyes open but not always to the right places. When I saw the woman in this image from the Warsaw Ghetto during the second world war, I realized the image is really about the child not the mother. When I was twenty three years old for some reason I had a vision, a kind of daydream about this child from this photo, but I imagined him in a forest not in the Warsaw Ghetto. The woman in the photo is in the shadow and for some reason this made me think of Warhol's Shadow Paintings.
Becker: That's a surprising thought and it's a dark background in this painting, is that for a reason?
Hod: Something about her scarf looks like a flame but it's not a flame. I just made everything dark around her, like luxury advertising.
Becker: So it's a kind of way of connecting something from luxury advertising with something from history, it seems like two different worlds?
Hod: No, that was not my idea. My art is so much about beauty and death, beauty and loneliness, Loneliness and seductiveness. It's like the most beautiful girl who stays lonely, there is something more interesting there than the girl who has a rich husband and perfect life. When I made this piece it stuck me as such a modern woman, as being so contemporary.
Hod: She could be someone in Vogue magazine or an advertisement in the window of Bergdorf Goodman. It started to build in my mind into something like this series, but my intention was to only make four of them at first. The repetition is a kind of film noir or advertising look found in Warhol, but I also find inspiration from artists such as Gerhard Richter and Franz Gertsch.
Becker: There is a very strange image of a man's face kind of appearing in the reflection on the woman's bag.
Hod: Yeah, and I only noticed that after I finished the second painting. Moti Omer the director of the Tel Aviv Museum who recently passed away was fascinated with these paintings. Then he asked about this bag and the reflection of the face in the bag. I brought this detail of a face appearing in the reflection on her bag to an expert and also to Yad Vashem the world centre for Holocaust research. For twelve years they never noticed this face appearing on the bag. The illusion of this face occurs in the folds of the leather and appears in my painted versions of the image as well. It mysteriously appears like the shroud of turin, or the way that Jesus's face appears on things, also this mysterious face appears on the bag which is situated in the original 1943 photo between the boy and the soldier. It's this kind of thing that makes me think about the place of magic in art and the artist's belief in magic.
Becker: Yeah, it's too vivid to be accidental. And I agree that as an artist it is important to have a belief in this kind of magic.
Hod: It's amazing but you know as an artist you have to make magic and I believe this is what happened here.
Becker: This series is a balance of idea and execution, a perfect balance between idea and execution. And yes I agree with you that it is boring to hear people react to pantings in relation to photography. It's a kind of cop out in a way or an easy out, it solves the mystery. These painting are kind of a doubling of content, which makes for a more complex reading. How does the repetition of this image over multiple canvases intersect with your idea, other than it being obviously Warholian or filmic?
Hod: The repetition was kind of an instinct but then I understood it was very necessary. Just because it makes things more frontal and makes the idea louder in a sense.
Becker: Gerhard Richter said in his book “Doubt and Belief in Painting” that he was influenced by Warhol and Vermeer. That he would attempt to make a Vermeer and become frustrated that he did not succeed in making something as beautiful as a Vermeer. It was at this point of frustration that Richter would wipe of the offending painting creating the blurring effect we associate with his work. The swiping was meant to be a horizontal approach as in the motion of the squeegee on a Warhol silkscreen. Thus the effect of both Warhol and Vermeer can be seen in the paintings of Gerhard Richter and also in the work of Nir Hod.
Hod: This is so much for me inspired by Warhol, Richter, El Greco,and even Holbein's the Ambassadors. It's so much about life after death and bringing this woman back with all the respect and grace possible.
Becker: It also might have something to do with how society's engagement with history has slipped to a certain extent.
Hod: Exactly, you are right. To deal with history is such a privilege today and to show it to people for the first time is also a privelege. I also want something that has a balance between the intellectual and the emotional.
Becker: Give me an example of this?
Hod: Michelangelo's Pieta.
Becker: I feel like these have that quality to them, that quality of emotional impact. But if I think about the tragedy behind the image I get emotional. This is the function of imbedding this image within another idea from my perspective, no expand the possibilities.
Hod: a lot of people don't allow that moment where they can appreciate something moody or emotional. For me it's some kind of alternative reality, it's much more real than reality. Life becomes so beautiful when you go for a drive and there is music playing, it's so filmic. I always try as a painter to kind of compete with film. I also wanted to do an homage to Gerhard Richter's Candle paintings with this image of the woman. When everything is dark around this figure it has something to do with the lighting in old hollywood films as well. But as I said earlier It's about that very important ability to balance the intellectual with being emotional as an artist.
Noah Becker is an artist and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. Becker contributes to Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. His paintings can be viewed on his Instagram: @noahbeckerstudioview all articles from this author