Originating in the nineteenth century, Art for Art’s Sake is the historic and critical concept that privileges the autonomous qualities of art, viewing its didactic, moral or functional purposes as irrelevant. The idea that a painting must first be a satisfying organization of compositional elements before it can succeed in the representation of reality was central to post-Impressionist art, and was central in the twentieth century to the artistic liberation that heralded abstract painting and its underlying Modernist formalist theory.
Ziva Sivan’s work can be said to embody the idea of Art for Art’s Sake in its purest form: she painted first and foremost for Art itself, for the act of painting and the experience it gave her in that wondrous procedure – the arrangement of compositional elements on canvas or paper. It was Art for Art’s Sake specifically since she came to it with no ulterior aim. Her recurring fascination with one single subject, which never lost its charm for her, namely the human form; and her pursuit of different techniques and media to tackle this subject matter – these were accompanied by her reluctance to step outside and be exposed. Sivan made few public showings of her work and mostly declined selling them, even when her studio was crowded with numerous painted canvases and papers and when interest arose from potential buyers. Hers was a refusal to deal with any matter outside of painting itself, namely the overt and covert actions that make an artist a public figure, with the success and money that accompany this status.
The art world, like so many other arenas of human endeavor, is a highly competitive one – but not only in the well-known race for prestigious positions. It is the nature of artists to compete with the artists of previous generations, whether of the distant or near past: both in aspiring to a standard of quality set by older luminaries and in rebelling against their authority for the sake of developing new modes of expression. Sivan preferred to invest her energies in competing with past masters such as Matisse, Picasso and de Kooning rather than competing for a place in the contemporary art world. Competition, however, may be an overstatement in this context; it is perhaps better to refer to those painters as sources of inspiration or artistic landmarks to which she set her gaze. At any rate, she did not deal with the issues that troubled the art world in the last third of the twentieth century both in Israel and abroad, preferring instead to focus on the fundamental questions that had occupied the early Modernists.
It must be stated here, however, that Sivan’s work did not take place completely out of the public eye. On the contrary – the act of painting was for her a public, albeit intimate, event. Sivan worked with a group of painters that she herself co-founded who met regularly (and still do) at her studio: their shared passion for artistic creation resulted in a small community of painters and sculptors – she also headed another group dedicated to sculpture – who worked separately, and yet together, lending each other support, inspiration and feedback.
The roots of Sivan’s artistic approach – her passionate acquiescence to the act of painting on the one hand, and her reluctance to let it spill out of her home-studio on the other – can be traced back to her youth. She began painting at fifteen, discovering that painting was a source of comfort for her, since, as she told an interviewer for a documentary film in 2004, “my life was not so easy.” And yet painting was not seen as a worthy full-time employment for a woman at the time. She remembered that when she enrolled, at seventeen, to the Graphic Design department of the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, her mother told her that “Graphics is good work for a woman: you can raise children, work at home and everything is great…” Indeed, a choice of work that would be flexible enough to allow family life was (and still is) an important component of women’s lives – a complete immersion in art is still seen as contrasting with other life aims. Sivan had her priorities straight, as she states in the film: “I see myself first and foremost as a family woman. The home and the family are the most important thing to me, the art – which is my more public persona – that’s very important for me spiritually but… still… My first priority is my family.”
Any attempt to summarize or assess Sivan’s work in a few paragraphs then must take into account her choices and the particular place the creative endeavor occupied in her life, perhaps a not-too-uncommon phenomenon with women artists. Being a part-time artist had certain implications on her choices in a limited stretch of time.
Moreover, Sivan had to divide her creative powers between her work in the graphic design studio she had managed for many years and her free painting, her Art for Art’s Sake: retiring from the profession allowed her to devote more time to painting. Perhaps her predilection for large-scale work and wide, free brushstrokes carried out with a free hand was a counter-balance to the punctual, precise work that characterizes graphic design. The way Sivan channeled her creative outbursts to strictly regimented hours also illustrates the popular misperception of the idea of inspiration: in contrast to the idea of inspiration hitting the artist just like that, many artists and writers actually hold office-like working hours (with some writers even going so far as setting a daily writing quota). It was indeed this regimented schedule and the distinct space where it took place – her studio, with its atmosphere, the group joining in and of course the presence of the model – that allowed her the necessary preconditions for creative work. The internal transformation Sivan underwent upon entering the studio was never more apparent than during the last stages of her illness, which was accompanied by great pain and difficulty in moving. Whenever she entered the studio, as she told her interviewer, some kind of magic took place, and “the minute the model is seated, Hocus Pocus… I say, okay, let’s try and see… Maybe I’ll just do one painting, and of course I paint all the paintings I had intended to, and finish the evening…”
The relationship with the live model was the primary source of inspiration for Sivan: it created the preliminary impulse for it and directed its mode of expression. A traditional approach, it was in keeping with the regard of the human form, for hundreds of years in the history of Western art, both as the central form and as the primary theme of artistic representation. Within the Academic system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which held History Painting – narrative painting with stories from scripture, mythology or history as its subject matter – as the paragon of painting, this theme was an integral element in an artist’s training. The drawing of nude models (mostly men, as were the students), was meant for the achievement of an intimate knowledge of human anatomy and a deep acquaintance with its movement during different actions – for the distinct task of creating multi-figured, narrative History Paintings.
Academic painting began to lose its privileged status in the second half of the nineteenth century, and other themes, such as representation of the modern city, rose to prominence. With the rejection of the classic style in favor of Realism and Impressionism, however, nude drawing acquired new roles. The models were now mainly women, who acted as the artist’s muse. This development heralded a new understanding of the nude drawing – not as preparation for another painting, but as self-contained theme. Artists frequently used quasi-mythological themes such as bathing to veil the erotic nature of the representation. The focal shift of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, from the subject represented to the means of its representation – shapes, colors and composition – was also apparent in the depiction of the human form, focusing on its formal potential no less than its narrative qualities. At this point we can see Sivan’s connection to the Modernist tradition of model painting – her continued grappling with the human form was sparked less by the academic tradition, more by the formal aspect of the body in different poses.
The changes to both artistic education and repertoire under Modernism meant fewer representations of the human form in general, and the nude in particular, with only few artists retaining the practice of life drawing – although among those who did, we find the work of superb painters like Lucien Freud. Israeli art did not establish a tradition of nude painting. The great focus on abstraction since the nineteen-fifties, followed by the conceptual approaches of later decades, left the tradition of nude drawing – with its intimate contact with the live model – in the hands of few artists. Some of these, however, drew students and followers – a salient example being Jerusalem artist Joseph Hirsch, whose followers made up Sivan’s painter community.
Sivan, who at different times studied under figurative painters like Moshe Rosenthalis and sculptor Jacob Epstein, incessantly searched for new means of expression and new media for the representation of a constant theme: female figures (sometimes male), usually nude, sitting on a chair or sofa. Her work features less frequent depictions of a figure standing or lying down. It seems that the model’s ease was an important feature of the artist-model relationship, with no attempt made by the artist to cast the model into dramatic, unusual or narrative postures. It was sometimes the model herself who lent a theatrical air to the proceedings, as was the case with Lucy, whose colorful attire not only dictated certain formal compositions but also had a tangible influence on Sivan’s color palette in paintings from the early nineteen-eighties. These colors, coupled with the large quantities of cardboard which Sivan had at her disposal at the time, allowed her to experiment with different modes of color work. She worked first with pastels and acrylics, finally moving from a paper ground back to canvas. These paintings are characterized by colorful flamboyance – a collision of green and orange, pink, red and blue patches in sweeping, free brushstrokes. Sivan’s consistent predilection for a linear, contoured demarcation of the figures’ structure and volume, however, remains.
In retrospect, painting – although an exciting departure – did not afford Sivan with the easy-handedness she showed in her ink drawings of the nineteen-seventies. It comes as no surprise, then, that while still producing large-scale acrylic paintings during the nineteen-nineties, she continued working on monochromatic paintings, often featuring only black and white. These paintings also show her work at its closest affinity to abstraction. It seems to have been a conscious choice on her part to break free from the dramatic and psychological effects dictated by the model’s presence, treating the figure instead as first and foremost a formal system. This in turn allowed her to paint the same figure several times on the same canvas, often side by side, sometimes superimposed one on top of the other. Over time the figures shed their former voluminous solidity, turning into a web of lines almost completely obscuring their figurative source. In these paintings, the model was undoubtedly only a pretext, a loose anchoring point, but Sivan never gave up on her direct eye contact with tangible reality in favor of the purely abstract.
In a series of pencil drawings from the late nineteen-nineties, she returned to the intimate, specific gaze on the figure in front of her; it is now the sole occupant of the entire breadth of the paper. However, there is a residue of her earlier experiences here – a web of short, hard cross hatches to define the figure, accompanied by dark patches, short lines created by a whip-lash of pencil strokes on the paper. This series stems from the desire to develop a personal idiom while reaffirming her affinity to the original human form, the basic theme of her contemplation.
The nineteen-nineties also saw Sivan’s return to sculpture, a medium she began exploring while still a student at Bezalel and to which she had returned sporadically during the nineteen-sixties and -seventies. In the mid-nineties she began focusing on sculptural work that was also based on the contemplation of a live figure. The figures differ in their bodily character, from the youthful (Natasha, 2002) to the heavy-set (Old Man, 1998) and from simple, day-to-day postures (Seated Woman, 2001) to angular, stylized examples that are designed to create interesting spaces between the limbs and the body (Vered, 2002-4). In contrast to her large-scale paintings, her sculptures are usually small and can be viewed from above. Thematically, they share her reluctance to portray upright figures and preference for figures that have many points of contact with the base. Hence her figures are usually either seated, reclining or lying – their relationship being to the ground rather than to the space surrounding them – highlighting interest in volume, mass and large interconnected shapes. Her inclination towards a contoured definition of her figures is retained in her sculpture through the angular modeling of the terracotta along the figure’s limbs and lower backs. Although her main focuses were the volumes and shapes of the body, one can also sense her penetrating gaze into the specific expressions and personality traits of each figure, a quality also sensed in her later drawings.
The culmination of Sivan’s combined pictorial and sculptural interests can be seen in her last series of drawings, produced by manipulating charcoal powder with a sponge. The series, begun in 1999, is closely tied to her sculptures of the same period: the lines here are transformed into planes delineating, through the use of light and shade, different masses and volumes. In some of the works the figure is blurred, as if seen through a cloudy glass. Traces of her earlier technique, involving short angular lines, resurface in several drawings. The drawings made during the last two years of her life, where she used reddish-brown pigment, are finer and warmer, bringing to mind the red chalk drawings of Baroque and Rococo artists, as well as the terracotta of her sculpture.
The changes of technique in these are coupled with a shift in her treatment of the live model. Gone is the formal, almost abstract treatment of the figure; a new focus on the human form as specific personality – its expressions, moods and anatomical minutiae of the face, which hadn’t been addressed in earlier drawings – arises. Sivan’s later drawings, both in charcoal and in brown pigment, feature keener rendering of the face and the upper body over the rest of the human form.
Sivan’s abilities in portraiture were already manifest during her studies at Bezalel. In these early works, she managed to capture a specific, momentary expression, beyond any type. Yet her forays into nude drawing and painting from the nineteen-seventies to the -nineties show no sign of the face – it is all but effaced. In her late drawings there is a renewed interest in the rendering of the face, representing a desire to delve through it – and not only through the models’ bodies – into her personality. It is possible that her long abstinence from facial portraiture, a genre she was greatly able in – allowed her in some way to separate between her pictorial world and her personal one. Portraiture demands a substantial degree of intimacy with the model and a penetration of his or her personal world, this being perhaps the reason she abstained from drawing portraits of her family and friends. The sculptural portraits of her husband, Uzi (1958), and her daughter, Noa (1965), are an exception to her larger body of work.
The growing focus on the models’ faces in her late drawings could be seen to be connected, on some unconscious level, with the changes her own body was undergoing in the final stages of her illness. Although a hypothesis of this nature would be hard to verify, one can speculate that the necessary engagement with her own body – with the intrusive, painful treatments she had to undergo – had to do with her gaze shifting from the models’ bodies to their faces and the minutiae of their expressions. Her paintings, however, feature no autobiographical element. No traces of her personal and family life are visible to the viewer; the different periods in her work are rather always linked to choices of style and technique.
Embodying the idea of Art for Art’s Sake, her art features no confession or testimony. Her art was not a stage for the raising of political or social questions, the predominant feature in the art of women-artists during the eighties and nineties. And although the larger visibility that women enjoyed in the art world at this period allowed the addressing of subjects connected with the body, pain and disease, Sivan felt no need to discuss her personal pain and illness through her art. “I would come to the studio and I wouldn’t find that pain, I wouldn’t find that feeling I had thought I should have expressed in the painting. It just wasn’t there… My spirit didn’t change… So why should I do it just because I was ill.” Indeed, the same separation she had set up between her art and her daily life was what made the internal transformation upon entering studio possible, allowing her the strength she needed to go on painting, drawing comfort and power from her artistic labor. In this respect, if there is indeed a therapeutic aspect to the artistic endeavor it does not necessarily have to do with exposing and analyzing painful experiences as a means of release, but on the contrary – in the courage to carry on working in spite of dire circumstances.
Ziva Sivan’s choice of focusing her creative powers on one subject and on a regimented work frame throughout the years allowed her to partake, even in the hardest hours, in the miracle that takes place each time anew during the act of pictorial translation. It is the translation of a living, breathing, three-dimensional human presence sitting in front of her into a web of lines and shapes on the paper or the canvas which is born, grows and is fleshed-out by the artist herself – finally achieving a life of its own.
Dalia Manor is an art historian, critic, author and independent curator with a special interest in modern Jewish and Israeli art. She was among the founding editors of the Israeli art magazine Studio and her book Art in Zion: The Genesis of Modern National Art in Jewish Palestine was published in 2005 by Routledge. She lectures in art history at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem.