Ziva Sivan never left home, at least not in her paintings. Uncharacteristic efforts at painting landscape exposed her to battles with winds and with changing light, conditions that did not suit her character. “I tried. I would set up my canvas on the easel and then the wind would rise, whoosh, transforming it into a sail and everything would take flight. So there I was, having to set everything up again, and again to battle the elements. That is in addition to the problems of light and shadow…always changing…”.[i] For thirty years creating hundreds of paintings mostly of large dimensions, the artist remained in her studio that was an integral part of her home. Her home was the world, and it was here that she brought her model and her group, a faithful bunch of painters who met every Monday. As an artist, Ziva Sivan established an unwavering world within the confines of her four walls and from there, and only from there, she set sail to her various worlds. She can be compared to artists and scholars who never set foot out of their hometown so as to be true to their geographies of inner truth.
Outside there was variability; at home stability. At the very heart of that stability – there was her painting. And at the heart of her painting was the naked woman – the model – who generally was long-term, serving over many years: Barbara, Lucy, Tal…. In referring to the subject of a permanent model Sivan said: “It is good to eat the food with which we are familiar at home, although eating out from time to time doesn’t hurt.” The model is home because “it is like a home that one leaves on a journey, ultimately returning to it. The model being something certain…one’s movement from the model – to the drawing of a model and from the woman – to the image of a woman.”
Even deep within her fortress, Ziva Sivan had the ability to paint still life or portraits; but no – she painted almost nothing but nude models, always a naked woman; decades, hundreds of paintings, almost exclusively female nudity, endless variations of the female body. Once again, her domesticity: “To me, the body is most important,…it is our ‘home.” It was not sexual desire that motivated her painting: “I never perceived of the model as a sexual object, but rather as an unclothed person…The gender is incidental as far as I am concerned: a man or a woman is only a person without clothing that inspires me to paint. The model exposes her body, her privacy, and we (the artist) penetrate that intimacy. We feel grateful for being allowed to do so.”
Elegant composition, flowing line, flattened volumes – all negate the flesh, in spite of Sivan’s focus on the body with reduced interest on the head and facial features. Remaining at home, concentrating on painting and the absolute fidelity to the nude model – all of these were destined to assure her the most important of all: the anesthetization of being. From here on in – painting as music, painting as dance, painting as ideal space wherein culture replaces nature, and space is a broad, wide open expanse, as in…the lovely large house from her childhood days.
Expulsion from paradise, twelve-year-old Ziva Elizur’s departure from her Talpiot home: “a beautiful large house… A petit bourgeois home with a European atmosphere” (steeped in Israeli art work and in piano music played by her mother), “a large yard and a perfect neighborhood in which to live, with a group of children of all ages and freedom to do whatever we pleased…” Until the War of Independence broke out in 1948: “My childhood ended. …we were forced to vacate our big, beautiful house, and we became refugees.” The smaller apartment in Rehavia, her father’s being wounded and his subsequent death (due to cancer) during the siege of Jerusalem, her older brother’s departure from home, her mother’s need to find a job to support the family. All these were tantamount to expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Was Ziva Sivan’s painting an attempt to go back to her childhood home? She returned to lived in the old house in Talpiot. Did her entrenchment in her studio within her home, surrounded by a loving family and a husband who prepared her canvases, did all these ensure her that pleasant womb of the first twelve years of her life?
In 1953, at the age of seventeen, Sivan began studying at the New Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem. In addition to her major focus on graphic design, she studied drawing, mostly portraits, with Isidore Ascheim and painting, primarily watercolor, with Shlomo Vitkin. Although she painted very few oil paintings while a student (“I believe that in Bezalel I did only one single oil painting. That is really very little.”), she gained solid foundations from both of her teachers, a fact that is well proven in her paintings immediately following her years at Bezalel from the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties.
First of all, there were the Bezalel exercises – the admirable, even virtuoso charcoal portraits of simple folks and unfortunates and images of fair young girls. Here can be found the root of the schism that will determine her artistic future: the choice between a world inhabited by proletarian images characterized by suffering and conflict or by images of young women, representing a world of beauty and tranquility. Her early scenic paintings signal melancholy, an absence of human presence, perhaps even angst. Was it a sign of things to come?
At that time Ziva Sivan had not decided between these two worlds. Her range of subjects during that period was broad–urban and rural scenes, figures, still life, nudes, a cellist… the compositions are solid and stable, filling the entire canvas; the spatial organization is ordered and balanced. At first glance her student works recall the works of her teacher Ascheim, but mainly it is the static figurative style of the young Vitkin that prevails, his use of color that merges cool, bluish shades with warm red and orange shades, and the skillful application of paint with a combination of brush and palette knife.
The proletarian themes that pervaded her paintings – poor women sitting on their doorsteps, women doing laundry, slums, a still life of a primitive kerosene cooking stove or a pair of work boots – can be linked to Vitkin’s early works and to the social realism that was characteristic of Bezalel in the nineteen-fifties. But even in this early period of her career, beauty was one clear value that she did not forego. There is a painting of four female nudes: they fill the canvas from end to end as a single subject or as a duplication of the model. Their positions are frozen; they are always women of beauty. Without an iota of sexual provocation, they are steeped in tranquility and charm, a clear contrast to the worrisome (social realist) scenes out there. The seed had been sown.
Long years of specialization in graphic design gave root to an elegance of image. In 1983 she ceased worked as a graphic designer and devoted herself entirely to painting in the spacious studio that was built in the basement of her home in Jerusalem. Throughout the nineteen-seventies even before that turning point, she continued to sketch in the old studio with the permanent group of artists that met at her home with a long-term model. While the nude poses are classical, the real subject of these works was the flowing, organic line. One could trace something of the quickness of hand of Yossi Stern (who taught her illustration at the New Bezalel and whose influence will be discovered in some of the nonchalant poses of models), but mainly the amazingly elegant flow of line in the tradition of Matisse in his odalisque sketches and paintings. The ink brush drawings of nudes during the course of the nineteen-seventies show her strong ability to translate the body into a quintessential, swift, musical black descriptive outline, one that is amazingly tender. She gave up shading and facial and anatomical details in favor of an immediate representation of the bodily pose with a confident line that totally lacked hesitation or inhibition. What she achieved was a unified, pure idyllic female form.
With the move from the attic studio to the larger basement space, a new liberated spirit blew into Ziva Sivan’s painting. She adopted a freer expressionism influenced in part by drawings of her partners (mainly from Ruth Levine) in the weekly sketching session. The greatest change seemed due to her experimentation with media that demanded speedy drawing: charcoal, pastel, and acrylic paint, using as her ground large-size pieces of brown cardboard, a hard support-surface that reinforced the very nature of the materials in use. Gradually, abstraction began to invade Ziva Sivan’s figurative compositions.
Color began to overpower the line. While remnants of line still defined bodily dimensions, the painting surface now was filled by expanses of warm colors opposite cool ones. Something happened to the self assured permanence of nudity as the artist maltreated it for more than a decade by attacking from various flanks: here – expressive shattering of both color and line in eruptions à la Oskar Kokoshka, there – color right out of the can and black line dueling with aggressive volleys; here – duplication of the nude figures in color or line and blurring-merging them to the point of a seemingly abstract texture.
The early influence of the tranquility of Henri Matisse was increasingly disturbed. Was it the somewhat grotesque theatricality of Lucy, the model of many costumes? Was it the soft pastel shadowing reinforced by dusky charcoal? Or, was it the growing confrontation between the wildness of color and strokes of lines? Or the shattering of the lines and the brush strokes so that the fluidity was replaced with relative disharmony? Or, was it the growing influence of Abstract Expressionism to the point of a dialogue with such artists as Willem de Kooning of the nineteen-fifties?
Let us not get carried away: as much as Ziva Sivan was enchanted by de Kooning’s brush at the end of the nineteen-eighties, she would never want to direct real violence towards a woman. She would never transform the wife into the whore. She would never allow demons to take over her canvas. By leaving her nudes close to the camp of such Tel Aviv artists as Avinoam Kossovsky, Niza Flanz or Esther Perez-Arad, her elegant approach to the world remained valid even in her new incarnations. Dionysian ecstasy, libido, irrationality – all of these were allowed entry into Ziva Sivan’s temple-studio only as controlled permits for a greater, restrained freedom.
Ziva Sivan was totally aware that her direction in art was not au jour with respect to the language of both contemporary Israeli and international art. The retreat into her studio meant deliberately choosing to forego the race to innovative language out there, and revealing a preference for a different type of innovation. She gave up the tension of constant self-negation. She preferred to emphasize the excitement of diversity and self enrichment.
Ziva Sivan fell critically ill in 1990, and for the next fifteen years her ability to paint was influenced by her illness. At the same time her battle for happiness continued: “Somehow, I couldn’t let that change anything in the course of my life, neither with respect to my husband, nor my work, nor painting, nor people…Sometimes it was quite difficult. I can’t say that it is easy…”
Sivan never stopped creating, not even during her most unbearable days. She continued to paint until the last final two weeks of her life, at times with her last drops of strength. It seemed as if she drew strength from her drawings. It was as though the studio offered her a soothing balm for those pains out there: “I would lie there and tell myself during those difficult moments…suppose that I do something very dramatic or very painful…I came to the studio and no longer experienced that pain.” There were, however, some inevitable changes: first, a gradual transition to drawings in black and white; then, drawings only in white, using thickened paste; at the same time, an increasing occupation with sculpting in clay; and, as the illness progressed and after the surgery in 1997, with large pencil drawings spattered from a distance with the aid of a brush handle extension; and finally, drawings of naked women with transparent grey surfaces produced with charcoal powder, sponges and cloths. The disquiet of the earlier line and dot sketches was now substituted by a softness and caressing touch never before seen in her paintings.
It would appear that during the years of her serious illness, and in light of her body’s betrayal, Sivan began studying the body. On the one hand, the material, concrete painting and sculpture confirmed the physical entity, but on the other, the reduction to delicate and fragile surfaces of black and white indicated bodily dissipation and an expression on an almost ghostly level. With the assimilation of the figures to a point where they have lost their identity, a degree of abstraction was confirmed in which Sivan touched two poles: the quintessence of the body and its disappearance. She now dared as she had never dared before. One even finds musical transparencies as in drawings of a mound of bodies from which only a discerning eye can manage to extract the image of a model from the thicket of lines.
The line-dot drawings replace a former assertiveness with a pale countenance and with what the artist defined as nervousness. The physical distance from the paper represented her distancing herself from her body. The touch became flaccid and lifeless. The apparent weakness in this work does not represent flawed drawing but rather am unconscious expression of her perception of her weakened body, a perception that also conveys a feeling of melancholy. The technique of dotting results in a non-line, and the entire drawing merges presence with nonexistence.
And then the grayish caress. It is as if the dots were crushed to dust, becoming charcoal powder, now smeared with a super softness onto the large sheets of paper. She was still thinking in dimensions of sculpture, but, in truth, she translated the body into light and transparency. It was as if she had come full circle back to her early pen and ink drawings: she had returned to a single image of the nude model, filling the page from end to end with her classical pose. Now, however, the models had been instilled with increased meditation and introspection. The spongy caress from one aspect and their molten illumination from another: both were her way to taking leave delicately from that which had been the source of life. These are the most spiritual of Ziva Sivan’s drawings, and, in them, the nude women partially fade, evaporate as it were.
Ziva Sivan passed away on November 2, 2004. At home.
Dr. Gideon Ofrat
Dr. Gideon Ofrat, is an author, curator and a leading historian of Israeli art. He was curator of the Israel Pavilion of the Biennale of Venice in 1993 and 1995 the author of several books on Israeli art, drama and on philosophy including “100 Years of Art in Israel” (1998) and “The Jewish Derrida” (2000). From 2002 to 2005 he served as art director and chief-curator for “Time for Art,” Center for Israeli Art in Tel Aviv.
[i] All quotes of Ziva Sivan originate from conversations between the artist and her friend and fellow-artist Naomi Morag.