A solo exhibition of Jan Rauchwerger, one of the leading Israeli artists, was opened on March 17 at the Zemack Contemporary Art gallery. We have met Jan at his studio.
Video: Lena and Leonid Zeiger
Hello Jan! Thank you for agreeing to be a guest of the Art-in-process project.
Our website is sort of a professional/social club, a platform for informal discussions among artists. At times the discussion is professional, at times it is personal, and at times it is a clash of ideas and perspectives. The title of our project “Art-in-process” encompasses one of the major themes the site deals with – the work process, the artist’s “kitchen”.
Jan, do you manage a catalogue of your works? Do you have an estimate of how many works you have in total?
I have a large body of work, I never counted them. I started photographing my works about 25 years ago. This was a part of a process- knowing what you have done and where you are going. The need to understand this came over the years. I think that only at the age of 45 I started documenting my work, and it was only the oil paintings. I didn’t give much consideration to works on paper, and sketches-because there is no end to it. Apart from that, I don’t attribute much meaning to things that I did in the past, even from yesterday or the day before. I am completely engaged with the new things I am working on. I can look back and see what is better and what is not- I always have criticism- but a new work always takes me forward and its relevance puts whatever I did before aside.
Does it ever happen that you go back to an old work that you haven’t looked at for say two months or two years, and start working on it again?
It can happen. This is one of the basic things of understanding: pretty pictures have already been done in the world, and there is no need for us to make pretty pictures. For me, painting is life, not an industry. There are a lot of museums and warehouses filled with pictures no one sees. It is one big cemetery. I paint because I have a need to do so, and not because I need to produce paintings. I usually don’t go back to a painting and fix it because I don’t think I can re-enter the “vitality” of a painting I did a year ago, two years ago, or even ten years ago, and fix it. A painting is relevant to a certain point in time: both from a technical point of view and from the aspect of the painting’s “pulse”, and it’s a mistake to go back and fix it. Philosophically it is not correct. The examination- what you are doing wrong, or what you need to fix, needs to be done in the new works. One painting doesn’t have much significance for the artist, it is its place in the gamut of the artist’s work- thus he can see in it where he came from and where he is going to.
In our days the definitions of good and bad aren’t so clear, one could say the world is getting complicated due to the abundance of information and sensual stimulations. How do you relate to the subject of current events in art as opposed to the environment?
I see life, and it is hard, there a lot of tough things- my children are in the army, diseases, and friends dying. But when I start working I forget it all. That’s one of the reasons I go to the studio- to forget everything I am exposed to, this is a professional type of work. When we go to the doctor we expect him to be professional and not for him to show us that he had read the newspaper. So why does a painter need to live up to these kind of expectations? He has a life of his own, and his connection with the world and his commitment is to the truth and to the people around him.
When I look at your work with nude models I get a sense of sensuality, or even eroticism. The model is usually an attractive and pleasant looking girl. One can think of a different approach to nudity, say Lucien Freud. My question is regarding your approach to the subject and if eroticism is a conscious element in your work, something you take into consideration, aspire to or try to avoid?
I don’t feel that the works are erotic, and it is also not what I’m looking for. Having said that, the artist never has full control. I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Maybe the recurrence of female images in the paintings creates the feeling of sensuality, but also a still life by Soutine can be very sensual. When I’m working on a portrait I want to go inwards and understand- how does a robe fall on a women’s body, what does it feel, that means, I am also the robe; and also a small ant seeing the world from her spot, and I’m also God-like – I want to understand the world from every angle. An artist’s personality, his warmth, his humanity- this is something you can’t make up, it comes out in the painting even without trying. The more I forget myself in the work process- I am engaged in building the composition, color and space relations- the more my personality is expressed in the painting.
Jan, Portraiture is a significant part of your body of work. When you work with a model or with your family, you manage to capture the person’s personality in an amazing way. Classical examples of artists such as Velsquez, Goya or Rembrandt come to mind, who hold a “psychological” approach to the human figure. Would you say you have a special sense, or intuition for people that comes out in you work?
I don’t see myself as a portraitist or a psychologist, I also don’t put much effort in making the portrait similar to the person, it happens on its own. When I work, it is more the composition and understanding. In the process of working I get to know the personality and sometimes I need to change the composition accordingly. In any case I am not worried about similarity. Today, it is not like in the past, when people commissioned portraits (not that I didn’t do that too) and the artist was committed to preserving it for future generations. Today we have photography that liberates the artists from this commitment. My commitment to a person’s personality, to the character of a landscape, or to the nature of the light is complete. All of these have to be precise. “Sort of” is the death of art, thus everything has to be accurate- then you can reach the hidden layers. That is, they show us something saying “here, this is how this looks”- so you either buy it or you look for a deeper truth. Our eyes see only the outer shell and for most people that’s enough. To me it’s not. At any given point I ask myself “what am I seeing”? and at every stage it is as if gates are opening and I see something new.
When you work on a portrait, are you totally engaged in the visual aspects or do you talk to the person as well?
Of course, while I’m working I talk to whoever is in front of me, but even when I’m working on a landscape or still life, it is actually always a portrait. That is, it’s a complete commitment to understanding what you are seeing. Again- understanding, peeling back as many layers as possible- until I don’t reach a secret I feel that was withheld from me… God says –”here, believe this”, but I won’t, and I search and search until I get to a stage that I feel- here I caught something of this secret.
How much time do you usually dedicate to working on one painting?
Look, when we are young we all want to write great novels, great images- everyone thinks they will write “War and Peace”. A painter needs to do a lot of experimenting- to do short works and long works, to analyze and see where he can open himself and develop further. I didn’t succeed with the great romances. My teacher (Vladimir Weissberg-L.Z) was able to work 150 hours on a painting. I can’t handle that amount. It is not an issue of good or bad, it’s the issue of the artist knowing his character.
Your artistic language is unique and recognizable. As we see it, one of its prominent characteristics is a kind of airiness, if one can term it like that. You create a unique space, while keeping the rules of the 2 dimensional space. Another characteristic is that when working with a model, you often use highly realistic components yet you distort the body and the rules of perspective. Is this an expression of your wish to find common grounds between two different artistic approaches? Do you feel it has a post modern element to it?
I work every day and I am not concerned with a certain style, I just try to make it interesting for me. With every model, every still life or landscape it is as if I am rediscovering the world and the tools I have are supposed to help me understand it. I understand the world through the material I work with, if I’m thinking of say, oils- no oil painting is ever similar to one I did before, from a technical aspect as well. Everything is different, but it is not premeditated. When I start a piece, I choose a frame, I choose the canvas, the ground- that means, it starts from the base. When I choose a paper to sketch on, I will check and see what paper works better for me, which brush I should take, what kind of turpentine. All of these elements are extremely important. But when I start working I forget everything I did in the past. Nothing will stop me in the search for truth, and the fact that my paintings will be recognizable from afar, like a traffic light, does not interest me. I would rather my painting’s speak for themselves and then for people to come up close and see who the painter is. If you have a personality it will be visible in your work, if you don’t it is impossible to make one up and it’s a waste of energy.
You have dedicated many years to teaching…
Look, a teacher is a very serious thing. Today the teacher’s role is different than it used to be. In the past it was teaching a trade, today the professional aspect is less relevant. The teacher, with all his experience, can see from the start where his student can develop. He can help him develop in that way. In this respect the teacher can help shorten the process, can give the right foundation to each student. But he can do so only if the teacher and the student share a mutual trust, something which can’t happen if someone goes to the academy without personal trust and deep liaison. Gaining a teacher’s trust is not a trivial thing, why would a teacher open himself and care about the student’s development- it is a big effort. Not every teacher knows how to analyze the situation and help a young artist, not to pull to his own direction but giving space for the student’s personality. I, for example, see a lot of work by young artists who come to me to talk about their works- at the beginning it’s every 2-3 months, then the gaps get bigger and in the end we meet only at exhibitions. What I’m trying to say is that to graduate from art school is one thing, but to know how to work on your own is a lot harder. While you’re in school you have the teachers attention, they have to pay attention to what you are doing. But when your studies are over, no one is interested in it any more, not even your school mates- everyone wants to succeed and start running in their own direction. This is a pretty critical period. That is why I work with these people, who need to create their own path.
Recurring themes in your work are the house and family, children and the female body (it is interesting we can’t remember seeing a male nude). The general feeling created is very warm and serene, there is no conflict. One may even say there is a lot of emotion and even sensuality in these works. As we see it, mainstream contemporary art has the exact opposite tendencies, and this is a reflection of cultural and social trends of re- examining past ideas and norms. Irony – direct or implied – is a large part of contemporary aesthetics. Aren’t you afraid of being perceived as old fashioned or sentimental, that your artistic language belongs to a different era?
We are the children of certain points in time and in space, we cannot escape it. All these things live inside us; there is no need to struggle to be relevant. I am engaged in looking for artistic truth, what I was talking about before, and I have no pangs of conscience for not talking about current affairs like a newspaper. I have received a lot of criticism for painting models or landscapes in the studio while people are getting killed… look, the sun is shining, and that is for me as current as any event happening in our days. God sees everything from above- the world’s harmony together with suffering and death; he sees this order. We, the people with our petty troubles, can’t see the truth. The artist’s or the poet’s job is to combine the personal view with a wider understanding.
And if we step away from current events on the news to the contemporary art world, say the concept of harmony in contemporary culture?
Look, this doesn’t matter much to me. It never mattered to me what people thought: My teacher’s opinion mattered and two or three artists that I appreciate. I am not here to serve anyone. How many people are moved by my paintings? One? Three? Five? I always check myself, and if too many people like what I am doing it starts to get dangerous. Maybe sblyadnul (Russian slang- L.Z). I am not looking to be loved.
You have used the metaphor of a battlefield when referring to your work process. Is this how you experience it, as a struggle?
In the work process, good things don’t just pop out. The whole surface is at work, if there is a “good” spot, one that says “don’t touch me!”, I immediately eliminate it. That way it won’t bother me to work freely on the entire surface, everything has to work together. Just as we can’t understand God’s mind- that in Japan there is such a disaster, and here it is the way it is- and we, as people try to understand why and what the motives are, but He sees it differently from where He sits. So I, in this case, “build the world”, and nothing should bother me and say” I’m OK”- no, everything moves and everything is in a process together. It is true you lose something but you gain something much larger.
Interview by Lena Zeiger. March 18, 2011, Tel Aviv.
Translation from Hebrew.