Only several years after Abba Kovner’s death did his son, the artist Michael Kovner, turn his creative efforts toward that “mythical, larger-than-life figure.” The new exhibition, "Gazing at Parallel Streams,” is much worth seeing.
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Michael Kovner: reconstruction of a Nazi Aktion in the ghetto
Few of us grew up in a home where their parents were two-legged legends—not just a dominant father or mother but a father or mother whose feats had made them topics of public discourse during their lifetimes, the kind whose names appear in the media regularly and trigger polemics, ignite passionate disputes, and create rivaling camps. For even fewer of us is the legend grounded in feats and events that took place somewhere beyond the mountains of darkness, matters that often sealed fates, leaving the attitude toward the source of the legend (who, not by chance, is a very private father) confusing, hazy, and even impenetrable, either by will or due to fear.
Michael Kovner grew up in such a home. Books have been written and a film produced about his mother, Vitka Kampner-Kovner, a partisan, rebel, and pioneer. His father—a poet, author, and artist, as well as a partisan leader in the Vilna area—is considered one of the main personalities who bestrides the seam between Holocaust and resurrection, uprising and revenge and socialist Zionism, intellectualizing and doing, and the annihilated world and the Zionist dream.
Michael Kovner, born in 1948, was raised in Kibbutz ‘Ein Hahoresh. Only years after Abba Kovner’s death in 1987, however, did he set his creative sights on the mythical, larger-than-life figure of his father.
We proceed to the gallery:
Michael Kovner, “Field at Kibbutz Dvir,” 2017. Photo: uncredited
"Gazing at Parallel Streams” is a provisional summation of Kovner’s intensive efforts after he turned his attention to the legend, the ethos, and the real person whom his father was, and branched from there in sundry ways—authentic, plausible, or fabricated—that flowed from the ghastly, amazing life within which his father had lived and acted. The contentual and thematic watershed that this represented—until then, Michael Kovner was mainly an artist of landscapes, portraits, and interiors, classical themes in painting—was accompanied by the broadening of his range of techniques and media and by a new approach. No longer did he focus on an individual painting, drawing, or series; he now created a fissuring, multi-expressional, and epic structure, quintessentially reminiscent of the complex projects of Roee Rosen, which blend historical images and situations (sometimes even autobiographical) and stretch them into a fictitious, imagined, and surrealistic universe.
As its title promises, the exhibition is based on two streams. Central in the first and more important one is the persona of Ezekiel, a narrative and visual fusion of Abba and Michael Kovner, of the real and invented moments, experiences, anecdotes, dreams and nightmares that accompanied his life or, to be more exact, his two lives. Poems by Abba Kovner are suspended among the paintings in most segments of the exhibition. In one of them, “An Endless Field,” we discover that the duality of the courses that gave the exhibition its title originates in two rivers. “The Vilnia and the Alexander mingle and mix with each other—until the words run out.” Ezekiel-Abba-Kovner spent his entire life around those rivers, the one in Lithuania and the other in Israel’s Sharon region.
Paintings by Michael Kovner, 2009–2011. Photo: uncredited
The dozens of paintings that were chosen among hundreds reveal, as would a movie, intimate moments —such as the elderly father-legend falling at home—in tandem with historical events. The intensity and density of the exhibits urge the visitor to be patient in experiencing the exhibition so that she or he may connect with at least some of its elements, both within the series themselves and among all the series and segments.
Michael Kovner, “Decision: Wittenberg Turns Himself In.” Photo: uncredited
One wall, for example, is devoted one of the most constitutive and traumatic events in the life of Kovner père—the dramatic decision to surrender Yitzhak Wittenberg, commander of the resistance in the Vilna area, to the Nazis in order to save the 20,000 Jews in the ghetto, at least temporarily. Although it was Wittenberg who insisted that he be turned in, the surrender and Kovner’s appointment as his successor pursued Abba for the rest of his life. How does one grasp such a trauma? The combination of sincerity and Brechtian estrangement actually turned it into a show that was performed at the Khan Theatre. A recording of the show is screened at the exhibition and its dramatized photographed fiction is painted. Since the information behind the paintings in “Ezekiel” is truncated and stained no matter what, all that remains for the art, the paintings, and the poem on the wall is to stammer and to flood the viewer with questions, allusions, and maybes.
Michael Kovner, “Ezekiel and the Physiotherapist,” 2009–2011. Photo: uncredited
The father–son relationship is unfurled not only in the fusion of Michael and his father into Ezekiel, the fictional character. As in Maus, Art Spiegelman’s revolutionary graphic novel, Ezekiel-Kovner relays the trauma to his grandson in comics-style squares and in Lego bricks from which, as in the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera’s scandalous work, together they reconstruct an Aktion in the ghetto. The use of Lego to underscore a traumatic moment, as the exhibition curator, Galia BarOr, reminds us in her suspension work, has appeared in Kovner’s works since the Lebanon War.
Dozens of paintings chosen from hundreds, almost all in A4 format, reveal intimate moments as would strips of movie film.
In the adjacent wall, in a triptyich of black-and-white paintings on aluminum surfaces, the son tells his father about a brutal incident that he had attended during the First Intifada. The large works are reminiscent of the wood etching technique that the German-Jewish artists had brought with them, the gloomy gaze at deportation and devastation replaced by the violence of control of the Palestinian people. A wall-to-wall trauma.
Michael Kovner, “Kibbutz Galon Courtyard,” 2014. Photo: Dood Evan
The second stream in the title of the exhibition, “The Kibbutz Courtyard,” actually marks the continuation of the path that Kovner the painter has been following for nearly five decades. Between 2012 and 2017, Kovner used a variety of techniques (oil, acrylic, gouache, wood cuts, and drawings) to produce outdoor landscapes of the courtyards of small kibbutzim. The optimistic and intensively ideological momentum conveyed by the iconic farmyard paintings of Kovner’s first teacher, Yohanan Simon, is supplanted here by melancholy corners that have a pastoral beauty no different from that of many rural settlements. In most of the paintings, there are no people and the structures that are so identified with the kibbutz movement—the water towers, barns, granaries, sheds, and little houses—look like monuments to a steadily vanishing era and world.
Kovner, however, rescues these scenes from their gloom by “rebuilding” the kibbutz. The rectangular canvases that he painted in each kibbutz courtyard merge into a giant painting that allows a colorful, expressive panorama to unfold. Each of the panels stands on its own but the whole hearkens back to the large wall paintings that graced in the dining halls and community centers of the kibbutzim in their heyday, returning to the forefront, in the most concrete way, the question of individual vs. collective in society, community, and culture.
Only in the last hall does the artist revert to the familiar, classical Michael Kovner by turning his gaze to the spacious fields and their brown, yellow, and green ambit of colors, radicalizing the seasons of the year and the light.
Abba Kovner briefs members of the Hagana at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in 1948.
Photo: Frank Scherschel / La’am
“Gazing at Parallel Streams” is a polyphonic exhibition that centers on dialogues. The first dialogue, of course, is between Michael Kovner and his father and also with his son. No less important is the artist’s ongoing dialogue with the curator of the exhibition, Galia BarOr, that was concretized in a slender booklet and, foremost, in the exhibition hall, where BarOr’s insistence on juxtaposing strata, demarches, and works of different styles and contents paved a way through the congestion to one of the most interesting exhibitions offered in Israel in recent years.