Drawings Enfolded Within the Self

Ariel Hirshfeld

from "Landscapes Drawings" catalog.

In Hebrew, the word "drawing" has the same root as the word "impression."  It thus seems that the language itself leads those interested in drawing landscapes or objects to search for something that is embedded far beyond the visible outlines of things. When one considers the Hebrew verb "to draw," one realizes that the action it describes precedes any conscious undertaking; it is not centered on a given reality, but rather on how light and shade imprint themselves upon our consciousness, and on how the forms resonate deep within the soul. The Hebrew language itself thus appears responsible for the first, internal act of abstraction that the landscape undergoes on its way to the page; the practical gaze, which is focused on the details of reality, finds itself groping around in the aftermath of this first act of abstraction.
Michael Kovner does not simply paint Israeli landscapes. He paints within the space of the Hebrew language. The word "drawing" is understood, in his works, as signifying a primal form of contact. Unlike painters in the academic tradition, he does not consider drawing to be a sublime goal in and of itself. He does not view it as a distillation of the classical art of painting to the creation of line – that same mythological line that defines the classical conception of the object, and which identifies the fateful point of contact between "thing" and "no-thing." Kovner belongs to a generation that is deeply familiar with modernism, which continued in part to uphold this mythological conception of line and, in some cases, extended it to define artmaking as a whole. Yet he was born during the twilight of modernism and the twilight of its great beliefs. More than any of his other creative undertakings, his drawings conceive of man as a primal act –   as what comes first and precedes all forms of planning and intentionality. They are close to the body and its processes and to the world and its processes. More than any other form of artmaking that Kovner engages with, his drawings are born of an experience of contact: the contact with the charcoal is akin to contact with the depths of the soul touched by vision.

An attempt to define Kovner's unique artistic vision may benefit from a comparison with the "classical" literary gaze that preceded him in the context of Zionist, Israeli art. Mt. Gilboa as Seen from Ein Harod [p. 56] may be observed in relation to the highly emotional poem written during the 1920s by the poet and pioneer Avraham Shlonski, in which he likens the mountains to camels that have wandered through the desert and that have come to rest on the ground, with their humps reaching up to touch God's heavenly throne.

Shlonski's gaze at the Gilboa Mountains extends beyond the realm of the metaphorical, beyond the sense of religious sublimity that pervades a sacred space. The association of the mountains with camels, moreover, is not merely due to a preoccupation with their animal-like physiognomy. The monumental corporeality of these camels hails back to ancient times, as does the intimation of the divine that pervades them. In Kovner's drawing the mountain fills the entire page, and its rich, dense texture endows it with a monumental presence. This monumental impression is highly compatible with Shlonski's interest in the religious sublime. Yet while Kovner does not attempt to diminish the presence or symbolism of the "biblical" landscape, it is obvious that he communes with it on a level of awareness that precedes the formation of words and symbols. His reaction does not liken the landscape to something else, and does not endow it with meaning that rises up out of collective memory. On the contrary, his gaze involves a state of intense self-exposure and vulnerability vis-à-vis this primeval form, which is present in all of its strangeness. Kovner responds to the landscape by seemingly biting into its entrails and delineating its outlines from within. He responds to the tectonic movements of the earth rather than to its surface, to the waves welling up around the exterior of this entity as well as to those rising up from within its depths.

The desert landscapes of Wadi Zin [plates 50, 53, 55, 56] shed further light on this mode of drawing, which was so powerfully revealed in the image of the Gilboa: the drawing responds to a process of being consumed. A powerful force seems to be gnawing at the surroundings. The ravines and open spaces do not participate in a refined interplay of light and shade, but appear rather as slits torn into the earth. It is fascinating to compare these drawings to the paintings that evolved out of them some time later in the studio, where the desert expanse is transformed into exceptional carpets in which color acquires an almost autonomous entity; a bold interplay of glittering surfaces and movement, of contrasting and complementary relations; a reflection on the desert as a revelation of color that does not concern any specific "thing." In the drawings of the desert, by contrast, all movement has been frozen; what is at stake here is a storm composed of forces that detract from one another's volume, while the space is penetrated by bold, dense lines in various shades of black. Gone is the hedonistic quality of the color. What remains is an intense, vulnerable, penetrating and penetrated form of sensuality.

And yet the comparison with Shlonski also reveals that despite their shared point of departure, Kovner is committed to the non-verbal dimension of drawing, and to the purity of the medium. Drawing a landscape involves a deep commitment towards it. Kovner's gaze does not consume the landscape or transform it into a "view," and does not impose upon it some preconceived notion of the picturesque. Rather, it preserves its vulnerable, abrupt quality. The angle and cropping always capture an experience of surprise. You feel the decisive moment that led the viewer to stop precisely at this point; the moment in which he succumbed to what appeared before him.

Kovner's primal approach to drawing is evidenced by the fact that every local landscape (or "family" of landscapes) elicits in him a different response and different bodily gestures, which are captured in the drawings. The Gilboa Mountains elicited large, intense gestures and bold, dense, thick and continuous lines, which circumscribe large, resonating volumes in a range of black hues. The desert landscapes are made up of internal and external movements of thrusting and penetrating and of polygonal forms, which tend towards geometric abstraction. The landscapes of Jerusalem are characterized by an intense dialogue between geometric forms and chaotic patches of color; a bold, radically expressionist dynamic. And the Jerusalem Mountains are shaped by delicate, undulating, caressing lines that multiply and acquire a filigree-like texture, as if the idea of the terraced mountain slopes penetrated the viewer's consciousness and formed an underlying perceptual pattern. Then there are the sandy beaches and dunes, with their broom and wormwood bushes – large, white stains with a smooth, feathery texture and a child-like delicacy – small fragments of landscape captured with a remarkably intimate gaze.

Kovner's hands thus orchestrate different landscape into entirely different kinds of drawings. Rather than casting an identical gaze at different views, these drawings are based on a radically primal form of contact with the landscape. The ways in which the language of drawing changes from one landscape to the next reveals what a deep level Kovner operates on. It is clear, for instance, that his chromatic language does not change from landscape to landscape; only the palette does. Color is no longer part of a primal process in Kovner's work, and does not form part of a reaction to the authentic landscape. Rather, it is a complex symbolic construction that is much closer to the realm of language. The striking sophistication characteristic of his paintings, the grandiose gestures and colorful, symphonic quality, point to the almost complete independence of his compositions from the unique language that gave rise to each of them. The drawings, by contrast, remain tied to the landscape and bear witness to the experience of being within it.

Kovner's relationship to the "things" he paints, involves no fixed assumptions concerning their objecthood or being. Even the exact same things appear changed from one drawing to the next, and their being is related to in an entirely different manner. Take the houses, for instance: in plate 7, they resemble blind blocks; in plate 9 they form fine, ethereal pencil drawings whose outlines seem insubstantial, while in plates 29–30 the houses appear as perfect, voluminous, ideal entities reminiscent of a child's drawing, and have a satiated, pastoral presence. In plate 41 they are geometric entities blocked by thick, bold clusters of lines, which fill the space with additional barriers that echo the polygonal forms.

The idea of home is thus interpreted in numerous ways in terms of its existence in space. At times it is one component of a conglomerate of lines, while in other instances the lines form a delicate web; at times it appears as a perfect container for life, and in other instances as part of a labyrinth. Or take the pine trees, for instance: plate 10 features a large, weather-beaten tree. Yet it seems that more than the tree itself, the image contains the memory of winters past, of branches moving in the wind, crackling as they break.  In plate 15, which features a tranquil group of pine trees, a large part of the composition is devoted to the voluminous quality of the trees. In plates 18 and 22, and especially in plate 46, the focus is on the tree as a form of movement. Kovner brings to life in these pines some kind of dancing spirit, which moves at different angles into the surrounding space. The trees in these drawings have an almost anthropomorphic quality, yet it is also clear that each one of them captures a very different aspect of the form of being known to us as a "pine tree."

In plate 46, a group of pine trees is contrasted with two cypresses, so that they form a kind of musical counterpoint; the two groups constitute such different worlds in terms of their rhythm, texture, and relationship with the surrounding space, and yet each is endowed with a clear voice. This drawing is a sermon on pines and cypresses; a profound act of listening to the presence of these ancient heroes.

Kovner's drawings bespeak a highly intimate knowledge of the landscape, and contain numerous signs that the artist is not one who is passing through it by chance, only to continue on his way. Momentary viewers cling to what stands out, to picturesque elements, to what appeals to the traveler's memory. Their attention to details is always the same, and is based on the employment of a uniform technique. Kovner, by contrast, wanders the land like one visiting his closest family members, carrying various provisions "To the light and expanse of our father's fields," as Alterman writes in one of his poems. He is not armed with a technique, but rather responds and reacts to his surroundings. The gaze directed at the fish pond in Hamdiya or at the mountains in Gilboa Near Ein-Harod is the gaze of a veteran observer who has studied the land before him as one studies one's own body. Something in the drawn lines follows the contours of an earlier, internal drawing, which is rooted in the artist's very being. Take, for instance, the drawings of sand dunes near Michmoret [plates 35, 37]. Only someone who ran across these dunes as a child can truly understand what is undertaken by Kovner in these images. The smooth cheeks of the softly sloping dunes are already enfolded deep within his mind. The landscape is a revelation of an interior landscape. The one coming from the outside proclaims nothing. He meets what is there.

Kovner's deep connection to the local is not a declaration of ownership, but rather of love. The landscape is experienced as something close and fatherly, which can be touched and must be cared for. The images do not capture a "native" identity that is taken for granted, and which seemingly precedes knowledge and understanding, but rather express the excitement of an individual who is part of a group, and who is offering a slightly more public description or definition of intimate relations that had previously remained concealed. It contains idiosyncratic touches born of a private and secret language, alongside allusions to collective experience – the Gilboa, the sea, the desert, Jerusalem – so that these two language dialogue with one another. Nothing here is taken for granted – neither the "Israeli" character of the landscapes nor its ancient majesty. The "knowledge of the land" in these drawings is profound, yet its expression is both subtle and silent, and has nothing to do with possessing and ruling. It is clear that the artist's life is incomplete without these landscapes, yet it is just as clear that these views rose up towards the one seeing them.