The Black Hole That Was Jacques Katmor

All but forgotten today, in the 1970s, multidisciplinary artist Jacques Katmor - the subject of a new exhibition in Tel Aviv - was a huge repository of talent, energy and charisma. His is the tale of a genius unfulfilled.

They called him "the guru," "the wizard," "the hypnotist" and "the black prophet." Wherever he went, artist Jacques Mory Katmor had a long train of followers in his wake - women and men, who simultaneously idolized him and recoiled from him. They worshiped the total artist in him, but were also a little afraid of him. They truly loved him, but understood that the burning fire in him could wind up consuming them too.

He was a tall intellectual, with long black hair, a meticulously kempt beard, and gleaming black eyes that had a penetrating glance. His boots and eternal lightweight black jacket lent him an almost dandified look. His French accent completed the image of a hip Parisian youth, who floated around Tel Aviv's streets of the 1960s and stubbornly sought freedom and free love in the very heart of Labor Zionist conservatism.

Katmor, who died in September 2001, was an unusual multidisciplinary artist for his era. A new exhibition at the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art, in Tel Aviv, opening January 13 (see box ), sheds light on this aspect of his life.

Halit Yeshurun, the star of one of Jacques Katmor's films.The Jacques Mory Katmor Archive

Some still remember Katmor for "Mikreh Isha," his avant-garde film from 1969, which was remarkable for Israeli cinema of those days. And some remember him as the leader of the group of Tel Aviv artists known as the Third Eye, who created installations, films and exhibitions that were quite often provocative and contained direct references to sex and drug use.

"Jacques has been forgotten. People here forgot him, and there is no doubt that he failed to receive the recognition he deserved as an artist," says Ori Drumer who curated the new show, entitled "The Third Eye: Jacques Katmor Is Wishing You a Good Death."

"He was an unusual filmmaker, one of the leading ones active in the country in that era. He provided Israeli cinema with a different voice and other images. His otherness, his difference in the Israel of those years was dramatic, and because of this they didn't know how to read him. He came from other schools of thought, which the local art world dismissed. He offended a lot of people, exposed the conservatism of the art world in that period, and was ahead of his time in certain respects. Only now, 40 years later, is there suddenly room for these things," Drumer explains.

Love and death

Jacques Mory was born in Cairo in 1938 to a wealthy Jewish family. His father worked in real estate and owned a tile factory. Mory attended a Jesuit school, was well versed in Christianity and, like most of the city's Jews, was exposed primarily to European culture, and was not fluent in Arabic.

At the age of 19 he went to Switzerland to study art; thereafter he spent about a year in Paris, where he visited exhibitions, tried his hand at drawing, saw films, and read literature, poetry and philosophy.

An Image from the film 'Siman.'The Jacques Mory Katmor Archive

In 1960 he moved to Israel, learned Hebrew, and then completed full military service, in the Artillery Corps. The director and film scholar Yigal Burstein, who served with him in the army, says their acquaintance began with preparations for the 1963 military parade in Haifa, when the two of them engaged in loud and raucous recitation of French and Polish poetry while greasing gun barrels.

"Jacques had loads of charisma. He was a painter and would draw compulsively, in a style that was reminiscent of Matisse," Burstein recalls. "He had a wonderful library, he was knowledgeable, and in any given situation - battalion training, guard duty - he would draw and read. I remember he read books by Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade, who nobody had even heard of in Israel then. He had a terrific sense of humor. He was very educated, intelligent, impressive, and would captivate people with his charm. Both of us were new immigrants, we were slightly outsiders, and wanted to be much more involved than we were."

After army service, Mory and Burstein shared a rented apartment in Tel Aviv. "I never met a person so successful with women as my friend," Burstein writes in the exhibition catalog. "Along with some of the most beautiful women in Tel Aviv, his bed also hosted a Yemenite master sergeant from Bahad 12 [women's boot camp], a bank teller with graying hair, a stoned Swedish tourist, a bus conductor, teachers, students - Jacques claimed that he loved them all regardless of age, occupation, ethnic origin or appearance. He loved women in principle, purely for being women. His successes gave him courage: He would go up to them on the street, after a brief conversation they would already consent to go with him to a coffee shop, he'd draw their portraits on a napkin, toward evening I would meet them in our room and discreetly withdraw to a movie. I never learned so much about film as during the time I lived with Jacques."

Mory soon integrated into bohemian circles. In 1963 he married Halit Yeshurun, daughter of the poet Avot Yeshurun, who was a stunning model in those days. It was her father who suggested that he change his last name to a Hebrew one, and proposed Katmor, a play on the French words quatre and morts (i.e., four deaths ).

He painted and drew profusely, mainly female nudes, showed his work in several shows in the 1960s, and for a brief period was part of the 10 Plus group of painters.

"I paint women and describe erotic situations in my paintings for one reason: The forms and lines that come into being when two bodies connect are wonderful," Katmor said in a 1964 press interview.

An image from the film 'From Venus to Marilyn Monroe.'The Jacques Mory Katmor Archive

"The erotic atmosphere is a minor matter, and the woman, as a means in the painting, is random. There is no erotic atmosphere in my paintings. Whoever insists on finding it there - be my guest. I like the cold beauty in nudity, which is close to perfection. Any beauty that is close to perfection is cold, because in wholeness there is no room for humanity."

These statements are very pertinent to "Mikreh Isha." Katmor had no cinematic experience, but after becoming acquainted with the cinematographer Amnon Salomon in 1965, and meeting the young stills photographer Tzachi Ostrovsky, Katmor decided to embellish a plan he had for an exhibition of his paintings.

"He was planning at the time to mount an exhibition of paintings that would deal with the theme Eros and Thanatos [love and death]," recounts Ostrovsky, "and after we met he decided to combine his paintings with photos of mine and a short film. It was an advanced idea for its time. For a year and a half the three of us met nearly every Shabbat and holiday to film. Solomon was working then as a photographer at Geva Studios. Every Friday he would take the camera from there without anyone noticing, and every Saturday evening he would take a taxi back to Geva, quietly return the camera - as if nothing had happened."

Together with volunteers from among Katmor's fans, the trio shot the film in his apartment on Dizengoff Street.

Ostrovsky: "He moved all the furniture to the roof, took all the pictures off the walls, and painted all the walls black and white, and the house became a sort of studio for months on end. We shot all sorts of things that visualized disintegration of the female body, such as white paint peeling off skin and shooting through foggy plastic sheeting that makes the figure blurry. Plastic sheeting and wires were stars in this film.

"Things that we filmed could have been considered erotic. We filmed Helit and other beautiful girls whom Jacques picked up around town and persuaded to be filmed, nude or almost nude. One day we filmed a Scandinavian girl in a big glass aquarium, with close-ups and smoke, and another day he spread around the room mirrors of different sizes and at different angles and placed three naked girls in the center. They lay in all kinds of positions, moved about, and the mirrors created an infinite reflection of the figures."

They were in the editing room when actor-director Uri Zohar passed by and convinced Katmor to turn the material into a movie. Zohar helped him find funding for it and Katmor and Salomon sat down and wrote a screenplay - a frame story into which they could incorporate the materials that they had shot.

The vague narrative described an encounter between an advertising executive (Yossi Spector ) and a model (Helit Yeshurun ), who pass a day and a night together in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; it focuses on masculine aggression versus feminine fragility and transient beauty.

"If we ignore a few superfluous artistic pretensions in the film, the images in it are amazing," Burstein says. "The sight of the body wrapped in cloth that rolls down the corridor, for example, is one of the most powerful images ever made in Israeli cinema."

A bad trip

The marriage of the director and his leading lady did not survive. Katmor fell in love with another model, Ann Tochmeyer, left Yeshurun and moved in with his new lover.

"If Halit represented the art establishment - her father was an important poet after all - Ann represented the bohemians," says Katmor's sister-in-law, Doris Mory, who lives in Paris. "She wanted to lead a special life, not ordinary, and the door to their apartment was always open. Something like 30 people a day would come there, listen to music together, stay until late. Jacques' troubled period began then."

The couple's apartment became an attraction for Tel Aviv's artists, musicians, actors and artist-wannabes; it was filled with the aroma of light drugs, dreams of free sex, and the vibe of flower children and the counter-culture. The music of Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues and the Grateful Dead played in the background, the books of Timothy Leary provoked spirited debate, and a creative ambience hovered in the air.

Katmor was the ringleader, the moving spirit and the glue that held these people together, and under his stewardship a variety of art projects were launched.

"We did all sorts of installations," actress Yael Aviv recounts. "I remember that we set up an exhibition in a supermarket, 'Bringing Art to the Street' - we took paintings and sculptures, set them up inside the supermarket, and hung nude paintings above the meat section. We shattered the conservatism, the basic Israeli value system of that era, and we experimented with other worlds."

Aviv rejects the word "commune" that many used to describe the group, which would later come to be known as the Third Eye, after a record and bookstore she opened on Dizengoff Street (which the police shut down a month later - the official reason was its lack of permits; the unofficial reason was drug use ). "It was more of a cultural salon," she says.

"Sometimes we would sleep over for three days at Jacques and Ann's house, and then move on to somebody else's. We were outsiders, most of us not native-born Israelis, and we didn't carry the Zionist ethos on our shoulders. It was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but we did a lot of talking. Especially Jacques. He would slaughter all the sacred cows and take on the establishment and bourgeois society."

At a certain point Katmor met several times with writer Yoram Kaniuk and they contemplated making a film together, based on materials that later went into the making of Kaniuk's book "The Last Jew."

"He wanted to make a grandiose film, avant-garde," Kaniuk says. "I wrote ideas for scenes, and he pulled in the direction of hell, wanted to paint hell. He was a dark person inside. He wanted to stir up a revolution here, was a megalomaniac. He wanted to lay down some foundation of modernism in Israel, saw around him people who were very square, and wanted to generate a revolution in consciousness. What this consciousness was precisely, I didn't really understand, but he was a madman who wanted to change the world.

The open and outspoken drug use of the Third Eye gang was in defiance of the bourgeoisie and of established art, as well as a means to artistic liberation.

"We talked a lot, dropped acid, smoked pot," Tochmeyer told an interviewer from the Yedioth Tel Aviv paper, in 2001. "The drugs were an important part of the ideology. They were meant to open up awareness, to help people be artists."

Burstein, who was still friends with Katmor but observed the group from the sidelines, had a different take: "I had a hard time with the groupies and the drugs. Jacques became addicted and gave himself over to it. That was the beginning of his end as an artist. It is easier to take drugs than to paint and make films, and he chose the easy way."

During that period, however, Katmor continued to paint and also made several experimental films with Salomon. In 1973 he made "Habor" ("The Pit" ), in which he depicted a ritual self-burial. Katmor shot the film under the influence of LSD, and the ramifications of this were evidently devastating.

"He experienced it like crazy, and apparently this powerful experience of a man being buried shifted some of the furniture in his head," says Eli Gross, a photographer who befriended the Katmors later in Amsterdam. "In the wake of that he went through a very tough period, and Ann was the one who suffered from it in particular. He really lost it, took everything out on her. One day she told me he even came after her with a knife."

After the Yom Kippur War, the police repeatedly arrested members of Katmor's circle for suspected drug abuse. Many wound up leaving the country. The Katmors moved to Canada, where Jacques fell into a serious mental crisis, to the point of attempting suicide; his brother came from Paris to take care of him. Ann went to the United States for a while, Jacques was dispatched on a voyage of recovery to the Far East, and the couple eventually met up in Paris. In 1975 they set their sights on Amsterdam.

Amsterdam in the 1970s offered government funding for artists, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, legal drugs and sexual liberation. The Katmors rented a houseboat on one of the canals, and soon resumed being a destination for "pilgrims" - this time, local artists, Israelis residing in the city and others.

Lost energy

Together with Salomon, Katmor shot "The Fool," a film that documented Amsterdam's annual International Festival of Fools, began making holograms using color transparencies, and continued his obsessive drawing of abstract shapes, nudes and female sexual organs.

In the early 1980s the Katmors moved into a squat, together with the artist Buki Greenberg. "We lived there together as a family, a threesome," he says today.

The trio did large amounts of drugs. At the time Katmor was taken with erotic postcards that were popular at the start of the century, and began to create such postcards himself.

"The three of us would go to a bar," Greenberg recounts. "Jacques would mark out some young girl, go up and persuade her to come to his place to pose for artistic photos. Ann and I would stay at the bar, and he would take the girls home. Soon the clothes were off, all sorts of objects were added for the shoot, and usually, of course, it would also end in sex."

Ann, for her part, put her liberated sexual approach to use in making a living. She worked in a club in Amsterdam's red-light district as a stripper and performer.

"Ann saw herself as someone who was meant to advance the subject of love on earth," Greenberg says. "She really liked sex and found a place there to display her skills as a sex queen without having to [have intercourse with] clients. It was wonderful as far as she was concerned ... Jacques allowed her to perform there, and she thrived."

At a certain stage the couple moved into permanent quarters and began using hard drugs. "Creative work became less and less important in Jacques' life," recalls Greenberg, "and his deterioration was tied to the move to heroin and cocaine. He was into nude photography of girls he found on the street - was a kind of guru who managed to attract all sorts of spineless young people to him. He showed perhaps once or twice in galleries that don't count much, stopped making art, and began making jewelry and postcards and buying objects. Suddenly his fields of interest were not creative; he became a passive consumer. He did draw a lot, but didn't do anything new or interesting. Ann told me that he kept saying to her 'I'm finished' and blamed her for it."

Friends from Israel who came to visit tried to get Katmor to return to Israel, but he refused. "Everyone told him to come back, but apparently he was afraid. Scared of his own shadow. Outwardly he was the strong one, the knowing one, the teacher, but inwardly he was afraid that he was washed up, that he had nothing more to sell art-wise. He found a refuge in drugs," Greenberg says.

"Jacques had always had outbreaks, but after he switched to hard drugs these outbreaks bordered on madness. It was no longer pleasant to be in his company," says the artist Dafna Arod, who was Ann Tochmeyer's close friend. "One day I came to their apartment in Amsterdam and the door opened only 30 centimeters, onto a narrow path between piles of all sorts of 'treasures' mingled with trash that reached the ceiling. Everything was filled with books, candlesticks, sculptures, worthless things made of plastic, up to the ceiling, in heaps. Their bed had an uncluttered area, 60 centimeters wide, where a grease-stained sleeping bag was spread out; around it were towers of books that God help you if they fell. When we wanted to sit together, we had to sit on the bed, in a row, with our legs folded, because there was no other place."

Eventually the couple did return to Israel, in 1994, and went into rehab. But Katmor traded his drug addiction for alcohol addiction.

"After they came back, I met both of them at Beit Hasofer," recalls Yoram Kaniuk. "They were living in the home of somebody who was looking after them. I tried to help them. I talked to galleries, I said he had done very original things, new, powerful. I suggested giving him an exhibition or bringing out a book of his works. I also remember that I met him and Ann at a coffee shop and gave them money. I am not among the rich of the city but they were literally hungry for bread, were lost, the living-dead.

"There was no expression on their faces. They were waiting for something to happen to them, a miracle. There was something gray and sad about them. He had always been full of might and rage, and suddenly he had become small and pitiful. Another time ... I saw them walking ahead of me and they looked like two shadows. I remember thinking that I was seeing people being led to their deaths. Shadows that were already dead."

Katmor was diagnosed with dementia, and was hospitalized in the late 1990s. He died in 2001. Tochmeyer died three years later, in Amsterdam.

"Jacques was a man who failed to attain self-fulfillment," says Eli Gross. "He had an immense amount of energy inside him, but as you know, large amounts of energy can also turn into a black hole. He was brimming with wisdom, creativity and knowledge, was a walking encyclopedia and extraordinarily intelligent, but did not manage to become a great artist, a great director, even though he had all the right qualifications. There was a genius in him that was unable to be fulfilled, and that was a great frustration to him."

"I'm a little angry at him, I feel betrayed," Burstein says. "He was the first artist I knew, and he made a crushing impression on me. I started working in film under his influence. He had great promise, both in his conduct and in his work ... He had a wonderful talent for drawing, but that was not enough for him. At a certain stage in his life he became more important than his work, and that was the beginning of the end, because in order to confirm his self-importance he began to surround himself with hedonists and second-rate fans, and with drugs. A lot of drugs. He stopped painting, stopped making films, and started trading in old postcards. He lost his spark, lost his humor, took semi-pornographic pictures of Dutch girls, was pathetic.

"When he came back to Israel, he started working as a railway guard. Ann told me that he would lie for hours in front of the television and do nothing. We got together once, but I preferred to preserve his memory as a strong man. When he was a young reader of Nietzsche, Jacques was greatly enamored of power, of strength. He had a lot of contempt for the weak and for weakness. And in the end he came back here weak, consumed with drugs, sick, and it was very depressing. It would have suited him better to die young, but he loved to live."

Sex, eroticism and Judaism

The exhibition "The Third Eye: Jacques Katmor Is Wishing You a Good Death" will unveil many works of art never before shown to the general public. Among these are works by Katmor - paintings, drawings, sketches - as well as photos that document events staged by the Third Eye group. The curator of the exhibition, artist Ori Drumer, says it will provide a form of restitution: "It will open a window to getting to know the figure of the artist who was forgotten, or deliberately pushed to the margins of cultural memory in Israel, after having in many respects threatened Israel's character."

The show will also focus on foreignness and the quest for identity in Katmor's works, as well as his linkage of the motifs of death, sex and kabbala.

"In the 1960s he was a drawer whose work did not stand out," Drumer says, "but in the early '70s he worked in a different manner to most Israelis: He had a different visuality, automatic paintings, he tried to translate interior sensations and sexual vibrations on the page. In Israel sex and eroticism wasn't being dealt with at all in those years."

Katmor was evidently ahead of his time also in his preoccupation with Jewish contexts. "He began to deal with this back in the late 1960s," says Drumer, "and preceded many others in his religious approach."