It's a doll's life
Edith Samuel's mysterious dolls are unsettling works of art. Reflections on an exhibition.
There is a profound difference between a work created as ornament or entertainment, and a work that is an act of art. The ornament is meant to be pretty. Its purpose is to delight the senses and add color to the utilitarian; or, as entertainment, to bring about a pleasant feeling of levity or to elicit a tear. A work of art is not meant to be beautiful. It redefines the beautiful, dismantles it in order to say through it something new about human fate. The beauty in art operates like the beauty of the erotic; it disturbs and attracts in order to generate coupling: an encounter with another that will give birth to meaning.
There are works created as art and exhibited as art that are empty and inflated and say nothing; and there are works that are ornament and entertainment that are gems of grace and invention, extraordinarily precious and intriguing. The different types are not bound in a stratified relation, in which outstanding entertainment becomes art, or alternately bad art becomes ornamentation, but rather the two fulfill a different cultural role and are of a completely different essence. Art speaks seriously. Even if it is comic. It truly intends to touch life. To observe life anew. Ornament does not speak seriously. It provides entertainment. It wants no more than money. Perhaps a bit of respect. Art seeks to leave something behind.
There are also works that dress up, art that dresses up as entertainment ("The Threepenny Opera"), or entertainment that dresses up as art (the poems of Nathan Yonathan). There are some who argue that there is no longer any difference between ornament or entertainment and art. They are wrong.
Ella Fitzgerald and Umm Kulthum sang within the realms of entertainment, but their singing created a world of pure art. They both knew this, in the final analysis. Both of these wonderful singers reflect movement, the possibility of flowing between the spheres of art and entertainment, but also the clear difference between them.
Edith Samuel made dolls. I first heard about her in a fascinating talk by Alik Mishori on Israeli folklore dolls. Amid the array of invented sabras there suddenly appeared dolls that were neither folklore nor ingratiating propaganda but portraits of people and children cloaked in sorrow and bewilderment. These were dolls whose very doll essence was part of their complex expressions. They were unforgettable works of art.
There are places where people are aware of the possibility of doll-making being part of the art of sculpture. In interwar Germany, doll-making was clearly in the realm of art. Hans Bellmer is the best known of the German doll makers: His dolls expressed a protest against the ideal of the Nazi human ideal. He fled to France and became a leading member of the Surrealist group. In the period leading up to Israel's establishment, dolls were either for children to play with, or mere bourgeois decorative objects. In the most serious case, they served as an instrument for saccharine Zionist propaganda: dolls of halutzim, the pioneers who came from Europe; of sabras, Yemenite Jews and other concretizations of national redemption. (Such dolls continue to be sold as tourist souvenirs to this day.)
"In August 1939, when I came to Palestine, my world fell apart. I was cut off from everything that was meaningful in my life," Edith Samuel said. "We traveled on a winding road and emerged into a sandy area. I asked whether this was the desert. We stopped and stood across from a stand of cypress and pine trees whose contours reminded me of Beklin's 'Island of the Dead'" (from an article by Dvora Morag and Efi Gan, in the Rishon Letzion exhibition catalog). Anyone familiar with the famous painting by the Swiss artist will understand this associative leap at once. From the little I have seen and read about Samuel, and above all from looking at her portrait in her doll-making workshop, her special presence can be sensed; her fundamental and abysmal loneliness. This does not necessarily stem from the fact that she was an immigrant from Germany (though the "yekke" element makes its mark), but rather from a powerful component of insularity and isolation that was part of her character already in Germany; an apartness associated with a certain tough childishness, combined with a sense of female inferiority, of loss and vulnerability, alienation and pain. Samuel was alone all her life.
For the past few months a number of her works were on display at the municipal art gallery in Rishon Letzion, together with installations by Dvora Morag, many of which refer to Samuel's work and character. Morag was also the curator of this sensitive exhibition, and added fascinating explanations. There were some large dolls (30-50 centimeters high), made in Germany, a scene set in a pre-State well-baby clinic with Jews from many lands, and a few "Israeli" dolls. There were also a few representations of children sculpted in clay and doll parts that remained in her studio at her death. All of Samuel's dolls, even those with mass-manufactured heads, are infused with a spirit of life and expressiveness that divests them of a stagnant doll character and of any decorative or propaganda standardization. But the most moving ones, the perfect representations of her art, are the large dolls brought from Germany - dolls created as portraits of specific children. Their doll essence is infused with a fierce core of individualism, lending them the sad presence of an eternal child, frozen, who has escaped the transient, but also of a person imprisoned within a toy-like existence that mysteriously illuminates their movements. Each doll is a new lesson in the mystery of dollness. These fabric creations are not ornaments and are not marginal; they are among the most interesting works of sculpture in the country.
One of the dolls is a representation of the young Edith Samuel herself. It is a trenchant portrait, an illuminating lesson in the utmost use of a medium: how the very creation of the doll operates on the character. You see the act of silencing inherent in transforming a human being into a sculpture and, no less, the redemption that ensues from observing the "self" from the outside. This doll embodies so much understanding of despair, bewilderment and loneliness, and also much transcendence of all.
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