Yoram Kaniuk: The Mona Lisa From Hess Street

Renowned photographer Iris Nesher was seeking a cultural icon for a new project. The result of her surprising encounter is an exhibition at the Museum of Israeli Art.

Tomer Ganihar
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Tomer Ganihar

Two years ago author Yoram Kaniuk, who is 82 today, was at the height of a comeback. He had one best-seller after another, a local television mini-series and a well-regarded Hollywood film were produced based on his writings, and he finally received various honors and remunerative literary prizes. Young admirers of his books joined his veteran fans, his tumultuous life story was told to an admiring media, and literature lovers made pilgrimages to visit one of the last great intellectuals of the so-called 1948 generation. Kaniuk was everywhere.

While he seemed pleased, only he knew the sad truth behind this unexpected flourishing after a period during which he had become worn out, as he put it: He was about to write the last book of his life but had gotten stuck. He had no lack of ideas and topics. He thought of writing about the amateur artist he was in his youth, and about his stormy life as an analog to painting. But he did not know how to do it. No words would come. The empty white page terrified him. In the small study in his home in the heart of Tel Aviv, Kaniuk, ill with cancer, exhausted, betrayed by his body, was afraid of the bitterest betrayal of all, the ultimate one: the betrayal of inspiration.

On the other side of the city, in a small studio on Hess Street, internationally renowned photographer Iris Nesher, 45, was facing a serious dilemma. Her last exhibition, “In the Dark Rooms,” for which she created portraits of leading female Israeli authors and poets, was highly successful here and abroad and traveled to many galleries and museums. But with the increasing sense of emptiness that is familiar to every artist after an exhibition, Nesher aspired to embark on a new project, the most ambitious in her career to date. She wanted to bring together all her various fields of interest cinema, sculpture, painting and graphics and to express her most far-fetched artistic talents and aspirations. All she needed was a major cultural icon who would be at the center of this series, and whose authoritative image would embody her themes. Someone whose name and work would be strong enough to bear the weight of the new initiative. Nesher was at a loss.

A mutual friend of Kaniuk and Nesher, who mistakenly thought that Nesher’s stylized photos were paintings, and was also aware of Kaniuk’s distress, offered to introduce the two. He believed that a profound conversation about painting was likely to help Kaniuk with his literary struggle. The result of the innocent and fortunate mistake is one of the most exciting photography exhibits in recent years, which opened last month at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, aesthetically curated by museum director Meir Aharonson.

The first encounter between the two was fraught and tense, as expected. Nesher was immediately fascinated by the unique figure of the writer and realized she had found the hero of her new project, but Kaniuk was suspicious and too preoccupied with his health to want to star in a difficult and revealing series of photos by an artist who was unfamiliar to him and several generations younger than he. Nesher did not give up, and in the end Kaniuk agreed, barely, to one experimental photograph.

The first photo shoot turned out to be especially difficult: The setting was a steep rocky hill on the sands of Tel Baruch, in north Tel Aviv. Nesher wanted to document Kaniuk making his way on foot up to the summit, with his possessions tossed behind him. It was a cold winter day, the clouds provided wonderful light, and a car brought Kaniuk to the bottom of the steep hill. All that was left was to persuade Kaniuk, who was leaning on a cane, to undertake the difficult climb barefoot. He was too weak to remove his shoes and the project started out on the wrong foot, in both senses.

In the end, minutes before the sunset had extinguished the light, Nesher knelt at the writer’s feet, removed his shoes and socks by herself, and Kaniuk began the climb. Soon Nesher succeeded in recording with the camera what is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of staged photography. After seeing the photographed material later at home, Kaniuk was also moved by the picture, and the way to collaboration between the two artists was paved.

As the personal relationship between them progressed, and Nesher heard of Kaniuk’s literary problems, she had an unusual idea: Together with Kaniuk she would photograph a series of jackets for a new book that had not been written and might never be written. When the surprised author gave the green light to the strange project, Nesher began to organize the complicated production which, she hoped, would extricate Kaniuk from the crisis and at the same time provide her with a starting point for her longed-for photographic series.

And so the two embarked on a prolonged physical and spiritual journey, full of upheavals and insights, whose artistic outcome, as mentioned, is fascinating. Nesher managed to dismantle the myth of the tortured sabra, whom Kaniuk has embodied with great success for many years, and to reconstruct it but this time in her own image.

New realms of insight

Afternoon, a few weeks ago, in the burning hot Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv. In her new studio on the third floor of an old building that is used mainly for artists’ residences, Iris Nesher can breathe easy for the first time in a long time. A few minutes beforehand, a team of museum workers had left with dozens of huge framed pictures on their way to Ramat Gan. The spacious studio is now almost empty of art and is gleaming white. Nesher is excited about the show, but relaxed enough to tell me the entire story of her journey, a story that ends with a dramatic and joyful plot reversal.

How was the first session with your hero conducted?

“Yoram Kaniuk had just finished writing the book ‘1948.’ He was very ill and wanted to write a reflective book about his life that would not be autobiographical like ‘1948,’ and to make use of his identity as an artist. A mutual friend showed him a previous book of mine; Kaniuk liked it and a meeting was arranged. I think he didn’t remember himself as a painter very well, and the meeting with an artist engaged in the plastic arts, who sees the world through visual images, served him as an associative springboard. I think that photography comes from a mute place of visual images, whereas literature comes from a blind world. A writer describes an inner world and I photograph an inner world, and here the connection began.”

How did you get the idea of photographing the jackets for an imaginary and nonexistent book?

“Because I’m very interested in the two-way relationship between the plastic arts and written art, which began with ‘In the Dark Rooms.’ We started to talk, and then came up with the crazy idea that I would photograph a jacket for a nonexistent book. In effect to start from the end, from the binding, before the book was even written. The idea was that the process would serve as an inspiration to both of us, with each of us bringing biographical materials to the work process.

“I’m a big fan of artistic experiments, and I believe in collaboration among artists, especially artists from different disciplines. After all, the process of giving feedback always leads to new insight. Just as Kaniuk wanted to see himself through other eyes, I too see myself through other eyes. We spoke a lot, we started photographing jackets and I discovered that working on each one led me to a sequence of visual, almost cinematic associations. In general I wasn’t sure that a book would come out of it and that the experiment would work, but the intergenerational and interdisciplinary collaboration seemed interesting, and I felt that there was a possibility of an interesting starting point here. And that’s how a two-year series of encounters, of discussions and photographs began.”

Whose life did you record in the project yours or Yoram Kaniuk’s?

“I no longer know. During the course of the work our lives crossed and became entwined in such a way that it’s become difficult to untie the knot. During the course of the photography a lot of strange and moving coincidences took place, which ‘united’ our biographies. I recorded them immediately, but I still can’t explain them.

“For example, when I invited Yoram for the first time for photographs in my previous studio on Hess Street, it turned out that his childhood home had been located in the very same place. He hadn’t visited there for years. He had both difficult and precious memories from there. During the photo sessions, when I staged him in the studio, he called himself ‘The Mona Lisa from Hess Street.’ For me that was the first place where I began to sketch on the ‘map’ of his life, and perhaps the lives of all those living here.

“In another instance, for one of the photos that didn’t include Kaniuk, I brought my regular model, actress Anat Klausner. When I showed him the picture, he was amazed, and claimed that the first thing he had seen when awaking from complicated surgery two years previously were the model’s powerful eyes. A brief investigation revealed that Anat’s father is Prof. Yossi Klausner, the doctor who operated on Kaniuk. Klausner was the first person whom Kaniuk saw when he woke up after a long coma.”

It sounds like a realistic-magical scene taken from Kaniuk’s books.

“True. Kaniuk, as we know, deals extensively with the mingling of fiction and truth in his work, and these are subjects that fascinate me in my work too. It’s simply a more demanding and unique angle of describing and challenging history. And the audience as well.”

Aside from a turbulent period when he lived in New York, which he recorded in his successful book “Life on Sandpaper” Kaniuk has spent most of his adult life in Israel, in Tel Aviv. You, on the other hand, wandered quite a lot among various countries and cities. Kaniuk’s identity is very solid and all his works represent him. Your identity, on the other hand, is far more abstract and fluid. Do you feel like a migrant?

“Yes. I was born in Milan, Italy, where my parents were living because of their work. I returned to Israel to study in the photography track at the WIZO France High School, and after the army I went to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Later I met Avi Nesher there [the film director she married], and with him I went to live and work in Los Angeles. Ten years ago I returned to Israel. Since then I embark on journeys mainly via my photographs.”

In your portraits of women, and in particular your previous series in which you documented leading Israeli female intellectuals such as Ronit Matalon, Yehudit Hendel and Zeruya Shalev, exposed, almost naked, did you try through them to create a local identity for yourself?

“There’s always a diffusion between me, the photographer who is doing the staging, and my subjects. That’s what makes it interesting. I’m always searching, and I learned a lot from my subjects. I approached them with a great deal of respect, and I think that is evident in the final result. But beyond the search for identity, what interests me in that series about women, and in the present series with Kaniuk, is to try to penetrate the subject’s creative space, the secret and intimate area where he creates his art, and to try to decipher that in a photograph. That’s my Holy Grail.”

Is that why you called the series “In the Dark Rooms”?

“Exactly. The darkroom is the wondrous place where the truth floats up in front of you.”

But your truth is not objective. You stage those photographs totally, almost rigidly, you’re the boss, you place your subjects in well planned poses, and in effect you knead their image into a new shape.

“In fact I began my artistic career as a sculptor. I have my own photographic language and my own aesthetic, but it’s only a starting point from which I enter the world of the subject, and then the adventure begins. I don’t know and don’t want to know how it will end and what form it will take. Sometimes it can be frightening, and dark. Those are the rules of the game.”

Creating the ‘monster’

On her work table in the studio, alongside two early sculptures by Nesher, lies an American movie magazine from the 1990s, with the boyish image of actress Drew Barrymore, embracing a gloomy-looking, bizarre doll. It makes me nervous, but Nesher looks at it with great affection and reassures me: “Don’t worry, it’s no longer harmful.”

And what’s its story?

“During my studies in New York I met Avi once again by chance. This time we soon became a regular couple. I moved with him to Los Angeles and continued to study at the California Art Institute, where I also began to sculpt in addition to photography, and began to display my work at exhibitions. During that period Avi started working on a [horror] movie called ‘Doppelganger: The Evil Within.’ It’s a German concept, which refers to another dark figure who exists in the same person. Drew Barrymore starred in the film. Avi was very friendly at the time with director Jim Cameron, and consulted with him about development of the mythological female figure both attractive and threatening who constitutes a kind of alter ego to the heroine.

“Cameron thought it would be a good idea to enlist the help of an artist from outside the conventional cinematic realm, and recommended to Avi that he ask me to be involved in the process of developing the character. I went to work on the character using a technique that later became my regular work technique; I had many heart-to-heart talks with Drew Barrymore, I photographed a lot and as a result the ‘monster’ was created. The film received the prize of the Academy for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for 1992. That was my first encounter with an actress, which led to my starting to photograph female artists.”

Tell me about the first meeting with Avi, your husband. It also involved a strange game of characters and identities, didn’t it?

“It really was an unusual first meeting with my future husband. Avi and I met on a very traumatic day of filming the movie ‘Rage and Glory,’ on location. [Actor] Juliano Mer had been injured in the face by charcoal fragments from a dummy bullet the evening before the big action scene, when the [pre-state underground] Lehi fighters blow up British headquarters. In Israel it was impossible to create cinematic explosions by computerized means, and every explosion was a real one.

“The high school in Neve Tzedek [in Tel Aviv] had been packed with hundreds of kilograms of dynamite in preparation for blowing it up. The film’s producers wanted to make use of the destruction of the school, and it was turned into the set for the British headquarters. It was impossible to convince the contractor to postpone the explosion, so the production looked for a way to film the scene even without Juliano. In the end, the cinematographer David Gurfinkel suggested that Avi, whose physique was similar to Juliano’s, play the character of Eddie the Butcher on that day of filming, from a distance.

“Another problem of the production was the absence of the actress ... who played the role of the aristocratic lover of the Lehi fighter. Here too they looked for a solution for long-range filming and someone told them the actress had a friend who looked very much like her, and that’s how they got to me. Avi and I met on the set, both dressed in 1940s’ clothing, and playing very romantic characters, while the high school was exploding in the background in the middle of Tel Aviv.”

A riddle solved

Back to Kaniuk. This “total” writer always emphasized the Sisyphean side of his life, his difficult struggles throughout the years, and the acute material distress that accompanied them. Even the moments of happiness he recounted in his work and in interviews were always portrayed as “a poor man’s happiness.” That is an appropriate image for the contemplative Israeli artist, the creative person who suffers in the harsh country that is cruel to its artists in “the land of impossible limitations,” as the late poet David Avidan once put it with sharp clarity. But now, via Iris Nesher’s lens, Kaniuk’s harsh story is receiving careful, devoted treatment.

The dozens of photos in the exhibition that are displayed as book jackets for Kaniuk’s life story, and perhaps also as posters for a film about his life, include the figures of clowns, dancers, actors and nude models, who serve as directional signals from the stations and the various paths of the writer’s life. They are all displayed in a rich and photogenic manner. The enchanted circus presented by Kaniuk in “Hemo, King of Jerusalem” is back in town, and this time everyone is invited.

War, Holocaust, back-breaking journeys of identity, dreams, memory and life and death Nesher places a sort of reverse mirror before Kaniuk. To the audience she presents the feminine side of those eternal Kaniukian subjects for the first time. The riddle of Kaniuk, the free individual, with his wild and liberated literary style, who is foreign and indeed almost alien among the writers of the 1948 generation, who are enlisted on behalf of the rebirth of the Jewish nation, is solved in the exhibition.

Meanwhile, before sunset in the cafe on Florentin’s main street, I sit with Iris Nesher at a sidewalk table for a cold coffee and a summary. The opening in the museum is in another two days (the show is on through December 15), and the tension is already evident on her pretty, very fair-skinned face, on which she wears no makeup. I have to ask her something that’s bothering me. In the photos of women in her earlier series, all the subjects, without exception, even the youngest ones, although they are admired artists, are photographed in a withdrawn pose. But Yoram Kaniuk, although he is elderly and exhausted, very ill, scarred from battles and wars, stands in front of the camera and sometimes has a mischievous and courageous look.

How do you explain this disparity?

“It’s true, Kaniuk doesn’t fall apart, he opens up and chooses to share. He generously introduces me to his inner truth. That’s why the name I chose for the entire series is ‘Entry.’ I must note that the women you mentioned from the earlier series don’t fall apart, God forbid, but simply choose another way to share their journey of creativity with me. It’s a circuitous way, not less courageous, but more intimate, feminine.”

And Kaniuk is sharp and wounding.

“Of course. He lived a life on sandpaper. The famous American photographer Sally Mann once said that the essence of photographing people is the dynamic with the subject. He has to give you the photo, you can’t force it on him. And that’s what happened with me and Kaniuk. Since he was an artist, he’s very interested in the plastic arts, and I’m a plastic artist who’s very interested in literature. As artists we make use of strata of creativity that are very close to the surface, because that is what’s accessible to us. I discovered that when I work with other artists, we take one another to more profound places.

“I understood Kaniuk when he told me that it’s hard for him to write about himself because when he remembers things, he sees only the others and not himself. I suffer from a similar problem. I realized that when I photograph someone, I’m in effect photographing myself via someone else’s experience. I can’t get out of my skin and see myself, but I can see myself reflected in the eyes of my partner in the project, while he is also profoundly interested in soul-searching.”

And that leads us to the outstanding photograph in the exhibition, where you are reflected via the camera in Kaniuk’s eyes. Is it Photoshop?

“Not at all, it’s a live photograph, it happened.”

That’s good news. And still, you’re switching to digital photography after many years of using film.

“And not without doubt and hesitation. It happened a few years ago, after I had spent a long and difficult session with subjects, and my camera fell on the floor and was damaged. Only after days of tremendous tension were the rolls developed, and I discovered that the entire session had burned and was destroyed. I can’t allow that to happen again. I have too much responsibility toward my subjects. It happened at the same time that Kaniuk abandoned his mythological typewriter, on which he wrote all his books, and switched to using the computer, and that’s why I shot several still-life pictures of a typewriter for the exhibition. I activated that machine there, as though to say that even if the torch has been passed to digital, the coals are still whispering.”

“Coals” is an understatement.” Glowing sparks would be a more accurate description. Her photos of the imaginary book jackets appear on the museum walls in a circular sequence, from the gloomy dark ones to the blinding white ones. From despair to hope, from old age to forever young, from a loss of inspiration to an eruption of the muse, and so on.

Here everything flows, nothing is stuck anymore. Yoram Kaniuk himself looks strengthened in the museum. He came to see if it was really happening. I caught him smiling. Secretly, almost in a whisper, he reveals a secret: He has already begun his new book, the absolutely last one. And a jacket has even been chosen for it: a picture of him climbing up the hill.

Meanwhile, in the next room, poet Roni Somek is hanging an exhibition of his own of paintings and drawings. Somek, a protege of Kaniuk and the person who lent a line from one of his poems to the title of Kaniuk’s comeback book, “Life on Sandpaper,” confesses with contagious optimism that for the last 40 years Kaniuk has been festively declaring that he is now writing his absolutely last book.

Iris Nesher.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
'Book Jacket 5,' by Iris Nesher

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