Heddy Abramowitz
Artist Living in the Eye of the Storm
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102-year-old artist Tova Berlinski ahead of the curve

The Israeli painter Tova Berlinski is one of the remarkable older woman who are finally gaining recognition
Tree in Two Parts,1990 oil on canvas,  dyptich each panel 140 x 80 cm by Tova Berlinski
Tree in Two Parts,1990 oil on canvas, dyptich each panel 140 x 80 cm by Tova Berlinski

Much like a fine wine, Tova Berlinski kept getting better. Too good to ignore, she received recognition at the peak of her productive years. The art world trends have now caught up, recognizing the accomplishments of Older Women Artists.

"Tulip" by Tova Berlinski
Tulip 140 x 83 cm from the 90s by Tova Berlinski

It is the rare Jerusalem art exhibit that gets covered by the New York Times. In this case, the art of Tova Berlinski at Artspace Gallery in the German Colony garnered that attention due to her remarkable artwork paired with her remarkable life. Artspace Gallery has extended the exhibit and now is showing the second part of selected works by centenarian Berlinski.

Born in 1915 in the Polish town where the infamous Auschwitz death camp was later built, she married in 1938, the couple soon moved clandestinely to British Mandate Palestine, she lost nearly all her family to the Nazi extermination machine, and she cheated Hitler by living 102 ripe years full of purpose and productivity, and still going.

Tree in two Parts, oil on canvas by Tova Berlinski
Tree in Two Parts 1990 oil on canvas, diptych, each panel 140 x 80 cm by Tova Berlinski

Her art gained recognition: she showed in many top gallery exhibits in Israel and abroad, was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 1963, had a solo exhibition at the Israel Museum in 1995, and was honored with the Ish Shalom Award for lifetime achievement in 2000. Much of this was accomplished during years when recognition of women in the arts was unusual.

In an appreciation for Part One of the exhibit, artist and art reviewer Anne Sassoon wrote:

Berlinski’s paintings have a youthful quality that she has never lost – a fresh, open outlook and lack of artifice. Her delight in making these works is visible, and communicates itself to the viewer. You can see it in the light brushstrokes that seem to search out the forms that she creates: a handwriting of small gestures that can build up something huge. And because of the bare canvas left between the separate brushstrokes, these big forms – whether a row of cypress trees, a landscape, or the larger than life-size figure of a man – are never heavy, but seem to be made up of air and light.

The works in the second phase of the exhibit are no less captivating. Gallery owner, poet Linda Zisquit, relates that when visiting Berlinski, she found the matching half of Tree in Two Parts in a neighboring room, restoring the work to the artist’s intention.

Self-Portrait by Tova Berlinski
Self-Portrait, 2002, oil on canvas, 91 x 106 (including artist’s frame) by Tova Berlinski

Berlinski’s works feel gutsy and full of verve. Darkness comes and goes, her own self-portrait reveals the emotional bleakness that one could imagine comes from within, sometimes it extends to her black flower paintings, a unique take on an otherwise sweet subject in the hands of others.

This exhibit comes well-timed. It coincides with the crest of a new wave in art circles elsewhere: older women are getting their due. The trend was acknowledged by Berlin-based writer and art advisor Marta Gnyp, when she spoke last April at the Annual Art Historian Conference at the University of Loughborough, England. Citing a number of elements which converge to drive this new surge, Gnyp mentions:

1) the “…market’s big appetite for new, whereby new doesn’t necessary mean young. Collectors, who are the driving force in the current art market, are permanently in search of new artists who will fulfill their expectations of expectations of artistic creativity, deliver high-quality works, and, preferably, gain importance in the history of art. At the same time, they often seek artists who promise growth not only in terms of artistic value but also in price.”

 

2)  “…the story of vindication…. These women were previously unrecognized by an art system favoring men…

Rectifying the inequality and injustice in art history has become a beloved element in museum exhibitions…”

 

3) ”…their personal and emotional narratives. The narratives appeal to the public imagination and help in constructing the artistic identity of the given artist, which is so essential in order to sell in today’s market…. Also…they represent the classic model of art as a calling…. Their life stories are not only romantic and heroic; they also confirm the miracle of art, casting the art world as a place where the impossible can happen and where the reward for hard work can be earned against all odds. Older women artists are the art world’s Cinderellas, preserving its magic and allure.”

Historically, women who could study art and prioritize their creative aspirations were often the daughters or wives of artists, or they turned to convents where they could devote themselves to creativity. Women’s art ambitions typically took a backseat to other pursuits, such as child-rearing, supporting the family, or their productivity followed a different arc with starts and stops around the needs and life cycles of others.

Some women passed on the option of children, for it was considered vital by the art world to be singularly dedicated to one’s art. Men were less encumbered in this way by nature, and male gatekeepers, perhaps, invented this requirement. Some women artists would accommodate to this ideal, others would hide their private lives. Others had late starts, perpetually playing catch-up to fill the gaps from the early years, neither encouraged nor regarded seriously, they remained on the periphery.

Linda Nochlin, the recently deceased art historian, provocatively asked in her landmark 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and in so doing, effectively changed the art world with that question. We are, perhaps, just now seeing the slow response coming to galleries and museums as they acknowledge oversights.

The glass slipper finally fits the swollen, veined feet of these women of advanced age. At last, invited to the ball, these older women who slogged doggedly, are the art world’s new darlings.

Journalist Anna Louie Sussman of Artsy agrees with Gnyp, saying :

As institutions attempt to revise the art-historical canon, passionate dealers and curators see years of promotion come to fruition, and blue-chip galleries search for new artists to represent among those initially overlooked, prices and institutional recognition for artists such as Carol RamaIrma BlankGeta Brătescu, and Herrera have soared…. Given the undeniable high quality of these women’s work, why has it been overlooked for so long? Part of the answer—as in many other parts of the labor market and society at large—is simple sexism. Men have long dominated many facets of the art world, from galleries to museums to criticism.

She continues, noting that vice-president of Galerie Lelong, Mary Sabbatino, finds a ‘silver lining’ for the silver-haired in this discrimination:

Still, those years of relative obscurity often became a source of strength, says Sabbatino, allowing these women artists to hone their vision and sense of self-worth as they continued to produce work without the need for accolades.

Saying this like it’s a good thing, Sabbatino uncannily echoes the satirical rant of the Guerilla Girls, the feminist artist-activists, in their 1988 poster, listing “The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist” (number one: “Working without the pressures of success.”)

The slow-moving art institutions are starting to respond with art opportunities only for the previously-invisible oldies here, here and HuffPost keeps up with an eye out for the new “hotties” here.

The battle is far from over. If, in the office workplace there is a gender gap in salaries in the range or 15-20%, what does one say to a 47.6% difference in prices for works by women artists at auction? Lest one claim it is a difference in reputation or quality, recent research points to a different reason: the perception of maleness itself accounts for higher prices for even invented art.

While Tova Berlinski is far from the stratosphere of prices for international women artists, she is a solid painter whose productive years are drawing to a close and whose accomplishments are ripe for attention. As a childless widow, her still modest art sales bring sustenance, both material and emotional.

Tova Berlinski and Self-portrait at Artspace
Tova Berlinski and Self-portrait at Artspace © 2017 by Heddy Abramowitz

Whatever dynamic is propelling the art world to slide back the designer sunglasses and take a good look at their art, it is gratifying when it happens still within the lives of these women, if barely.

Gratification delayed is still sweet.

Tova Berlinski, A Tribute Exhibit Part 2
Artspace Gallery

HaTsfira St. 5, Gallery: artspace.jerusalem@gmail.com
Closing 19.2.2018, by appointment only.

All images of paintings are courtesy of Artspace Gallery

About the Author
Heddy Abramowitz is a Jerusalem artist. Born in Brooklyn, NY to Holocaust survivors, raised in the southern Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., she shelved her career as an Israeli lawyer in favor of her first love, painting. Some say she is a lawyer in recovery, others just shake their heads. Believing that art communicates when words fail, she reviews Jerusalem art exhibits in English to broaden audiences for art made in this unique city. She also weighs in on whatever is raising her blood pressure in the news. Living many years in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City significantly affected her outlook. Her perspective on living in the Holy Land is a work in progress. Good dark chocolate is her one true vice.
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