Human Landscapes - Marjetica Potrc
Edith Spira possesses two cultural heritages: one Jewish, the other Central European. The first forbids images, while the second desires narratives. Sometimes what I see in her paintings, before all else, are two universes of reference; these works appear to be self-generated, in a struggle with contradictions that derive from their dual origin. Two territories of existence drift in mutual relation like tectonic plates under continents – a constant presence, they provide her work with a unique sort of rootedness.
I have had the privilege of watching Edith paint. Her work on a canvas involves a long and repetitive process. With every canvas she starts the process from scratch, and each new attempt is filled with searching for where the next brush stroke will lead her. For every canvas is a reinvention of her life, constructing it, shaping it, singularizing it. Her hand travels across the canvas until, sometimes quite unexpectedly, the painting is finished, when the stories created out of free association reach their natural conclusion. The painting is an existential territory, a habitat. The fertility which emerges from such continuous layering and erasure, in an infinite variety of rhythms, narrates journeys through human landscapes. This ecology includes human subjectivity – the painter’s own life experience, a primeval landscape, and no less important, our own environment – the landscape humans inhabit. It cannot be otherwise. Human life depends on the environment.
Edith developed her storytelling skills through the process that made her the painter she is today, but at the same time she has resisted art styles that too easily reduce paintings to a pure intentional transparency of signs, figures, and easily grasped messages. Her paintings are habitable environments pregnant with human presence, although they do not incorporate a human figure. When I stand in front of one of her works, it draws me in and I dwell in her existential territory. Sometimes the reverse can happen too: recently, for example, I was walking through a landscape of red sand, in central Australia; I knelt down and collected some of the sand for Edith – a gesture which acknowledged the fact that, unconsciously, I had been instantly transported from the desert to the human landscapes of her paintings, through an unintentional memory not unlike what Proust described when he tasted a madeleine. My point is that the landscapes conveyed in her paintings, her unique existential territories, are also universal experiences, which cluster around the eternal story of inhabiting the earth – the ground on which I walk, and the world in which I exist. As Walter Benjamin writes in the essay ‘The Storyteller’: the kind of storytelling that lasts ‘does not aim to convey the pure essence of a thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.’
A few years ago, actual landscapes began to appear in Edith’s work, painted on small canvases. These paintings evoked something more than what I call horizon lines – abstract divides between earth and the sky. Painted in oil, the richly textured surfaces suggested fields, wetlands, and coastlines – one might even say that what was implicit in the earlier large paintings became explicit in these smaller works. I experienced a distinct pleasure in looking at them, and no doubt Edith did too. An intimate landscape that hinted at the melancholic atmosphere of Burgerland’s lakes stirred in me an emotional reaction not unlike what I experience when I am drawn into and dwell in the large works. Surprisingly, however, this time the paintings allowed themselves to be viewed from an external perspective, in a detached glance, the way an afterthought confirms the main statement by approaching it from a different angle. These human landscapes, I thought, perhaps brought a certain peace to the painter, in tacit agreement with the intensive, habitable environments and existential territories of the large paintings she is best known for.
The final point I wish to make is that, because her paintings are respectful of life on earth and insist on singularity, on the singular production of existence, they call to mind today’s struggles against the globalizing instinct to envelop the world in cultural homogenization. For me, the essential value of Edith’s work lies in her humanistic and profoundly ethical approach to the tradition of telling through a personal story the universal experience of inhabiting the earth and the world – sincerely, passionately and without reservation. Her work celebrates a unique life, one that acknowledges the fundamental coexistence of personal landscapes and habitable environments and draws on the productive tension between Jewish and Central European cultural heritages. At the same time, it affirms the richness of cultural difference as opposed to homogenization.
Marjetica Potrč, 2019