“Michali, My Niece”: Excerpts from Conversations with Michal Heiman on Uri Stettner
Shlomit Breuer: In a certain sense, the current exhibition was born haphazardly. You invited me to your studio to see early paintings and drawings by your uncle Uri Stettner, your mother’s brother, that were left to you in 2010 by his late first wife, Etti Stettner Shoklander. It took you four years before you dared to open the dozens of portfolios you had inherited revealing their contents, first to yourself for purposes of classification and research, and then to others. As I was leafing through the works for the first time, I couldn’t but notice the strong affinity between Stettner’s “handwriting” in his early drawings, which you were not familiar with, and your own paintings that you seldom exhibited since the 1990s, and only recently have started to show again. Almost instinctively, I suggested to hold a two-person exhibition of your works.
To what extent Stettner’s painting was a visual part of your life? Are you having a dialogue with him, do you consider him an addressee?
Michal Heiman: He’s an addressee with regard to the values I’ve absorbed from him, directly or indirectly. Uri is certainly part of my visual life. He mailed to us from Paris letters and newspaper cuttings about the exhibitions he participated in already in his youth. I waited impatiently for the little envelopes with small drawings in each of them. Adam Baruch wrote about Uri and held his work in high esteem, and I (as a natural archivist) kept all the clippings that were proudly read by my family and are still in my archive today. I was present in 1975, when he was awarded the prestigious Eugen Kolb Prize by the Tel Aviv Museum. In 1994, his retrospective exhibition, “Paintings,” was held at Mishkan, Museum of Art, in Ein Harod and Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. He also had solo exhibitions, among others, at Gordon Gallery, Sara Levi Gallery, and Chelouche Gallery, and I don’t think I’d missed any of them. Three wonderful abstract oils that Uri had loaned to my parents hung for years on the walls of their living room. My parents gazed at them for hours attempting to elicit something concrete from them. When Uri took back these paintings, after permanently returning from Paris, my father, who was an inventor and sketched all his inventions in our living room, has argued for a long time that he couldn’t create without them.
Although Uri’s works can be found, among others, in the collections of Israel Museum and Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the fact that entire parts of his oeuvre were never shown doesn’t surprise me. He’s not the only artist that, for whatever reasons, the concealed parts of whose work are greater than the exposed ones. It’s here that he enters into my artistic and curatorial practice, which strives, among other things, to illuminate forgotten histories, or injustices.
As for the dialogue between us during his lifetime, it was very special. When I started making art, I studied first photography at Hadassah Academic College and then painting at Hamidrasha School of Art, but at the beginning I exhibited only paintings. All this time, we were adamant to keep our separation. One can say that he allowed me to grow in peace, he liked very much what I did, spoke little, came to my exhibitions; I remember that during my first group exhibition, curated by Raffi Lavie in 1984, I was in New York City, and Uri took it upon himself to represent me there. He told me that painter Leah Nikel approached him at the opening saying “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” to which he answered, “it did indeed.”
S.B.: By revealing a new facet in Stettner’s art, does the current exhibition “liberate” him, in a way, from the preconceived, fixed, or fixated, definitions of “lyrical inwardness,” “melancholic vacuum,” “ascetic poetics,” and “a painter’s painter” that have become associated with him?
M.H.: In 2010, the year I received the inheritance, I completed my Michal Heiman Test (M.H.T.) No. 4 – Experimental Diagnostic of Affinities. The test box was an extension of my research on kinship, inextricable relations, traumas, fits, diagnostic practices, genetic connections, and the relationship between psychoanalysis and art. The test comprised portraits of my extended family, works of art and portraits of persons whose inclusion rested on their relevance to the test’s various categories and the nexus gaze-art. In the box, there were also two portrait photos of Uri, from two periods of his life.
The exhibition in Basis Gallery, which mostly relates to Uri’s and my own early works, deals exactly with the same questions of relations, habitats, traumas, and so on. Affinities do not exist only between human beings and genetic connections are not only about what is known to and acknowledged by family members. You and I won’t be the only ones to determine the “liberation.” Fixating definitions and compliments are partially dictated by the artist himself and, in this respect, we are somewhat “liberated” from Uri himself. Even without the newly found works, Uri’s painterly image was not precise, not at all; from among his known works, one could have selected differently, and this is what I tried to do at Bograshov Gallery. But the possibility to transcend definitions and employ a more layered and “liberated” (from long-time trend-setters in Israeli art – commercial galleries, etc.) procedure is also contingent on the viewers, including artists of the younger generation. Exposing the hitherto unknown facet of Uri’s work, of which we can only show a certain part, may contribute, I believe, to new, wider understanding and awareness of his oeuvre. In the wake of the exhibition, I hope to see further research done on his work, student papers, and his inclusion in other shows.
S.B.: The archive is an intrinsic component of your practice. Its raw materials consist of family albums, bequests, and photos by anonymous photographers. You’re the censor, you decide what enters the archive and what structures its narrative. Is the Stettner bequest – which, in some manner, was “imposed” on you – yet another layer of the archive? Does the inclusion of a “non-anonymous artist,” an artist with whom you lived and grew up, change the archive’s hierarchy and how does a sealed inventory function within a living and constantly renewing archive?
M.H.: I don’t consider Uri’s bequest part of my archive. As far as I’m concerned, it’s detached from the archive also in the way it’s arranged therein. Uri wasn’t an archive man, on the contrary; and I don’t feel a need to appropriate his work to my M.O.s. Whatever I do – a never-done-before classification and exposure – I do out of responsibility for his import as a painter and for my own capabilities as a curator. The decision of his late ex-wife – who didn’t have the energy to take care of it by herself during her lifetime and didn’t want to donate it as is – to bequeath it to me was, I believe, based on her acquaintance with me and with the close relation between Uri and myself. Indeed, it’s a heavy responsibility; and yes, the inheritance was indeed “imposed” on me, in many senses, not least because of its size and its storage and maintenance problems.
I exhibited a segment from his oeuvre (when it was still in Etti’s possession) during his lifetime. In 1995, Ariella Azoulay, then chief curator of Bograshov Gallery in Tel Aviv, invited me to curate an exhibition at Bograshov 2 Gallery; I opted to exhibit Uri’s never-shown-before paintings on newspaper. My aunt had shown me these works, which combine journalism, current affairs, script and painting, when I had exhibited my large portraits on newspaper pages at Ein Harod Museum of Art (1988), wherein I chose not to severe the act of photography from that of the newspaper, which interferes with my work, leaving me unable to protest against its distorted headlines. It should be mentioned that Etti was first to draw my attention to the affinity between our “handwritings” and common themes. I didn’t quite understand it at the time; you see, she was familiar with the materials he hadn’t shown, I wasn’t. Uri followed my curatorial work, curiously and from a distance at first. At exhibition openings, he’d look around and I felt that he trusted me. The same look enables me to keep working with his more comprehensive legacy.
S.B.: The convergence point of the current exhibition is your and Uri’s series of paintings. My occasional struggle to discern what was painted by whom led me to the idea of displaying your works sequentially, both in the catalogue and the exhibition, free of any thematic constraints. But the similarity is not only visual, the themes and contexts of the exhibition are deciphered, in retrospect, as constituting a genealogical continuity. Your series, intertwined and mutually deciphered as they are, your common biography, similar themes – reclining women, the Pietà, the crucifixion, etc. – compositional layouts, self-portraits, the motif of veiling and masking, the image-text synthesis, including your own preoccupation with (individual and collective) identity and heredity, are only some of the sequence’s elements. However, whereas the political dimension of your inventory is pronounced, it seems to me that Stettner shies from direct statements.
M.H.: Continuity, memory, time and enigmatic passages had been studied in the past within biological, genetic contexts, and yet even today one still strives to decipher them. It could be that Uri and I continue at times each other’s “handwriting,” and both of us continue other people. Two women in our family were artists, one – Uri’s grandmother and my great grandmother – was a stained-glass painter in Poland, the other – Uri’s mother and my grandmother, who died prematurely at the age of 46, before I was born – had a wonderful voice.
As to your question, Uri was a political man. His and Etti’s home, of which I loved being a part both as a child and as an adult, was exceptional in its interior design and also very radical politically, filled with defiance, which I’ve internalized. But, as was his wont, he wasn’t affiliated, but rather a consummate individualist, a pacifist, a dynamic, ever-changing, thinking man. He abhorred social patterns. He knew painting, Israeli and international, and obviously refused to be beaten into submission and into a mold, to play into “their” hands, cultivating a healthy humorous paranoia. Uri was easily amazed by things, a storyteller, a fact known to few. He and Etti had a large book and record library, he could whistle entire symphonies from memory. To Shalom Aleichem street in Tel Aviv, where he lived most of his life, a gardener used to come once a week to tend to the neighboring yard, and he and Uri had hours-long debates about Nietzsche. In his home, I heard about Derrida’s first lecture in Paris, and attended political discussions. Unlike most painters, Uri hardly taught. My mother and Uri were both a little sickly, somewhat detached, apprehensive. Nevertheless, they weren’t powerless. Uri had a great relationship with animals and humans and showed a concern for the world, the like of which one seldom sees. In my childhood, I liked very much the story about his prompt release from the army, the story of how he arrived, at the age of 18, to the military reception base with reddish dyed hair holding an easel and paints, stood in the middle of the camp and started to paint it. And this is only a taste of his anarchic spirit.
And yes, he insisted on distancing a lot of things from his painting, and spoke about it. I received my political education from my uncle, who dealt with questions of occupation already before 1967 (in letters he sent to my brother and me from Paris), and surely afterwards. I have learnt about this aspect in his art only in recent years, when I was exposed to his early work, most of which was bequeathed to me. Instead of his familiar self-portraits (in the studio, by the easel), I have discovered some series of humorous anti-war drawings with portraits of the artist as the good soldier Schweik, or Don Quixote, accompanied by straightforward war drawings. Looking at the complex relations between what I saw and knew and my work, I suppose that your curatorial decision to display together our paintings (a decision, I was reluctant to accept at first) will – and already does – produce, in our prolonged cooperation, an opening for new understandings. And I should know it, I’ve been there.
S.B.: Itamar Levi wrote about your work, “In the course of the years, Heiman has displayed photography and painting exhibitions, enactments of projective tests, and video works, but, alongside with the variegated techniques, the hidden core of her work has become increasingly deeper: the gradual structuring of a complex meaning-producing system. Heiman brings together her work and psychoanalysis, draws on clinical research, art history, and political and gender discourse, and simultaneously the works have an autobiographical aspect to them.”
Do you see any meaning in a biographical reading of Stettner’s works?
M.H.: Meaning? Of course. A meaning. Every knowledge/reading might either flatten the deciphering of meanings, or add to it complexity and also convey it to the viewers. In the past, at the time when Uri was active, and during my early years as an artist, the biographical aspect was a (not necessarily articulated) taboo for Israeli artists; the imperative was not to use this aspect, which I didn’t obey to. At the same time, there are places where I choose to suspend it, not to play with it and not to charge with it, even if it can protect me or, at least, illuminate my work. I also try to avoid unnecessary insults and instant deciphering. The question whether Uri eschewed from the biographical side of his life because of the omnipresent interdiction that silently hanged in the air, or opted to actually presence it by means of omission, leaves behind it many materials that are now opened up and unveiled to all with my help. Acts of eschewal gives you, in many senses, the upper hand, but simultaneously might become your main concern. I found Uri’s eschewal impressive, but it might have been interpreted by others as a weakness. Moreover, it was partially veiled and invisible to the outside eye. Thus, the biographical connection between us, which is presented here for the first time, also allows a rereading of his work.
One may ask whether the tens of Madonna and Child paintings, I’ve found in the different portfolios, relate to the fact that Uri was orphaned from his mother at an early age; one may ask whether the fact that Uri and I were brought up by the same woman, my mother Miriam (even though not simultaneously), has anything to do with both our mother and child paintings, with the detached reclining women. My mother raised Uri, a young girl taken out of school to care for her two brothers and father. Almost two decades later, I was born, my mother’s firstborn. I remember both of us, Uri and I, looking at Raphael’s iconic paintings of a mother holding a baby, there is no eye contact between them, the baby reaching out backwards to his mother. A Pietà with no eye contact, both of them are looking at the painter.
Uri called me in public, “Michali, my niece.”