Dora Holzhandler

  • Title: Self Portrait
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Width: 41cm 16 1/8in
  • Height: 54cm 21 1/4in
  • Year of creation: 1990
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Self Portrait

‘The beginning of a picture is very important,’ said the painter Dora Holzhandler, who was born in Paris in 1928, moved with her family to London as a child in 1934 and died in London on 8th October 2015 at the age of eighty-seven. ‘You have to be in quite a meditative state. It’s magical. When I paint something I’ve seen fifty years ago, it’s the same moment recreated. The moment is the truth.’

In her graceful 1990 self-portrait, painted when she was sixty-two, her face has an emphatic, moon-like roundness and beatific radiance. As in many of her pictures, the face is seen at a slight meditative tilt, and the eyes have changed colour to become large almond-shaped pools of ultramarine blue; in the eye on the left, the ‘white’ of the eye is, curiously, of darker hue than the pupil. The viewer may then have a delightfully disorientating sensation – one of being submerged in oceanic depths of heightened blue. The elegant calligraphic directness and simplicity delineating eyebrows and nose is reminiscent of such features in traditional Japanese prints and Modigliani’s paintings too, and the small, pink rosebud mouth similarly echoes the way such forms are depicted in these (for her) inspiring sources. Eyes like aqueous pools; diminutive, petal-like lips conveying a sensuous warmth; the head of tightly coiled dark brown hair imbued with a richly compacted earthiness – each and every part and detail of the painting carries both an elemental and a symbolic, archetypal meaning.

Holzhandler’s countenance here is at once preternaturally still and seemingly empty of distracting thoughts, urgent conjectures and pressing physical sensations. When discussing the nature of her art, what it essentially means and communicates, she would say, quite simply, ‘It’s all in the face.’ In the mid-1950s Dora and her husband George Swinford (they had met as art students at the Anglo-French Art School, London in 1949 and married the following year) had started studying Buddhism together, and in the 1980s she made an especial study of Kabbalah, specifically The Zohar. A countercultural person, well-read in the writings of Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer, she once described herself as ‘a mystic, proud of my Jewish origins’; the ineffable serenity and open-hearted poignancy of her self-portrait conjure up something both of the condition of sublime emptiness, or Nirvana, at the heart of Buddhism, and the luminous state of compassionate understanding at the core of Jewish mysticism – as summed up by these lines from The Zohar: ‘For the masters of the inner wisdom, the features of the face are not those which appear outwardly but those within formed by intense forces… When one looks at the face of such a man, one is moved to love him.’

Around her neck, glint two rows of what appear to be tiny blue-contoured pearls (‘Pearls of Great Price’, mystically-speaking) and green gemstones, their rounded shapes echoing orbic forms in the overall composition. The shimmering chic pink dress or top is spontaneously criss-crossed with fluid green brushstrokes – a design which may recall glowing psychedelic and checkerboard patternings that occur (usually boldly outlined, symmetrically ordered) throughout her work. The swirling purplish-against-emerald-green background has a tempestuous abstract quality like that characterising her often broodingly rich and sombre paintings in gouache.

Echoing the formation of the tight coiffure coils, clusters of innumerable pale violet lilac buds to her right (and our left) appear to be the object of her focus. Holzhandler’s compositions are devoid of the kind of recessive perspective of most western painting since the Renaissance – as such, her work has an imaginative affinity with children’s art, self-taught visionary pictures by the Douanier Rousseau and Alfred Wallis, Persian and Indian miniatures, Japanese woodblock prints, medieval illuminated Jewish manuscripts and the Ecole de Paris modernism of artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall (all artists and areas of art she greatly admired). Both lilacs and the artist’s face and figure here are given equal pictorial prominence, both seen from an at once singular and ubiquitous perspective. Yet the subtle artistry here makes quite clear that the artist is contemplating what is no doubt a vase of flowers set immediately in front of her.

Holzhandler spoke of the supreme importance in art of ‘symbol consciousness… Symbols, like colours, communicate on a cosmic level: a flower, a star, universes and, in the last analysis, the world of microcosmic and molecular levels of consciousness…. Subjects are starting points, but what matters is the actual painting itself and the note that it hits.’ Her self-portrayal is itself permeated and transfigured by the cosmic fragrance and colours of the flowering lilac – both floral and human subjects appear in intimate communion.

In 1962, the leading art critic Eric Newton wrote of her in The Guardian, ‘One knows at once that one is the presence of a temperamental primitive. These are pictures invented by a mother but painted by a child – an amiable but immensely sophisticated child.’ The novelist Edna O’Brien wrote of her paintings of naked lovers embracing, mothers and children in gardens, solitary rabbis meditating (the latter, such as Rabbi with Roses (1990), often poignantly reminiscent of the figure of her beloved Parisian maternal grandfather, Zaida, who perished in the Holocaust): these ‘possess an ineffable tenderness, they make us recall our childhoods, our roots, and if we have severed from these things, they make us long for them in a palpable way… as an artist she captures the apparent simplicity of life and infuses it with a depth I find eerie.’

The exhibition L’Chaim! To Life! The Jewish Year in the Art of Dora Holzhandler was held at the St. Mungo Musuem of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow in 1984. Her paintings are in the Collections of The Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, The Museum of London and Ben Uri Gallery, London.