English texts

The Great Mother in Israeli Art







The second diagram in Erich Neumann's 1954 "The Great Mother" depicts a vessel, a big jar that connects the darkness, the night, the underworld – the unconscious – with heaven through a structure of the archetypal feminine – the mother. Here, the level of the womb equals that of the grave, turning the woman-jar into an urn, whereas her mouth connects and leads through her breath up to the moon. The inside of the vessel, wrote Neumann, is unknown, though "something is 'born' out of it."[1] No less, the archetypal feminine vessel protects and nourishes, but may also swallow, i.e. – devour. Thus,

"The lowest level of this belly zone is the underworld […]. To this world belong not only the subterranean darkness as hell and night but also such symbols as chasm, cave, abyss, valley, depths…"[2]

Because –

"Just as the Great Mother can be terrible as well as good, so the Archetypal Feminine is not only a giver and protector of life but, as container, also holds fast and takes back; she is the goddess of life and death at once."[3] [and we are watching the famous Willendorf Venus from 28,000-25,000 BC]


During the upcoming hour or less I am asking you to join me along a journey through the Great Mothers of Israeli art, avoiding some embarrassing cases of ultra nationalistic expressions, such as this 1948 painting of Mane Katz (the famous Jewish painter who worked both in Paris and Haifa), representing the Great National Mother nourishing her dead children, victims of 1948 War of Independence.


Let me though open with a short reminder from the sphere of Israeli poetry, illustrating it by two Israei paintings, one of a semi-abstract pregnant Earth (Ori Reisman's work from 1970) and another of the mythic Earth being both a grave and an existential space of pregnancy (see the woman) and even of a motherly cow (Avraham Offek's work from 1989):


Already in Hebrew poetry of the mid 1920's, the pioneers era, the land was repeatedly depicted in mythological terms as both Mother Earth – the one that gives birth and life – and as a deadly mother who demands the sacrifice of her sons, the pioneers. In Abraham Shlonsky's famous 1925 "Gilboa Poems", a radical case of Oedipal complex [if one may mention such a Freudian term in the context of a Jungian/Neumannian conference] characterizes the relationships between the son and his Mother-Earth:

"And thus my bare foot convulsively moves with joy on the warm clods of Tamuz Summer/ like the naughty younger child playing on his mother's knees."[4]

This is the dead mother, the dry soil of the hot summer with whom the son wishes to erotically unite:

"Mummy! Mummy! Tickle me!/ grow unto me your wild nails/ so that my flesh will be profaned by your clods and fertility."

The pioneer-son, almost a necrophilia case, wishes to suck his dead mother's breast:

"Here I fel upside down and my thirsty lips sucked your tits' nipples."


The same year, 1925, another great Hebrew poet of the pioneering era, Uri Zvi Greenberg, confirmed one more necrophilia case of Oedipal unity, this time – an engagement ceremony between the son and his dead Mother-Earth. In his "A great Fear and a Moon" poems Greenberg described Zion's soil as a woman carrying a fetus in her womb. This is a decaying rotten mother, whose rot infects the son as well…


Life and death, fertility and decay, giving birth and drinking the son's blood – such is the duality of the land (in Hebrew: "Moledet" – one who gives birth). Only by satisfying the mythological earth with human sacrifice will rain come down to fertilize the soil, infusing it with new life.


Turning from Hebrew poetry to Israeli art, let us begin with Igal Tumarkin's Jars-woman, a large ceramic work, the exact date of which is unknown, probably from circa 2000. This huge figure, a super-multi-container, the ultimate pregnancy, is the vessel for life-water or deadly blood: without a head (i.e. – without intellect and consciousness), she is the symbolic bodily essence of life and death. This is no surprise for those who have followed Tumarkin's artistic development. Surely they remember his "Take Me Under Your Wing, a welded steel sculpture from 1966, in which the protecting mother (originally an indirect figure from Ch.N.Bialik's 1905 poem) is also the one from the womb of whom rifles are aimed at the viewer, the artist himself before all others. Tumarkin's love-hate relationships with his mother, Bertha, are well known[5], but we shall not get drifted to Freudian terms, God forbids, or shall we say goddess… still, we shall mention Tumarkin's sculpture from 1984-1986, "From Fat Bertha to Red Rosa", a most aggressive direct attack against a two-dimensional big woman-figure, "Fat Bertha" being both a 1st World-War cannon and the artist's mother name…


Accordingly, an examination of Tumarkin's characterization of women in his art will prove how dangerous and cruel such figures are, as much as being the object of the artist's aggression. See his 1968 counter-attacks against the feminine in such works as "The Butchers' Madona" or "Lilith". At the same time, what would prove our Neumannian claim more than Tumarkin's 1994 "Isis" – a personal rearrangement of the Egyptian mythological motherly goddess, to the head of whom Tumarkin added a chicken corpse, symbolizing the nourishing/victimizing archetypal Mother. In case we forgot: Isis, according to Erich Neumann, is the symbolic culmination of the Great Mother, combining the Good Mother, the Terrible Mother and the Anima.


No less, the mythological figure of Astarte, so central to Neumann's thesis, would be detected in Israeli art in several cases, among them Avishai Eyal's 1987 magical painting of "Astra" (Astarte), or Linda Bar-On's recent post-Babylonian quilt-carpet of Astarte. Indeed, archaic Mid-Eastern myths have long nourished the imagery of Israeli art in its long search for self-identity.


Israeli art, already from its "archaic" Zionist roots, has consistently represented a Great Mother that symbolized the national mythic protection, also known as the "Shechina", or Bat-zion (the daughter of Zion). We have met that heavenly "Mother" immediately with the early Zionist congresses, such as in Shlomo Rukhmovsky's c.1903 postcard, or – still in the same year – in Emil Ranzenhoffer's depiction of the earthly erotic feminine figure, a fertility goddess soon to be impregnated by the omnipotent Jewish pioneer. Often, this national mythic Mother would be identified with Rachel, the Biblical matriarch who leads her sons back from the Diaspora to the Promised Land, as in David Polus' 1954 statue at Kibbutz Ramat-Rachel – "Thy Children Shall Come Again to Their Own Border". Indeed, in those early Zionist periods, the Great Mother was still a purely savior figure, the summit of goodness and classical beauty.


But already in early 1920's, at the high time of the so called Third Aliya (the Jewish immigration to Palestine, 1919-1923), The Great Mother began showing its two-fold character. By now, the ultimate feminine adopted the Arab appearance, an expression of the Zionist idealization of the Orient and the local natives during the 1920's. Look at Reuven Rubin's 1923 enormous full-round Arab woman sitting on the ground, holding close to her belly a flower pot – symbol of new life. But do not miss the nearby Arab tomb-stone: death is associated with the figure no less than life. Let us admit though, that Rubin's Arab woman is more a counter-force to death than its conveyor. Still, something about Rubin's Arab woman confirms the Great Round, to use Neumann's concept of the woman as the universe and the primordial darkness.


One thing is for sure: Rubin's Arab woman is an extension of earth, where flowers are planted and the dead are buried. In Rubin's 1923 "Arab Woman with Pestle and Mortar" the pestle in the monumental woman's hand is almost a phallic object near the womb area (which parallels the vessel).


Woman-Earth is Indeed a well known image in Israeli art, a double visual expression of Eros and Thanatos, as in Ori Reisman's 1960's "Women-Mountain", or Michael Gross' "Women-Hills" from the same decade, or Eliahu Gat's and Moshe Hoffman's "Landscape-Women" from the 1970's – all load the barren local nature with pregnancy, all express both personal and collective Oedipal unconsciousness of the erotic character of the Mother-Land.


Soon enough, the symbolic feminine became a goddess in Israeli art: associating womanly figures with ancient Mid-Eastern archeology, more and more Israeli artists – either through a dialogue with the "Canaanite" ideology (a local cultural attempt to reconnect the Israeli culture with ancient Mesopotamian-Egyptian roots) or due to personal cultural vision – all have combined the twofold idea of the vessel with that of the woman-goddess. While Shoshana Heiman' s1946 wood-sculpture of "A Girl" reminded us of a fertility South Pacific idol, Ruth Zarfati's 1950's ceramic vase is already a goddess-vessel, the ritualistic and authoritarian presence of which is as strong as Pinchas Abramovitz's intimidating ceramic vessel from the early 1960's. Even more convincing is Israel Hadany's 1999 wood-sculpture (also a semi-vessel) of "Tiamat", the Babylonian goddess, the same Great Mother who was considered by Erich Neumann as the primordial dark power of the chaos of water.


But archaic motherly goddesses were soon connected in Israeli art with death. Jacob Steinhardt, for example, not only associated Eve, the mother of all mothers, with the snake (woodcut, 1953), but went on to associate the headless woman with ruins (woodcut, 1962). Other Israeli artists connected mothers with death due to heavy personal residues of the Holocaust: In 1963 Mordecai Ardon, whose family was exterminated in the camps, painted "Eve" – a naked feminine archeological figure. The Calculitic ritualistic object was transformed into a heavenly image, immersed in the blue sky under a threatening bloody moon-eclipse. The open mouth of the primordial Mother – Eve – signifies death or at least a painful cry, which might recall another Great Primordial Mother – Sarah –Ardon's work from 1947, who weeps over the dead corpse of her sacrificed son, Isaac, another elegiac expression of the artist who mourned the Shoah victims. Ardon's 1965 "Venus from Beersheba" represent a Calculitic find (4500-3500 BC), indeed from Beersheba, a pregnant ceramic figurine with no head and a hole in the belly – a dead mother, lying under a turbulent sky , unable to assist her little children in the shape of young birds.


The Great Mother of the Shoah victims continued to haunt some Israeli artists during the early 1960's, following Adolf Aichmann's trial. In 1961 Naftali Bezem, who lost his parents at Auschwitz, painted his elegiac "Pièta", depicting once again a headless huge mother, the quintessence of whom are her breasts, holding her dead son on her knees. No doubt, this is not yet Neumann's "Terrible Mother", the dark monster, but rather a Jewish post-Shoah interpretation of the Christian tragic image of the loving mourning mother. Still, the growing association between the figure of the archetypal Mother and death cannot be ignored, especially – as in Bezem another "Pièta", this time from 1963, where the dead son is physically connected with the expiatory rooster, thus symbolizing the son's sacrifice. Compare it with Erez Israeli 2006 kind of "Pièta" video-work, where the allegedly dead artist-son is being mourned by his mother, who picks feathers from all-over his naked body, as if he was the expiatory rooster, a victim of his mother's sacrificing act.


Let me remphasize: the Shoah Great Mothers of Israeli art are obviously not the devouring Mothers. Of course they are not. They are still the goddesses of fertility and protection, even in their state of helplessness. See Bezem's kind of Flora goddess, a painting from 1982, governed by a monumental pregnant Jewish woman, may be an orthodox settler, one more woman-mountain if you want, this time a flourishing mountain though. This woman celebrates the alliance between fertility and the land's soil in the tradition of early Zionist poetry and art.


Another painter, Avraham Offek, had been incessantly treating the mother-figure in his paintings since the 1960's. Starting in 1962 with a red authoritarian semi-goddess, who played the role of a mother in his paintings of that year, later to reappear as a fertility monumental figure holding a bowl of fish, symbol of abundance, Offek went on to endless works where the figure of a cow – the ultimate milk provider – functioned as the man's mate. The cow, also remembered as Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess, who personified the principles of feminine love and motherhood (but also the one who encompasses the underworld and th watery abyss), was Offek's complimentary image for long years, but between 1982-1986 it turned, first into Biblical Sarah who mourns her son (in the shape of a ram's horns) and whose body stems from the altar being herself the sacrifice if not the ram (see her lifted arms in the shape of horns). Adopting this mother image from North-Bulgarian archaic cave-paintings, Offek endowed his feminine figure with the mysterious pre-historic ritualistic contents of the La Damma della Grotta, as the image was coined. Thus, the image of the woman with the upraised arms, as Neumann noted in his book, conveys a religious-magical significance that is connected to caves as well.


Things changed though in Israeli art of the late 1960's and early 1970's, with the rise of a new generation of Enfants Terribles, young angry Sabras – i.e. Israeli born who were revolting against "Holy Cows" and thus did not hesitate to launch a fierce attack also against the Great Mother. By now, Uri Lifshitz painted his violent series called "The Schizophrenics", where a monstrous monumental beast-woman threatened to devour the surrounding devastated/distorted human creatures. In Lifshitz 1967 "The Black Widow" Eros and Thanatos (the "Black Widow" referring also to the deadly spider) are united in a yet another monstrous grotesque figure sitting on a throne. In his 1968 "Woman and Mirror" a parallel black creature reveals her horrible face in the reflection. Remembering Tumarkin's Terrible Women of his 1968 sculptures, we begin to grasp the wider Israeli scope of the phenomenon. Indeed, younger Israeli artists joined the trend by filling their canvases with horrible grotesque ugly and enormous naked women, whose open mouths (expecting a prey) complemented their big breasts and their fat belly-womb, such as Yair Garbuz 1972 figures or Michael Druks' 1969 Willem de Kooning-like aggressive Femmes Fatales.


At times, fertility and death combined to represent the artist's self. Look at Bianca Eshel Gershuni's 1999 ceramic and mixed media vessels, which also function as the self-grave of the artist, whose faded face can be detected at the bottom of the sculpture together with the self-mourning words, a quotation from Reiner Maria Rilke – "… and it might be that the dead ones are not but loners who wish to think of the living ones". Self burial is present as well in Gideon Gechtman's gigantic fiberglass urns from 1989: the "pregnant" containers speak of the artist's death (as do all his works since the 1970's), while provoking the authenticity of the unconscious speech through the ironic (conscious) painted imitation of the urn's marble.


Between 1993-1994, when ceramic artist Lidya Zavatsky created her huge jars, the poisonous materials of which will cause the artist's death, she was making containers that were at once ashes' urns and flower pots, i.e. – death and life vessels. Nowhere such a duality has been more explicit than in Menashe Kadishman's sculptural series of "Birth" from early 1990's. Kadishman's steel cutouts represented a monstrous mother, another spider if you want, at the moment of birth-giving, the very moment when the future victim-son comes to the world and destined to be another sacrificed Isaac in future Israeli wars. Thus, Kadishman's 1990 "Pièta" shows a mother lifting the corpse of her son as if carrying a sacrifice.


But if in Kadishman's works we still perceive a deep sense of tragedy and sorrow over the mother's loss, in Michal Naaman's 1976 works the sacrificed baby maintains a metaphysical and theological curse. Naaman's collage painting, "Jehovah über Alles", cannot but recall the German hymn – "Deutschland über Alles", thus loading our visual experience with the sense of ultimate evil. Naaman's heretical words (as the vocal expression of God's private name is forbidden) are spread over a kind of an altar (a restructured moon-like circle), at the top of which a photograph is glued, the origin of which is Ira Levin's 1967 novel, "Rosemary's Baby", where a baby is sacrificed by a New-Yorkean Satan Sect. A death-sentence awaits for the newly born son. Rightly one would protest that here Satan is not necessarily feminine, while also pointing at the sun image at the background of the photo, the archetypal symbol of the masculine. But what would the protesting spectator say in response to Larry Abramson's 2000 painting of "Lilith", this time, Luna, the moon, the famous Jungian symbol of the feminine?! Lilith, as we know, is the mythic mother of the devils. Or in Abramson's words:

"The moon is associated with womankind and the night, with Lilith, with night seed […] According to the homiletic tales the semen split to the ground impregnates Lilith, who procreates demons and monstrous hybrids. I began with eyes and ended up with large moon. The sense of wasted paintings is tantamount to wasted sperm, I found myself in a cyclic world of life and death."[6]


The more we follow the artistic path of the Israeli Great Mother the more we are inclined to affirm the double double of this archetype in the local art: because alongside with its duality of the Good Mother and the Terrible Mother, we are repeatedly encountering a more frequent duality of the birth-giving mother and the grieving mother, or the dying mother. Here life and death apply to the Great Mother without turning her into a deadly one. Should one therefore speak of a unique Israeli or Jewish or even Christian version of the Great Mother archetype, a kind of a version that is unable to part from the eternally good "Judische Mame" or Madona?


Accordingly, let us glance at aliza Auerbach's 1998 photography project named "Lena": Lena is Aliza's mother who passed away at the age of 93. Shortly beforehand, Aliza took a series of her mother's close-ups, some of which to the degree of abstract fragments. These were largely blown-up and combined with large photos of newly born babies at the very moment of their exit from the womb, next to a third group of large photographs – always in black and white – of caves-openings. Aliza Auerbach, who happens to be married to the present speaker, did not know of Erich Neumann's theory of the Great Mother, but by way of her intuition touched in her Lena series upon her mother in association with life (giving birth), death and cave – Neumann's explicit symbol of the womb, as specified in his above-mentioned diagram.


So, are life and death a twofold face of the beloved and adored Judische mother, or are they the twofold face of Neumann's Good and the Terrible Mother? Eventually, the Hebrew cultural ancient sources may prove Erich Neumann's victory by calling our attention to the characterization of the Daughter of Zion in the book of Ezekiel [visually illustrating that Biblical myth we are projecting two images from Adva Drori's 2013 performance, where she appeared as the blood-red daughter of brown and bloody Earth]:

Baby Zion, so we read in the Bible, grew up to become a pretty young woman: "…Thy breasts are fashioned and thine hair is grown whereas thou wast naked and bare." (Ezekiel, 16, 7)

Then God took her to be his wife:

"Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love, and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yes, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine." (16, 8)

But, alas, now came the time of the young queen's prostituting: long verses tell us of the loose character of the Daughter of Zion, who happily collects lovers all around ("Thou… made thy beauty to be abhorred, and has opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredoms." – 16, 25)

Moreover, a dramatic shift in the Daughter of zion's unstable character reveals her Lilith face, when her wild uncontrolled sex drives are substituted by a Satanic devouring behaviour: the queen, who is by now a mother, slaughters her sons and daughters, sacrificing them to pagan gods:

"…thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, whom thou hast borne unto me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured…" (16, 20)


Indeed a most Terrible Mother, our ancient primordial Mother…


Thousands of years later, in 2005, there came a young leading Israeli artist, Sigalit Landau, who – in her one-woman show at Tel aviv Museum, "The Endless Solution" – projected a video work showing herself floating naked in the Dead Sea in the middle of an enormous spiral of watermelons. The unavoidable association to the womb was integrated with the "wounded" watermelons that infused the environmental image with "blood", which together with the deadliness of the Dead Sea did not leave much room for the Good Motherhood.


Yet, one must admit: contemporary Israeli art of the present millennium   rarely lets the archetype of the Great Mother to appear, either as Good or Terrible. Indeed seldom are the Great Mothers in Israeli art of the last twenty-thirty years. What could be the reason for that? I am not sure if I can answer this question, which might have to do, among other things, with a possible different psyche of the new young generation, not only in Israel. I shall therefore leave the answer to you, the Jungian scholars, and… to the next conference.


[1] Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, Bollingen Series XLVII, Pantheon Books, New-york, 1954, p.39.

[2] Ibis, p.44.

[3] Ibis, p.45.

[4] A free translation by the author.

[5] Gideon Ofrat, "Tumarkin: the Father, the Son and the spirit of Sculpture", in: "Bikurei omanut (Hebrew)", Hakibutz Hameuchad, tel Aviv, 2005, pp.430-447.

[6] Larry Abramson: Eventus Nocturnus", Haifa Museum of Art, 2001, p.107."

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