The Mönchehaus Museum Goslar is happy to be the first art institute in Germany to present a solo exhibition of the works of Tsibi Geva, born in 1951 on the Ein Shemer kibbutz. All the more so because this exceptional artist is representing his country, Israel, this year at the Venice Biennale. There have already been links between Israel and Goslar, for example in 1996 when the Israeli artist Dani Karavan, born in Tel Aviv in 1930, was honoured with the award of the Goslar Kaiserring. Although the two artists belong to different generations and work in different media – Karavan is a sculptor, Geva primarily a painter – their work is intimately bound up with the history of their country. To this extent they are both political artists.
The Goslar exhibition shows paintings dating largely from the last five years, although the extensive series ‘Birds’ goes back very much further – it was started back in the 1980s – and as a result makes two things clear: not only does Tsibi Geva like working in series, which lends his painting a conceptual quality, but these series remain open-ended. In principle, they are, for the artist, work in progress. The series ‘Birds’ also seems not to have come to an end; the most recent painting dates from this year. As a result Tsibi Geva retains the possibility, over the years, of deriving from one and the same motif ever new, different and sometime contradictory views and dimensions of meaning.
Birds appear in Geva’s œuvre more as an archetype than as a recognizable genre. They are in no way painted naturalistically, but rather executed as ideograms, as a particular idea of a bird. Their physiognomies are more or less reduced to a powerful outline painting and to the non-colours black and white. The birds are presented exclusively in profile, perching static on branches or on some projecting part of a wall. In Geva’s work we look in vain for birds in flight – we only need to think of Picasso’s dove of peace – as the classical symbol of freedom and upsurge. Rather, looking at them one is reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous raven of ill fortune, with its message of existential futility – ‘Nevermore’, which negates all the hopes of the narrator.
Behind this subtext of Tsibi Geva’s painting is concealed a subtle political commentary. The bird in this artist’s work is far more than an innocent and harmless motif taken from nature, let alone a romantic symbol. As are other motifs that recur time and again in his painted series, the ‘Flowers’ and ‘Thorns’, the ‘Mountains’ and ‘Landscapes’. Or the Palestinian kufiya, wound around the head and neck, the tiled floors made by Arabs for Israeli homes, the barred windows in the latter, or the couples Geva paints loving in aggressive desperation.
They all function in his works as symbols. Of course they can be understood timelessly as the expression of a dystopian world view, but they also reveal to us something about the state of political relations between Israel and Palestine. Even if shifts are apparent in the motifs (for example the birds’ plumage changes from dark black against a pale background to shining white against a black background), Tsibi Geva’s are in a minor key, reflecting the ambiguities of his country’s geopolitical situation. In the artist’s furioso neo-expressive painting, executed with raging brushstrokes that alternate back and forth between abstraction and figural allusion, we seem to feel the artist’s frustration at the status quo into which society has got bogged down. Tsibi Geva has basically experienced this unchanged ever since he was born, as a state of insecurity and ongoing existential fears.
This sensitivity also makes clear the great differences between the focuses and concerns of the two artist generations, that of Dani Karavan and that of Tsibi Geva, as far as politics is concerned. While the gaze of Israeli Jews born before and during the Second World War turns back time and again to the past, in order to confront and grapple with the inconceivable horror of the holocaust, the post-World War II generation of Israeli artists concern themselves in their works more intensely with the social problems of the present.