The source of light

Mordechai Geldman

Einan Cohen’s paintings, suffused with a beauteous glow, have caught my eye for the first time in the small homely gallery of Sara Levi in Tel Aviv. These were water surfaces pulsating with color, abstract yet realistic at the same time. The paper on which they were painted curved under the watery color layers. Still their abstract bent determined their essence more than the water impression on the curvy paper. They seemed somewhat monochromatic yet were sensual in their wealth of color that shone profusely through the water. The light endowed them with a spiritual dimension reminiscent of Turner’s aquarelle and oil sea scenes and Degas’ monotype seascapes. Their abundant sensuality however brought them closer to the watery realm of Claude Monet, flourishing in lilies and reflecting clouds and treetops as well as to his highly impressionistic sea scenes. All these paintings had been created with Chinese brushes attesting to the influence Chinese painting, grounded in water, mountain and mist, exerted on Einan’s art.

Following this exhibition I met with Einan at his studio in Jaffa where he had shown me further segments of his artistic world. It was clear to me that here was a painter who was inspired by Dao and Zen Buddhist painting and with his unique talent intertwined their influence with elements of western painting. I have been deeply moved because of my lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism and my predilection for Degas’ monotypes.

Apart from the impressionistically inclined water paintings, Einan’s other paintings were highly spontaneous Galilean mountain views painted in situ in the vein of expressionism. All of them displayed the spontaneous brush strokes of Zen Buddhist painters but were by no means an imitation. They were also inspired by the best of Jackson Pollock’s and Franz Klein’s abstract expressionism. Although immediacy was the hallmark of Einan’s work on paper it was also evident is his canvas paintings for quite some time.

In painting these works Einan was first and foremost inspired by his meeting with the Chinese painter Lei who found asylum in Amsterdam. For a year, Einan studied with Lei the techniques of Chinese painting alongside the spiritual tenets embedded in Daoism  and Zen Buddhism, created when the father of Zen Buddhism Bodhidharma arrived in China from India. The word landscape in Chinese is made up of the signs ‘mountain’ and ‘water’, while landscape painting in China since the 5th century had meant painting mountain and water on a single paper scroll. In his paintings however Einan had separated between mountain and water dedicating separate series to each. Occasionally he painted mountains and deserts using the water painting technique. In Chinese perception as well as in Einan’s water is feminine (Yen), a womb-like engulfing essence frequently represented in small silent ripples over the abyss. Mountains, on the other hand, are spiritual entities, the abode of gods and eternal spirits, the epitome of earth and sky. High mountains are considered to be gods by Chinese and Japanese of Shinto persuasion.  

In Einan’s mind however water was a sensually beautiful essence, engulfing as well as of a spiritual nature, imbued with lights. Many of his water paintings have a meditative quality reminiscent of Rothko’s because of their pulsating light. His mountains on the other hand are almost always stormy, aggressive and conflictual entities, with myriad and bewildering paths. At times they seem to display lightning storms –  wild flickering of spiritual enlightenment, not necessarily leading into a safe haven but rather into a maze.

Most of Einan’s paintings had been painted on various types of paper, some of his best on century old packaging paper. When the artist made use of liquid colors they created tiny ripples imitating flickering water. Paper had been and still is the main medium of Chinese and Japanese painters who had developed exquisite and complex techniques for creating different types of paper. Paper appealed to Einan’s imagination for various reasons: his predilection for the written word afforded him a spontaneous approach to the tentative. Einan was also fascinated by the fact that brush strokes while painting or drawing on a sheet of paper yielded two sides – the obverse painted side and the reverse one reflecting the obverse. Often Einan preferred the reverse dim and softened reflection (on which occasionally he signed his name). His indecision has a lot to do with his reticence and his tendency to masquerade. Both aspects are discussed extensively in my interview with Shoshana Cohen his widow (The complete interview in English appears on Einan’s website). His constant oscillation between the need to reveal and the need to conceal was one of the defining characteristics of his artistic persona.

However, some of Einan’s mountain paintings had been painted on canvas and I consider them to be among the finest in his artistic oeuvre. He wrestled with the canvas despite deeming its options more limited compared with the versatile possibilities on paper. Indeed, these difficulties that demanded repeated efforts have eventually yielded exquisite canvases. 

Though most of his water and mountain paintings had been created in Galilee they are devoid of iconizing the landscape, characteristic of Israeli landscape painting. It is impossible to identify any specific view because Einan’s perceived view of what he saw usually meant a lot more to him than the mimetic representation.

The Lake of Galilee gave birth to most of his water paintings. This lake, beautiful in a rather spiritual and subtle way, is a venerated pilgrimage site for Christians because of its importance in the New Testament. Here, the evangelists tell us, Jesus walked on water, performed the miracle of the bread and fish, healed the possessed man, charged Petrus with pasturing His flock, and more. Einan’s spiritual depth was stirred in this myth-endowed sacred expanse.  His painted mountains are placed at the banks of the lake as can be seen in several of these paintings. Most of these mountains are independent entities yet charged with forceful personal and archetypal meanings. Einan painted his mountains in various techniques – unhurried brush strokes on large and small canvases and fleetingly on paper – with pencils, pastel colors and Chinese brushes. The painted surface of his mountain and water paintings depicted aspects of the landscape and of the artist’s soul, drawing on Asian and western art, his ties to Israeli strategies of painting being rather limited.

Although Einan’s treatment of Mountain and water was inspired by Chinese painting, I think it can be traced to his own personal psychological and archetypal dimension. Since his birth he grew up fatherless, his mother was murdered by Croatian Nazis when he was eight years old. Therefore both his mother and his father were highly charged figures in his soul. If water is motherly and the mountain is fatherly, no wonder Einan had been obsessively preoccupied with water and mountain. He may have given shape to both his parents in the symbolic level and subconscious fantasy. It is reasonable to assume that his water paintings represent his embracing and munificent mother. Indeed Einan remembers his mother’s love as unending and fiercely devoted. The ever changing water is an apt metaphor for the creative process of an artist who is constantly regenerating himself. Water is the mythological and primeval material of creation “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters “. One can assume that over the years Einan’s art afforded him not only motherly comfort but also a sense of belonging, of identity of value, as well as wonderful moments lived by the pleasure principle. His unknown absent father found himself represented in the stormy dramatic mountains, in confused and confusing enlightenments embodied in a spiritually and god-like father presence. The separation between mountain and water could be explained by the painful absence of his father from his mother’s world and from his own. His mother and father were united but for a brief moment. Einan’s painting stems from a unique intimacy, as if the barriers between the artist and his creation are totally blurred. This can be attributed to his inner need from early childhood for a symbiotic reunion with the mother from which he could not be successfully weaned because of her sudden and tragic disappearance from his life. In this respect one can read Einan’s recurring mountains and water as representations of the conflict between merging and separation. The engulfing and womb-like quality of water signifies merging while the mountains signify separateness, individuation. The peaceful harmony in Einan’s paintings is within the water in ingesting, merging and dissolving. Indeed the water paintings display majestic beauty, their wealth of color resembling Chinese silk embroidered with fruity colors fit for imperial palaces. The mountain paintings represent a separateness, a presence unto itself, and exude tension and bleakness. Sometimes the mountains are shrouded in mist thus losing their separateness, sometimes they explode in showers of lights. When the mountain peaks stand out on the painted paper they seem enclosed from within, they seem to emit an air of menace like beasts and birds of prey. Their separateness is charged with conflictual struggle and with turbulent force. This division into peaceful water and agitated mountains is an apt description of  many of Einan’s paintings but there are also some that were created in response to shores along the Mediterranean and seem possessed and stormy. They represent raging winter storms without renouncing the geometry-inclined discipline. By way of a reversal and in a humorous vein some lovely small puddles appear among the water paintings.

The tenacious and often immediate intimacy Einan has created with his objects always annuls the barriers between the artist and the painted surface, watery or mountainous. It is not merely a primeval erotic-like intimacy but also the artist’s Zen Buddhist meditation: The Zen Buddhists saw in the intent on the utter presence of here and now the ultimate meditation – leading to the Beyond.

Light, the central symbol of consciousness and the god-like sight endows many of Einan’s mountain paintings with a strange mystic ambiance at times even menacing and labyrinth-like. But the light in his majestic water paintings assumes the quality of fanciful leisure free of the need to seek any fables and imagery. One can simply absorb them with no need to decipher. The intensely lighted fruity colored surface afford the right flatness enabling Suchness – the essence that need not strive to explicate. Several paintings in the water painting style deal directly with light and evoke religiosity, some of their titles would suggest their intent, such as  ‘the source of light’. A few of his desert works, created in the technique of the water paintings, mainly depict light and are also endowed with the spiritual-religious dimension that the artist strove to achieve. Be that as it may, the mountain paintings do not dwell on the complexities of light only, but express the artist’s interrelation with nature’s magnitude. Sometimes the mountain paintings retrieve the chaos into the world from whence the artist then creates a new world – his art.

Einan’s adherence to paper prompted his highly impressive sculpture made of papier maché in techniques some of which he invented himself. Turning the papier maché – the primeval matter (prima materia) into a solid well-defined form has symbolic meaning of individuation, creating and defining the self  as it emerges from the primeval swamp, from merging with the primeval mother. This meaning is intensified if one looks at two of the main topics of Einan’s sculpture – masks and orchids. The original and strikingly beautiful masks are multi-faceted. They do not depict a persona but rather what lurks behind it – a real ever-changing face. Some of these faces seem crude, coarse and even foolish. The face behind the social persona or self-image tinged with self-love is always – for us all – dim, strange, twisted and ever-changing.

The orchids are altogether different from the masks. While the masks are usually murky in color the orchids are gloriously colorful. While the masks are rather hazy in form the orchids’ forms are complex yet well defined. Against the multi-faceted masks the orchids represent the core mythological separate self. They are usually arranged around a center or represent a center when their shape tends to be round or square. Among them is an almost mandala-like orchid – a circle within a square – which according to C.G. Jung represents the ultimate archetypal symbol of the core self. Usually the rose and the lotus represent the core self but in fact all flowers whose petals are arranged around a center fit this perception. Einan had chosen the orchids not merely because of this center but because it resembles the female sex organ. Thus Einan represents the fundamental role of Eros and the dominant place of femininity in his innermost soul. Some of his orchids are beautiful butterfly-like creations representing the process of forming the core self, disappearing death-like in a cocoon to be reborn again. Einan’s orchids are festive gorgeous flowers that tell us how much his unfathomable love of beauty  – and Eros – was primal and natural to his very soul. 

2016

Contemplating Israeli landscape paintings

Sorin Heler

The first thought that crossed my mind upon observation of Einan Cohen’s paintings was that of devotion. Devotion to pictorial theme. Einan Cohen consciously chooses to deal with landscape painting, a genre where, one might think, everything has already been tried and done and written about.  A genre which reached a climax in the nineteenth century, with romantic and impressionistic painting, and which, one would think, could not be exceeded. Moreover, the modernist tendency during the final three decades of the last century pushed aside the confrontation with landscape painting, leaving it almost completely to the sphere of amateur painting, enveloped with the sense of localism, and even that by negation. On this background, Einan chose to paint landscape, and he does it with kind of stubbornness, contrary to all contemporary trends, in a consequent and prolonged process, out of a sense of holy mission or obligation, compensated with pleasure.  That is the devotion.

Einan Cohen’s work is based upon all the known parameters of the genre: choosing an existing landscape, in this case the landscape of Israel; relating to the landscape as to a model of creation; observation; and working outdoors.  The working process is composed of two phases: the first, drawing out in nature, constitutes a kind of prep rational outline that contains the composition or an outline of the space.  Already during this phase feelings are expressed and the position of the artist is exposed.  The second phase, working in color, is done in the studio. In most of the paintings the landscape can be recognized, even in the most abstract works, in which it is hinted, its presence is there, shimmering through the formation of the painting.  In these too, the landscape is the power that drives the painting and the factor that determines the formation of the painting.

Cohen’s work can be related to from a different angle, the one connected to abstraction, and it can be placed in relation to historical process in Israeli painting.  Abstraction in Israeli painting is connected to ideological organization.  The most prominent one is the “New Horizons” group, which saw in the abstraction of the landscape an attempt to construct a new and harmonious formation between the human image and nature.  In contrast to them, the painter of Eretz-Israel chose to depict the pioneer, controlling the landscape and conquering it.  To a great deal, abstraction serves the member of “New Horizons” group as a metaphor for the longing to reach outward, to be absorbed in a greater cultural space, to burst the borders of locality, to be part of the international activity.  The following generations, those who, during the sixties, gathered to form the “Climate” group related to Israeli landscape painting as to defining or bearing the seal of locality.

Cohen’s painting frees itself of such definition; it is possible, that his long absence from Israel during the Sixties estranged him to the local debate. To Cohen, landscape is not an ideological battlefield – neither on the broad cultural level nor in the attempt to regard the local landscape as a representation of Israeliness, nor on the personal level, from the position of immigrant, who regards the landscape as a foothold in the homeland. Cohen’s approach to landscapes lacks all romantic heroism; in his paintings we find no glorification of nature as opposed to man, nor a sensation of the sublime, the exaltation and the pain in the face of the wonders of creation that accompany that position. His approach is much more intimate than that of the painters of the ideological groups, but at the same time the abstraction of the landscape presents a kind of purification process, through which the artist leads us into the hidden and the metaphysical.

The artist’s central images, mountain and water, are well-known in the lexicon of landscape painting, but at the same time they are charged with references to artistic traditions of the twentieth century, like Kandinsky, for example. The same thing happens with the artist’s equivocal approach to light as a local characteristic that can be identified with Israel’s landscape, but at the same time it exists as an undetermined mystical being, which, despite it being such, determines the process of the painting.  The dialogue between Cohen’s work and known milestones of the history of painting is characteristic for his overall work.  Kandinsky, Monet, Action painting, Chinese painting – of those can be recognized the same way as the landscape can be recognized. It even seems that the artist enjoys this correspondence, and be it as a form of provocation.  But the artist does not leave us locked in artistic dialogue, and he leads us with the means of emotional conductors to the personal, metaphysical experience.

Einan Cohen’s landscapes are not tranquil. Quite the opposite.  In many paintings he is wild and storming, but at the same time intimate and close. This peculiar fusion of awe and wonder in the face of the landscape and intimacy is at the basis of his perception.  The first position requires a certain form of distance from the landscape, while the other demands a relationship of closeness, control and ownership.

When I went through the drawings, executed in color pencil, for the first time, I reflected upon Eastern concepts, such as Zen Buddhism, but they shone in the light of Israel. From the larger paintings, executed in Acrylic on paper, too, emanates a sense of Israel, beyond all interpretation offered by the artist or as I allowed myself to express, because Einan Cohen, born in Zagreb, who spent many years in Amsterdam and in Paris, is a painter of Israeli landscapes.

2001

The brush and the falling autumn leaves

On Einan Cohen’s Nature Paintings

Tali Tamir

At times, Einan Cohen’s brushstroke on the paper surface resembles the touch of an autumnal leaf falling on the ground: a soft, springy touch that retains an inner rhythm, and forthwith makes room for the next brush stroke.  Thus the brush stokes gradually cumulate, covering the surface, oblivious to a vertical regime of growth or sprouting.  Similarly, they disregard the physical orientation that gives hierarchical precedence to the head, leaving room to stretch the arms.  They clearly prefer to treat the sheet of paper as a soft bed or a field where one can stretch in all directions and trust their maximum capacity of containment.

Einan Cohen is a nature painter by nature.  The landscapes converses with him, whispers to him, scrapes together words and syllables for him, and he listens to its words and hears its murmurs.  Nature, for Cohen, is not a formal challenge as Mount St. Victoire was for Cezanne, nor a compositional challenge as the Tsuba Mountains were for the Israeli Zaritzky.  Nature for Cohen is intuitive attention that passes through the body, projecting thereon an intricate web of colors and hues, aligning all its sensors towards the inner strata, underneath the leave, where the rays of sun are refracted into a thousand splinters.

In Cohen’s paintings one can discern certain moments in the cycle of hours within a day and substances of nature: sunset and sunrise, winter and summer, sea and shore.  One can observe these paintings and feel wet or dry, chilled or warmed.  Nevertheless, Cohen forever leaves his viewers with the choice to experience as they please, without coercion; he refuses to provide them with clear footholds within his field of painting.  Despite the clear use of the term “color fields”, the paintings are not close in spirit to American Abstract Expressionism that brought into the world the greatest affinity between the painterly surface and the field of action.  Einan Cohen’s painting is too lyrical to approximate the active energies of American Abstract, and too intimate to belong in the classical tradition of European landscape painting.  Through a “Zen”-like mediation, while subduing the other voices, Einan Cohen continues to preserve in his inner gaze the abstract, sprawling natural being that is constantly in motion like water welling up, the falling of autumnal leaves, moving clouds, and the caressing wind.

2002

Three-dimensional works

Hagai Segev

Einan Cohen is known primarily for his virtually abstract landscape paintings, the bulk of which were exhibited in the comprehensive exhibition “Nofim” (landscapes) at “Beit Haomanim” in Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv Artists House 2001, curator Michael Kasus, Catalog). These remarkable landscapes, painted in acrylic on paper or cloth, evoke primordial memories of an endless expanse of perfect and flawless virgin landscape. It almost seems that the pleasure Cohen derived from the erotic qualities of the paper and colors did not fall short of the sensations he felt when painting the landscapes.

For many years Cohen occupied himself with these paintings in endless variations, yet remained unsatiated. His passion for the surface of the painting, especially for paper, engendered unique paintings in which the paper gradually took on a sculptural quality and became an essential component in the physical sensations of the entire image. Einan wet the paper before painting on it so that it took on a wavy shape – some parts sunken while others rising – creating a living, breathing topography.

It is perhaps at this stage that Einan became familiar with the special plastic qualities of paper and discovered his desire to rise above a two-dimensional surface. About three years ago Einan began to sculpture using papier mache, and in recent years went on to create dozens of sculptures and objects from paper. These works can be divided into two groups – works deeply rooted in the abstract world, and those that reveal a completely unknown dimension of his work – sculptured objects of flowers, images, body parts, and more. The second group of works exposes a humoristic and ironic aspect in Einan’s personality, moments in which we see an entirely different artistic persona. Does this reflect his return to his past as an animation film artist? Perhaps.

Einan recounts that alongside his paintings he always sculptured, creating objects from concrete (none of which remain), and from wood. The current transition to sculpting with paper seems entirely natural to him, a direct continuation of painting on paper – that which he loves most in art. The bulk of the work involved in creating the objects centered on building molds into which he poured the paper mache. This process in effect embodies a tenacious struggle with the material in order to create a solid form from the soft and unstable texture. To achieve this Einan uses two methods: the first, pasting the paper on a structure made of another substance or on a net, and the second – placing the sheets in many layers and using glue to strengthen the structure.

The transition from painting to sculpture in Einan’s work does not only entail a change in artistic medium, an overall conceptual change is required. Unlike painting when the artist can work intuitively, without thinking in advance about the concept, and flow with the landscapes and views, in sculpture the artist must focus on an idea as early as the initial stages of the artistic endeavor – even before beginning to work with the material itself.

Einan is one of many artists and meisters that alongside the paintings for which they were recognized also created important sculptures of different types. The most well known of these artists are Picasso and Miro that used ceramics to create sculptures and many other works of art. While among the young generation of artists inIsraelthere are those that work with several mediums, sometimes simultaneously, the transition from one form of art to another is not as common in Einan’s generation.

Many of Einan’s sculptures are round or oval in shape. Einan emphasizes their lack of functionality by creating small ruptures in their texture. He creates openings by lifting certain segments above the surface, thus underscoring the segment and the importance of the paper in their creation. The oval shapes and the openings also arouse images of pleasurable erotic contexts that once again underscore the vibrancy of paper as substance of passion that invites the viewer to look beyond the visual to the sensation of close contact.

Most of the objects created by Einan, similar to his landscape paintings, are situated on the border between real objects that can be identified, for example a mask or a plant, and objects that cannot be precisely defined and maintain a degree of abstraction. This is a game at which Einan excels – attracting the spectators’ attention while at the same time confounding them. Einan’s game of seduction is the game played by art in the 20th century that moves along the axis between narrative and abstract, substance and spirit.

May 2006