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.