The Art of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann

Colours, Years and Millennia
The Art of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann
There is a song in the soul of each human being,
And they each hear their own soul in every song.
And when the song is lovely in someone’s soul,
The song of others will also be heard to be so.
 (Babits[1]: The storm, the song of the young king.)
An artist will pour into words, sounds or pictures his or her own image of the world, and when the work is sent on its way, it remains for the public to make what they will of the song they perceive in it. The warm and vivid colours of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann’s paintings evoke a gaiety, a sense of the fabulous and a dreamlike quality even in works that at first glance might appear more inclined toward a pessimistic stance. A sense of playfulness lurks even in chaos and the terrible, bottomless depths of the human soul. The myth-evoking ancestral subconscious of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann is not that of the pagan, magical world intrinsic to Greek tragedies of destiny and to Greek mythology, but that of a labyrinth with a way out, where hope is ever present.
What brings about this gaiety? The majority of the paintings on exhibition weave a vision of Jerusalem, and this at once points the way to formulating one of the responses to this question. The most ancient and recurring theme of Jewish history and culture is the never-ending cycle of exile–longing–return, the exile from Jerusalem and from the other little Jerusalems of Toledo, Granada, Vilnius, the longing felt for them, and finally the return that has been so much yearned for. Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann’s path is symbolic of this cycle, having started out in the Hungarian city of Komárom, then having arrived in a much longed-for Jerusalem, but again and again returning to Central Europe, back into the Hungarian cultural milieu. She is at home here and at home there, and as she shuttles between the two, the sense of distance becomes blurred, just as contours seen from an ascending aircraft also fade into one another as they become ever more remote. Could an art of painting, such as this, be anything other than nonfigurative? Can the work of an artist who perceives the world in terms of this kind of perspective be anything other than a play of colours and years, a series of dreamlike visions that capture the longings of millennia?   Of course it could, although this way of seeing might almost be regarded as natural in its given context. Jerusalem, as distantly longed for and seen from a bird’s-eye view, is a succession of colours, dreams and images, from which a hazy picture of the real city emerges from time to time.
By the same token, this haziness also imparts a sense of fable to the images. Nothing is impossible in fables, distance can be overcome with seven-league boots, and magic can bring to life all desires. Perhaps this fable-like way of seeing also explains the gaiety and playfulness and helps to dispel the dark visions and instil order into the dark chaos about which Ariel Hirschfeld, who is closely acquainted with the life-work of the artist, remarks in the following way:
“Chaos” is an expression Neiger-Fleischmann returns to again and again, in relation to many aspects of her world. And it is clear, from very early on in her work, that she is trying to deal with chaos itself, without imposing on its final expression a set of images that is artificial or external to that chaos. [2]
She relies on the aid of fable to overcome and obliterate this chaos, just as fables themselves rely on the aid of magic spells to accomplish the same. After all, everything is possible in a fable; the Good and the Beautiful can be victorious and desires can finally be fulfilled. In contrast to myths that are often heavy with a grim determinism, what fables accomplish instead is making dreams come alive. For Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann, it is the bright and vivid world of East European Jewish folklore that might have served as her model, a world that also appears in some of Chagall paintings, the colourful world of improbable dreams and of fairy tale fiddlers on the roof.
 “Dreams, dreams, colourful dreams, silly plays of imagination.”[3] We may well quote the words of a short story writer beholding the interplay of colours on paintings. But then Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann shows a capacity to provide fresh surprise as a poet, too, as though we were beholding, then reading the creative works of two different artistic personalities. The painter luxuriates in colours and dreams. The poet employs hardly any colours at all. The outlines of the painter are blurry, those of the poet are sharp and precise. The painter exhibits a sense of abundance and is lavishly extravagant with colour. The poet is restrained, almost to the point of being economic with her expressive resources. True, the instrument of poetry is language, and language is of course far more idea-bound than painting. In her volume of poetry, which was published in Hungarian in Zsuzsa Zalaba’s translation, the prevailing expressionist mood of her poems – which may also turn impressionist at times – is encased in tight and disciplined sentences, whilst among the artist’s illustrations of her volume we also encounter figurative works, figures drawn in precise, slender contours. It does appear from her words as though Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann is truly an exile:
I am a poet exiled to fields of color.
Seeds words in the furrow of the brush (…)
I am a painter exiled from fields of color.
I assemble words fallen from heaven. (…)
     (Exile) [4]
On this, though, we have to take issue with the artist, for neither the paintings nor the poems evoke a sense of exile; indeed, both convey a sense of being at home. Or perhaps there is no contradiction here at all? Might not this sense of being at home be indeed that of an exile, albeit one who as a traveller is actually most at home on the road? And might it not be the case that perhaps it is not the actual destination, the fulfilment of return that is important, that imparts a sense of being at home to the poet, but the journey itself, and the longing that goes with it?
I am driven upwards
on a thin and ever narrowing thread
facing the hills. They wrinkle towards
the moon, to sacrifice a burden.
In the space between sun and moon,
separated by shades,
creation is renewed.
(Drive from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem in the Twilight) [5]
The longing and being on the road both contribute to blurring the contours, but by the same token also enable those contours to be separated out anew. The painter blends the colours which the poet then separates out. The painter depicts her dreams, visions and emotions, which the poet then endeavours to explain and to interpret. At this point the apparent contradiction is not merely resolved, but the contradictory strands are commingled in complete unity, the union of emotion and intellect, of dream and reality. The Jerusalem of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann stands before us at once as dreamed and real, in both its longed for and attained forms. This image of Jerusalem is the colourful Jerusalem of fables, of dreams and desires, yet a Jerusalem that is heavy with the burden of both everyday and historical issues, albeit every now and then becoming both uplifting and blessed in its spiritual impact. Just as in the case of the great poetic predecessor, Yehuda Amichai, quoted both in the exhibition and in one of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann’s poems:
“rain is falling
 on the face of my buddies”.
(Mexico, Jerusalem) [6]
In Mexico they pray for the favour of the Rain God, whose favour would also be needed by Jerusalem. The Yehuda Amichai poem quoted above conveys the merciless monotony of rain falling on the battlefield, on the front, on the fallen soldiers. In contrast to the gaiety of the paintings, the Jerusalem of the poet Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann is darker and more sombre:
Summer night over Jerusalem:
In the sky a gloomy plane,
snarling like a lizard in the air,
a mutant dinosaur.
Emergency vehicles tear
the dark night apart with their howling
on a road illumined
to the point of desperation.
The warehouses of suppression are
chock-a-block: words
shower down
and scatter in a lake of memories.
Fear holds you
and stretches like the cosmos.
(My signals) [7]
Where does this angst about Jerusalem originate? Solely from fear triggered by politico-religious tension and the threat of terrorism? Or, as in the Jerusalem poems of Amichai, from the metaphysical-religious weight of the city itself? We shall not stray far from the truth if we suppose the latter. Is it perhaps the case that the return, the arrival, actually turns out to be oppressive for the traveller, for a poet living in exile? Or perhaps there is an awareness that the arrival in Jerusalem cannot be complete until it also comes to pass in metaphysical terms, in the Messianic time, when words are no longer scattered “in a lake of memories.” A Hungarian reader will be very familiar with Ady[8] writing about a sense of “everything being quite broken” in this world, in a quintessential expression of the way modern man feels about life in general. As we know from Proust, time is not a single entity, since in addition to am externally existing time, there is also an internal time, the time that contains the memories of a person. Time in both its senses is an old acquaintance of Jewish existence; according to Kabbalist thought a Breaking of the Vessels occurred with the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, and as Amichai reminds us in The Jewish Time Bomb:
On my desk is a piece of stone engraved amen,  
one survivor of the thousands and thousands of fragments from graves
in Jewish cemeteries. And I know that all the shards 
are filling up the biggest Jewish time bomb
together with other splinters, fragments from the Tables of the Law. (…)
It is a stone of truth left to its own devices,
wiser than any philosopher’s stone, a stone from a fractured grave
and this stone is absolutely perfect,
this stone testifies to all the things that have ever existed
and all the things that will exist for ever, an Amen stone and love.
Amen, amen and may this be His will.[9]
This is the eternal sense of doubt that accompanies Jerusalem in Jewish art throughout its history: the yearning for an ideal Jerusalem and for the real one, the awareness that the latter is attainable, but that this fulfilment can only be incomplete because the vessel remains broken. The other source of doubt is being torn between East and West, between “at home here” and “at home there,” or as Yehuda Halevi[10] expressed it almost a thousand years ago: “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.”[11] The Jewish time, the internal time, seems to stand still, but Halevi could never reach Jerusalem, whilst Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann can write her poems just as well in Jerusalem as in Budapest or Komárom. That is why this song becomes unsettling and dissonant in the soul of the poet, in the soul of the intellectual, yet conciliatory and harmonious in the soul of the painter capturing dreams. For the song is at once about the completeness of longing and fulfilment, exile and being at home, joy and pain.
                                                                              Dr. Szilvia Peremiczky

[1] Mihály Babits (1883-1941), Hungarian poet, writer and translator.
[2] Ariel Hirschfeld, „Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann alkotásai” [“The Works of Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann”], in: Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann – 2007, Galéria IX. Budapest, catalogue.
[3] Elek Gozsdu: A Song about Music (1898), a short story.
[4] Translated from Hebrew by Anthony Rudolf.
[5] Translated from Hebrew by Miriam Neiger and Anthony Rudolf.
[6] Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Neiger and Anthony Rudolf.
[7] Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Neiger and Anthony Rudolf.
[8] Endre Ady (1877-1919), Hungarian poet.
[9] Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Neiger and Anthony Rudolf.
[10] Yehuda Halevi (c.1075–1141), medieval Hebrew poet.
[11] Yehuda Halevi. My Heart.

In September 2009- 16th November 2009

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