Mystical appeal of Dora the primitive

The 'naive' style of Dora Holzhandler has found favour with art loving celebrities.

By Philip Vann, March 24, 2011
The Bathers by Dora Holzhandler.

The Bathers by Dora Holzhandler.

In vibrant oil paintings of lovers embracing, mothers shopping for the Sabbath and families picnicking, in dark gouaches of meditative rabbis, and in luminous watercolours, Dora Holzhandler imbues her subjects with a spirit of mystical intimacy. Admirers of her art have included the late Charlie Chaplin (whose portrait she painted); the art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, who describes her as an artist for whom "all is sacred'; as well as actress Maureen Lipman and the comedian Jack Dee, both of whom have opened her shows recently.

Holzhandler, who now lives and paints in her home in London's Holland Park, was born in Paris in March 1928 to Polish-Jewish parents - her father, Sehia, struggled to earn a living as a handbag-maker; her mother Ruchla, a seamstress, sometimes liked to wear Polish folk costumes. It was apt that, in 2007, the National Theatre in Warsaw illustrated its programme of a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer with paintings by Holzhandler. Although she has never visited Poland, it is as though her ancestral background - one which has affinities with Singer's - illuminates her paintings.

Early on, Holzhandler was fostered by a Catholic farming family but aged around five was removed from what she calls an "idyllic existence in the Normandy countryside, and suddenly plunged into the strangeness of life in Paris, in Belleville, in a poor Jewish family. I found grown-up brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins… it was rather terrifying".

This change has helped her, she believes, look objectively, and with detachment, at what it is to be Jewish. "It's still a sort of theatre for me. That's one reason I paint these pictures, I suppose - to explain it to myself," she says.

In March 1934, she and her mother left Paris to join her father in London. They moved to a flat opposite a synagogue in Dalston. "Jewish life in the East End was very vividly imprinted in me," she says.

The artist expresses her interest in Kabbalah in her work.

The artist expresses her interest in Kabbalah in her work.

Many of her paintings over the years have evoked memories of childhood in Paris, and then in London. Her gouaches of rabbinical figures may partly recall Solomon Rochman, her devout maternal grandfather whom she recalls taking her on story-telling walks in a Paris park. The pictures' poignancy is underscored by the knowledge that Solomon remained in Paris, and perished in Auschwitz along with many of Holzhandler's relations. Her 1962 painting, My Grandfather in Auschwitz, shows Solomon, wearing a kipah and a yellow star, holding a holy book in his hand, against an apocalyptic background.

Holzhandler's paintings of Jewish life "as a sort of theatre" include a picture of a mother lighting Sabbath candles immaculately set out, along with challah and two glasses of red wine, on a pristine white table cloth, seen from a childlike perspective close in spirit to that in ancient Hebrew illuminated manuscripts.

In the summer of 1946 Holzhandler went to stay with relations in a villa outside Paris, studying painting at La Grande Chaumière and literature at the Sorbonne. She talks about "nuances in my painting, my French way of seeing things, but deeply intermingled with my Jewish birth". She developed an abiding interest in French culture - from medieval tapestries to French poetry and cinema.

She stayed in Paris for a year until, having caught typhoid fever, she had to return to London, where she soon recovered. Over the years she has returned often to Paris. Whereas she thinks affectionately of England being like "an overgrown garden", she likes "the French way of things to be neat, orderly, everything in its place. I like to do that in my paintings".

In a new oil painting, Lovers in Paris, even though the lovers seem to be floating in serene ecstasy above a panorama of grey buildings, paradoxically they seem rooted in the cityscape. Holzhandler speaks of Chagall's "floating" subject matter which "then goes onto another level, almost like surrealism, whereas I always keep my feet on the ground".

She adds: "All my paintings have esoteric secrets in them." In a recent work, Friday Night Lovers, the illuminated Sabbath candles on a table beside the semi-naked lovers embody the kabbalistic reconciliation of the male and female principles - the En Sof (the Divine Nothingness, or God without End) and the Shechinah (God made manifest in the world) - in a kind of mystical marriage.

Soon after her return to London, Holzhandler enrolled at the Anglo-French Art Centre, where visiting artists such as Léger and Jacob Epstein gave classes, and the painter Victor Pasmore admired her painting of anemones. Her non-academic approach to painting - a leading British art critic, Eric Newton, later called her "a temperamental primitive" - was respected there. She says: "There are definitely rules in art, but I discover them and these are the answers. Here in my paintings are the rules I've found."

It was at the Anglo-French that she met a fellow student George Swinford, and they were married in September 1950. From 1971 to 1975, they lived a quite counter-cultural life with their daughters - Amalie, Hepzibah and Hermione - in a large country house in Scotland, "including a beautiful walled garden covered in roses and flowers and wild fruits. If nothing else, the children played in Paradise".

In the 1980s, Dora studied Kabbalah, and following her visit to Israel she began to paint rabbis. "As soon as there's the beard, the tallis, the yarmulke, the whole thing is there. The tremendous thing about the Jewish mind is its questioning, those secret conversations with an invisible God: 'I don't believe in you, or on the other hand, I do believe in you'."

It was in the mid-1950s that Holzhandler began to study Buddhism. "In a way Buddhism has brought me back to Judaism," she says. "Buddhism educates the mind to be non-grasping, happy and accepting. Now, as a Buddhist, I can really enjoy being Jewish. There's a paradox there."

Dora Holzhandler's exhibition at the Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham, Rutland runs from March 26 to April 23. Works in the show can be seen at 'Dora Holzhandler' by Philip Vann is published by Lund Humphries

Last updated: 11:15am, March 24 2011