Hadar Gad: Intolerable Beauty
Curator: Dr. Smadar Sheffi
A close look at Hadar Gad’s paintings makes it seem as if the piles of books, clusters of artworks, and buildings in ruins are floating on water, drifting down an unknown river, the groundwater of memory rising up and flooding the images. The paintings are overflowing with accumulated knowledge, emotions, scientific research studies, literature, cinema, photographs, collective memories, and throbbing pain. The viewer ponders their magic and the way in which they hold the gaze.
Intolerable Beauty is comprised of paintings that Gad made during and after preparation for the exhibition Afterlives: Lost Stories of Looted Art, shown at the Jewish Museum, New York through January 2022. The exhibition traced the history of several looted artworks, among them works by Bonnard and Matisse, during and after World War II, part of the increasing engagement in the study of the history of artworks looted or forcibly sold under the Nazi regime. Gad was one of the four contemporary artists invited to show works alongside of the restituted works, referring to the broader ramifications of the looting of art and the crisis of culture.
Gad focused on the methodical Nazi looting of libraries and art collections owned by Jews and non-Jews, as well as the centers for rescuing and restoring the Nazi plunder to their rightful owners after the war. With time, it becomes clear that the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) was partial and flawed.
Hadar Gad’s extended observation of the desecrated cultural treasures gave rise to their power and voice as well as thoughts on the very being of art. Gad painted mountains of books and paintings with no human figures, creating a dialogue between objects and memories, entities of thought, imagination, and stories. The void at the heart of Jewish and universal culture is commemorated precisely in the excess of everything and nothing.
Gad does not copy objets d’art, but transforms them into paradigms of memory: the shelved books that she paints bear the names of murdered artists: catalogs of paintings that were never made. In the collection centers for paintings that Gad portrays, the light is sufficient for viewers to distinguish the contours of splendid frames, but these are not exact portrayals of the paintings. Memory is an elusive thought drifting through consciousness. Gad’s painting is like the evolution of a thought: in her oil paintings she gives equal weight to applying paint and scraping it off. Her paintings seek to portray representations of reality precisely – almost like documentation - but she partially veils the objects in layers, with the scenes transposed to an unclear location somewhere between the mystical and direct observation.
Terrifying history is present in Gad’s paintings of piles of objects, but along with the heaps of books or densely crowded artworks, the objects form an unwavering presence, not even when the piles threaten to collapse a bed, replacing a body that perhaps might have cradled in the bed during normal times.
Hadar Gad touches upon a place in which culture and cultural symbols constitute an “extra soul” transcending the physical to the metaphysical.
The books scattered among the ruins of the Danzig Synagogue in Gad’s Polish Landscape (2019) bring to mind the center of Felix Nussbaum’s Triumph of Death (1944), one of his final paintings before he was murdered later that year. In Nussbaum’s painting, sculptures, paintings, musical scores and broken and battered film reels, cultural symbols that were destroyed, create a focal point around which the skeletons of death dance in celebration. Nussbaum’s painting is an elegy, a swan song to his life.
It is interesting to think about Gad’s painted stacks of books in relation to Monet’s Haystacks at Giverny (1890-1891), a series of 25 paintings of haystacks depicted at varied times of the day under differing light conditions. Its subject is essentially the passage of time. In Gad’s paintings, the various stacks differing in shape and size preserve layers of consciousness and time, knowledge and insights which form the infrastructure of spiritual existence.
In Intolerable Beauty, the books and libraries are an object whose independence and essential “book-ness” (and in the case of the paintings, their “painterliness”) is personified. In the small painting, a seemingly random little patch of red proposes a transformational process of book to body.
Over recent decades, bookshelves have been used by many artists, among them Christian Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer, Yinka Shonibare, and lately, Theaster Gates, to speak about memory and heritage. In the Jewish context, works by Micha Ullman stand out. In 1995 he created a monument to the Nazi book burning in Berlin in which empty bookshelves were sunk underneath the Bebelplatz. Rachel Whiteread’s sculptural memorial to the Jewish community of Vienna (2000) looks like the negative of a library. Gad depicts rows and rows of books bearing the names of artists and writers, sometimes in color and at other times in black and white. The rows of books make present the realized, unrealized, and broken promises, emphasizing what should be preserved.
References to books as objects embodying the double memory of what was and what was not stand out in Edmund de Waal’s two-part exhibition, Psalm and Gallery of Exile, in the Synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, and in the pavilion near the Venice Opera House (2019). Along with the physical books, de Waal made representations of books, thin cylinders and cubes of porcelain, many in broken white and ochre. Those are the same colors that Gad uses to generate wonder, contemplating the culture of the past (such as her 2019 work featuring the building of the Mishkan Museum of Art Ein Harod, exhibited in its centenary exhibition). These colors evoke glory and purity; in Gad’s paintings they have an added touch of earthliness and a dimension of vulnerability.
In her works on paper and oil paintings – especially in the diptych painted after a photograph of the postwar paintings collection site at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris – Gad uses black and white or black on a bluish grey background to create a dialogue with means of replication: photography and engraving or printing. The beginning of printed books in the mid-15th century is a critical foundational moment in the history of culture. The sum total of Gad’s oeuvre in Intolerable Beauty is a conceptual portrait of the essence of culture as an unyielding form of resistance to violence, an alternative that cannot be erased. Perhaps this is where the sensation arises that the books and floating paintings are borne on water that will take on various forms and continue to flow.
Text © Copyright Dr. Smadar Sheffi, 2022. All rights reserved.
Translation: J. Appleton