During my German-language studies at the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv in 2003, I came across Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," the only one of her books that had been translated into Hebrew at the time. There it was, standing behind a window in the institute's foyer, on its jacket, Adolf Eichmann wore a white shirt, looking like the most typical and ordinary person in the world. Soon the book was in my hand; the reading experience was thrilling. Sharp, direct, cynical- and yet sensitive and convincing- the book offered a wide perspective on a new form of evil. Hannah Arendt entered the life of my mind.
A short time later, during a flight back to Tel Aviv from a visit in Berlin, I had a chat with the woman sitting beside me. I soon found out that she was an art curator working on a big project, planned for Tel Aviv's ninety-fifth anniversary. Her vision was to cover the front wall of the Tel Aviv municipality building with 240 portraits made by more than two hundred Israeli artists. The portraits would depict people, whom the city decided to honor by naming streets after them. Each portrait would then be enlarged to the size of three by four square meters, large enough to cover together the entire building. I thought it would be good to participate in such an exhibition and I already had an idea in mind, but I said nothing to the curator. Instead, I set an appointment with her in my studio to discuss my participation in the exhibit.
In preparation for the meeting, I started sketching Hanna's image, hoping I could convince the curator to include a portrait of Arendt in the exhibit. But the meeting was disappointing. She responded to my proposal with a definite no. "No street in Tel Aviv [or for that matter, in Israel] is named after Arendt," she said. The forty-year boycott was more successful than I had imagined. It was hard to forgive the woman who portrayed one of the main perpetrators of the final solution as a simple-minded bureaucrat, rather than as one of the architects of the extermination machine. In addition, Arendt had not been afraid to touch the open wounds of the corporation between the Nazi regime and the Jewish councils during the holocaust, and she did not hide her criticism of the way the Eichmann trial was designed to serve Zionist ideology. The fact that this sober and harsh account came from a Jewish woman that was personally affected by the events— she fled Germany in 1933, and was for several years active in Zionist organizations— made her book even more unbearable for many Jewish-Israeli readers. And her close relation before and after the war with her teacher, the great German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who became known as a Nazi supporter, made things even more complicated for her in the eyes of many Jewish readers. No one in Israel, except for a small segment of the academy, wished to commemorate Arendt's name, legacy or writings. It even took nearly forty years to translate Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil to Hebrew.
But the curator’s refusal came too late. I was already captivated by the intriguing and elusive face and image of Hannah Arendt as well as by her life story.
The artistic process always poses its challenges, but is especially demanding, when it concerns the presentation of a specific figure. How does one translate a life story into an artistic form, without making the work overly illustrative? How can the subjective impression that the image has on the artist be communicated to an audience for which this image already has its own significance? How can I express my thoughts and words in silent colors? In the past, I had confronted similar questions working on the portraits of the legendary Polish-Russian dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. His talent, sensuality and tragic life – Nijinsky spent his last thirty years in a mental institute – captivated me, and led me to dedicate two exhibitions to his image, movement and body. I continue to face similar challenges in my present work, in a tribute to the life and work of an Israeli-Romanian poet and writer Radu Klapper.
With Arendt these questions were as challenging as ever. From the outset, I was fascinated not only by her writings, ideas, and sharp observations on the tragic events of the twentieth century, but also by her face—the face of a handsome young woman. Experience and world-events transformed her inner and outer appearance, etching her life story on her face. Her life story was that of an intellectual Jewish woman who experienced the European turmoil of the twenty century, and tried to understand the sources of human evil and violence
The series started by tracing her portrait from a very young woman to her old age. The source materials included unfamiliar photos of Arendt in different stages of her life. On the unpresumptuous and intimate medium of paper, I started to give my interpretations to these photos. With a sketch pencil I tried to catch the elusive expressions of her face and penetrating gaze. The curator of the exhibition at the Jewish museum in Frankfurt, Erik Riedel, called this technique Sfumato (literally, Italian for smoky smoky), a technique of very gentle passes between the shades developed by Leonardo de Vinci. After my drawings were complete, I added glazes of oil colors and lacquer and then attached the glazed drawings to wooden panels. At a certain moment in my work, I realized that portraits on their own would not be enough to capture Arendt's world. I decided to add another layer of complexity to the series and began drawing conceptual images and symbols representing Arendt's life and writings.
I also introduced a new technique – the use of an electric pen. In a way, I was prompted by my work as an art teacher. From time to time, I explain to my students that they should experiment with new techniques, and one of the examples I gave them was the electric pen, a tool that burns the wood's surface creating dark marks on it. The heat, the smoke, and the destruction that turns into reconstruction seemed to me appropriate to Arendt and the series. For one of the works, I decided to draw an ancient cascade, borrowed from the Gauloise cigarette package, as a symbol of Arendt's connection to ancient European history as well as her being a heavy smoker. Other electric-pen drawings included a cigarette butt, a sabra plant in a flowerpot and two portraits of Arendt.
Tali Tamir, an Israeli curator that wrote one of the texts in the exhibition catalogue, described the further development of the series:
"As a painter, Shy Abady approaches the portrait of Arendt using several techniques and styles, understanding that no style can fully epitomize her personality. While he does not aim to perpetuate her one official portrait, he seeks, or rather attempts, to hunt out the multitude of her faces and her elusive and suggestive complexity".
After the series was completed, I suggested it to the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt. They had certain hesitations and were somewhat baffled by the possibility that an Israeli artist would present in a central Jewish museum in Germany a "pro–Arendt" exhibition. The long time that had passed did not fully quell the anger and resentment that the Jewish-Israeli world had toward Arendt, Eventually they decided to go forward with the project.
A very short time after the successful meeting I had at the Frankfurt Jewish museum, I visited Todtnauberg, a small town in the Black Forest near Freiburg, where Heidegger's famous hut is located. There he hosted many visitors before and after the war, and among them was Hannah Arendt. Under the strong impression from the pastoral landscape and its contrast to the tumultuous events concerning Heidegger, his relationship with Arendt, and the war, I created the last work in the series. It is a triptych in which Heidegger, Arendt, and a fox appear on the foreground of the hut, inspired by Arendt's ironic essay "Heidegger the fox."
The exhibition was first presented at the Jewish museum of Frankfurt and was greeted favorably by the public and the media. The exhibit opened at a momentous timing, during the commemoration of thirtieth anniversary of Arendt's death. After Frankfurt, the exhibition traveled to the "Heinrich Böll Gallery" in Bremen and later on to the Hannah Arendt Center in Oldenburg.
Finally, on October 2006, the exhibition arrived in Jerusalem. Forty- five years after Arendt's historical visit to the city during the Eichmann trial, a small circle closed. Arendt's one-hundredth birthday was celebrated across the world, and on the heavy walls of the historical building of the "Jerusalem artist's house" her paintings were hung side-by-side with a small number of excerpts from her work. Having the exhibition in Jerusalem was very significant for me. I saw the importance in presenting her image to an Israeli audience. Two panels discussing Arendt, art, politics, memory and rejection took place in the gallery with a wide range of participants, including an actress who played the role of Arendt, reading her incisive letter responding to Gershom Shalom, who accused her for betraying her own people.
I was glad for my small contribution to the discussion of Arendt's legacy. I was also encouraged by the power of art to open new venues into the life and work of Hannah Arendt and to stimulate a public discussion on the relevance of her views to contemporary Israeli politics.
Finally, allow me to return to the portrait exhibition on the Tel-Aviv municipality building. After the curator refused my Arendt proposal, I was asked to draw Betzalel, the first biblical artist. Since no one of course knows what Betzalel looks like and given the fact that I was already in the middle of my Arendt "obsession", I decided to use the facial details of young Hannah Arendt as a base of the Betzalel portrait. And so it came to pass, that from the big municipality building watching over the streets of Tel Aviv alongside with 239 portraits of other important figures, was the denied image of Hannah Arendt.