Scorched History on German Plywood, Tali Tamir, from the Augusta Victoria catalogue, January 2012

Shy Abady works out of keen acuteness to the historical domain and shapes his art in relation to history, a stance which leads him to pursue a dialogue with the grand tradition of Historical Painting.

The Renaissance era gave birth to the genre of “Historical Painting” – paintings of epic proportions that depict dramatic religious or mythological scenes, and visions of battlefields brimming with characters and plots. Subject – more so than style – defines Historical Painting, which seeks, in one way or another, to convey a lesson to its viewers. History is treated not only as accounts of an epic past, but also as a story, as literary tales, stories of lives. In Western art, Historical Painting was considered – at least until the mid-nineteenth century – to be of outmost importance in the hierarchy of figurative genres, and was often compared to Epic Literature – the literary genre of culture-shaping myths. But over the last century, due to the rise of Modernism and its perception of art as autonomous, the status of Historical Painting greatly declined and it is now considered obsolete and purely academic.

Despite all this, Shy Abady takes a daring risk by establishing his work on the traditional genre, bending its rules and guidelines to create internal variants. He remains loyal to the genre by weaving his engraved paintings around a historical figure or scene, which teaches a certain lesson or moral, but at the same time relinquishes the foremost rule of traditional Historical Painting – an abundance of figures, details and subplots. Unlike Anselm Kiefer, who adopted the monumental perception of Historical Painting and transformed it into a visceral experience filled with substance, Abady creates an intimate dimension completely devoid of the genre’s classic form, and seeks to touch the charged and problematic past through the individual and the personal.

Only a single figure appears in each of Abady’s paintings, as the sole focus of visual attention. Ballet dancer and choreograph Vaclav Nijinsky, political theorist Hannah Arendt and Israeli-Romanian poet Radu Klapper served as starting points for three such series, made on dense sawdust plywood. Abady revolves around the figures in different eras of their lives, studying their features and body language, and rather than focusing on their relationships with the world – as Historical Painting dictates – he offers a personal and intimate portrait.

Abady’s interest in German history, and Prussian monarchy in particular, arose during his prolonged stay in Berlin (2007-2008), while working on his previous series “My Other Germany”. Born and raised in Jerusalem and educated on modernism’s ascetic concept of esthetics, which is backed by local religious and iconoclastic taboos, Abady was intrigued yet repulsed by his discoveries of the rich, monumental Prussian culture. His direct encounter with neoclassic sculpture aroused an artistic interest, alongside a revulsion from its inner German code. Abady embarked on a personal journey “From Jerusalem to Berlin”, moving the clock back not once but twice – not directly to the Second World War period, so enticing for every Israeli who visits Berlin, but rather to the historical period reverberating before it, prior to the Third Reich (and also to the by-period of the Weimar Republic) – the era of Prussian monarchy, which drew to a close at the end of World War I. Abady observed the highly stylized world of nineteenth-century monarchy, which in his eyes seemed almost fable-like. He taught himself about imperial traditions, about the potency of material wealth, about the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty with its palaces and castles, about classical Europe with its absolute confidence, never even presuming to imagine its nearing demise. Out of this vast exuberance, Abady singles out figures of German and Christian mythology (Lorelei, the Synagoga and others), and calls them from the dead, as metaphors of approaching calamity.

All these are transformed by Abady to another phase – monochromatic, dim, and blackening on the background of a yellowish sawdust surface. Abady developed a special technique of scorching on cheap, low level carpentry plywood boards he found in Germany – called OSB – with electric needle. Through this technique he seeks to make a statement about a culture that evaporated, leaving behind a scorching mark. These cheap plywood boards echo the tides of history like scars on skin, engraved in memory.

The series “Augusta Victoria” further delves into historical biographies and figures, and moves closer to the Jewish storyline. At its heart lies the story of two families that lived during the turn of the twentieth century, whose paths crossed at a key historic event: the dynasty of the last Prussian empress, Augusta Victoria of house Schleswig-Holstein, and the Jewish-Viennese Herzl family. Their brief encounter – the fleeting, uncertain moment where Theodor Herzl approached Emperor Wilhelm II, Augusta Victoria’s husband, and vigorously demanded that the Jewish people be given the right to return to their land – is completely dismantled by Abady, leaving behind only scattered fragments and points of view. Abady portrays the lone figure of Herzl grasping his bonnet, Wilhelm’s unladen horse, and the architectural monument left from the imperial couple’s historic visit to the holy land – the “Augusta Victoria” church at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Abady lingers on this short, critical moment in Jewish-German history that had the potential to set a completely different story into course, and re-dictate the future of Israeli-Palestinian territory.

From this point on, Abady’s work is populated with an assembly of characters whose relationship is purely metaphorical. He refers to them by their first names – Hans, Joachim, Victoria-Louise – and attempts to discuss the personal tragedies, or the curse, that haunted both families – the Jewish one and the Imperial one. Both experienced early demise, lunacy, suicide and inner disintegration.

From the perspective of Israeli art, Abady returns to the point of origin – to the period when artists of old Bezalel drew portraits of the state’s beloved father, imprinting Herzl’s dignified and inspiring silhouette in the collective memory. Israeli art has not viewed the figure of Herzl as part of the contemporary artistic discourse for many years. Abady’s portrayal suggests a completely different point of view on the national leader as a private individual, who pursues relationship of kinship, fatherhood, lust and love. Abady tries to touch upon the dire price paid by those who live too close to the fire of grand ideals and visions, and get scorched. He raises from the dead, amongst others, the little known portrait of Hans, Theodor Herzl’s youngest son, who took his own life after many personal hardships. The succession of tragedies in Theodor Herzl’s family, including the mental illness of his wife Julia, the suicide of two of his three children, and the death of his third daughter at a World War II death camp, is a story that was silenced for many years by those who wished to portray the nation’s father as a proud, fearless Jew.

Abady’s metaphoric use of the Prussian Imperial family again hints at his attempt to connect a historical tale of epic proportion with personal relationships and tragedies. Joachim – the youngest son of Victoria-Augusta and Wilhelm II – also took his own life, while his empress mother died of heartbreak as an exile in foreign land, following the collapse of her kingdom. While “My Other Germany” strolled the alleys of Berlin, conjuring pieces of broken statues and Berliner monuments along its way, “Augusta Victoria” summons the Jerusalemite landscape of a century back, and stares at its barren emptiness. The Augusta Victoria building appears as a solitary site, its tallest turret rising towards an empty skyline. As a Jerusalemite, privy to the city’s sites of history and mystique, Abady observes the point where Jerusalem kisses the desert, the border point where the civilized and inhabited meet the eerie and desolate. The structure, which had served as a house of accommodation for Christian pilgrims in its early days, later turned into a Palestinian hospital, and was the center of conflict in a battle of many casualties during the Israeli War of Independence. Through its story, Abady exhibits an intricate, disturbing strip of history. He inquires not only about things that were, but about things that could have been, as if the past is again taking place in the present.

Augusta Victoria concludes in a work called “The End” – like the final shot of a film. The end in Abady’s work is the moment where everything is finally compressed into a single scorched line: an inner haze of gathering black clouds. The choice to conclude this series, which blends together laden materials of German and Jewish history, in such a tangible abstract gesture, can be seen as an attempt to capture the myriad fates of mankind in a single scorched burn of apocalyptic tension.