Redrawing Lilith: Canadian Painter Jon Tobin’s New Vision of the First Woman

She was the first that thence was driven; With her was hell with Eve was heaven

– “Eden’s Bower,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

Lilith – Adam’s First wife, a temptress, a demon, the architect of Man’s fall from Eden. As the embodiment of “the perilous principle in the world being female from the first,”* she has captivated writers and artists since the dawn of civilization. Her image has become standardized, traditionally cast as a woman of supreme beauty, an un-aging seductress ominously entangled with the Serpent and the Tree. Yet Canadian painter Jon Tobin has envisioned a new Lilith – a psychological being and a woman of raw, primal emotion, journeying through darkness, as much tormented by her inner demons as humanity is by her deception.

Tobin’s Lilith is introspective. As she ages, she becomes increasingly aware of her true self. The blindfold present in each image in the series represents self-contemplation as well as her blindness to the havoc she wreaks. She is also carnal and raw – a “woman in exile who has returned to her body/ as one would return from a country on the other side of the Sun.”**

“The Lilith Series,” an ongoing study of the character, visualizes the artist’s personal interpretation of the Lilith Myth in the style that is signature Jon Tobin. The artist is known for his ethereal canvases that pulsate with internal energy, and Lilith emerges out of Tobin’s autographic palate of subdued hues, masterfully manipulated to create startling contrasts and tactile depth in darkness. The palate ultimately harmonizes to create a ghostly figure of Lilith that is mysterious, captivating, and haunting.

Tobin studied Fine Art and French-Canadian Literature at University of Waterloo. Besides serving on the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Regional Arts Council, Tobin teaches aspiring artists and lectures on the techniques of “tactile media.” His paintings have been widely exhibited at galleries in Toronto, Montreal, and his hometown of Kitchener and collectors have been quick to recognize the sublime yet subtle beauty of Tobin’s artistic vision.

*Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Correspondence of 21 April, 1870.

** “femme en exil revenant dans son corps/ comme on revient de loin/ de l’autre pays/ du soleil” from Michel Camus’ “Hymne a Lilith: La femme double.”

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Chasing the Expressionists, Part III: 11 museums in 10 days

the 8 catalogs that traveled home with me

When was the last time you were alone in a room with a Van Gogh, let alone 3 Van Goghs, a Manet, and a Rodin? It was 4:00 on Monday, and I had “The Plain at Auvers” (1890), with all it’s luminous, obsessive, expressive brushwork, to myself. I couldn’t believe it — I was the only body in the French Impressionism Gallery of the Neue Pinakothek, one of Munich’s marquee museums. Never had I been in a museum of this stature, on a day open to the public, and been such a solitary observer of such stupendous art — I was going to soak it up until the lights shut off and security kicked me out… which they did, chirping a friendly “tschuss” as they locked the door behind me.

For the most part, my experience at the Neue Pinokothek is representative of my visit to the other 10 museums I hit while running from Germany to Austria and back again. Where were all the people? With stenciled walls and cozy lavender galleries, the museums I visited in Germany were a refreshing change from the whitewashed, tourist-packed monoliths that are my homes away from home in New York. In general, the collections are smaller, more accessible, and more focused — as long as my feet held up, it was easy to tour and digest multiple museums in one day.

I won’t summarize them all, rather here are my favorite:

The Museum der bildenden Kunst, Leipzig

the exterior of the Museum der bildenden kunst advertising the Kirchner exhibit

Leipzig is a city undergoing serious urban renewal. The oldest building in the city has been under silver sheet metal for the last 20 years and was only uncovered while I was there; the main market is being dug up while the buildings around it are being “restored.” My first wanderings around town didn’t prepare me for the treasure trove that is the Museum der Bildenden Kunst. Dedicated in large part to its native artists, the Leipzig collection is perhaps the best deposit of the work of Max Klinger (1857-1920), including his jaw-dropping monument to Beethoven. Klinger is best known outside of Germany for his portfolio of etchings entitled “Ein Handschuh” (A Glove), but he was also a brilliant sculptor and painter who melded styles and media to create truly stunning, unforgettable works of art. I was also pretty excited that there were 2(!!) Expressionist shows on while I was there — a selection of Kirchner’s drawings, on loan from Berlin, and “Vom Freber Bessen Rudiger Berlit und Der Expressionisms in Leipzig.” The space for all of this art is brand-spanking-new and fantastic — high ceilings, lots of light, comfortable galleries. It’s no wonder the German Fencing Federation chose it as the site for the Leipzig World Cup final gala.

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Das Grune Gewolbe, Dresden

The Dresden Green Diamond in its setting

The Green Vaults of Dresden are kunstkammers at their most opulent. Imagine rooms filled to the brim with objects carefully, painstakingly, masterfully crafted from amber, ivory,  silver, tortoise shell, and precious gems. I had never seen so many diamonds, so many emeralds, so many rubies — it’s a wonder there are any left on today’s market! Massive clocks with moving figurines, a cherry-pit craved with 185 individual faces (apparently, there was one in the collection with 210 faces, but it went missing… i blame a squirrel), model ships carved from ivory, a secretary that was a mosaic of amber — a never-ending collection of glitzy, showman-y “stuff.” The tour of the two vaults took approximately 2 hours, during which time my jaw was constantly dragging on the floor. The highlight? The massive 40.7 carat green diamond that sits in its own room near the exit of the New vault. It’s set with still more diamonds (one of which is 19 carats). Imagine… it’s a hat ornament! Now that’s some serious bling.

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The Wallaf-Richartz Museum & Fondation Corboud, Koln (Cologne)

the 19th century gallery

The Wallaf-Richartz Museum made me like medieval art. Yes, this Modernist finally found a place in her heart for religious icons outside the work of Natalia Goncharova.  Thanks largely in part to colored walls that enhanced the gilt of the paintings, a lack of crowds, the witty placement of pews in the galleries, and enthusiastic security guards who wanted to show me all their favorites, I gained the appreciation for the art of the 13-15th centuries that the Met failed to inspire. This was the last museum I toured in Germany and was easily my favorite. From its gift store (which would have made MoMA proud) to its lovely collection of 19th century paintings, I liked it all.

the best way to view an altar piece? from a pew of course

A few other highlights:

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, Koln

The Pop-Art collection at the Ludwig Museum, Koln

The Sistine Madonna at the Zwinger, Dresden

Had I not scheduled Munich on a Monday — when most of the city’s museums close — and had Dresden’s Albertinum not been shut for renovations, I might have reached my goal of 15. Oh well, reasons to go back…

Chasing the Expressionists, or, how I learned German, Part II: Traveling

“For one screaming minute my heart and the engines correspond as we attempt to prove again that the laws of aerodynamics are not the flimsy superstitions which, in my heart of hearts, I know they are… I happen to be convinced that only my own concentration (and that of my mother — who always seems to expect her children to die in a plan crash) keeps this bird aloft. I congratulate myself on every successful takeoff, but not too enthusiastically because it’s also part of my personal religion that the minute you grow overconfident and really relax about the flight, the plane crashes instantly. Constant vigilance, that’s my motto.” — Erica Jong, Fear of Flying

Salzburg at dusk... cold and snowy but elegantly picturesque

I’m very good at fooling myself into believing that I like to fly. When the sky is blue and the clouds are white puffs that slip by my portal at sporadic intervals, when check-in runs smoothly, and when i can see the Manhattan skyline shrink below me as the plane rises up, up, up, I start to think that this whole flying thing is actually enjoyable. Then the plane banks and wibbles, we hit a spot of turbulence, the seat belt signs comes back on, the flight attendants scurry to their seats, and I am quickly reminded why I hate flying. I don’t care if I’m more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. Give me a car any day.

I glared at the man in the seat next to me on my Frankfurt-bound flight. As soon as his dinner was cleared, he promptly dropped off in a deep slumber. He dreamed through an hour of North Atlantic turbulence while I sat with eyes blazing wide and back pitched forward ready to enter a protective fetal position. Any attempts at soothing, meditative thoughts were thwarted by a fear of falling 38,000 feet in a flaming ball of scrap metal. I wish I could be one of those people who falls asleep as soon as the plane reaches cruising altitude, and stays asleep until seat-backs and tray-tables have to be returned to their upright and locked position for landing. I’m lucky if I can eek out a 30 minute doze on a 7 hour overnight flight. I have to stay awake to help the pilot navigate the air.  Constant vigilance — Erica, that’s my motto too.

We left New York a day later than our projected itinerary predicted. A snowstorm on the East Cost shut down the city airports. This had been my third flight cancellation in as many weeks, and little did I know another awaited me at the end of this trip. So we arrived in Frankfurt at 6:30AM, a day late, hurried, and shattered. My mother had left her glasses on the airplane. I was sent back to retrieve them. 3 technicians and 3 air line attendants helped me rip apart our seats (and when i say “rip” i mean actually disassemble the seat like it was a lego set), but all we found were 3 pens and two old napkins. I was sent off the plane empty-handed.

the snowy, fairytale landscape sweeps past the car window

Now blind as well as tired, we went to the Hertz counter to retrieve our car before checking into the airport’s Sheraton. We intended to catch up on our shut-eye before driving the 540 kilometers to Salzburg, Austria, but again, our best laid plans went awry. We picked up our automatic volvo with the never lost and drove out of the parking lot and right past the hotel. As our heavy eyelids watched our beds slip past the car windows we agreed that, even though we hadn’t slept in 18 hours, we’d power through to Salzburg, stopping at every coffee house on the way if necessary.

The drive was a troubling combination of tedious and wondrous. Snow was everywhere around us — fields and forests covered in a thick powdered-sugar coat, flurries hung in the air, slush sat outside our car doors when we pulled into the parking lot of every rasthoff for our caffeine pick-me-up.  I was waiting for the conductor to cue the orchestra and for the Nutcracker Snowflakes to come dancing out from behind the tree line at any moment. In a dreamy fit, I turned to my pilot — “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in Ohio. But these trees tell you you’re in Germany — the trees are so German. They’re so upright and precise.”

The cars in front of us kicked salt onto our windshield and the sky was a bright gray —

some German trees

visibility was minimal. My mother was at the wheel. I had loaned her my glasses, a weak prescription I’ve had for the last 6 years and have been meaning to update. She squinted behind the frames and cursed the whippers that seemed to only move the salt streaks around the windshield, rather than clear them away.  Despite 4 espressos, I had turned into a narcoleptic navigator. Most stretches along the autobahn don’t have speed limits and the average german driver travels at about 130kmph. How we made it to Salzburg in one piece, I still wonder.

After a few days in Salzburg, we ventured back to Germany and  into Munich. We spent the first week meandering our way around Bavaria. From Munich we went north to Wurzburg, via Rothenberg ob der Tauber. Next stop was Tauberbischofsheim then further north into Saxony. A few days in Leipzig then onto Dresden, which was supposed to be our last stop before a return to Frankfurt and its airport.

Our flight back to New York was scheduled to depart on Wednesday, Feb. 24. It was Lufthansa flight 400. On Monday, February 22, the Lufthansa pilots went on strike. Flight LH400 for Wednesday was canceled and we were instantly handed 3 more days in Europe.

We toyed with the idea of driving all the way to Amsterdam, but some how we both ended up on antibiotics — me with a nasty sinus infection, my mother with a nastier upper-respiratory thing — and an 8 hour roadtrip seemed out of the question. Instead of a city of canals, we opted for a city with a Cathedral and eau du toilette. Koln (Cologne) became our final stop before wandering back to Frankfurt via the towns and castles along the Rhine.

In 14 days we racked up 2,000+ miles on our rented volvo. We visited 13 cities/towns, spent the nighst in 8 hotels (9 rooms), toured 11 museums and 4 palaces, and lit 8 candles in 7 churches (we’re really only Catholic when we’re travelers). All in all, I lost 3 pounds while my suitcase gained 8 pounds… all in museum catalogs. (stay tuned, Part III will justify the purchase of 10 museum catalogs and highlight the treasures found among the many galleries visited)

the general course of our journey through Germany

Chasing the Expressionists, or, how I learned German in two weeks, part I

the ruins of Frauenkirche as they stood from Feb. 15, 1945 until 2004

“[Dresden] looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5, or, the Children’s Crusade

I have two copies of Slaughterhouse Five. One is the standard soft cover school edition with a broken spine and a handful of pages falling out, taped back in, and sticking out ready to maim you with a paper cut. The other is the 25th anniversary hardcover edition. Sprawled across the frontispiece is a photo of a ruin — a building of once significant stature razed to the ground by the allied fire bombing. When I read Slaughterhouse this past summer, I passed over the image. It was merely illustrative of the destruction Vonnegut deplored and would depict in the novel.

the Frauenkirche as it is today.

65 years and 5 days to the day of the bombing, I was sitting in a cafe in Dresden, sipping a coffee and looking onto the Frauenkirche — the building whose ruin stood coldly on the inside cover of my book.  On February 15, 1945, after enduring two days of fire-bombing, the Frauenkirche (the Church of our Lady) collapsed. For nearly 50 years, the church remained a pile of rubble, a ghostly reminder of the toll war takes on the innocent. In 1992, each stone was removed from the ruins, cataloged and reused. After 13 years of rebuilding, the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated. “There would always be wars…they were as easy to stop as glaciers,” wrote Vonnegut. They leave an indelible mark on the nations that wage them. Today, the Frauenkirche stands as it once did, a monument to God, but now also a monument to the strength of a nation to recover, to reunite,  to carry on, to remember. To see the church with it’s scars (the dark stones on the facade are from the original structure) was sobering.

If you had asked me two weeks ago how I felt about Germany, I would have answered you with ambivalence. I suppose I was like most Americans, holding onto a vision of Germany shaped by Oktoberfest, the Bauhaus aesthetic, Michael Henke films, Slaughterhouse Five, and the Third Reich. I would have told you that I needed to master the language — not because of some deep love for the throaty sound of the Germanic umlaut, but because German is a required language in the art world and a lack of fluency has turned out to be an albatross around my neck. I would have told you I wanted to study the Expressionists, maybe even write a dissertation about one of them. But beyond Kirchner and his posse, I had very little interest in Germany. Then again, even with their bold palates, the Expressionists painted a German existence that was pretty bleak. Could you really blame me for my ambivalence?

Therefore, the course I charted through the country was dictated entirely around museums and fencing venues (I was there first and foremost to compete, I suppose). I was chasing the Expressionists, the one German thing I knew anything about…besides frankfurters. On my hunt for Kollwitz, Beckmann, Ernst, Mueller, and Macke, I found a Germany brighter, warmer, and more captivating than I ever expected. The gray Bauhaus minimalism I anticipated was overwhelmed by the glistening gilt of the Baroque and Rococo.  The Bavarian churches in the south peeked out from puffs of snow, their curving spires like friendly dollops of cream on their villages’ skyline. From medieval town to modern city, it was all one Grimm’s Fairytale landscape. I fell a little bit in love with Germany, past and present.

There were many highlights — museums, pastries, highways, and cities — and many insights. Hopefully, over the next few days I’ll get them down for you. Right now I’m a little busy finding German classes to enroll in…

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