Dancing Between the Worlds
Dr. David Graves
It seems that people no longer dance like they used to. Dancing is a wonderful activity, since it takes place in another world. Dancing takes place in a fantasy world, a world of beauty, adventure, and enigma. Especially the beginning of the dance. The transition from not dancing to dancing is a transition from this world to the other world. The contrast between the worlds is what leaves the deepest impression on us. When Anne Ben-Or steps into her studio to paint, it is as if she is standing on the threshold of the dancefloor at a fancy ball of an occasional local bigwig. At this ball, there is a lot of commotion outside the dancefloor, people standing around – some of whom are familiar to Anne, others are unknown. Anne often thinks about proper behavior, what should you say to whom, whom should you kiss up to, whom should you give the brush-off. There’s noise, music from a nearby unknown source. On the threshold of the dancefloor, one of the dancers bumps into Anne rather brusquely, not paying any attention to her. Indeed, why would he? After all, he is in another world, he is dancing. With or without a partner, Anne makes the crucial step onto the dancefloor and starts to dance. She is in another world. In the other world, galloping horses carry knights on a quest. There, children are playing with one another and not via screens. There, amorous couples also dance, engrossed in one another, free from the cares of the “real world.” This is of course fiction, this wonderful world of dance. A romantic, utopian, and utterly unrealistic illusion.
Here we arrive at Anne Ben-Or’s opening dilemma: on the one hand, you cannot live in the fantastic world of dance, and on the other hand, there is no point in living in the real world without it!
The metaphorical description above may suggest an imminent threat of kitsch lurking for Anne somewhere in-between the worlds. However, there is no such danger. Quite the contrary, kitsch is the predictable and the banal, but Anne's imagery elicits exceptional curiosity, for it seems familiar and strange at one and the same time. What else would we expect from the dancer between worlds? The painting Murals (2017) for example, depicts a young woman who has fallen asleep in a strange position on a pile of colorful cushions. Perhaps her daughter sat for her and fell asleep while modeling? In any case, on the long wall behind the sleeping young woman there is a yellow wallpaper of sorts, boasting an endless procession of white horses, sauntering-galloping in the imaginary field of the other world. The curled up young woman in this world faces right and the horses behind her gallop left, open and flowing, washing over the dreamer like the waves of the sea.
The young woman in this world and the horses in the oneiric world are so disparate in nature – she is static while they are dynamic, she is slumbering while they are awake, she has volume while they are flat and so forth – that they form a singular dialectical relationship. I believe that this is the key to understanding Anne’s works: dialectics. Dialectics is a “dialogue” between two opposing yet complementary forces. This special dialogue creates friction, since the parties engaged in it are opposing-contradictory. This friction engenders a spiritual energy, so to speak. This energy can be leveraged in historical processes, political processes, artistic processes etc. to fuel and motivate a process of creativity and development. Incidentally, this is the core of the notion of historical development introduced by 19th century German philosopher Georg Hegel, as well as the conceptual core of the Yin and Yang phenomenon in ancient Chinese philosophy.
Dialectical forces underlie Anne’s paintings. These dialectical forces manifest themselves in different arrangements and layers. While the dialectic between this world and the fantastical world that bursts into it – which is in fact the dialectic between reality and fiction, between the desired and the existing – is central to her work, there’s more. Anne’s painting offers a complex dialogue that takes place on several concurrent levels. First, Anne engages in a constant dialogue with reality, i.e. this world, the empirical world that we experience in our everyday life. Anne’s work has strong realistic foundations that should not be overlooked. She observes the world with keen eyes, culling scenes from everyday life. These – phenomena of light in the empirical world – Anne masterfully “formulates” (in the words of her colleague, painter David Nipo) into a composition of shapes and colors on the canvas. This imbues her paintings with a distinctly realistic quality, a somewhat rough, raw, not particularly refined and certainly not sycophantic and affecting realism. Anne’s look at the world is very sober, perhaps even a bit harsh (so that her paintings will never fall into kitsch…). This basic dialogue between the world and Anne, who actively observes it and reformulates it on the canvas, is the underlying dialogue in Anne’s paintings. At times, the dialogue between the world and the observing Anne is enough, for instance in her wonderful portraits (one of which, Carmel (2017) was selected to participate in the prestigious BP Portrait Award competition at the National Portrait Gallery in London). In Anne’s many portraits, her fleshy realism attests to the fruitful dialogue between the light that emanates from the person in front of her and the artist who embodies the person in front of her in the material (that is clearly visible to the viewer’s naked eye). An excellent example of this is found in the 2008 painting Blue Eyes.
The dialectical dialogue that underlies the painting becomes more complex when Anne adds the other, fanciful world. Then, a subtle, multilayered three-way dialogue begins to form between the real world, the fantastical world, and Anne who observes them both, who dances between the worlds. As the dialogue gains added depth, so does the painting when Anne uses the back wall as the plane of the fictional world, a recurring artistic mechanism in her oeuvre. In such instances, the quotidian world is the site of normal events – for example, a young woman falling asleep, as in the 2017 Murals (mentioned above), and Untitled (2014), reworked in I Sleep, but My Heart Waketh (2015), while on the wall behind the slumbering figure a different world unfolds. The dialogue between the reality of the sleeping woman and the fiction on the wall behind her is fascinating, since, as I have mentioned, it feels familiar (safe) and adventurous (fantastical) at one and the same time. In Untitled, an unknown woman falls asleep in a chair, her head resting on her arms at a table covered by a pristine white tablecloth, next to a vase with roses, all depicted in a "fluid" perspective that would have driven even Edgar Degas crazy (Degas, one of the prominent Realists in the history of art, advocated a perspective that "moved" across the picture, as befitting the "wandering eye" that always searches, and does not remain static in a single focal point). Anne’s realism is most impressive: note her treatment of the vase and flowers. And here, on the wall behind the slumbering princess, we encounter three (flesh and blood) male figures in front of three female figures (Classical marble statues?). The men dance a celestial dance behind the dreamer, offering her (and us?) worlds and stars, heavenly paths, while the silent sirens, their faces also turned to the sky, are on their best behavior in the back. The dialogue between reality and fantasy takes on another intriguing dimension when we notice the horizontal strip in the upper third of the painting, which seems to be pasted onto the painting. Is reality in fact the superimposition of one layer over another layer, dimension over dimension, like the very act of mounting a painting onto a wall?
Thus, in Almond Blossoms (2017), Anne’s daughter sits in a simple plastic chair, next to a blossoming almond tree branch, clearly reminiscent of Van Gogh’s almond tree, which leads us to ponder Japanese aesthetics. Behind her, four girls perform a dance whose origin can be traced to spring celebrations of the traditional people of Europe, referencing European cultures that Anne – who hails from Belgium – still carries with her. And if we are dealing with European traditions: in the painting Passé Composé (2018), knights on horseback simply step into the “real” world behind a group of young people whose gaze is fixed on the screen of a laptop sitting on the table in front of them. Accompanied by white doves and engaged in small talk, the knights enter our world, without any of those present noticing. And the scene is presented to us as an everyday, matter of fact, normal occurrence. And why wouldn’t it be, asks Anne, if these young people are so enthralled by the virtual world that bursts from the computer screen, what is so different about a group of heroic knights on horseback from another marvelous world?
Earlier I drew parallels between the fluid perspective of Anne and Edgar Degas, who was not only a proponent of such strange perspectives, but also had a deep fascination with the world of dance. Degas often painted dancers, depicting them in their two worlds: on stage and behind the scenes. The writer of these lines is the son of a classical ballet dancer. My mother is fascinated by Degas' ability to capture the real essence of ballet dancers, their posture, how they move and carry their bodies. Similarly, I can clearly see that the world of dance is also a familiar territory to Anne Ben-Or, dancing between the worlds. In the painting Reflection (2009), the princess leaves her reflection behind her in the imaginary world, as she walks into the “real world." With a decisive step, she assumes a classical “contrapposto” position, a typical move of stepping out of the fourth position, when the dancer sets off for the center or front of the stage. My mother is very familiar with this move, as was Degas. In his 1871 painting The Dance Class, Degas paints the central young dancer precisely in this pose, as she moves to the center of the class. Please note that Degas' dancer also leaves her reflection behind her. I would also draw your attention to the fact that the dancer on the far right is still standing in said fourth position…
Having been raised in the loving bright lights of ballet, I recognize Anne’s deep love of dance. I feel that she borrows dance from its world and uses it as a central means in her painting, through which she weaves her complex dialectical dialogues with reality. On this count, Anne outdid herself in her painting Dance, She Told Me, Dance from 2014. This charming painting brings the viewer face to face with three worlds. In the first world, let us call it “reality”, and at the center of the painting – a couple in a tumultuous dance. Their backs are turned to us in this world, as they face the other world – their fantasy. Again, Anne’s powerful realism serves us well here, since the physicality of the dancers is compelling. We might say that the laws of physics apply well to them, their body movements, the flow of their clothes. The laws of optics, it turns out, also apply to them – note the fascinating way in which Anne formulates the couple’s light and shade, particularly the color transitions in the shadow that the gentleman’s arm casts on the lady’s head and back.
The second world unfolds, as it does, across the reddish wall behind the dancers. On the wall to the right, the second wall, the fantasy world of great heroism and love stories. There, at the entrance to the second world, we find another pair of dancers. A curious couple, since the "princess” looks flesh and blood, while the "prince" embracing her is a naïve child’s painting. The child's world is the third world, which is mainly on the left side of the wall. We'll get to it shortly. White light flows from the entrance to the second world on the right side of the wall, forming a halo that envelops the princess. The prince, a naïve child’s painting with a wide smile across his face, magically turns flesh and blood when he touches the princess (he, incidentally, is clearly standing in the first position!). They turn towards the first couple, as if to call them to join.
Aside from the entrance to the second world on the right side of the wall, the back wall is in fact reserved for the third world, which is the world of childhood with all the baggage that comes with it. The inhabitants of the world of childhood are depicted as simple and unrefined stickmen in a child’s drawing. There are beautiful things in this world: a peacock that spreads out his tail, songbirds, and a blossoming almond tree. There are mysterious elements like the moon, as well as a chair, for those who have grown tired and would like to rest their head for a little while (and we know what happens when they fall asleep in the chair!). On the left wall, two girls are playing with hula hoops. It is an interesting game, since the hoops clearly form the famous logical diagram known as “venn circles." Three circles for three worlds, and just like in a university logics class, the overlap between the three worlds is stressed.
In his book The Critique of Judgment (1790), philosopher Emanuel Kant makes an interesting distinction between different types of art. Art meant only to teach us something, like illustrations of insects we may find in an encyclopedia is “mechanical art." Mechanical art is aimed at our mind. Conversely, art that is aimed at our emotion is “aesthetic art." There are two types of aesthetic art, continues Kant. Aesthetic art that appeals only to the feelings in order to elicit pleasure is “pleasant art." Soap operas and pop songs fall under this category. However, there is a kind of art, the rarest of all, in which emotional pleasure – the aesthetic experience, as we would call it – also functions as cognition. In other words, from our experience of the artwork, and from our engagement with it, we connect with the artist’s world. From this new perspective we understand something we did not understand, we learn something new, we see something else. Then, says Kant, this is “beautiful art” (“fine art”, or “belle arte” in Italian).
According to Kant, then, Anne’s art is undeniably beautiful art. To observe reality through a dialogue with magical worlds that we often have to leave behind is indeed an illuminating experience. I hope that this text will help in some way to connect with Anne’s wonderful paintings in this exhibition, to connect with the dancer between the worlds, and with her guidance – spend a while in forgotten realms.