Oil on panel, 65.5X40 cm
Three women standing, each with her back to a wall. One is smoking. The smoke obscures her face, creating a white cloud on her hair. The second woman holds a cat, while the third holds out her empty hands.
Each woman stands in front of a decorative wall covered with flowers, birds, and geometric patterns, turning outward, away from the wall. The gap between the beauty of the wall and what is contained at the distance of the span of one body cannot be measured in centimeters. The frontal plane of each of the three paintings is from a different world from the background, with a tense relationship between the two. The beautiful pattern of paired doves, symbols of love, is juxtaposed with the winged shapes of the woman’s open palms, while flowers in bloom provide a contrast to the puffs of smoke hiding part of the smoker’s face and threatening to blind one eye.
Flowers of a different sort face the cat, which is more than a cat here: it is an echo of the ermine in Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (c. 1490). The ermine, or stoat, a member of the weasel family, is a small yet bold predator which sometimes performs a hypnotic dance before pouncing on his prey. But even without Leonardo’s painting, the cat, like any cat, is a domesticated predator.
Smoke blinding an eye, a predator, and empty hands, all address the eventual dissolution of the body, the void, danger facing the mortal body. In the background we find harmony, bloom and poetry. The three women are located in this tense space.
Perhaps the smoker provides the best example of the state they are in: at first glance, her mouth seems to be made of smoldering ash. The cigarette is at an end, leaving only one last point of fire, which touches the woman’s mouth and becomes a small burning mouth, while the body becomes the cigarette (perhaps this is the reason for her gaze). Smoke emanates from the point of light, rising in the air in shapes like the petals surrounding the centers of the flowers on the rear wall. We sense that the entire quiet wall is burning, sending out flowery trails of smoke.
The withering of the flowers in the background predicts the destruction of the body/cigarette, and I suddenly realize that there is no real gap between the flowers in the background and the smoke in the foreground but that they are one and the same. This takes place in all three paintings: darkness lurks behind each of the women as a shadow or a dark niche. The elements of destruction – smoke, emptiness, and danger of being devoured, already lie at the very heart of the decorative surface, in the very depth of the painting, and not only in its façade. This is especially evident in the painting of the empty hands. There is a dark shadow at the woman’s back; and in front of her, only emptiness. The painting and the feminine presence solidifies and blooms for a moment on the threshold between shadow and the void, between the niche – a miniature abyss – and the smoke.
The trio of paintings depicts a journey compressed into minimal space in a kind of journey taken while standing. In the painting depicting a woman climbing a tree, the journey becomes more dynamic. This painting is based on Pieter Bruegel's The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568) [Detail below] The journey here involves movement and not standing, but the basic structure is similar: at the back of the figure climbing the tree is a branch sticking into her back, which makes her almost a part of the bare trunk, perhaps it is bleeding. The tree is full of red stains, perhaps the blood of previous climbers. Her hand is outstretched above, and in contrast to the painting of the empty hands mentioned above, here she does succeed in touching the golden bird. This painting somewhat solves the covert threat hovering about the three paintings of the women. The painting replaces the falling hat as seen in Bruegel's painting, which emphasizes the danger, the emptiness and the fall downward, with birds flying over the tree.
Maia Zer’s painting of the woman with the cat hints at Leonardo’s painting of the lady with the little predator tensed to attack. The cat is a kind of domesticated bodyguard. The birds evoke angels, or to be more precise, Giotto’s angels from the fresco of The Lamentation of Christ (1305) in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua [detail, below].
Zer borrows the luster of Giotto’s angels’ halos and transfers their gold to the birds’ wings. The beauty of this painting is how Zer took the Giotto’s tree, a minor detail in the fresco in Padua, and made it her main motif. Giotto’s tree, doubtless the model for the tree in this painting, and Bruegel's tree, merge into one, and the angels become birds. In Bruegel's painting, the climber attempts to rob the bird’s nest, while in Zer’s painting, touching the bird is not possessive, but a refined, symbolic act, especially since at least one bird (third from the right) looks as if it is chirping to warn of the invader. Touching beauty, climbing up, is not a comfortable thing. The blood on the tree and the bird’s shriek testify to this. It seems that the entire tree sways to the left from the weight of the climber. In Giotto’s fresco, the Apostle John’s arm is thrust backwards, towards the angels, but they are far from his hand and unattainable. However, in Zer’s painting, cautious contact between the upper worlds and the body is possible. Perhaps the painting hints at the possibility of touching an angel through the angel’s stand-in – the bird – similar to the way it is possible to touch Leonardo’s ermine, a creature difficult to domesticate, through its painterly incarnation in the guise of a cat.
Climbing the tree can be understood as a symbolic representation of the act of painting. The transition from the wounds of the tree bark to the flight, from the red to the golden, hints at the drama of sublimation. The drama in these paintings is not solved through idealization and refining, rather it remains on the threshold between the scratch of a branch and the touch of a feather. It is a good idea to attempt to feel these two touches, softness contrasted with roughness through the sense of touch, and not only through the sense of sight. Their combination also characterizes how the paint was applied in these paintings.
In another painting, the golden bird returns but this time in a more symbolic way. It evokes the dove in Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ. In this painting, the bird descends from above. The effort and the bleeding in the painting of the climb is replaced by erotic inspiration, a kind of annunciation from above. It descends to the hand of the naked woman and balanced upon the beak’s sharp point in a posture that is impossible unless in a dream – or in a painting.