The Flip Side
Ilana Lewitan, artist of hidden truth and double meaning.
Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By DAVID GELERNTER
The complex bouquet of Lewitan’s work includes overtones of de Chirico (in its stubborn, ominous, questioning mood), of Dubuffet, of early Chagall hand-colored lithographs, and of George Grosz, among others. Some of her pieces, with strips of color behind figures sketched in black, suggest not only Chagall but the grossly neglected fauve Raoul Dufy. A few of these paintings include flip-panels: Using a knob mounted on a shaft that penetrates the canvas’s wood frame, you can flip over an inner segment that is painted on both sides, like removing a centrally located jigsaw puzzle piece and replacing it upside down. The flipped-over panel blends quietly into the painting, like an orchestra member showing up late for rehearsal—and changes it. Instead of a thumb, for example, you get a face.
In many of her early flipper-works, not only the flip-panel but the entire painting is double-sided, making four possible surfaces in all. (One thinks of late medieval altarpieces that show one image on the closed door-flaps and another with the flaps open, sometimes with subtle pictorial interactions between inner and outer images.) Lewitan’s flipper-paintings are the ideal medium for ominous ambiguity or, equally, for bridging two images in distant keys.
Her best-known piece—the one that seems to be reproduced most often—is Spuren aus der Zukunft (Traces of the Future), from 2006. This double-sided flipper-painting shows, on one side, a digitally printed photograph of a Nazi crowd in Munich, transformed by overpainting but clearly legible; the center flip-panel has a hand raised in the Hitler salute, answering the thousand saluting arms in the photo below. When you flip the inner panel, it passes through a tilted-forward attitude that echoes the raised arm of Nazidom. But when it’s flipped over completely, the Nazi salute is gone and a child’s cupped hands have taken its place. On the other side, a group of children’s hands raised playfully takes the place of the heiling crowd. But flip the inner panel and the Nazi salute reappears among the children. In the upper band are photographs of Munich’s Jews in the 1930s, some of them family photos, some hanging upside down. The result has the richness of Robert Rauschenberg but with colors that are vivid and mellifluous and a narrative flowing up one side and down the other.
The Lewitan flip-panel is not merely an ideal ambiguity machine: It captures the double-sidedness of Lewitan’s life. She used the flipper in a striking series of square pieces finished in 2003 in an exhibition called Doppelleben (Double Life) and described as “soul portraits.” In these paintings a svelte and lovely girl is transformed (flip the panel) into a ferocious fish-headed mermaid; a frog-like creature grips a sort of woman—and then (flip the panel) consumes her. These paintings are more densely worked than the later ones, and their cool, aquatic colors are, as usual in her work, striking and beautiful.
There is tension of sorts between the sheer confidence and panache with which Lewitan draws and colors and paints, and the ominous, interrogative mood of her pictures. She does her high-wire act on a tightrope stretched hard between these two points. Inevitably, one wonders if and when she will allow the pent-up beauty of her work to explode into an optimistic allegro con brio group of paintings. In real life she seems to be an allegro con brio sort of person. But restless, impatient questioning, with violence rolling just beneath the surface, might be the only possible mood for a German Jew in modern Munich—or, possibly, for any Jewish artist anywhere in 2011.
David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being.