Ilana Lewitan is a painter of questions too wide or deep for words, whose originality, intelligence, and painterly virtuosity make her one of the most significant surrealists in decades. Her work is now on show at the prestigious Galerie Noah in Augsburg. Possibly you weren’t planning to stop by Augsburg in the next few weeks, but Mrs. Lewitan’s work is bound to appear in America before long. Later this spring she will have a show in Shanghai; she’s had exhibits in Israel and many in her native Germany. The art world is coming to know her.
Her paintings are too diffuse for language, like the oppressive feel of a thunderstorm coming on. One recent painting is called simply Nu?—Yiddish for (approximately) Well . . . ?—a way to demand an answer without asking a question. Along with all good surrealists, Lewitan paints dream-imagery. Many of her paintings are tense with uneasiness, wariness, watchfulness, like a charged copper sphere that will strike sparks across a gap if you come close. But they are effective because of her fine drawing, structural sense, technique with the brush, and her striking sense of color. She extends (proudly and boldly) the line of distinguished contemporary painting in Germany. Her work resonates with earlier voices, but her own is wholly original—and so is she.
She is a Jew who was born in Munich a generation after the collapse of Nazidom. She and her husband, the psychologist and Die Zeit columnist Louis Lewitan (who was born in France), came to New York to spend their young adulthood in the late 1980s and early ’90s. But they decided to return to Munich to rear their children. Lewitan is trained as an architect and worked for Richard Meier in New York. In 1994, back in Munich, she won first prize in a major competition and was set to move into the frenzied strobe-lit razzle-dazzle of international celebrity architecture. But she decided to be a mother, wife, and painter instead. Her first solo exhibit was in 2002; between 2003 and 2009 she was a student of the eminent painter, sculptor, and intellectual Markus Lüpertz at the Bad Reichenhaller Academy near Salzburg. Today, she and her husband are important actors in the small but astonishingly alive Munich Jewish community. They believe in modern Germany—cautiously.
Her paintings in the Augsburg show tend to be wide, low rectangles, some as much as nine feet across. Most show a group of fragmented figures (humans, dogs, masks, skulls) sketched or drawn in loose, sure strokes and surrounded or filled up by colors that are laid in as carefully as masonry webbing in a gothic vault. They are acrylics with collaged elements, charcoal, and other media. They make a coherent group in mood, shape, and relatively soft-spoken color, but she has recent paintings that are even stronger back at her studio and on her website.
In Expectation (2008), which is in the show, is one meter square and centers on two human-like shapes and a third that suggests a sphinx. Several lines of neat, cursive German script snake backwards across the image like a message in a dream that you can’t quite understand. In the background, warm gray turns gradually to blue; the figures are ochre, pale purple, and rusty pink. “What’s up?” (2007, and not in the show) is a large, upright canvas centering on a doll-like figure that is mainly head and hands. Hands are a Lewitan leitmotif. These hands, and an open mouth, seem (again) to be telling us something ominous that we can’t quite hear. The colors include the triad of bright sky-blue, purple, and rusty orange, which recurs in her paintings. The passage from violet to rust is arresting.
In other recent paintings there are dogs, a scowling skull, an elegantly painted zebra head (above a wonderful passage of murmuring greens and then purples and then whispering, tiptoeing light blues), figures gripped and crushed by interlaced fingers, several brutally sketched, radically exposed female nudes gripped or pinned by unseen forces, and fragmented feet, hands, and masklike faces. The brush strokes are quick and confident, the effect memorable and troubling.
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.