After the Camp David accord of 1979, three lifesized sculptures were made of the signatories. One went to Jimmy Carter, and is now in America; the second went to Menachem Begin, and is in Israel; the third was intended for Anwar Sadat of Egypt, but he was assassinated before it was completed. It now sits in the London sitting room of Marton Braun, a collector of Jewish art who bought the piece in Jerusalem a few years ago.
Art dominates the Braun household: the sitting room resembles a private gallery, with paintings on every wall. There’s some interesting stuff here, but the most exciting “fixture” is a person, not a piece. It’s the collector’s wife, and mother of their eight children, Gitl. Until a few years ago, she had spent more than a quarter of a century living quietly in the orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill, North London, speaking only Yiddish and absorbed by the demands of her children.
“In our community a woman has children, and then she has grandchildren. She has no ambitions beyond that,” says Gitl, her face breaking into a gentle smile. “I always knew that I was different, but I loved bringing up my children so I kept my head down. For all these years I’ve spoken only to people in my own community. Now I’m going to learn English and talk to the whole world!”
Gitl, like her husband, had always been interested in art: days out for her children often consisted of trips to the Tate or the National Gallery. One of her daughters went on to study art. On a whim, Gitl went along with her to a life-drawing class and discovered that she was quite good at it. “I have always known that, once my children were grown, I’d find something new to do with my life,” says Gitl. “And this seemed to be it. I decided to enrol at Central St Martins School of Art in London.”
Being a mother of eight in her fifties marked Gitl out from most of her fellow art students: so, too, did her fascination – in a secular age – for objects of faith. Her work has already received wide acclaim – one of her pieces is being shown as part of the British Library’s Sacred on Location tour.
The work – Martyred Letters – is a photograph of an installation of old hand-carved Hebrew printing blocks used in the creation of holy books. “What I do is sculpt with material or, in this case, with blocks, and then I take a photographic image of it,” Gitl explains. “For this I wanted an image that was about the Holocaust, and I was trying to work with letters from holy books. But I wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Then one day I got into the car and it was full of old Hebrew printing blocks that Marton had picked up and I knew that’s what I need.”
Gitl’s blocks are enormously moving, redolent of the millions of lives that were picked up and flung down, like the Hebrew letters in the stack. What was she thinking about as she built her sculpture? “It was the trains to Auschwitz,” she says. Encoded in the installation is this phrase: “The beloved, the pleasant and the just”, part of the Sabbath prayer for the souls of the martyrs.
Marton, who is clearly suffused with pride in his wife’s achievements, holds his head in mock exasperation as he describes the lengths that he has to go to to help her find objects of inspiration. Her next work is already in progress: Gitl is using old puppets and draping them in fabrics to restore them to a lifelike condition. It’s a touching transformation that’s more than a little reminiscent of her own emergence from a hidden to a public life; and yet there are still snatches of the other Gitl. “Yesterday we had one of our grandchildren over,” Marton confides. “We dote on him. Gitl adores him. When he’s here, even the art takes a back seat.”
Sacred on Location, Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, London N17 (020-8808 8772), until Aug 27