The Photography of Gitl Braun

David Breuer-Weil,
artist and ex director of Sotheby’s
London, January 2007

Art has a life of its own. For decades now critics have predicted the demise of art but it stubbornly refuses to lie down. Like seeds in a wasteland, artists find the fertile soil from where to imagine new thoughts and create new images.

Gitl Braun is an orthodox Jewish mother from Stamford Hill, who, bravely and uniquely, decided to embark on a course of fine art and graduated a five years course at the Central Saint Martinís School of Art, where I trained as well. For me it was a little frightening to enter that world of artistic posturing and every kind of pretension and perversion, especially after having grown up in North London. I cannot imagine what it was like for Gitl, someone at least twice the age of most of her fellow students. But she remained focused on her goal, and gained considerable respect from her peers due to her integrity and sense of artistic purpose. With more years came greater maturity. Her fellow students noted her regal bearing and entitled her ‘The Lady’ while some of them credit her for being a source of inspiration and say that Gitl was their counterweight to the despair of self-doubt which caused two thirds of their colleagues to give up and leave.

In the often cynical, market driven world of contemporary art most art students fall victim to lack of direction. Western art may appear as in its death-throes, but, as I have often said, Jewish art, which only emerged from the Ghetto two centuries ago, is still very much in its infancy. Jewish artists often have a great deal to say, because so much of their story has never been said, whereas many other artists often feel as if the barrel of ideas ran dry years ago. There are subjects that have never been explored before. Modern art did cover every permutation of the visible world, every formal pattern and innovation. However, at the apex of all this experimentation, Andy Warhol proudly reveled in the shallowness of his imagery, and when he achieved any depth, it was through the pathos of emptiness. And Warhol is perhaps the most influential figure on mainstream artists working today. Consequently spiritual intensity is usually only accepted by the art world if it is ironic or tongue-in cheek. But, what of those ancient and timeless motifs? Artists today can achieve originality not by doing something different necessarily, but by doing something deeper, by exploring history, ancestry and the constant influence of previous generations.

In some of her works Gitl presents fragments of Hebrew manuscripts, ancient, medieval and more recent. Her preferred medium is digital photography printed on canvas at the highest resolution and quality. She presents images that appear to be fragment of a destroyed world, reminiscent of the fragments of Torah Scrolls which the Nazis used to make mundane items. She rescues and brings back to life these fragments from the scrap-heap of a tragic history (in previous ages Jewish manuscript fragments had been used to bind secular books) and by setting them against dark backgrounds emphasizes their treasured status. They become like jewels set against a foil. Gitl is a child of two Holocaust survivors. Her parents survived against the most unthinkable odds having experienced inconceivable cruelty. Gitl herself is like the diamond salvaged from all that darkness, and this is reflected in her Jewish images, precious fragments of surviving text. These texts also have a very physical quality. They are metaphors for the absent human body-they have an initial impact not unlike images of mummies or bog people of the ancient world. And of course the Hebrew word for a text is Guph, the same word as that for a human body.

Her other body of work is metaphorical in a similar way. She arranges, folds and produces remarkable patterns and creases out of sheets of white cloth which she then photographs. This combines the most traditional female activity with the most modern, the domestic with the technological. Here the human figure is mpst present in its absence. But what is remarkable is the sensuality of these works, more sensual indeed than most images of fully naked models. Gitl has managed to create erotic images out of something that is essentially modest, in the tradition of Jewish womanhood. In earlier times it was the Jewish woman who made the fabrics that adorned Jewish custom. Table-cloths, challah covers, Torah wimples and Passover towels and one is reminded of this rich history. But the resultant images are quite different. In them one detects vortexes and shapes that penetrate to psychic and spiritual depths. The strongest works are often the darkest, as if she is enacting the inner recesses of the working brain. There are some precedents for the sensuality conveyed by the petal-like and folded forms, especially in the work of the American painter Georgia O’Keefe but also in the fabric paintings of Alison Watt. Gitl has combined the quasi-conceptual practice of making ephemeral sculptures out of the fabrics and fixing the images permanently in the medium of photography.

By printing them on canvas she reenlivens the original textures of the fabrics she has photographed. The more complex images move far away from the obvious. Some of them remind one of microscopic images or internal shots of the ear or other parts of the body. It is this kind of ambiguity that gives many of the images their edge. However, there is a certain thrilling modesty in the whole endeavor. The photographs, gentle but riveting essays in pure composition, appear to the viewer like fleeting moods, thoughts or passions. The image is not fixed. It is up for grabs. Each day it may be folded in a different way.