Hannah Sandorf and Faculty Mentor: Heather Jensen, Department of Comparative Arts and Letters
Bracha L. Ettinger is considered by many contemporary art scholars as one of the most important living artists of our day that addresses cultural trauma transferal. The child of Jewish immigrants who escaped the Lodz Ghetto, Ettinger grew in Israel, becoming interested in the wealth of different cultural and religious perspectives that thrive in the city. She eventually left Israel to pursue a PhD in psychology in France and now teaches psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School, focusing on her own theories of the Matrixial Borderspace. Because of her many influences, her art is extraordinarily complex and rich with symbolic meaning. While many scholars have tackled her work from various feminist and religious angles, her newest series, which includes Eurydice-Pieta no. 53 (2012-2016) carries clear Christian allusions that have not yet been addressed. The purpose of my research was to understand more about her various influences and especially the use of Christian, feminist, and Jewish symbolism in her work.
My research began with extensive study of works from the BYU library, including Ettinger’s own work, The Matrixial Borderspace. I also used ORCA funds to purchase Art and Compassion , one of Ettinger’s most important and seminal works only available through purchase online. This was an important beginning to my project, but the most crucial part of conducting any art historical research happens from the visual analysis of the painting. Ettinger’s work is shown in different themed exhibits throughout the year across the United States, but the only sure place to find her work, and the most affordable for me, was the Callicoon Gallery of Fine Arts located at 49 Delancey Street in New York City. After a summer internship, I used ORCA funds to travel to New York City, where I stayed and visited the gallery to conduct research everyday for a little over a week from August 1- August 9, 2017.
Photios Giovanis and his assistant curator Elizabeth Lamb were extremely helpful. Not only did they allow me to study her paintings carefully in close quarters, they also provided me press releases, publications, essays, and Ettinger’s own instructions to the gallery about how her work was to be hung, introduced, and sold. All of these materials would have been impossible for me to compile on my own, and their records stretched back for over 15 years. They also allowed me to interview them individually about their relationship with Bracha, understanding of her work, and their general impressions. Speaking to her U.S. representatives, the most qualified people in the country to represent her, was an enlightening and extremely helpful experience. It was especially important for my project because I was dealing with such a new creation in art history that there is not as much other documented scholarship or writing regarding her works.
While in New York I also visited the Jewish Museum to further my research on specifically Jewish themes in Ettinger’s work. The current exhibition was an exploration of the writings of social art historian Walter Benjamin related to the presence of the subconscious memories of the Holocaust in the collective subconscious of the Jewish people. While there, I began an email correspondence with curator Jens Hoffman who recently worked on an exhibition related to Jewish trauma memory, a main influence in Ettinger’s art and her psychoanalysis.
The most compelling evidence I found in my research and writing is the multiple interpretations Ettinger’s depictions allow. Because they are placed in the Matrixial borderspace, a trans-subjective, sub-subjective level of consciousness, her paintings and figures are allowed multiple meanings. For many of her paintings she uses the theme of Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, as a main, repeating narrative. In my research, however, I also linked this narrative to Eurydice of Thebes, a different mythological woman with the same name, who experiences the death of her two sons and never emotionally recovered. Both Photios and Elizabeth commented their belief that this would be an important interpretation of her work. Allowing a focus on trauma in art work allows her female figures to have a specific identity, not the hyper-sexualized, nude representations of Greek mythological women.
By adding the motherly interpretation of Eurydice of Thebes to her work, Ettinger’s work is further distanced from the hyper-sexuality of the romanticism and symbolism of the 19th century when the myth of Orpheus was frequently depicted. This interpretation also feels more true to Ettinger’s own psychoanalytic writings and her personal experience. Her writing often discusses her relationship with her mother, who was heavily traumatized by her Holocaust experiences, leading Ettinger to feel that her mother was more concerned with remembering the dead than caring for her. By understanding her Eurydice paintings not as only Eurydice the wood nymph but also Eurydice of Thebes, a deeper understanding of Ettinger’s work can be reached based on her personal experiences with her mother and the strong Christian influence in her work. My research relates Eurydice of Thebes to Mary, both women who were greatly distraught at the loss of their innocent sons, this connection supported by Ettinger’s own titling of her work as a Pieta scene.
My ORCA project has resulted in many avenues to discuss and share my research. These included presenting a poster at the President’s Leadership Council and a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation for my Art History Capstone class open to the general public. My work is also pending publication in a BYU peer-reviewed journal, A Woman’s Experience which specifically focuses on the experiences and accomplishments of women. I also plan to use this essay to apply for graduate school in the coming year.
Though researching Holocaust trauma painting was an extremely emotionally difficult experience, my ORCA project has been a very rewarding experience. I now feel I have a mastery of trauma theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Jewish trauma painting which I did not have before this project. I have also contributed important research on the work of Bracha L. Ettinger by studying her work in context with Antigone and her personal life experience. This research will hopefully allow other scholars to continue to study the broad implications of her work and healing theories of psychoanalysis.