Exhibition: Magna Mater

Location: The National Arts Club, New York
Date: 2000
Review By: Dr. Alec Mishory, Art Critic & Historian


The alluded identification with these heroines and the different interpretation given to each one of them in poetry and painting form the nucleus of the exhibition, celebrating female magic, enhancing vitality, radiating a dichotomy of strength and firmness vis-a-vis vulnerability and frailty.

Raviv’s paintings grant each heroine new personal and modernistic meanings, expressing a variety of insights. Never before have Europa and Leda, Flora, Helen, Pandora, Shehrezade, Alice and Lady Godiva been portrayed this way: in a haze of colours and expressive forms that exhibit their relations with their spouses or the way they see themselves from within.

Zeus, the king of classical gods of mythology used to change his shape before mortal women he wished to seduce. All of these women were the envy of his wife, Hera. To Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta, he appeared in the shape of a swan; to the daughter of the king of Tyre, he came in the form of a bull. The mythological stories emphasize the fraudulent element in the pursuits of Zeus, the male god. It is the mask that he wears that enables him to assume false identities, usually of animal figures, to achieve his purpose. In Ilana’s paintings, this order of things is reversed: it is rather the female figure that is given a central place in the scene, while the male animal gets a secondary role in the complex painted space. All ”men” in Ilana’s paintings are ”animals”: hares, dogs, swans, bulls, and horses. The only male presented with human characteristics – although in an almost abstract manner – is Adam, the first created human being.

Adam and Eve are outstretched on a bedding (not a particularly convenient one) of lush greenery. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is separating them from one another. Eve is portrayed as a sensous woman with prominent breasts, offering the fruit to Adam. Adam is a human creature, minimalistically defined with a chaotic storm of colorful brush strokes enveloping him. Above the forbidden fruit and under it, a violet wound snake separates Adam from his spouse.

In Leda and the Swan, Leda is trapped by the swan; but at the time she seems to be trapping it too. In fact, the swan is partly a swan and partly a snake; its long neck is wrapped around the naked body of the woman. The different versions Raviv has created of Leda and the Swan disclose the heroine in various postures, each contributing a specific relation-system between the woman and the legendary bird. In one such posture, Leda is seated on the ground, her legs crossed, her head resting on her shoulder. The swan leans agains her knees, embraced by her enormous hands.

The swan’s elongated neck seems transformed into a snake wound around her body. Their looks do not meet: the woman’s gaze implies meditation, while the swan’s look is directed outside. In yet another version, the swan wraps itself around Leda’s body, as if it were strangling her. Her look turns to us, in sad introspect meditation. Another Leda is shown holding the swan in a natural posture of a woman breast-feeding her baby. Her facial expression is soft while the bird rests its head on her right breast. In another painting on the same subject, the couple is shown in a calm posture: Leda and the swan joined in embrace which is based entirely on the white, black, and red colours. The black hair of the heroine, the white feathers of the swan, and its red beak. The white feathers are mingled with the abundant head hair in an explosion of coulour surfaces, thus disturbing the calm atmosphere of the moment. The tension is conveyed by the fixed gaze in the swan’s eyes, as well as by the heroine’s tight lips.

Alice, in Raviv’s painting is not in ”Wonderland”. The womanly-girly figure is captured, while capturing the white rabbit, not unlike the Leda and the Swan counterpart. Alice is shown running for her life, not knowing what to do with her large arms. In another painting on the same subject, she is shown naked, running away from unseen forces that are threatening her in the form of black, broken, destructive lines. The heroine turns her head backward, like the wife of Lot. While on the ground, next to her, the rabbit is lying on its back. In a quite different guise, Alice, the woman-girl-doll is shown sitting or rather ”placed” passively before us. Her head is a head of a mature woman, her eyes are sad, but her legs are a doll’s legs. The rabbit, with long protruding ears, clings to her clothes, as if its whole existence depends on her.

Pandora, the mythological, curious woman who represents human curiosity as such is unaware of what might happen to her when she opened the lid of the box the gods had given to her. Indeed, when the lid is removed, all evils and mishaps of the world emerge. Stricken by guilt, Pandora must now bear the consequences of the ruin she has now brought upon mankind. The only beacon of light in this story is ”hope”, the sole human quality left for Pandora. In Raviv’s painting, the heroine is marching into the painted space from the left side, carrying a quasi-abstract substance, an outbreak of yellow and green colours, hinting perhaps at some succulent blooming. Above the colourful space, there are two black circles alongside something which might be defined as a lock of black hair. Are these Pandora’s eyes watching us through the exploding package, eyes that try to gain some pity from us, following the disaster she had brought upon herself? Perhaps these are only her breasts?

Raviv presents the legendary Shehrezade in dancing movement. The heroine lifts her hands over her partly covered face. Her eyes are on us, pulling us into a stormy dance of blazing red. The same Shehrezade, in another version is shown twice: is she the black figure, embracing and conquering a white image? Or is she the very white conquered image herself? Like a vortex of feet, hands and heads, the painting manifests a sensuous encounter between ego and alter-ego.

Lady Godiva, the haughty and defiant, riding a horse whose brown bottom is protruding, and its fronted part looks like two wooden beams crowning a triangular head. Lady Godiva ”plays” with both hands on its neck, while her eyes invite us to take part in her pursuits. Under the horse, another Godiva is revealed – the ”fallen” one.

Another mythological heroine in Ilana’s pantheon is Flora, the begetter of flowers in springtime. Flora had a garden given to her by her husband, Zephirus, the west wind of springtime. The flowers in Flora’s garden were not common flowers; each had been a mortal before he became a flower. One of them was Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection and became the flower that bears his name. Another was Klithia who fell in love with Apollo and because of her adoration of the beautiful sun god, became a sunflower. Flora, created by Ilana Raviv, is naked, wearing only red high heel shoes; the red flowers from her garden became a red turbulent wreath.

As a pause from the heroines of mythology and history, Raviv exhibits present-day women in her other group of paintings; women without symbolic role that epitomize human values, heroic activities, etc. The contemporary women are an allegory to daily human condition like self satisfaction, small personal happiness, perhaps even gladness. A little smile is hinted on the face of the nameless heroine in the double painting (diptych) Woman with Dog; similar atmosphere, almost idyllic is conveyed in Two Women with Watermelon. In Secret, two dressed women are facing each other: one, fair-haired, is wearing a large black hat; the other is reserved, her head turned down, wearing an underdress with large breasts underlined by red lines; the fair-haired woman extends her hand, almost touching them. The black dog is watching the two women.

In these paintings, as in the rest of her paintings, the mainly abstract female body is just implied. It is composed of body parts of uncommon proportion: the arms are long, the large fingers are spread, the facial parts – eyes, nose, eyebrows, and mouth – are not symmetrically arrayed and do not pretend to form a ”real” facial image; quite the contrary, sometime these components overstep the painted limits that define the faces. The women’s breasts, sometimes protruding, sometimes fallen are underlined; the hair is black, mostly curly and dispersed and their figures are delineated by thick and curving lines.

Raviv’s paintings convey dynamic description, full of energy, expressive of the complex relation between man and woman – seen from a female perspective. In them, mythological heroines, as well as ordinary women, acquire a sharp expression, saturated by colorful sensual storm, creating in the spectators a kind of sweeping identification.

Dr. Alec Mishory
Art Critic & Art Historian