Replacement for the dead…

by Batya Brutin

… Although numerous psychological studies have explored this phenomenon, which is itself an indicator of its prevalence, it is interesting that Mira Hermoni-Levine (named after her sister, the daughter of her father from his first marriage) is the only second-generation woman artist in Israel to address it in a series of drawings entitled Mira A and Mira B (1992–1994).

During her childhood, Mira Hermoni-Levine heard only few and disjointed stories about her family members who had perished. Despite this, she internalized the sense of loss that was transmitted to her. In her words: “I grew up amid silence without answers, with much loneliness and fantasy” (interview, 1998). Hermoni-Levine was born in 1948, the only daughter born after the war to a father who had been in hiding and lost his wife, his son Osya, his daughter Mira, and other family members. As she recounts: “The details of what happened to them are unclear to me. When there was [still] someone to check with, I didn’t want to check. And now that I want to check, there is no one to check with. I am left with a very large and obvious ‘black hole.’” Her mother came to pre-State Palestine from Europe in 1933, leaving behind her parents, a twin brother and three sisters who failed to make it to Palestine in time and were all slaughtered and buried in one large pit. Only one sister, whom she managed to convince to follow her to Palestine, was saved, and the artist was left with only photographs of the rest of her family. Hermoni-Levine’s father came to Palestine in 1946, met her mother, and they married and lived in Tel Aviv. Her father died when she was eight and a half years old.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 110x80 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 110×80 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

Hermoni-Levine created the Mira A and Mira B series after producing a number of paintings in the early 1990s in which she depicted the ghosts of her dead family members. The series is based on stories that she heard from her father and a single photograph that he managed to save, showing her brother Osya and sister Mira, who perished in the Holocaust. Mira A is her sister who died and Mira B is herself. The series begins with a drawing of Osya and Mira A, both of them portrayed against a black backdrop with a frame, standing next to a table on which there is a plant. Osya is shown in dark clothes, standing slightly behind his sister Mira, who is highlighted by means of her bright white dress, the ribbon in her hair, and her white socks. The artist next portrayed Mira A alone, this time as very similar to both the figure in the photograph and the artist herself the way she looked as a child.

“Her image is drawn from an inner reservoir. She looks like me in the paintings. She is a mixture of Osya, Mira and me. Every time I look for Mira, it brings me to another Mira. In this way, all the portraits of Mira were born,” says Hermoni-Levine.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 90x60 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 90×60 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

In the next painting in the series, the artist drew a self-portrait as Mira B in which she strongly resembles Mira A and is dressed in the same white dress with the same hairstyle and ribbon in her hair, of which she says: “I was six years old and they wouldn’t answer my questions, but they dressed me up in an organza dress, with a ribbon in my hair, white socks, and patent leather dress shoes” (Ma’or, 27; interview, 1998). The difference in both depictions lies in the background: In the portrait of Mira A, the background is smeared and blurry, suggesting that this figure has a vague, unclear past, whereas the background in the depiction of Mira B consists of the interior of a room, blurred but with hints of furniture and a picture on the right and something that looks like a doorway behind the subject; the feeling conveyed here is that the subject is in an actual setting.

Hermoni-Levine felt that her sister was such a dominant presence within her that at times there was no distinction between them. In one of the paintings in the series, she portrays an imaginary encounter between the two Miras in an attempt to communicate with the dead sister she never knew. The artist portrays her sister, Mira A, against the background of a room containing a window, a table and a picture on the wall. She is wearing a white dress exactly like the one shown in paintings 11–12. By contrast, she presents herself as a young girl standing with her back to the viewer and wearing a brown dress, as if to emphasize the fact that Mira A looks as she did when she died whereas she, Mira B, grew older and changed. The feeling conveyed is that Mira B has “transported” her dead sister to the world of her childhood, in her parents’ home, so that she can meet her; but an actual encounter does not take place as there is not even eye contact between them. Mira A is looking straight ahead and meeting the eyes of the viewer while Mira B’s expression remains hidden since she has her back to us in an effort to hide her turbulent emotions.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 120x100 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 120×100 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

In another work in the same series, Mira A from “there” and Mira B from “here” are portrayed standing next to one another against the backdrop of the same interior as in the previous work. Here too, Mira A is shown in a white dress, but this time she is standing atop the table while Mira B is standing beside her, wearing a blue dress. The figure of Mira A is frozen in time, portrayed as she appeared before her death, in contrast to Mira B, who is living, growing, developing. Although the artist positions the dead sister on the table, she still looks like a small girl; perhaps this emphasizes even more strongly the fact that her life was halted. By dressing the two Miras differently (in both these works), she underscores the feeling that Mira A is beyond life, particularly in her use of the white dress as a symbol of purity and pristineness, in contrast to her portrayal of herself in a brown or blue dress. (Although in her interview with the author, she recounted that her parents would dress her in a white dress like that of her sister because they saw her as a replacement for the dead sister, we see that when she grew up and matured, she stopped wearing the white dress.) The dominant figure in both works is Mira A, since Hermoni-Levine wishes to emphasize that she is “summoning” her from the depths of her own self in order to confront the existence of Mira A within her.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 90x60 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

Untitled, from the series Mira A and Mira B, 1992–1994, oil on canvas, 90×60 cm. Private collection, Chicago.

In another picture, Mira B is portrayed as a young woman who has matured and changed. The color of her hair is now golden, and she is sitting facing a mirror, with her back to the viewer and her image reflected in the mirror. Mira B is gazing at herself in the mirror in an attempt to comprehend what is happening inside her, where Mira A and Mira B both exist. Hermoni-Levine relies here on the longstanding tradition of employing a mirror as an artistic device. There are countless examples of a figure surveying itself (or its inner essence) in a mirror, with the image of the person reflected in the glass. The significance of the mirror is not uniform, but over time, special powers and qualities have been attributed to it, both positive and negative. One of the qualities that artists, including Hermoni-Levine, have made use of is the mirror’s ability to serve as a link between the human subject and its representation. For the artist, the mirror serves as a medium of self-discovery in the encounter between man and his image that can reveal the hidden truth of the subject gazing in the mirror—a glimpse into the soul, far beyond the simple reflection of the image.

Hermoni-Levine, who found it difficult to convey what takes place within her and did not enjoy explaining her pictorial series, simply stated repeatedly: “I am the girl ‘in place of.’” Her paintings are an excellent example of the anguish of the second generation, who struggle with another person existing inside them; despite their desire to free themselves of this figure, their conscience does not permit it. …