The still life paintings
of Mira Hermoni-Levine

By Sasha Okon

“Still life”, or “Nature Morte” (dead nature, in French) is defined as depiction of inanimate objects. Still life paintings can be found as early as the ancient art, Roman mosaics and murals. The sea creatures, flowers, masks and plants that appear in these works of art are, in fact, a testimony to early humanity’s fascination and bewilderment with the miracle of life and the beauty of the world in all its manifestations. As for other prominent artists in this genre, the best of them were perhaps the Dutch painters of the 17th century. They referred to still life as “stilleven”, meaning peaceful life, life without movement. Their passion for the material world is unrivaled: the translucent glass, the faint shimmer on the side of a silver vessel, the dewy sea-shell, the tear of pinkish meat, the golden bumps on a tail of lemon peel – all the details drawn with love, precision, and an almost religious adoration of the object that transcended the genre and made still life painting an icon of the blooming capitalist protestant society.

The end of 19th century and beginning of the 20th brought forth further developments in the still life genre. With Cezanne and later the Fauvists, Cubists, Picasso and especially Braque, still life becomes the most appropriate genre for pure art, painting at its finest.

The still life paintings of Mira Hermoni-Levine do not belong to any of the previously mentioned incarnations of the genre. We are welcomed to try and explore in depth the nature of the phenomenon in front of us.

First, it is important to mention that in her works exhibited here Hermoni-Levine addresses, whether knowingly or not (which makes no difference to the viewer), one of most basic concepts in the human existence – the concept of home. The objects that reside in her depicted home are in fact symbols, archetypes. A book, a cup, an apple – objects of the cultural world defined as the Judeo-Christian civilization, they symbolize the book – the Book of Books; the cup – the Holy Grail, the apple – the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Even if the artist has chosen these subjects unintentionally, this choice cannot be considered random.

A real artist is always an integral part of ancient traditions, a product of various influences, and therefore his work is always interacting in one way or another with earlier works of are, due to the fact that culture itself is endless echoing and mirroring. As Rabbi Nachman said, “A man asks a question somewhere, sometime. In another place and time, a different person asks another question, and neither knows that the other’s question is the answer to his own”.

Mira Hermoni-Levine’s home is quiet and empty. And in that vacant space the subtle echoes of two great artists are heard. A table and chair frozen in time as a distant echo to the geometry of Vermeer, yet the surfaces – uniquely textured and subtly colorful – are reminiscent of the late works of Rembrandt van Rijn in their powerful texture and delicate monochrome.

However, that is not the only reason for the great Dutch painter to be mentioned here.

Robert Falk defined the essence of Rembrandt’s work as “Compassion towards mankind embodied in material”. The people and the attitude towards them are the thread that connects these two artists so separated by time. The same way the presence of people is important in Rembrandt’s work, the disappearance of the people is important in the paintings of Hermoni-Levine. Who are the people used to live in this house? That cried, laughed and loved in it? Who used to sit on these chairs around this table? Where have they gone and why are they gone for good? They will never return, and no one will pour milk into the cup, hang a coat in the closet, open the book, pick up the apple. Even in the single painting that features human subjects – two girls, the center of attention is not them but the empty chair, its vacancy only empathized by the two others that the girls are sitting on.

These absent people are the ones whose story Hermoni-Levine’s works are telling. The chairs, the table, the empty bowl – are the silent witnesses to their absence. They sustain the memory and spirit of those who are gone. These are objects that have become animated by assuming the souls of the absent persons.

Now, that the still life paintings of Mira Hermoni-Levine have been displayed to the general public, there is room for debate over the accepted definition of the term “still life”.