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Cobalt Blue, Israeli Hue

Reprinted with permission of JBooks.com.

Review of Blue Nude by Elizabeth Rosner (Ballantine, 2006).

Unlike Marc Chagall's "Jew in Green" (1914)--which actually shows a rabbi with a deep-green face evocative of a seasick cartoon character--Henri Matisse's "Blue Nude" (1907) is somewhat of a misnomer of the palette. The reclining woman is mostly a peach, white and yellow affair and bluish-purple shadows only invade the body in a few places, notably the eyes and the left breast and leg.

But the blue nude tradition--of which Picasso and Bonnard are card-carriers--is more about temperament than palette. Elizabeth Rosner's new book, Blue Nude, is a love story about an Israeli model and a German painter, punctuated by tragedy.

Merav grew up on a kibbutz, and after serving in the army and seeing her ex-boyfriend killed in a bus bombing, she moves to America to study art and then to model. With her mother's and grandmother's admonitions echoing in her head--" You shouldn't be working for a German… You shouldn't trust him… And taking off your clothes? Are you out of your mind?" --Merav finds herself posing for 58-year-old German painter Danzig's drawing class at the Art Institute and then in his studio. As a child, Danzig endured both his Nazi-activist father's abusiveness and his sister's suicide to become a successful painter, even as his father calls art " Useless and good for nothing practical, that's for sure." But Merav meets the older Danzig, who has swapped his success for seducing his model-muses instead of painting them. He is stuck in his dead-end art school job, forever promising himself he will retire to his suburban shed to paint. He has not painted a thing in five years.

Danzig's deterioration and painterly paralysis would have delighted the blue nude Fauve painter, Matisse, whose wife walked out on him after 31 years of marriage when he refused to get rid of his 22-year-old Russian studio assistant over his wife's demands. Like Matisse, Rosner is fascinated by modeling almost at the expense of her health. She wrote the chapters about Danzig's sister Margot's suicide in a trance--the book alternates between the perspectives of Danzig, Merav and Margot, and it oscillates in chronology. Rosner felt so disturbed "climbing into Margot's skin" that she "couldn't dare write from inside that place" and almost canceled her book contract. Having set the chapters aside for a year, she forgot them, and only rediscovered the Margot folder on her computer desktop (Rosner writes longhand) after a friend and editor told her that the manuscript was missing something. When she showed the section to the editor, he said, "You forgot you had these--are you on drugs?" Ultimately, the character of Margot remained in the novel--" She's the blue nude that haunts the present." It is Margot who buys Danzig his first brushes before killing herself in the bathtub to escape her father. When Danzig goes to the bathroom one night, he discovers a very blue Margot in " the bathtub, one hand dangling over the side, and her closed eyelids were violet, her fingernails indigo. Everywhere else her skin was not just white but pale blue, gray-blue, like the color of the sky before a storm."

The bathtub as a place of immersion is hardly coincidental. In a recent article in the New York Times Lives section, Rosner wrote of her greatest challenge as a lifeguard in college at Stanford: "standing poolside in a bathing suit with my body on display." She encountered an art student drawing in the locker room one day, which led to modeling gigs in which she found a "reassurance in the artist's gaze" and decided " if someone could forgive my imperfections, perhaps I could forgive my own."

To Rosner, water becomes a conductor of self-consciousness, as well as one for transcendence. When Merav models for Danzig in his studio, she recalls her kibbutz yearnings surrounding water. "Even now she often fantasizes about living submerged," happily remembering the "feeling of freedom she discovered underwater."Merav always swims after her modeling sessions, and, ironically, she later poses in Danzig's bathtub. This submersion-as-art is something sacred to Rosner, although not religious in the traditional sense. It's one of those mysteries about art and the creative process--getting beyond body. There is something about surrendering to the physical that enables you to rise above it. That's what great art is too."

But Blue Nude is not an esoteric, philosophical enterprise; it is a tale of Merav and Danzig reaching out to each other from their lonely, sad lives. Both painter and model find a present tense in their work, even as their pasts seek to engulf them. To Merav, "Hers was the art of remaining present even as she disappeared. Inhabiting her body and dreaming her way out of it." Danzig often reminisces of his painting instructor Hoffman, who used to force the class to spend the model's entire visit looking. Only after the model left did Hoffman allow the class to draw her from memory. Rosner calls this process a balancing act--much like the oscillations between flashbacks and real time in the novel--"Can we hold our ground in the present but allow the past to inform us?" Although, to Rosner, the past is not ever really past, but an artificial construct that is felt by the body in conjunction with the present.

Within this eternal present, Danzig and Merav manage to connect without compromising their promises to themselves not to allow the relationship to turn sexual. In a move that recalls Italo Calvino's The Adventure of a Photographer (1958), in which a photographer discovers that the only dynamic photography he can produce is photographing a torn pile of all of his sentimental photos, Danzig touches Merav not with his hands, but with his brush--loaded, of course, with "All the blues he can find. Ultramarine. Sapphire. Indigo. Periwinkle. Azure." Observing her, Danzig realizes that "Every inch of her becomes his own invention. And here is what's astonishing: not for a single moment does he wish he were using his hands or his tongue to explore her. This is so much more than enough." When the moment is done, Merav showers to remove the paint, and once again unifies art and water.

Danzig's blue nude painting of and on Merav brings the wheel full circle, aligning itself with Matisse, who told his wife, "I love you dearly, mademoiselle, but I shall always love painting more."

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker is a Washington, D.C.-based writer (mwecker@gmail.com) and blogs on religion and art at http://Iconia.canonist.com.

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