Dora Holzhandler’s beautiful paintings of lovers, family groups, solitary contemplatives, mothers and children and people at home and in the marketplace, are at once movingly intimate and universal in feeling. For myself, and many others, contemplating her art feels like a kind of liberating home-coming, an awakening to the pristine nature of who we really are. Its dynamically affirmative atmosphere – one which also fearlessly embraces life’s sorrowful poignancies and its transience – has been summed up well by the art historian Sister Wendy Beckett: ‘Dora Holzhandler grasps life and celebrates it. She sees us clearly; for her all is sacred, all is aflame with divine power, even sorrow, even death. She offers to life here a total yes.’
A total yes offered to life is the sonorous note struck throughout Dora’s paintings. This celebratory note (which reminds me of the Jewish toast, L’Chaim – the Hebrew term, meaning ‘To Life’) resounds in Dora’s oil paintings of lovers emparadised in each other’s arms in bedrooms of opulently embroidered patternings (subtly intricate miracles, on the artist’s part, of intuitive Op Art design). It can be heard in her portrayals of mothers and children in gardens of Eden-like fecundity, and in her gouaches of rabbis studying ancient holy texts in plain wooden studies of scintillating darkness.
This music of the spheres, as it were, reverberates in a large landscape depiction of a circle of Wordsworthian figures, dressed in white, dancing, amid hosts of daffodils, in ‘sparkling waves in glee’2 And this note sounds in her self-portrayal as a woman depicted not so much arranging a vase of, say, lilies or chrysanthemums as communing with the ineffable beauty and mystery of their living forms and colours – in the spontaneous freedom of the present moment – in what a critic has called Dora’s ‘frail, diaphanous watercolours which seem to express her innermost emotions’3 (the latter medium she also finds perfect to evoke the moment of abandon or egolessness of naked embracing lovers).
All her pictures are distinguished by a luminously fresh perception of the world in which no distinction is seen between the sacred and mundane, the workaday and sublime. Speaking about the genesis of her making art, Dora says that ‘the beginning of a picture is very important. You have to be in quite a meditative state. It’s very magical. You have the empty canvas. Once the picture has begun, it’s the question of just finding it. The picture is telling you what to do, as it were. It’s a conscious process, that, say, this red doesn’t work, so you’ve got to do something about it. The job is to make it right and to get back to where you started, but with a finished picture. When I paint something I’ve seen fifty years ago, it’s the same moment recreated. The beginning of the picture, the moment of inspiration, is reliving the actual moment. In that way, a person never changes. The moment is the truth.’
‘Lovers with Lilac’, watercolour
Dora calls the process of painting ‘a very strange thing. You have the thought – I’ll paint, say, a lion. If you do it too consciously, it doesn’t look right. Somehow you have to be in a state of meditation, where the thinking is deeper. I read somewhere that [the great French naïve painter Henri] Rousseau used to get frightened by his tigers and ran out of the room. That’s how art is.’ Certainly, in Dora’s watercolour of Lady with Cat, the green-eyed marmalade cat has an expression of most alarming sagacity. Similarly, in her paintings of women looking into a bedroom mirror, the countenance that looks out at us is, each in its own way, radically surprising, joyously intimate, awe-inspiring even: the reflection of the subject’s true nature, a spacious glimpse perhaps of the face, as mystics describe it, we wore before we were born.
‘Madonna’, acrylic on card
In our troubled world, and the current cultural climate in which an overly cerebral, narrowly prescriptive attitude towards art and life often predominates, Dora Holzhandler’s rare, innocent art is welcomed and appreciated by many viewers, who find themselves responding to her paintings with a smile of compassionate self-recognition.
Extract from essay by Philip Vann