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© Laurence Esnol Gallery

Born in Israel and educated in France, he has been living in the Amazon area for over two decades

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Violence and vanity : the dark romanticism of Ofer Josef

Terry van Druten, Curator of the Art Collection, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

 

A large whale lies stranded on a big dinner table. While a fountain of water is still spraying from its blowhole, the animal’s rib cage has already been laid bare by numerous small figures. They’re climbing over the dead beast like the Lilliputians over Gulliver’s big bound body. Their small size stands in strong contrast with the larger than life knife and fork which are stuck in the back of the whale, crowned by two large vultures.

This drawing by Ofer Josef was recently acquired by Teylers Museum in the Netherlands. There it resonates with a famous drawing in the museum’s collection of a stranded whale on the Dutch North Sea coast by the sixteenth century artist Hendrick Goltzius. In that work too we see small human figures around and on top of a huge sea animal, at work to start harvesting the whale’s valuable fat. Goltzius however faithfully rendered an actual stranded whale in early 1598, trying to stay as close as possible to what he himself had witnessed in reality on the beach.

How different this is from Ofer’s drawing. Although he, like Goltzius, uses a clear and realistic style of drawing, his whale in the end seems to have more in common with the menacing religious texts that were frequently written in Goltzius’s days in reaction to the stranding of whales. The writers of such texts saw the whales as big biblical monsters and an undeniable bad omen pointing to the inescapable sinfulness of humankind and the urgent need to repent.

 

An equally dark view on human existence plays a big part in the work of Ofer. Violence and vanity take centre stage in practically each of his drawings along with scythes and guillotines, skeletons and demons. Still, Ofer’s work never becomes overly gloomy. Within his dark vision of humanity there always seems to be a light dose of compassion, as if saying: “look at those fools, they can’t help they’re so small-minded, short-sighted and ignorant”. It’s a benign sarcasm reminiscent of the tone of voice in Daumier’s mid nineteenth century satirical prints. Like a god looking down on the deficiencies of his creation with lofty amusement, Ofer offers a birds eye view of our petty activities, when we’re pretending we’re so special, striving for empty goals, finding forgetfulness in sex and alcohol, with death constantly right behind us.

Ofer’s drawings have strong connections not only with the satire of Daumier, but also with what is often called Dark Romanticism, the sombre side of the period around 1800 when Western culture was turned topsy-turvy by profound social, political and economic changes. Especially the work of Francisco Goya comes to mind, such as his famous print series Los Desastres de la Guerra. But however fantastic and surreal those prints may be, just like Goltzius’s whale drawing they are still made in response to actuality, in Goya’s case the Napoleonic wars in Spain and their aftermath. Ofer’s work in less directly linked to such real events. His drawings deal exclusively with human condition. And in this sense they are more connected to the Disparates series made by Goya in the final years of his life. In those prints the Spanish artist translated several human follies into dreamlike and surreal images. Take for instance his Modo de volar in which human figures with strapped on wings fly through a black sky. It’s not difficult here to see a correspondence with the winged demons in many of Ofer’s drawings.

In recent works Ofer has replaced his earlier style of drawing emphasising the pencil line with a faster, more painterly approach. These quicker and smaller works are made with brush and ink, resulting in images which are often even gloomier than the older drawings. Out of the dark backgrounds of the sheets demons, skeletons and tormented figures emerge. Their actions often remain indistinct, but are constantly filled with a clear sense of madness.

 

Also these works are easily connected with the dark side of Romanticism, this time especially with the drawings of Victor Hugo. Mostly known for his very influential romantic writing, Hugo was also a prolific, progressive and highly experimental draughtsman who made mysterious and surreal ink drawings in which the images often grew by coincidence out of randomly applied materials like meaning rising out of a Rorschach test.

Hugo made most of these drawings while he was in exile on the island of Jersey. Something alike is true for Goya, who made his Disparates series while in French exile. And it is at this point where we probably find the most distinguishing and telling similarity between those artists and Ofer. Like an artistic hermit he has chosen for a life far from the centres of the international art world. Born in Israel and educated in France, he has been living in the Amazon area for over two decades. Still, in his work not a trace can be found of South American life nor the tropical surroundings there.

This can be seen as an actual and real manifestation of Ofer’s artistic position. Like an outsider he is looking onto the world from a higher and more distant perspective. It’s almost as if he’s looking at us from a different time period, more connected with Goltzius, Daumier, Goya and Hugo than with the bulk of the artists of today. He mocks and comments on human activity as if he himself does not have any part in it whatsoever. And perhaps in way this is true. From a Romantic Western perspective it’s not difficult to imagine Ofer living in an exotic paradise where all the superficial needs and fleeting worries of modern life surely don’t exist and life must be more simple and pure. A perfect position to sharply yet sweetly visualize the eternal troubles of human existence.

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Ofer Josef OJ_Archives 2019 Ofer Josef site-photo 2019 Ofer Josef Processed with MOLDIV 2019 Ofer Josef OJ_EchecEtMat 2019 Ofer Josef OJ_Hachoir 2019 Ofer Josef OJ_LaChuteDuCheval 2019 Ofer Josef OJ_LiberteConditionelle 2019 Ofer Josef OJ_PlatDuJour 2019 Ofer Josef OJ_Serrurier 2019 Ofer Josef 39161564854_e83a211283_o 2019
Ofer Josef OJ_Archives 2019
OJ_Archives , 2019
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Ofer Josef site-photo 2019
site-photo , 2019
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Ofer Josef Processed with MOLDIV 2019
Processed with MOLDIV , 2019
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Ofer Josef OJ_EchecEtMat 2019
OJ_EchecEtMat , 2019
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Ofer Josef OJ_Hachoir 2019
OJ_Hachoir , 2019
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Ofer Josef OJ_LaChuteDuCheval 2019
OJ_LaChuteDuCheval , 2019
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Ofer Josef OJ_LiberteConditionelle 2019
OJ_LiberteConditionelle , 2019
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Ofer Josef OJ_PlatDuJour 2019
OJ_PlatDuJour , 2019
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Ofer Josef OJ_Serrurier 2019
OJ_Serrurier , 2019
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Ofer Josef 39161564854_e83a211283_o 2019
39161564854_e83a211283_o , 2019
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©2019 Laurence Esnol Gallery