To Dora Holzhandler, the family meals celebrating Jewish festivals are of far deeper significance than mere holiday traditions or rituals. Her paintings of these subjects have a vivid sense of order and rightness. They have the intense air of something experienced, paradoxically as both present moment and as memory - almost folk memory.
The open-countenanced moon-faces of the actors in her pictures replace her personal viewpoint with their various points of view. The Hanukkah meal she paints here might be from the father or mother's viewpoint, perhaps from the tiniest child's.
The underlying order in this painting is expressed by the way these hierarchically positioned adults and children, while they are quite distinct, are inextricable from the mosaic-like patterns surrounding them. These patterns are not merely decorative.
To Holzhandler, "decorative" connotes something "tiring," while true art has a contemplative groundwork from which it arises, and is restful. Her patterns seem part of the ubiquitous symbolism of her vision. Everything is interwoven in the same fabric, a detail of the same mosaic: the tabletop, carpet, plates, menorah, walls, even chairs. The human figures are icons as well as touchingly alive, held in some ordained geometry, straight and upright as if they have been sitting there forever. They appear real and unreal.
In a new book (the first) about this artist ("Dora Holzhandler," The Overlook Press, $30), Philip Vann quotes her speaking about symbols:
"The Menorah, for instance, is a Jewish symbol. If you paint [it], that's the whole of Judaism. There's also the message of the father and mother and children, the human message. Everything in a picture is very meaningful to me. Subjects are starting points, but what matters is the actual painting ... and the note that it hits." The musical analogy is apt: Many of her paintings have the deceptive simplicity of songs.
Although Jewish herself, Holzhandler has an objective view of Jewish subjects. As a baby, she lived with a Roman Catholic family. Today she is a Buddhist. Her art has as much in common with Persian miniatures as with medieval Jewish illuminations. Vann also points to Eastern European folk art's similarity to her work.
One thing Holzhandler herself is sure about: Although she has now spent more of her life in England than anywhere, she knows her art will never look "English." She views herself as a "School of Paris" painter, and a remark made to Vann is not far from the truth: "Oh - she's a meeting between Chagall and Matisse." This said. however, what she calls the "pure logic" of her often bright, sometimes brooding world is nobody else's.