Out in the Open
In her fifties, a Hasidic Londoner becomes an artist
Two years ago, at the age of fifty-six, Gitl Braun graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Within a year, one of her works—described by the Times of London as “enormously moving”—was being shown as part of a British Library exhibition. No small feat for someone who has spent her entire adult life in London’s cloistered ultra-Orthodox community.
Born in 1950 in Israel to two Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Braun grew up in poverty; her parents’ failing health obliged them to send her to an orphanage as a toddler. At eighteen she joined Marton Braun, a rabbinical scholar (and later advertising executive), in an arranged marriage. The couple moved to London in 1973, where they ultimately raised eight children in the Hasidic enclave of Stamford Hill. In 2001, after attending an art class with her daughter Elky, now a painter, Braun enrolled at Central Saint Martins.
Braun’s art starts with talismanic objects—a dropped handkerchief, moth-eaten puppets, discarded printing blocks—which she carefully arranges into sculptures, then photographs. In 2007 she had her first solo show, at London’s Riccardo Giaccherini gallery, and her work The Martyred Letters appeared in “Sacred on Location,” the traveling portion of a British Library show of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts. Her work is currently on view (by appointment only) at the Soho Synagogue in New York City.
You described your art to me as a way to “break the silence.” What did you mean?
I grew up in silence. I went to study English in 1995 because I was alienated from our community over a child abuse case. My husband and I supported turning the case over to the authorities, which many in our Jewish community didn’t like. There’s also my parents’ silence: They went through the Holocaust, both of them, but they didn’t talk about it. I almost continued that silence and didn’t tell my children about it.
I don’t think my parents ever came out of the war. Everything was Holocaust: the kind of life they lived, nothing was for pleasure or love. It was just survival, just stifling. And their silence around the subject made the atmosphere heavier.
When I started making art, it helped me start talking. I talked to the whole world about my parents on BBC Radio 4 [for the opening of “Sacred on Location”]. I want my works not simply to be put in a museum—that’s like burying the story again—but for them to circulate in homes, so that the younger generation can talk about this.
There’s something startling about your work The Martyred Letters: the elegant twist of these almost cruelly metallic printing blocks. How did you come to make it?
My husband collects art, and one of his dealers offered him the letters, printing blocks from Vilna in the nineteenth century. He put them in a cupboard at home; he didn’t know how I’d react to these dusty old Hebrew letters. Then one day I discovered them, and I didn’t want them out of my hands. I started brushing off the dust with very fine brushes; then I oiled them to bring out the wood’s beauty.
The letterblocks are actually very small, and I had to put this image together in two photographic shots because I didn’t have enough letters. So the trick was to take two-thirds of a shot, then remove a third and put it to the front. I wanted it to feel like a train for the Jews, to give you this feeling that so many more are coming, just an endless march of people that fills the canvas. I saw in it all those souls, traveling. My dilemma was not just to make a beautiful work for something that’s painful, which almost justifies what happened. So I photographed it almost in the dark—it was an exposure of two minutes—representing the harshness of the conditions. Then I created these pockets of darkness in the letters themselves. I didn’t want too much order, because it was chaos.
This last version was the outcome of many installations I’d done beforehand, and it came together on the anniversary of my father’s passing away. So I put into the letters this saying—“The Beloved, the Pleasant, and the Just”—taken from the Sabbatical prayer for martyred souls.
Tell me about your new work, Awakening Puppets. How did you find the first puppet?
My first encounter with the puppets was at my framer’s. I saw this nineteenth-century Sicilian puppet hanging there in a fragile state, with a fabric body that had disintegrated. He looked like an injured soldier to me. He hangs on a rusty pole, and his joints are very moveable, so I can animate him, make him walk. Some puppets came to me only as heads, so I animated them with silk scarves.
Some of the puppet works are installations, like the one of Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage. The couple is wrapped in the same prayer shawl, as Jews do in Amsterdam, and you can see the groom sneaking his foot over the bride’s. That’s a Jewish tradition—I think it’s Russian—that’s supposed to make sure he’s man of the house. We also believe that all our ancestors join us under the marriage canopy, to take part in the celebration. That’s why Sarah, Isaac’s mother, is floating here.
Some of the puppets are recognizable figures from the Bible—Ruth, David, Sarah—but others are names I didn’t recognize, like Ahitophel, Amnon, Yael.
Yael was actually not a Jew. There’s a beautiful song in the Book of Judges by Devorah, a prophetess and a judge, singing the praises of Yael. Devorah called her general, Barak, to war, to defend the Israelites against the Canaanites, but predicted that the battle would finally be won by a woman, Yael. The enemy general Sisra came to Yael’s tent and asked for water, but she gave him milk and he fell asleep. Then she sneaked in quietly and killed him by hammering a tent peg into his temple.
The British press tends to describe you as if you’ve emerged, fully formed, as an artist in your fifties, but stories like this suggest that you’re making works from ideas that have held your fascination for a long time. Can you describe your connection to art before you became an artist?
That’s the impression: I woke up one day and suddenly decided to go into art. But it wasn’t like that. I made many attempts to make art since childhood, but it wasn’t the way I was brought up, that a girl should be preoccupied with art, but to prepare to have a family and look after the children.
So I just put it on a low flame. But I knew there’d come a day when the children would leave home, and I would come back to art. All those years, I stayed a passive participant in art. I went to exhibitions; my husband is an art lover, so I was surrounded with art in my home.
Some parts of your life story sound very isolated. For example, you lived in the UK for twenty years without knowing English.
I did feel isolated. When I started to learn English, I did feel this otherness. I said to my English teacher: No matter how good my English will be, my accent will always give me away. I remember filling out the application form at the university and thinking, so who am I? There are all these nationalities to choose from, and then the “Other” category. I said, where shall I put my name? The Other.
Now English is like a door to new ideas, new tastes, a whole world of knowledge which was very strange to me before. My art is also about including this other: the overlooked, the aging, all those faded manuscripts or puppets, these folds and creases that nobody looks at. Everything that’s excluded, I wanted to include.
It’s an interesting choice to first make sculpture and then photograph it.
It came about in the last year of my study. I had enlarged a photograph of my dissected womb [after a hysterectomy], and I was gazing at it, sitting in our sukkah—I use the sukkah all year round as a studio. The ceiling of the hut was decorated with pomegranates, and I saw a resemblance, so I took a pomegranate down and covered it with a soft cotton fabric, and I photographed it. When I analyzed the photograph, I saw this potential of sculpting in the fabric alone. I’m a minimalist: I keep reducing, reducing everything that doesn’t add to the work. So I reduced the pomegranate and stayed with the fabric, which became a metaphor for the body, the skin.
I can sculpt for weeks and only when I feel something towards the image, then I decide to take a photograph. After that it becomes a whole progression of selecting, editing, copying, enlarging, exploring light and angles. Also I use some fairly unconventional photograph machines to give you a sense of three dimensions, that sensual feeling of touch.
Your work has frequently been called “sensual,” even “erotic.” As an Orthodox woman and a grandmother, does that bother you?
At the beginning, I explained my work as Holocaust related. And my teacher called it sensual, and all the students agreed. I was in denial, it shocked me, but then I came to terms with what I was doing. I said: Okay, it’s sensual.
What are you working on now?
The next project is faded manuscripts that my husband and I found in Spain. In the twelfth century, the Jews were expelled from Catalonia, and the Spaniards used their books as raw material to strengthen the binding of new books. When those bindings disintegrate, you can see the Jewish manuscripts underneath: sacred works but also marriage contracts, business contracts. They reveal a whole life in Catalonia. These papers are like a baby taken out of the womb, all squashed and creased. It’s the first time they’ve been seen in seven hundred years. I was drawn to them because, to me, it’s a metaphor for what Jewish people are always going through. They’re bound up, they’re stuffed away, but then they bloom again.
Esther David’s novels chronicle a community of Jews in a province riddled with ethnic violence