June 27, 2008
A soul exposed in art
Norman Leibovitch considered his painting not a career but a way of life. "Art is my best form of expression," he said in a television interview for Chai Montreal in 1988. "It's a natural process of a human being responding to ... all things visual, all things natural."
He always drew and painted, even as a child, growing up in the 1920s in Montreal, in a family of Jewish immigrants. To support himself after graduation, he took a variety of jobs, worked as a busboy, a construction worker and a woodsman, but he always painted. For him, his painting was "a daily function in life ... as natural as breathing."
When he was 20, he spent 14 hours alone in an out-of-control canoe in the middle of Lake Ontario, until the wind swept him to the shore. During that terrible ordeal, helpless against nature, he promised himself that if he survived, he would dedicate his life to painting. And he did. He studied art in New York for two years and he would probably have continued his art education in Europe, if not for the Second World War.
In his more than six decades as a professional artist, before he died in 2002, Leibovitch created about 1,500 paintings in his own unique style, an intelligent blend of realism and expressionism.
Although during his long life Leibovitch had several solo exhibitions in Montreal, Toronto, New York and other cities, Vancouverites only discovered the artist's talent in the last two years, when his son, Charles Leibovitch, began exhibiting his paintings in Vancouver. The current exhibition, Characters, which opened at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on June 19, is divided between portraits and Jewish narratives. It spans about 50 years of the artist's life.
The feeling that permeates the entire show is sadness. "Our father wasn't generally a sad man," noted Charles Leibovitch. "He was a man of deep emotions and contradictions. He didn't communicate well in words. He poured his emotions into his canvases. Perhaps his painting helped him release his feelings."
The artist's daughter, Babo Kamel, confirmed her brother's statement. "Father was aware of the sadness around him," she said. "In him, there was sadness, but there was also humor, kindness and an ironic eye."
As if to prove her words, one of the paintings of the exhibit is called "Comfort." On an orange field, two grumpy men face each other across a table, holding a conversation. One man's hand rests lightly on his friend's elbow. Different viewers might imbue this painting with different meanings and, to allow for the ambiguity of interpretations, the artist didn't titled any of his paintings. His son named them specifically for the show.
Only one painting had a title on the back of the canvas – "The Long Wait." Four disgruntled male characters sit with their backs to each other on a blue background, they don't communicate. Instead, they seem disconnected, each one lost in his own solitude.
Like some of his unhappy personages, Norman Leibovitch also became increasingly private, almost a recluse, in the second half of his life. Although he painted constantly, he didn't exhibit from 1962 to 1980. The only time in his life he stopped painting for more than a year was after his wife of 52 years had passed away. That blow had devastated him. Only the care and support of his family and the love of his children inspired him back to his easel.
Most of Leibovitch's paintings in the exhibit evoke the feeling of loneliness, even in a group. Only a few canvases display real interaction between the figures. In "Caring," a daughter caresses her mother's shoulder in a loving gesture of support. In "Intimacy," two lovers embrace, dark on black background, not as much resembling living, full-blooded bodies as rueful spirits of mutual understanding, a Chagall-like duo, eternally together in their sorrowful union. Perhaps this painting, created in 1948, soon after the Holocaust, reflected the artist's bottomless love and compassion for his people.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer.