At an opening reception last Thursday, the art gallery at Rider University was filled with art enthusiasts marveling at the large-scale canvases by Princeton artist Daniela Bittman.
“I’ve been running this gallery for years and this is the first time I’ve observed people stopping to stare through the windows,” said longtime Gallery Director Harry I. Naar. “Daniela’s images are striking, and not just because of their immense size, but because of their subject matter and composition. People are also amazed to find that they are colored pencil over acrylic wash, this is unique to Daniela.”
Ms. Bittman, who lives in Princeton and works from a studio in her home, hasn’t shown her work for almost a decade. For many, her work is something of a revelation. The Rider show features six mural size canvases 10 by 12 feet in dimension, two large canvases of eight by eight feet, and several groupings of pencil on paper works. In addition there is an eight by four feet acrylic on canvas wall hanging that was a special commission to recreate a large scale version of an 18th century Japanese print of The Geisha Itsutomi that Ms. Bittman described as a joy to do since she has been an enormous fan of the Japanese masters since discovering their work in her teens.
Aside from this commission, Ms. Bittman’s work is figurative and fantastic. Her juxtapositions tickle and tease the imagination. Think Gerald Scarfe and the elder Bruegel with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch. Her scenes are peopled with ambiguous figures bordering on the absurd. And there is an enormous amount of fun here, as is evident from titles such as: Dogs and Hardware, Pigs in Clover, and The Side Effects of Coffee.
One cannot pass lightly over this work. It captures the attention, draws your eyes to marvel at Tonka trucks, cabbages, clarinets and cat’s cradles. Here is beauty and humor, roses and bathing suits, grotesquerie, a man with a crab on his head, copulating dogs, pregnant nudes, plump sleeping babies, faces from the Renaissance.
Ms. Bittman’s pictures, which could be of any time or place, seem teeming with the myriad methods and madnesses of life. Viewers will find themselves recalling art from other periods and puzzling over their own responses.
When asked about influences, the artist cited myriad sources including authors Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Belgian-born French novelist and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar. As is clear from her work, she is also drawn to pre-Renaissance and Renaissance masters. “More to the German, Dutch, Flemish and Spanish painters than the Italian,” she said. “But I believe that I am influenced by everything I see, be it art or life, whether I like it or think I don’t. Especially if I don’t.”
In an interview with Mr. Naar, included in a brief catalog that accompanies the show, Ms. Bittman describes her artistic beginnings: “I started to draw not long after I started to walk; and I mean draw; I would fill whole notebooks, or any paper at hand, with obsessive attempts at drawing hands, legs, feet, and faces, in all kinds of positions, foreshortened, etc.; no color. . . . My mother kept some of them, and they were very funny.”
Born to Jewish parents in Bucharest, Romania, in 1952, Ms. Bittman went to an art high school where she was trained not just to looked at things, but to see them. In 1970, she moved with her family to Israel, where she attended the Bezalel Art Academy in Tel-Aviv before going on to study classics at Tel Aviv University. She has been in the United States since 1984.
When she exhibited two large canvases at Ellarslie in Trenton, as part of a group show, Mr. Naar was captivated by her work and determined to find out more.
Ms. Bittman claims no knowledge of where her ideas come from. About one thing she is clear, however: contrary to what many viewers conclude, they do not come from dreams. “I am always amazed, and greatly amused, by what people seem to see in my work: all kinds of hidden symbolism, or stories that show great imagination (on their part), but which I definitely didn’t put in there,” she said.
The artist acknowledges a penchant for the absurd and is conscious of the humor in her paintings as well as the influence of music.
Describing Tamar’s Painting, she explained that the work was inspired by a small still life painted by her son’s girlfriend, Tamar. Ms. Bittman looked at the still life of three bottles with red onion and fennel in the foreground and “saw” the work that she wanted to produce. Tamar’s still life is replicated in Ms. Bittman’s work which takes off from it in the way a jazz musician might riff on a theme.
You might well say that this artist “orchestrates” a painting. Tamar’s Painting, for example, is like a fugue in which its subject is restated in different pitches and in various keys. In Ms. Bittman’s composition, the bottles, onion and fennel surface in the colors and shapes of the three standing figures. Look, there they are again on the tray in the lap of the seated figure.
The major works, the massive 10 by 12 feet canvases, take about a year to complete. Those in the show are not for sale save for one titled, Life Complications, priced at $10,000. Several small sketches are $250, others pencil and paper works are between $230 and $950.
“Her work is the most surreal and unique I’ve ever seen and to think that it is done using color pencils on canvas is beyond belief. Everything she does tests your imagination,” commented Albert Stark of Princeton, who bought two pencil drawings.
The artist will discuss her work at the Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, Thursday, October 31, at 7 p.m.
“Daniela Bittman: The Colony Within,” will be on view through December 1. Hours are: Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit: www.rider.edu.