In the Princeton home where nearly every piece of furniture or decoration reflects her creative imagination, artist Daniela Bittman enthusiastically shares her work — jewelry, furniture, and an enormous colored-pencil drawing/painting on an acrylic wash — but leaves any interpretation to others. “I don’t have much to say about painting,” she says. “I paint, and when the paintings are out of my hands, everybody can make of them what they want.”
Even Harry I. Naar, director of the Rider University Art Gallery — where Bittman’s exhibition “The Colony Within” runs through Sunday, December 1, and where the artist will talk on Thursday, October 31 — does not try to interpret her work, but does take a stab at what he sees and why it moves him. “What I find really exciting about the work is her subject matter — these figures doing all sorts of things in an interior,” he says. “The figures are depicted in such a way that they’re just totally unusual; they’re not just figures standing there and posing, but they are involved in some kind of crazy activity, and I think that adds to the visual excitement.”
Whereas Naar suggested in an interview with Bittman in the exhibition catalog that the sometimes strange environments she creates are reminiscent of Bosch or Bruegel, Bittman told him that she actually feels more affinity to the writers Kafka and Borges than to any painter. “Theirs (as mine) are worlds of the imagination, and yet the components of those worlds are ‘realistic’ or they would be totally unconvincing, and their writing techniques, different as they may be from each other, are punctilious and precise, which also adds to the power of the ‘illusion.’”
Perhaps reflecting the playfulness of Bittman’s work as well as her sense of connection to Kafka, one of the works in the show, “Round Painting,” includes an Odradek, an imaginary creature that he describes in his story “The Cares of a Family Man.”
As to where the images came from, she says, “They just come. They choose themselves for me — I don’t make choices.” Before she starts to make sketches one of the multiple images she has in her head has to coagulate and “become a thing.” Trying to explain, she admits that she herself cannot understand where composers’ melodic lines come from, even if she can understand why the composer uses a certain harmony and uses counterpoint in a certain way. “I think in pictures,” she says. “If I try to understand someone who thinks in music — who can hear trumpets, trombones, piccolos, harps, and the right parts of all the instruments — it always awes me.”
For Bittman, the large figures in many of her paintings and the environments they occupy do not have any symbolic, archetypal, or psychological meanings, but she does invite her viewers to take them wherever they want to go. “They’re yours, not mine anymore,” she says.
Bittman does, however, think a lot about the visual construction of her work, and she enthusiastically shares her ideas on the composition, color, and visual subthemes of her gigantic drawings that fit so comfortably in the Rider gallery.
In “Tamar’s Painting,” the core visual idea was a still life painted by her son’s high-school girlfriend, appearing in the painting on its side leaning against a wall, almost incidentally. And yet, suggests Bittman, this picture sets up her visual themes.
First of all, hints of its yellow-and-white, gray, and black bottles, which sit behind an apple and a bulb of fennel, reappear throughout the work: in the clothing and shapes of the three standing figures, in the trim on the hanging drapery, and in the pile of dirty laundry in the left, bottom corner. The still life itself comes alive on a tray on the lap of a seated figure, and its colors reappear in a framed picture at the top.
Other subthemes, says Bittman, are based on smaller items, like the transparent bottles, pitchers, vases, and glasses on either side of the work and the fringes on the two shawls, the garlic, men’s hair, and dirty laundry. Bittman says of these subthemes, “Then you disperse them like you do in music.”
She also points out larger framing devices. For example, the sticks leaning to the left and the black figure on the right form a triangle, she says, which is counterbalanced by an implied triangle linking the three still lifes. Large flies, which she says “are great fun to paint,” pull the viewer’s eyes in a circle around the painting’s circumference.
It is the uniqueness of Bittman’s huge pieces that attracted Naar. “Here is an example of creating images that in more ways than one are bigger than life and seeing it as a drawing,” he says. “Most of us think of drawings as intimate, but here it forces you not only to move close but also to move back to see what is going on and to think about all the strokes that were made to create a particular surface.”
An art gallery with student audiences has a special role, says Naar; it is a place “where students can see different subject matter, and a variety of ways to show subject matter, so they are not cornered into one way of doing something.”
Bittman was born in 1952 in Bucharest, Romania, where her father was a judge and her mother a nurse. Though an only child, she quite literally grew up with a cousin a year younger because in Communist Bucharest families were allotted a specified number of cubic feet to live. Bittman’s family was lucky to be able to share their space with her mother’s sister’s family. “You were never alone, but at least it wasn’t strangers,” she says.
The artist says she does not remember when she started drawing, but her mother’s stories suggested it was by age three. “I was drawing legs, feet, hands, and faces, and trying to understand perspective and trying to foreshorten them,” she said.
Bittman says she always thought of herself as an artist and went to an art high school. “In Romania being an artist was taken a lot more seriously at that time,” she says, “and the art institute was longer than most schools.” Very few people were accepted; its six-year program was very demanding; and graduation meant a guaranteed job.
At the high school art was taught in the classical way, with a lot of eye training, she says. For the whole first year, for example, the students had to draw, paint, and sculpt the human skull. “At the time I thought it was unbelievably boring,” says Bittman, “but it teaches you to see and to measure proportions.”
During that period she was not interested in color, but focused on pen and ink. Her drawings at that time, she says, “were a lot more grotesque than what I draw now — animal people; heads with a foot attached; they were funny.”
Then one month before matriculating from high school and a couple weeks after her 18th birthday, she left with her parents for Israel. “Once you got a passport, you left as fast as you could,” she says. Having grown up with agnostic parents and little information about Israel, she was fairly clueless about what to expect — as illustrated for her the day after her family arrived in the desert town of Dimona for intensive Hebrew language study: “The next morning was sunny, warm, and beautiful, and I saw sand and I thought, ‘Ah, the ocean, the sea.’ I put on my bathing suit, but when I bumped into the first Bedouin camp, I knew there was no sea.”
Bittman enrolled in the Bezalel Art Academy, where minimalistic, geometric painting and kinetic sculpture were the rage. “If you drew figures, they said you couldn’t be an artist — that this had been done; you had to innovate continually or else,” she says. Young at the time, she lost her self-confidence as a painter and left Bezalel for Tel Aviv University, where she studied classics. “I felt deeply the need for something orderly, civilized, illuminating, something that would connect me with my roots as a human being,” she says. “I didn’t want to paint ever again.”
But art was in her blood, and eventually she found her way back to it. When she was suffered physical problems related to back muscles, she met Moshe Feldenkrais, a proponent of a physical therapy that stresses movement and “body work.” His assistant, Yochanan Rywerant, saw the artist’s work and hired her to illustrate an instruction book for Feldenkrais practitioners. She agreed, and the illustrations took her a year to complete. “I wanted the illustrations to show the feeling of Feldenkrais, which is very sensuous without being erotic,” she says. “I wanted to show where the pressure went.”
When Rywerant’s editor told him, “These are impossible drawings; I am not going to publish them” — Rywerant, who loved them, sought a second opinion and showed them to the well-known Israeli painter and muralist Naftali Bezem.
Bezem loved her drawings and wanted to meet her. “I met him and poured my heart out to him,” she says. In his response he did not mince words. “You know, you have a gift, and you are not entirely responsible for it, because it was given to you. But you are responsible for using it; if you don’t, you are being petty.” He then told her he wanted to see her in three months with one painting.
“That gave me a little courage,” she says, and she brought him one very large, colorful painting, about 5 by 7 feet, worked with acrylic on paper and colored pencils on top like the works in her exhibit.
About her move from Israel to New Jersey, the artist says, “My first husband, Gilbert Bittman, whom I met on one of his visits to Israel, where his parents lived, was already living in Plainsboro, because he was a PhD in chemical engineering and had a job with a company there.” She moved to the area, became a mother in 1985, and adjusted to her new life.
That life, however, included additional changes. After her first marriage ended in divorce, Bittman’s luck changed on Friday, January 13, in 1989 when she met her future husband, now retired psychiatrist Sandy Otis, at her exhibition at the Princeton Day School. Her son became a professional jazz musician, now living and working in Amsterdam, Holland.
Throughout it all she quietly continued with her art. “I had few and far apart shows, because finishing a piece takes me at least a year, there are very few places that can accommodate 10-foot high canvases of a most non-commercial nature, and I didn’t actively try to promote my work. I guess I was not very interested in famousness, but rather in becoming a better painter.”
She also remains appreciative of Bezem, who put her career back on track. “It always take a human being,” she says. “He gave me that one moment what I needed. He gave me back my life, and I’ll always be thankful for that.”
Daniela Bittman: The Colony Within, Rider University, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. To Sunday, December 1. Free.
Gallery Talk with Daniela Bittman, Thursday, October 31, 7 p.m. Free. 609-895-5588 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.