Artists portraits bring long-gone family back to Budapest

Last summer, artist Michal Gavish toured the quaint Budapest neighborhoods her parents and grandparents once called home. She brought along with her some special guests: the ghosts of relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

Not real ghosts, of course. They were Gavish’s life-size paintings of family members, copied onto paper and adhered to wood.

She carried these objets d’art with her into the old haunts and houses, as if to return her forebears to the lives stolen from them long ago. Then she filmed it all, and made that part of the show.

This blend of painting and performance art was part of “My Objectivity,” a multimedia project by the Palo Alto artist. After Budapest, Gavish staged exhibitions of her work in Leipzig, Germany, and, in June, at San Francisco’s Sandra Lee Gallery.

Michal Gavish creates life-size paintings on fabric in her series, “My Objectivity. photo/sandra lee gallery

Next the Palo Alto resident heads to her homeland of Israel for an exhibition at a gallery in Jaffa.

To create her pieces, Gavish copied old photographs, most of them posed portraits of long-gone family members. Some are painted on sheer fabric and resemble specters waving in the breeze. Others are rendered onto large rolls of paper that suggest Torah scrolls. The colors are muted, not unlike the faded sepia-toned photos on which she based the project.

The tour of Budapest took her into the old stone apartment building her father grew up in, as well as the Jewish school he attended (it’s still an Orthodox Jewish school). She also went to the Jewish cemetery where her grandparents are buried, draping her family portraits on trees to let them sway.

“It was very emotional, of course,” Gavish said of her original Budapest journey, which took place during a 2011 artist-in-residency in the Hungarian capital. “In my parents’ stories about Budapest there was a lot of fear, a lot of difficulties. They were afraid all the time.”

With good reason. Hungary was one of the last Eastern European nations to fall to the Nazis. But when it did, in the spring of 1944, the vast majority of its Jews ultimately died. A few survived, including Gavish’s parents. Her mother stayed hidden throughout the war, while her father managed to stay alive in a concentration camp.

After the war, her parents moved to Israel, where Gavish grew up. She earned a doctorate in chemistry, later completing her postgraduate degree at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, then working at a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland.

Yet all along, she had a desire to try her hand at art. After moving to Palo Alto 11 years with ago, she earned a MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, making the switch from chemist to artist.

But not entirely. She says her chemistry background helped her devise new ways to work with various art media. (She won’t give away any trade secrets.)

Since 2005, Gavish has shown her work at galleries and open studios in the Bay Area, New York, Los Angeles, South America and Europe.

Stage design is another aspect of her artistic life. Gavish has created sets for several productions by the Pear Avenue Theater in Mountain View, including backdrops, flooring and, in one case, building a cathedral for the tiny theater.

Though her work encompasses several media and varied subject matter, Gavish says “My Objectivity” has especially deep personal significance for her.

And she has found it has had a similar affect on her audiences. At the Leipzig show, for which she arranged her multimedia portraits in a setting that seemingly recreated her family’s Budapest home, one “huge, blond” German man studied the exhibition for a long time.

“He said it really feels like home, and that’s what’s so sad about it,” Gavish recalls. “That was the whole point. My family never had that home, or it had it but it was interrupted. That brings home the consequences.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.