Dora Holzhandler, 1928 - 2015

Dora Holzhandler died in 2015. As Philip Vann wrote, in the Guardian's obituary, dated 22nd October, she was a, 'modern British visionary artist', whose capacity for, 'mystical intimacy' was lent spice by her, 'incisive, often paradoxical humour'.

Dora Holzhandler (in an interview for the Goldmark Gallery[1]) described her work as the expression of, 'moments of understanding that come through lovers and children and life'. And thus we can grasp something of the rich and delicate flavour of the vast array of pictures and other artefacts that she produced during her long career.

Holzhandler was born in Paris, to Polish-Jewish refugees. The family moved to London in 1934. In 1948, Holzhandler returned to Paris and, as well as studying French literature at the Sorbonne, she attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, founded in 1902 by Swiss artist, Martha Stettler, as an anti-academic School of painting[2]. Back in London, Holzhandler attended the Anglo-French Art Centre in St. John’s Wood[3]. Opened after the War, the policy was to invite various artists to exhibit and teach, criticising students’ work in a relaxed, atelier environment. Visiting artists included Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Victor Pasmore and Jacob Epstein. There were also French artists, including Fernand Léger, Andre Lhote and Germaine Richier[4]. In such a context, it is no surprise that Holzhandler’s personal vision should have been cherished, not challenged.

By the early 1950’s, Holzhandler and her husband – whom she met at the Anglo-French Art Centre – had the first of three children. For more than 60 years, Holzhandler managed to combine her busy family life with painting and exhibiting. She produced a wealth of oils, watercolours and pastels, reflecting her dedication to her, ‘enchanting, richly decorative paintings of everyday, often specifically Jewish, life’[5], depicting a ‘universe of lovers, gardens, markets, birds and flowers’[6].

Much is made of Holzhandler’s ‘innocent eye’, her ‘naïve’ style. True, of course, that her perspective is flat; her figures are graceful, pithy and concise - and, though very much ‘of nature’, they are not naturalistic; her surfaces are often densely-patterned. Nevertheless, whilst ‘innocence’ is one of Holzhandler’s core themes, it does not seem quite right to describe her output as ‘naïve’. Her art is not a divine afflatus; it has not appeared out of nowhere, to an untutored woman.

Holzhandler had a diverse cultural heritage: though she escaped Jewish persecution, her wider family did not; she witnessed some of the most rapid changes seen by any generation; she was well-travelled and well educated; and, though she has been described as a ‘self-taught’ artist, her few years of study – in just the right institutions – must have opened her eyes to the marvellous possibilities of an art which celebrates the beating heart of life. Polish folk art, Persian miniatures and Byzantine mosaics have been invoked as models; likewise, the art of Chagall, Rousseau, Matisse and Dufy are noted as sources for her inspiration. Her art does not have accidental naïveté. Indeed, Holzhandler learned and absorbed ideas from a very wide range of sources and she used these to help focus her vision, to attempt to express the quintessence of her life, all life.

It is no co-incidence that Holzhandler acknowledged a debt to, and an empathy with, both her Jewish background and the Buddhism which she encountered as a young mother, in the 1950s. Just as repetition and ritual help to bind any individual to a culture and a belief system and, through meditation, can open the mind to the mysteries of personal experience, so Holzhandler repeatedly painted the images which represented the essence of her life. And, from this ritual, she has drawn out, and represented for our benefit, the joyousness which she identified at the heart of all lives which are enriched by love – of partner, family, community, of creation and of the very ritual itself.

Given this rich, inner resource, it is right that Holzhandler did not draw or paint before nature. The roots of her work lay within herself, nurtured by an imagination enriched by heritage, experience and love. Philip Vann, in his perceptive biography of the artist, observes that, ‘Dora recreates – or remembers – the world in all its poetic immanence, its quintessence’.

Holzhandler regularly exhibited her work, starting in 1949 and continuing for more than 60 years. Her paintings are held by many museums and collections, both in the UK and abroad. Her admirers are legion. And it seems curiously apt that Nigel Kennedy – an artist whose search is for a music that reveals something about himself, as well as about the canon of musicians who have preceded him, and whose aim is to communicate the living heart of his music to his audience – has used, on the cover of his most recent CD, a Holzhandler portrait of himself playing – loving – his violin.

‘Dora Holzhandler grasps life and celebrates it. She sees us clearly, for her all is sacred, all is aflame with divine power, even sorrow, even death. She offers to life here a total yes.’[7]

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013


[1] Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham - surely, the most excellent commercial gallery outside London - held the last exhibition of Holzhandler's work, in 2014.

[2] Co-founded with French artist, Alice Dannenberg. There is a long list of students from this School who went on to become significant artists. It’s worth noting that it was even cheaper to study here than at the Académie Julian!

[3] In November, 2010, at the Boundary Gallery, NW8, there was an exhibition to celebrate the St. John’s Wood Art School and its successor, the Anglo-French Art Centre – the latter having been established by Alfred Rozelaar Green.

[4] The School, which encouraged an understanding of Modernist ideas on both sides of the Channel, was financially supported by both the French Embassy and the Arts Council of GB. The centre closed in 1951, when the financial support was withdrawn.

[5] See Dora Holzhandler official website, 2013.

[6] Philip Vann, Dora Holzhandler, 1997.

[7] Sister Wendy Beckett, a keen admirer of Holzhandler’s art.