Every Picture Tells A Story – Hanna Eshel

In spending so much time at home this year, I have developed a new appreciation for some of the art I have bought over the years. Instead of rushing past it, I have had time to look, rather than see.

The first picture to strike me again was this large and striking burlap (hessian) and oil on canvas by Hanna Eshel. I bought it some time around 2000 or 2001 direct from the artist, in her home. I was in Manhattan on business, and a friend was handling a studio sale of her work in an (early) online auction. He thought I may like to meet her, so took me to her expansive, bright studio on Broadway, right in the heart of the teeming metropolis.

BBC Antiques Roadshow expert Mark Hill looks at the work of Jewish woman artist Hanna Eshel, in light of a painting he bought from her in 2000.

Eshel, then aged in her mid-70s, had decided she wanted to take a world cruise “before it was too late“, so needed to release some funds to do so. What a charming, interesting and ‘sparky’ lady she was – positively fizzing with energy. I fell in love with her stunning and perfectly proportioned marble sculptures, some of which were displayed in a Japanese-style ‘garden’ further down under the windows. But there was a problem – I was catching my flight home later that day, and they weighed a TONNE! I also had no way of packing one safely for the hold.

We talked and talked, and I fell in love with her canvases, with their three-dimensional, textured burlap collages. She told me that although she considered herself a sculptor, these effectively grew into low relief sculptures on canvas, and so they were how she got into sculpture. My friend then revealed that he had once worked as an art packer and shipper, and he felt more confident packing a canvas rapidly. So that was that, I could buy one.

So much to choose from! But the one my heart and mind had fallen for was hanging just past her front door, on the right right hand wall as you entered her apartment. Where the two pictures in the photograph above are hanging, close to her raised bed. Eshel was reluctant to sell. She really liked that one. Sales ploy or honesty, who knows? But I’d touched a nerve. Whatever, after further chat, a couple of hundred dollars were exchanged (it was all I could get out of the cash machine back then!), and the picture was hastily packed in cardboard and tape and loaded into my friend’s car. Thanks to his skill, it made the flight back to London intact.

Hanna Eshel (b.1926) is a fascinating artist. Born in Israel, she studied at the Bezalel School of Art before moving to Paris in 1952 to study at the Academie de la Grande Chaumière and the École des Beaux-Arts, where she was awarded the first prize in the Concours de France. She had numerous solo exhibitions during the 1960s, and her paintings once hung on the walls of the Musée d’Art Moderne. Her oils on canvas became more three-dimensional due to the materials she used, so she began to explore sculpture and moved to Carrara, home of the famous Italian marble, where she worked for six years. In 1978, she followed the art world and art market and moved to New York – together with 20,000 pounds of marble and sculptures, and hundreds of paintings. She continued to work, and held ‘open studio’ events at her apartment every Sunday.

My painting is signed (twice), dated 1965 and numbered 40, indicating it was painted in Paris. At over a metre high, it’s a sizeable and impressive piece that is typical of her work on canvas. Its overlaid, ripped, frayed and fissured sections of burlap are indicative of fissures, cracks or voids in the earth, contrasts and (feminine) energy, and also personal tensions such as being a woman artist and an impending divorce in the 1960s.

I’ve often wondered what happened to her and her amazing work after my visit decades ago. A Google search today revealed that the esteemed Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York held an exhibition of her work in 2019. From 2103-2014, she had also had exhibitions at the equally legendary NYC galleries Mondo Cane, Todd Merrill, and Glenn Horowitz – her first exhibitions in three decades, A few more articles and references have also appeared too, and you can read them here and here and here, and here. I’m so glad to see that she is now receiving the recognition she deserves. As for my painting, I still love it.

This superb article on Eshel published on 1stDibs tells you all you need to know about the artist and her work – click here.

Leave a Reply