The ever-evolving rebirth of Eva Cellini
August 13, 2008
ASPEN ” Painter Eva Cellini brings up, and firmly believes in, several topics ” astrology, reincarnation ” that might cause a skeptic to discount her other views on the world. But Cellini is so firmly rooted in the ground and such a graceful presence ” not to mention a breathtaking artist ” that she brings with her an instant credibility.
Her beliefs are backed by a deep well of experience ” 83 years’ worth ” that has left scarcely a wrinkle on her face. And also by a more specific set of experiences that illuminate the truth behind her views.
Take reincarnation. As much a philosopher as an artist, Cellini laid out her theory on the subject: “Everybody, everything in the world ” nothing really dies,” she said, with a combination of gentleness and authority that makes you hang on her words. “It’s just physics; you just change forms. The most important thing in your life is your inner spirit. It won’t be called Eva Cellini anymore, but it’s energy, and it knows no true time limits, no age, no numbers. It’s just you.”
To buttress this perspective, she can offer up an episode from her own life. Cellini didn’t die, but she was reborn in a significant way. In her first 53 years she had never worked with oil and never made a painting, instead building a career as a commercial artist and illustrator. But she found herself, at 54, faced with a challenge: Her husband’s friend, who represented commercial artists, declined to take on Cellini as a client.
“He didn’t like me at all, as a person, as an artist,” said Cellini. “I’m not a competitive person, but this was a challenge. I wanted to prove I’m not a bad person, not a lousy artist.”
Cellini took up arms ” oils, brushes and a canvas ” and scored a decisive victory.
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The resultant piece, “Life’s Journey,” from the early ’80s, is a bit busy by her later standards (“It was my first painting, so I put everything into it,” she said of the still life, which features fruit, books, coins, a coffee pot and a skull), but it convinced her detractor. “He was so surprised, because my first oil painting, I looked like an artist, someone who had taken lessons,” Cellini recalled. “After that first painting, I didn’t want to do anything else.”
The results of her reincarnation are evident in Dreams and Clouds, a retrospective exhibition of Cellini’s work showing at Magidson Fine Art through Friday, Aug. 22.
Cellini was born in Bratislava, where her mother, a dancer, had been working. But a few weeks after her birth, the family moved back to its native Budapest, where Eva, who speaks with a strong middle European accent, was raised under the Soviet regime.
Her survival as a Jew in Europe during the 1940s was surprisingly undramatic. “I didn’t do much,” said Cellini, contrasting herself to her best childhood friend, who moved around constantly yet didn’t survive the Nazis. But her interpretation of her survival is profound: “It was a miracle. I was meant to do something,” she concluded.
In art school, Cellini focused on textiles, but her rigorous training included a variety of disciplines ” almost everything but painting. As a young woman, her work included making propaganda posters for the Stalin-era U.S.S.R., though her sentiments were hardly with the Communists. In 1956, following the Hungarian revolution against the Stalinist government, she had an opportunity to flee, and she landed in New York City.
Such a background has left psychic scars on many. But on Cellini, any scarring is overpowered by her optimism, acceptance and wisdom. Her husband, Joseph, also a commercial artist, died 13 years ago. Instead of retreating into loneliness, Cellini buoys herself with the memory of their relationship ” “We were married for 42 years, and it was one of the best marriages I have known. It was terrific,” she said ” and forges into the next part of her life.
If nimbleness of mind is the key ingredient to a happy older age, Cellini is evidence of this notion. A decade ago, Jay Magidson, her gallery representative in Aspen since 1992, insisted that his artist enter the digital age and sent Cellini a computer at her home in northern New Jersey. Instead of leaving the package unwrapped, Cellini took instructions over the phone and set up the unfamiliar contraption. “And now I think, ‘How could I function without it?'” she said.
Cellini’s art reveals a parallel refusal to be static. The current retrospective is almost exclusively still-life paintings, but she has discovered and explored endless corners within those boundaries: fantasy, humor and stone-cold realism; infinite variations on lighting and composition; a huge color palette. An image of Nick Nolte improbably appears in the 1992 piece “Revelation”; Cellini says she was enormously inspired by Martin Scorsese’s segment of the film “New York Stories,” in which Nolte played a painter at a creative impasse.
“I had so much affinity with the painter, going through this hardship, no inspiration, frustrated,” said Cellini, who takes an active interest in philosophy, science, mathematics and photography, often corresponding with Magidson on these topics. “He had no idea what’s next,” she continued. “And that finally moved him out of the stupor, this frustration, this no-hope situation, and he realized the solution on a canvas.”
Cellini’s images may seem like super-realistic recreations of solid objects. But, she said, there is a narrative taking place in each one, and some investigation can be rewarded. “Passion,” a 2000 work not included in the current show, is a knock-out of imagination, an oversized pink peony stuffed into a canopy bed. “She was missing her husband,” explained artist and gallery co-owner Ingrid Dee Magidson, who practically worships Cellini, visiting her in New Jersey once a year.
“The Gift” is an image of a rose encased in glass; Cellini says it was inspired by a special friendship. “Friendship is the most important thing in the world,” she said. “The gift has to be nurtured, taken care of, protected. The rose symbolizes the profound connections with another human being.”
Perhaps the most distinctive work in Dreams and Clouds ” apart from the one that includes a likeness of George Carlin ” is also the most recent. “Requiem” is nearly unique in two ways: It is all gray, and it is a landscape ” some cliffs overlook a stormy ocean, with a set of candles in the foreground.
Cellini said she did not set out to make a painting that balanced gloom and hopefulness. Only upon later reflection did she begin to realize that the elements of the piece represented her mood. “I had lots of problems at that time, physical problems,” said Cellini, who is tiny and claims to have trouble walking, but hardly seems frail or lacking in energy or mental acuity. “Cataracts. I had concerns about that. Without my eyes, I can’t paint. But I’m a hopeless optimist.
“The storm represents my inner turmoil: ‘Am I going to survive?’ But the optimist in me put the candles there, and the flames are not moving ” they are not disturbed by the storm. It symbolizes that deep inside of me, I’ll still be alive after the operation. My eyes will still be there.”
To Cellini, the last thing “Requiem” reveals is a fear of dying. To her way of thinking, there is no final death. Nor is the painting about a fear of aging. Cellini said that the later years have been her best.
“This is a good thing, to be old,” said Cellini, who for 45 years has lived in Leonia, a northern New Jersey town historically populated by artists and professors from nearby Columbia University. “Nothing contaminates your relationships. I can have relationships with young men, old men, middle-aged women, and there is nothing except pure commitment to another person, the need to be there for that person.”
For all her interests in the world beyond this one, Cellini has little desire to see into the future. She is content to leave that an unknown realm ” with one exception. She sees herself, given enough good health, moving into portraiture. She has done some portrait painting before and was never satisfied with her ability to capture something in the way that she does with still life. But she isn’t ready to give up.
“The human face is so important to me,” said Cellini. “Certain things in the human face are so attractive. For instance, older people ” they have rounder eyes. The eyes tell so much about a person, and I want to say something about all the ages of man.
“That’s why I hate the culture. We worship nothing but youth, and youth is so fleeting. When you’re older, your face develops and shows the experience, the suffering. Those empty young faces ” they don’t have any attraction for me.”