WAS MARY MAGDALENE A REDHEAD?
On the Exhibition of works by Dina Hoffman, June 1999, The Yosef Konstant
Sculpture Gallery, Ramat-Gan.
By Tali Tamir
When Zeus, Father of the Gods, wished to conquer the heart and body of Danae, he
turned himself into a shower of gold. Thus - flowing and golden - he penetrates the
women he desires and makes her fruitful. Exactly when did the gold of a woman's hair
become the colour of sin and desire?
Judaism conducts a war to the bitter end against woman's hair and instructs that
it should be hidden and shaved. However, Christian culture, which is built on elements
of visual aesthetics, has developed a dialectical attitude to woman's hair as an
expression of shining beauty, on the one hand, with attributes of sin and desire on
the other. The visual likeness of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who became a saint,
crystallized around her long and flowing hair, the attribute that testifies to her
sinful past and clearly differentiates between her and Holy Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In the late Middle Ages, her hair was coloured golden-blonde. The 16th century gilded
the sinful woman's hair even more and under Titian's brush, it became truly red -
convincing proof of the erotic experience out of which her sanctity grew.
While her red-gold hair symbolizes her depraved past, Mary Magdalene has an
additional attribute that symbolizes the sacred part of her soul - her total personal
devotion to alleviating Jesus' suffering. This attribute is contained in the object
she always carries with her - a small jar of ointment with which she anoints the feet
of Jesus on the cross, to heal his wounds. In his essay on the genre of stories based
on the image of the prostitute who becomes a saint - "The Holy Harlot" -
Aviad Kleinberg(1) notes the ambivalence that characterizes the bond between Jesus
and Mary Magdalene and remarks that "The tableau with the jar of ointment is the only
erotic scene in the New Testament. It is the only occasion where Jesus is portrayed
in close physical contact with a woman; the erotic attention of the sinful woman is
completely focussed on Jesus' feet". While the theological text emphasizes the
spiritual righteousness of Magdalene, artists of all periods have understood her dual
role and have turned the hair itself into a healing element: Mary Magdalene, kneeling
at the foot of the cross, caresses Jesus' bleeding feet with her bound braids. Thus,
Mary Magdalene's circle of repentance is completed: her most absolutely sinful
attribute assumes the task of healing and redeeming.
Dina Hoffman was born a redhead - "ginger" - as was the writer of these lines.
In a sort of secret pact between redheads (together with the eternal, moral Anne
Shirley and lawless, freckled Bilby) she included me, as witness to a labour she
undertook. This was the work of unraveling the threads of the complex, feminine image
of Mary Magdalene. Prostitute? Sinner? Lover? Victim? Ultimate Woman? Seductive and
repulsive figure? Healer and redeemer? A persona nature banished from the kingdom of
pale shadows, endowing her with the seductive, ruddy glow associated with the warmth
of light and sun.
At the same time, she remains a figure with a feminist nuance - alone, without a
partner, she frees herself from her crucified beloved, leaves him behind and goes on
without him to follow her own special, personal path. She did, indeed "do penance",
she cleansed her body and soul, but she did not cut her hair, nor did she gather it in
a coif. Something of the freedom in the golden curls scattered on her back adhered to her
image, without her losing the power to heal.
Dina Hoffman, a woman in her middle years, a golden-haired individualist, reinforces
Magdalene's characteristics ad absurdum - her colourfulness runs wild with gilt and
glitter. Her main work, particularly in this exhibition, is the creation of objects/
containers that could be either jars or boxes and by the very fact of their shining
existence, could be a healing potion for the viewer.
At all stages of her development over the years, Dina Hoffman's work has been woven
with feminine images that are surrounded by, even flooded with, an abundance of objects,
ornaments, embroideries and spectacular, intricate compositions. Like the rainbow, Dina's
glowing colourfulness symbolizes a covenant between herself and her work to banish any
trace of sorrow. For Dina Hoffman, all materials are viable - shiny paper, stickers,
glittering sequins and buttons, chocolate "gold", plastic dolls and much more - a grand
repertoire of childish treasure that builds an ephemeral surrealistic world,
demonstrating its exaggerated surfeit. Hoffman is extraordinary in the general landscape
of Israeli art, closer in spirit to the work of Bianca Eshel-Gershoni, which also derives
content from a mix of materials, toys and gilt to create the ceremonial, ritual object.
The abundance and crowding arouse the suspicion that, maybe, the real thing happening
in front of your eyes is nothing but a rite of exorcism. A rite that does not for a
moment let up on the work of gilding and cleansing, trying with all its might to
camouflage gaping cracks of emptiness - black holes.
As a defence against a "horror of vacuums", an infinite energy is activated in Dina
Hoffman, creating a rich world of objects, a world of wild beauty that holds its own
against any conventional aesthetic.
The primal feminine figure hidden beneath this shining abundance is the figure of the
mother - the eternal Penelope, who lost her partner in Israel's war of Independence,
she who blends with the feminine figures on Greek burial urns: "My mother says 'Shalom'
to her soldier on a gigantic burial urn," wrote Hoffman on one of her works (1995).
Dina Hoffman, a golden-haired girl who never met her father, creates a continuous
festivalof magic colour from the emptiness into which she was born. The ability to unite
the tragic with the festive and shining is not the outcome of personal choice, but a way
of surviving, an established fact - a feminine strength that insists on gilding what has
faded and frozen.
One of the basic activities in the installation "Was Mary Magdalene a Redhead?" is
the every day feminine task of setting the table. In the center of the composition is a
table covered with a spendid blue tablecloth on which are placed five jugs on plates,
in a row. It is not a table for a family meal, but a table for the bringing of tributes,
perhaps a funeral ceremony, perhaps some other celebration. Like the woman setting the
table in Matisse's painting (Harmony in Red, 1908-1909), where the tablecloth, the
tapestry on the wall and the tableware bloom in efflorescence of abundance and joy, Dina
Hoffman's installation, too, preserves a theatrical ceremony of table setting. The dishes
and the exotic flowering incorporate various examples of ornamentation: squares, dots,
flowers etc. The table, however surrealistic it may be, conveys an existential "is":
dishes are, things are, a tablecloth is, the world is.
On the basis of the image of the mother, who sets the table as in a magnificent
requiem ceremony, other feminine figures have been added to Dina Hoffman's work over the
years. These constitute the "tribal mothers": the figure of an Egyptian fertility
goddess, the figure of Artemis, the Greek-Roman goddessof the hunt, the figure of Jemima,
the bandy-legged doll in Bialick's poem, and the figure of Barbie, the archetypal
blonde doll. To these are added Hannele and her Sabbath dress, pre-historic "Venus"
figurines, an archetypal bridal figure in a wedding dress, and finally - the central
figure of the exhibition - Mary Magdalene.
In her encounter with Mary Magdalene, Dina Hoffman ignored Magdalene's glamorous
youth, which is emphasized in all the pictorial versions, choosing, instead, the
irregular version that was unprecedented for the times and for many years to follow -
Donatello's sculpture depicting Magdalene as a gaunt, worn-out old woman. Donatello
offers an extreme, personal commentary on the figureof the penitent prostitute,
a commentary that cancels any standart of earthly and sensual beauty, leaving only
Magdalene the castigated soul, ultimate victim of faith or love. And it is just that
version carved in wood by Donatello, that Hoffman copied from a book of reproductions
by means of ordinary, greyish Xerox, that forms the basis of her provocative question
regarding the shiny redness of the hair of the exhibition's heroine. Hence, the question
asked by Dina Hoffman undermines Donatello's Christian view of the tortured image of
Magdalene and asks about her primal existence, her feminine fantasy, her colourful
youthful phase, before her flesh became gaunt and her colours faded.
The question Dina Hoffman poses here is about the dichotomy in perception of the
feminine image; the dichotomy between the whore-woman and the saint-woman, or between
the suffering, victimized female essence and the glamorous, colourful one.
Dina's ultimate act in the Magdalene installation joins the extremes of her personality
into one essence. Erasing the difference between glamour and suffering. Melting
suffering into glamour, ugliness into beauty and the tragic into the festive.
Dina Hoffman's choice of the Magdalene image is an extreme one. More then Artemis,
Hannale and her Sabbath Dress, or bandy-legged Jemimah, Magdalene represents a mature
feminine persona submerged in an extreme spiritual state of suffering and agony.
The extreme act through which Dina Hoffman responds to Magdalene's suffering is in
joining her upper body to the lower body of a Barbie doll, thereby breaking the
symmetrical identification of the one with the world of suffering and agony and the
other with the world of glamour and seductiveness. in Barbie, Dina Hoffman sees a
feminine victim that weighs no less than the terrible victimization of Mary Magdalene.
Her shapely legs complete the gaunt and worn-out body of Magdalene. It turns Barbie
herself into the true victim of the feminine mythos. It is she, in the end, who makes
the great, difficult renunciation of her true image.
The assault on the cult of feminine glamour, embodied in the Barbie image,
intensified with the gilded myth of another goddess - Marilyn Monroe, the archetype of
the stylized image of the Barbie doll. Monroe also became a victim, almost a saint,
when she paid with her life and sanity for her brilliant achievements in the art of
seduction. Dina Hoffman transforms the craft of stylized feminine seduction, which
obeys strict rules, into a colourful, glittering, wild and liberated fantasy that has
pleasurable healing powers that pacify loss, bind its wounds and surround it in a
shining bubble. That is exactly how Magdalene appeared with her box of healing ointment,
healing the wounds of her beloved on the cross.
The gap between disintegration and excitation disappeared, for a moment, as if it had
Translated from Hebrew by Riva Rubin
(1) Aviad Kleinberg,
The life of Mary the Prostitute, Niece of Abraham, by Archdeacon Efraim.
From: Zmanim, Zman Nashim, #46/47 (Hebrew) Winter 1993, Tel-Aviv University Press.