Lyora Pissarro Stern


There is a fundamental difference between viewing a piece of art in a gallery or a museum once the work is completed, framed and hung, and having the privilege of watching an artist perform the fascinating ritual which goes into creating that piece of art.

I have always loved watching my mother paint, because I was always fascinated by it. It was beyond me how she could have the patience to paint so slowly and produce such detailed works of art. She would apply three or four layers of oil paint to her landscapes, and each enticing criss-cross made by her delicate brush would be specifically placed to create what in the end would look like an impressionist painting. She would paint with the knowledge of the masters of the movement yet with her own style and technique. In my eyes she was wasting her time, but nonetheless, I enjoyed watching her because when she paints she enters a trance where she looks so peaceful, so content and so free.

After she was diagnosed with cancer in November 2003 she was forced to give up painting altogether. She became so confused and so miserable; for those close to her it was painful to witness.What once had made her so happy was now adding to her grief and torment. After eighteen long months when she finally began painting again, something was still wrong. She was painting the same signature landscapes of “Yeyette Lebatards house under the snow,” yet behind the piece of work, as an artist she was still suffering. It was as if she had reached a mental block.

After she was approached to paint “Paule Ka” by an Ovarian Cancer Research charity, she began to think beyond her usual landscapes. She wanted to look for her own meaning beyond the art she was creating and for her, the shoe represented a unique sense of femininity and sensuality, a feeling she had lost during her battle with cancer. She began painting swirls and shoes which were not perfect and representational. She was experimenting; they were messy, shrouded in glitter and I felt that they were painted so quickly that there was a lack of attention to detail. In a word, they were modern. I thought that the only explanation was that the cancer had destroyed her ability to paint.

I now hated her work. I was so embarrassed and, honestly, I was ashamed. My opinion back then with regard to modern art was very simple; it was not art. This wave of art could be produced by anyone, and to me did not master skill or creativity. Anyone could paint, create or add a signature to anything and call it a piece of art as well as calling themselves an artist.As a great- great granddaughter of Impressionism, I thought that it was not fair to those such as my forefathers who, together with the pioneers of Impressionism, had struggled along with many other artists from all different movements to create something which reflected hard work, skill and ‘artistic ability.’’

Just as each movement struggles for acceptance, it took me a while to accept Modern Art. As I grew up and became more educated in the subject, I learned not only to understand but appreciate the movement; with that, I became more interested in my mother’s work and involved in what she was trying to convey.

In the next period of her development, despite months of confusion from everyone around her and more importantly, within herself, she began to gain confidence - and with confidence came improvement. In the new series of huge acrylic pieces which had a lot more inherent meaning, she stopped experimenting and found her own unique style. Of course, an artist will never completely stop experimenting, as such, but she stopped ‘playing about’ and found herself once more. Either I accepted it and I came on this new journey with her, or she moved forward and I would be left behind. I’ve always been too close to her and her art to let this happen.

It was when she held her first exhibition to release her new work “Taboo” that I finally understood what was really behind her paintings, and it was on that night that I became proud of her once again. I looked at all the people who had come to admire her work and admire her as an artist. Admiring her was the most important thing because, aside from what she was painting, it was what she had spent months of perseverance to achieve which astounded everybody, including me.

For years and for four generations, artists in our family had passed down their skills to her - the understanding and the techniques used in Impressionism. She was going against the traditional values of the Pissarros by breaking out of the mould and doing something different. ‘Different’ is always difficult to accept… because different is not what is “normal.” In my opinion that is why, in the history of art, all movements and periods have struggled for acceptance. Therefore, just in the same way the public struggles to accept change, I also struggled to accept my mother’s new style.’ It fascinates me because we need change, yet we reject it. I rejected her work and I rejected her because of it. I believe that I associated the change in her work with a change in her because of the cancer and I rejected it because subconsciously I made connections between the two.

Today I am so proud, for so many different reasons. I am proud of her courage, her determination and her strength of character, and honoured that I have been given the opportunity to write in her book and add to her story. She is truly an inspiration and I hope one day not only to be as good an artist as she, but as strong and full of life.
“I began to understand my sensations, to know what I wanted, at around the age of forty, but only vaguely”” Camille Pissarro.