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Tapestries of the Spirit: The Art of Lydia Egosi
Tapestries of the Spirit: The Art of Lydia Egosi

Volume 3 , Issue 3

The tapestries of Lydie Egosi, which radiate an intensely colorful and positive Jewish spiritual vision, have been widely exhibited and displayed in museums and synagogues throughout the United States. Since 1972, her dramatic wall hangings, and more recently her silkscreen serigraph prints, have found their way into numerous public and private collections of contemporary Judaica and Jewish art. Most recently, Ms. Egosi has offered a unique expression of female spirituality, and her work can be understood as an important component of the contemporary women's renewal within Jewish religious life.

Ms. Egosi's colorful tapestries, silkscreens and drawings, which can be viewed at her studios on 57th Street in Manhattan and in Sag Harbor on Long Island, are an exuberant celebration of Jewish life and ritual. Their optimism tends to obscure the inner life struggle of the artist, a struggle first to find her Jewish soul, and, second, to discover her own unique feminine, spiritual vision. By understanding the artist's struggles, we may be better able to comprehend the full nature of her vision and the magnitude of her achievement.

Lydie Egosi was born in Paris and raised during the second world war by an assimilated Jewish mother and a non‑practicing Christian father. Her mother's family had been quite prominent in Paris ?Ms. Egosi's grandfather's construction firm helped build the scaffolding for the Eiffel tower ? and much of the family went into hiding in the French countryside during the war. However, her immediate family remained. Her mother ran a small variety store next to their one room apartment in Paris. Ms Egosi relates that her mother, who was herself a frustrated artist, tried to fulfill her own dreams by enrolling her daughter in ballet school at the age of four. Ms. Egosi studied ballet seriously until she was 19, quitting school at age 12 because the school day conflicted with her rigorous schedule of ballet classes.

The Paris Priest

As the product of a mixed Jewish and Christian marriage, Ms. Egosi had no sense of religious or ethnic identity as a child. Indeed, Ms. Egosi's mother was separated from her own parents as a child during World War I and raised by Christians. ?When I was nine,? Lydie relates, ?I decided that I wanted to become a Christian. All my friends were wearing beautiful white dresses for church on Sunday, and I wanted to be part of that too.? According to Ms. Egosi, she experienced no resistance from her parents, and she was soon baptized and began attending classes in Catechism with a Paris priest, from which she graduated after only a year of intensive study.

At first, Ms. Egosi was happy with her new found Christian identity, but soon things became problematic. ?During the early years of the war,? Lydie relates, ?there were three or four Jewish girls in my class at school with whom I was friends. The other Christian girls stuck to themselves, and at one point I realized that during school recess the Christian girls were playing together, but leaving the Jewish girls out.? Ms. Egosi recalls that she protested and the Christian girls responded by saying that she, Lydie, shouldn't play either. ?I wasn't fighting for religion at that point,? Ms. Egosi states, ?but only for fairness. I just couldn't understand what was going on.?

It was about this time that Ms. Egosi took her first Catholic communion. While she had recently completed her Catechism, she decided to stay on and study with a priest on an informal basis. ?Every Thursday, I would meet with him to ask questions about religion. At one point I asked him about the Catholic teaching that we shouldn't do unto others what we wouldn't want done to ourselves and why it was that the Christian girls were ganging up on the Jewish girls at school.?

The answer Ms. Egosi received did not please her. Although she cannot recall the priest's exact words, she relates that they were something to the effect that these other girls were different, and that if Lydie really wanted to help them, she would talk them into coming into the church. ?If they weren't Jewish,? he implied, ?they wouldn't get into trouble.?

?In the end,? Ms. Egosi recalls, ?I was not happy with the priest and he was not very happy with me. He came to my mother and told her that she had a very smart little girl who was, nevertheless, harassing him with her questions. He suggested that we stop our little talks.?

In the meantime, Ms. Egosi was developing, in her own quiet way, the skills that would serve her as an artist,? particularly as a maker of tapestries, later in life. Lydie recalls that as a young child she would take wool and fabric from her mother's variety store and weave them into scarves, gloves and other items which she would put back in the store and sell as a means of supporting her ballet lessons. Later on, during the war, when there was a great shortage of cloth for new clothes, children in Paris would add a band of fabric to the bottom of their dresses and skirts, in this way making them serviceable for yet another year. Ms. Egosi recalls that each year she would put a decoration on these bands in order to hide the stitches and thus got started in working with applique, which was later to become her signature artistic technique.

Jewish Awakening

As a child, Ms. Egosi reports, her family, which was quite poor, lived in a one room apartment behind her mother's store. Her father worked at night and slept at home during the day. Consequently, Ms. Egosi's mother would place her in a foyer between the bedroom and the store. ?I would be alone,? she recalls, ?sometimes for five or six hours at a stretch. I couldn't sing or yell or make any noise or I'd wake my father, so I did a lot of cutting out and working with crayons, and by the time I was 12 I had taught myself how to paint with watercolors.?

Well‑schooled in ballet and only self‑taught as an artist, Ms. Egosi nonetheless decided to forego dance and enroll in the School of Modern Art in Paris as a student of interior design. It was there that she met her future husband, Charles Egosi, a Polish born architecture student who had fought in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. It was through Charles that Lydie, at the age of 22, finally became acquainted with her own Jewish heritage. ?At that time,? she recalls, ?I remained subjugated by Christianity.? She had no idea about the concentration camps, and when she learned about them from Charles, her first impulse was to ask him why he had not become a Christian himself. ?I simply thought of Judaism,? she says, ?as another religious denomination like Methodist and Lutheran.? It was only after seeing Charles' own love for and devotion to Israel, and after he introduced her to the Jewish heritage and Torah, that the spark of Judaism was rekindled in her own soul. As she related quite vividly in a previous interview, the Jewish Bible provided her with the ?missing parts of a puzzle.? ?With each chapter,? she said, ?I felt emotion, including revenge, depression, joy and also guilt for not knowing sooner... I felt deprived of something that reflected my identity? the process was like being born; it was one of learning and discovery. The more I learned, the more I saw that, for me, Judaism was the right way of living.?

Ms. Egosi's discussions with Charles helped place some of her childhood experiences in a new light. At the age of twelve her best friend was rejected from the music conservatory because she was a Jew. One day, Ms. Egosi recalls, when she went to visit this girl, the door to her home was barricaded by wood. She and her family were gone, never to return. It was only after her discussions with Charles that she began to understand the full impact of what had occurred. ?At the time,? Ms. Egosi relates, ?I had a one track mind and I was ignorant of the world apart from my piano, watercolors and ballet classes.?

Complex and on a Grand Scale

It was not until twenty years later, however, that Ms. Egosi experienced the Jewish spiritual awakening which eventually resulted in her magnificent tapestries, an awakening which followed on the heels of a personal, psychological crisis which she experienced after the death, in rapid succession, of her grandmother, father and mother, and the miscarriage of what would have been her third child in the mid 1960's. As a result of these traumas Ms. Egosi experienced a deep depression which eventually resulted in a personal transformation.

Soon after these events, in 1968, Ms. Egosi made her first trip to the land of Israel. Jerusalem had been reunited as a result of the '67 war and her husband had a desire to return to see the old city. The visit to Israel, however, had a tremendous impact on Ms. Egosi. While she didn't fall completely in love with the land, she, for the first time in her life, began to feel a part of the Jewish people. At first, when she visited the kotel, she remained in the spectator area, sensing that she should not approach the wall because, as she put it, ?perhaps I didn't belong there yet, perhaps I was not yet Jewish enough.? When Ms. Egosi returned from Israel, she discovered that she was pregnant with her third child, and sensing the new life within her, she realized fully, for the first time, that she was, indeed, a Jew. It was after the birth of her third son, Yoram, that Ms. Egosi began expressing her Jewish spirit in artistic form. While in Israel, she had been excited by the batik and fiber work she had seen in various artist colonies, and upon her return she chose fabric as her medium of artistic expression.

Ms. Egosi's tapestries have evolved into complex works executed on a grand scale. Her largest, Thou Shalt Teach Thy Children, was commissioned in 1982 by Temple Emanuel of Chicago and took nearly two years to complete. In constructing her tapestries, she begins with a pencil sketch, followed by a detailed watercolor which presents the overall design and color scheme. These, in turn, are followed by two drawings, each of which is the exact size of the projected work. One is colored and used as a guide for the tapestry's execution, while the other is cut up and used as a series patterns for the tapestry's component pieces. Lydie utilizes a variety of fabrics, including velvet, burlap and wool. Once the pieces have been cut, they are pinned to the background and then stitched in, using either an inlay or overlay technique. The entire work, including fringes and trimming, is completed exclusively by the artist herself. Ms. Egosi states that the complex nature of the stitching, as well as the overlapping relationships of the pieces to each other, makes it impossible for anyone but herself to work on the finished project.

Ms. Egosi states that with her larger creations, she cannot see the entire work until it has been finished and has to be hung. Hanging her works is such a precise task that Ms. Egosi feels that the hanging is almost as important as the design itself in achieving the work's aesthetic impact. As a result of the time and labor involved in executing these works, Ms. Egosi has recently begun to work additionally in other media, including gouache (an opaque water‑based paint) and silkscreen, making her work accessible to a much wider public than in the past.

For the past twenty years, nearly all of Lydie's work has been on explicitly Jewish themes. Ms. Egosi states that she senses within herself a very strong Jewish spirituality even though she has not had a firm grounding in Jewish law and observance. Her work has a sort of folk‑simplicity, and, indeed, it is related to traditional folk‑art styles, most noticeably in the use of decorative borders. In her work, Ms. Egosi attempts to focus on the joyous moments in Jewish life when people interact with ritual. In achieving this focus, she utilizes simplified depictions of ceremonial objects, Hebrew calligraphy, and the architecture and foliage of Jerusalem. Most impressive perhaps, is Ms. Egosi's vibrant and at times electrifying, use of color. Her tapestries contain as many as 60‑70 distinct color tones (and an additional variety of textures), and while her silkscreens are generally limited to 20 colors because of the cost of color reproduction, they are, nonetheless, dazzling in their impact.

Indeed, it is her use of color which distinguishes Lydie Egosi's work from the spiritual vision which is sometimes present in Jewish art. Lydie states that much of the artwork she had seen on Jewish themes was somewhat staid, and even sad. She relates that she herself, unlike many of her contemporaries, had not been persecuted, had not been traumatized as a child. While she had been indirectly affected by the war, she had not, for a variety of reasons, emerged with the all‑too common bittersweet sense that it ?is hard to be a Jew.? Indeed, on both a conscious and subconscious level, she developed a very positive, almost idyllic conception of Judaism. As she puts it, ?I came out with all this color because in color I could express my emotional and spiritual feeling for Judaism. I didn't have much Jewish background, but I learned to equate Judaism with kindness, love and concern. I wanted to convey this and a sense of happiness in my work.? From a psychological point of view, we might say that as a Baalat Teshuvah, a returnee to Judaism, Ms. Egosi has expressed a ?Judaism which might be,? an ideal Judaism which she, in her own vision, is striving towards. It may not always be the Judaism of HaOlam Hazeh (this world), but it is certainly the Judaism of HaOlam Haba (the world to come). It is, perhaps, this glimpse into the ideal, seen through the eyes of a Jewish soul awakening to its Jewish roots, that makes Ms. Egosi's work so appealing.

Ms. Egosi's optimism is even evident in her tapestries which deal with tragic themes. Survivors, for example, is a memorial to the holocaust. It depicts, according to the artist, Jews ?who have been crushed and not really alive.? Yet at the same time as these figures are crushed, there is movement upwards in the whole tapestry towards a blue line which symbolizes hope. It depicts, according to Lydie, ?distress but never disaster.?

Most recently, Ms. Egosi's work has taken on a fresh, new direction, embodied in her renewed emphasis on music and, especially, dance. Lydie herself attributes this new direction to a second crisis in her adult life which was occasioned by a serious and almost paralyzing sciatica, and her subsequent return to dance as a form of therapy which enabled her to regain movement in her limbs. Whereas her earlier personal crisis had liberated her as a Jew, this second crisis had the ultimate effect, according to Ms. Egosi, of liberating her as a Jewish woman. While her earlier work had been architectural and, in retrospect, somewhat masculine in its design, her newer tapestries such as Miriam and The Dance, eschew geometric form in favor of flowing ribbons of human and natural movement. One of her more recent pieces, Celebration, depicts ?exuberant female figures,? worshipping in a manner that seems to celebrate the feminine aspects of Jewish spirituality.

Music and the dance are, perhaps, no more evident than in her recent series of serigraphs, several of which such as Celebration, are based on her tapestries. In Succot, for example, pieces of fruit seem to dance in a fruit bowl while decorations above almost allow us to hear the music represented by notes on a musical staff. The entire composition seems to balance the feminine and the masculine in Jewish ritual, as the figures waving the lulav and etrog in the center of the scene retain some of the architectural aspects of her earlier works.

In spite of her love for Judaism and interest in Jewish ritual, Ms. Egosi has, until now, shied away from traditional Jewish practice and observance. Recently, however, an interest in Orthodox Judaism has been ignited in her by her youngest son Yoram, who has, himself, embarked on a course of study in Jerusalem which will lead him to the rabbinate. As a result, Ms. Egosi herself has slowly begun to expose herself to Orthodox Jewish practice, commenting, however, that she has yet to find a place in institutional Judaism for one who is very much attached to tradition and ritual, yet who would like to see Jewish spirituality accessible to all, men and women alike. As a part of, and indeed as an unselfconscious leader in the expression of the feminine aspects of Jewish spirituality, Ms. Egosi has increased this accessibility both to herself and all those who have appreciated her work.



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