Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Only a few times during the day did I feel I couldn't cope."
I don't know about you, but that quiet confession of oh so crippling helplessness - implying so many more days, months or years of even deeper debilitating self-doubt - halted me in my tracks, and made me linger on it for a long, long time.
With its disciplined precision, restricting itself largely to a single image and but a couple of carefully composed sentences (maybe three or four at the most), each page is designed to focus your attention and reward you for listening. Almost every sentence in this arresting work of courageously communicated insight is eminently quotable, for there is nothing that is in any way extraneous. Not one word.
Its distillation is like the best poetry, free from cleverness and cryptic obfuscation. Moreover, given how complex and overwhelming the inner turmoil which artist Sarah Lightman endured for so long, the reflections in this retrospective are delivered with astonishing clarity.
But like the very best of almost everything, THE BOOK OF SARAH also comes with dry humour, such as the final line here, deftly inserted like a shrug of mock-stoicism:
"I sat on a bench waiting for him to call and tell me that he couldn't make it. It was fine, of course. I had half expected it.
"Otherwise why would I have chosen such a comfortable bench with such a nice view?"
At one point, in an effort to help heave herself out of the paralysing quagmire, Lightman buys a book called 'Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, And Missed Opportunities', and that's a surprisingly accurate summation of what you'll be witness to here. I reckon it will resonate with many, profoundly so.
So what is the situation, Stephen?
The situation is this. In spite of early alienation at school resulting in a dwindling self-confidence ("I watched in wonder as people became themselves, whilst I clung to others to find my own way. At assemblies, the great ones were awarded, appointed and celebrated. I would watch and grow smaller in my own eyes, and theirs."), Lightman nevertheless enjoys childhood weekends shared with her friends in the Jewish heartlands of north London whose parents welcome them her readily into their homes for much love and laughter. But, as many of us do when we reach university age, those same friends flew the coop to spread their wings. All of them.
Sarah can't do that.
"I wanted to study at a New York art school and complete my Master's there. But I recalled the screams and fights that occurred when my sister asserted her choices in life. Like the walls of the Red Sea after Moses departed, when Esther's rebellious spirit was absent the force of parental control overwhelmed me. I had the chance to take control, but I floundered."
What 'Exodus' - the second chapter, after 'Genesis' - expresses so eloquently that it almost broke me is her family's long-standing, generational tradition of stifling ambition, autonomy and independence, thereby thwarting so much potential. I'm searching for an appropriate description of the family's chosen mechanisms. Oh, I know, they're called emotional blackmail and outright threats such as this:
""If you let her go to America, I will divorce you," my mother had told my father."
So Sarah doesn't study there. "Instead, I made another visit to New York, to a city I wasn't ready for, and to a boyfriend who wanted to build a relationship with me, when I was not even in a relationship with myself."
This is what I mean by the pithy precision.
Even when she does begin to break fettered bonds, the restrictive damage has already been done.
"I was a free animal, who, having spent her whole life caged, could only walk in circles in this time of freedom, missing the protective walls of her enclosure.
"I'd draw the city I was afraid to engage with."
So it is that we come to the drawings themselves. Interspersed with brief bursts of colour which don't half hit you in the eye, they are predominantly dense and detailed pencil portraits of - and meditations on - ordinary household objects which rarely resonate as 'ordinary' when they are family heirlooms ("I inherited lace from a great-great aunt I never knew. I am just a stitch in my family's woven history."); religious paintings; Jewish books "bought in the height of my religious fervour" which modern-day Sarah no longer knows what to do with; a great many landscapes of houses, streets, rivers and bridges that have loomed large in Lightman's life ("Things and spaces speak for me." The Brooklyn Bridge spoke to her - and there's thwarted family history there too, given that they got off the boat from Vilna too soon in Liverpool after being told that it was New York City.); her family both past and present in the form of her husband Charlie and indeed future in the form of their young child Harry. These are strikingly light, soft and tender by comparison, some not fully formed just like Harry himself, free from the family baggage that Lightman lugged round with her. "I've already decided Harry can go anywhere, when the time comes."
Apart from Harry, often cradled in arms or swaddled in a blanket, the images strike me as solitary, heavy with melancholy, intensely solemn but never bleak. They are solid but sad. And they are silent, so very silent.
How could or even should they be otherwise?
I'm not going to even hint at how this ends, but instead leave you with this from Myriad Editions, one of Page 45's favourite publishers (see our reviews of Jade Sarson's FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MARIE!, Gareth Brookes' A THOUSAND COLOURED CASTLES, Olivier Kugler's ESCAPING WARS AND WAVES: ENCOUNTERS WITH SYRIAN REFUGEES, Darryl Cunningham's GRAPHIC SCIENCE and SUPERCRASH: HOW TO HIJACK THE GLOBAL ECONOMY etcetera and indeed etc.):
"The Book of Sarah is missing from the bible, so artist Sarah Lightman sets out to make her own: questioning religion, family, motherhood and what it takes to be an artist in this quietly subversive visual autobiography from NW3. The Jerusalem Bible, Ellerdale Road, St Paul's Girls School and a baby monitor: books and streets, buildings and objects in this bildungsroman set in Hampstead, North West London.
"Sarah Lightman has been drawing her life since she was a 22-year-old undergraduate at The Slade School of Art. THE BOOK OF SARAH traces her journey from modern Jewish orthodoxy to a feminist Judaism, as she searches between the complex layers of family and family history that she inherited and inhabited. While the act of drawing came easily, the letting go of past failures, attachments and expectations did not. It is these that form the focus of Sarah's astonishingly beautiful pages, as we bear witness to her making the world her own."
Okay, I'm also going to leave you with this, because honestly!
"I was set up on a blind date and wore unflattering red velvet trousers. After a stilted conversation at the Selfridges bar, he drove me home and, when I went into the bathroom, he promptly asked my flatmate for a date."