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(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
There are few paintings in the Bruce and Ruth Rappaport Collection, currently on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA), which are at the cutting edge of modern art. Containing mostly French painters of the early 20th century, the exhibition also includes works by Marc Chagall, Egon Schiele, Mikhail Larionov and several costume drawings (1925-26) for the Israeli dancer Baruch Agadati by the Russian Natalia Goncharova.
Cobra Centaur, a classic organic bronze modeled by Jean Arp in 1953, is complemented by Mother and Child (1949) a physically powerful, monolithic sculpture by the American William Zorach and Pregnant Mother and Child (1920), a rather typical, mellifluously carved and polished work by Chana Orloff.
For aficionados of Marc Chagall, the Rappaports have invested in five gouaches, one pastel and two oils by the Russian-French painter from Vitebsk. Among the best is a gouache entitled The Bride, an erotic encounter of a veiled woman embracing a large gray rooster by moonlight whose lascivious glance and lustful smile is more than obvious. The loving couple is suspended over a snowy village containing Chagall's ubiquitous beggar and horse-drawn cart, while a figure, undoubtedly the artist as observer, sweeps in red-faced and astonished from a murky background.
Young Woman Threading a Needle, a 1905 oil by Pierre Bonnard, stands apart for the somber quality it projects and the intimacy of its domestic genre. The lone figure, carefully framed by bits of furniture on her left and the slim detail of a frame on an opposite wall, is deftly brushed in broad strokes in a range of blacks and grays as she sits, solid as a rock, on a simple chair, head bent thoroughly absorbed in her activity.
Influenced by her friend Edgar Degas, the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt (born US, 1844; died France, 1926) created a large number of oils and pastels on the theme of mother and child, three of which are on display here. Characterized by a healthy innocence and an expression of contentment, Cassatt's figures are sometimes compared to Renaissance-inspired compositions of the Madonna and Child.
The collection contains pedestrian paintings by Chaim Soutine, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Maurice Denis but also satisfactory works, like Odalisque on Yellow Background, a 1925 pastel on paper by Henri Matisse created during his sojourn in Nice, but influenced by his confrontation with the harem concubine concept during a stay in Morocco from 1912 to 1913. Playing with shades of white and yellow, Matisse maintained a feeling of lightness in this work despite the burly naturalness of the drawing and use of local colors and skin tones to describe the reclining woman.
Other works that skim the edge of acceptability are a curious C zanne-structured still life, The World Map, from 1914 by the Fauvist Andr Derain, and a strange, if not outlandish Barbizon School-inspired seascape from 1904 by Raoul Dufy hanging next to his more flamboyant oil entitled The Fountain in Aspet, a work painted 40 years later in his classic linear and color field style.
THE RAPPAPORTS are not only collectors but also supporters of the arts. They have provided TAMA with an annual stipend of $100,000 for the next 10 years to be divided between an established and a young Israeli artist. The 2006 recipient for the former is the painter Nurit David, and for the latter the new-media artist Eli Petel. David has received a $35,000 cash allotment and a similar sum to mount her current comprehensive exhibition, accompanied by a catalog. Petel has been awarded $15,000 and the same for his exhibition and catalog.
David has labeled her show "I Was Born Chinese" and includes works from the past quarter century. The earliest work, a linear profile of what appears to be an Asian woman but is actually a simplified self-portrait, is set above a tract of poetic text that begins with the line "I was born Chinese." This early-on acknowledgment of dislocation, displacement and disappointment was to accompany David throughout her imaginative, sensitive and for the most part intimate body of work.
Moving through her various themes, one is struck by David's marvelous display of virtuosity. She is not only a painter who thinks a problem through, whether it is in abstracted forms like in Figure with Milk and Figure of Wine (1987) or the compilation of Asian, European and Middle Eastern imagery in a series entitled The Good Neighbor (2005), but also an artist who has endless talents for describing her narratives symbolically, naturalistically or realistically.
For the past five years, David has been investigating a historical perception of landscape coupled with its broader references to industrial and agrarian culture and heavily salted with personal family issues and a slice of her fantasy world. In paintings like Building a Summer House, 2006, she constructs descriptive composites in which Japanese women, rooted in magical landscapes bordered by mysterious mountain ranges, fields and bodies of water, play a major role.
The theoretician Levia Stern remarks that in these pictures David creates a hybrid place which transcends time and place, a place to think about the flourishing of life, to stare into the past. It is a site where the senses become addicted to all that is secret and chaotic.
Possibly the most significant paintings in the exhibition are not the large coded narratives but several small format self-portraits. Unattached to her more exuberant compositions of gardens, interiors and architectural facades, David's realistically painted face is closely cropped and, in a self-effacing gesture, she diverts her eyes from the viewer in a downward, sideways glance. The features that facilitate in one's understanding of an artist's life and psychological makeup are nearly eradicated by David's hand, placed in the picture's foreground, but it is the details that do remain that unabashedly indicate her introspection and her reluctance to look out into the gallery, view her public and confront the world at large.
In the Haft Hall, Petel has created an arte povera floor installation of old objects, ornaments and domestic junk whose Oriental, Jewish and commercial content he has been investigating for several years. An attempt to define his cultural identity is so obvious and pedestrian that one wonders why this ordinary artist was awarded such a prestigious prize. If this work is the best Petel can do, and it is not much better than the works he displayed several months ago at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, he should rethink his direction.
It is not the installation itself, A Day's Ending, but the pretentiousness of trying to convince the viewer that the content is anything more than a scramble of, as the curator of the exhibition Shva Salhoov states, the extreme endpoint of a poor traveling market. Countless artists have pursued the concepts of memory, persona, socio-political center and searching for one's roots for as long as one would like to remember.
And in the hands of some, like Nurit David, the results are astonishingly lucid. In the hands of others, like Petel, the concepts become mired in a house of mirrors in which images laid down by others are repeated askew time and again.
Additional interesting exhibitions currently at the TAMA are The Poetics of Space, paintings by Ra'anan Levy and photo and digital works by Yael Bartana, Maya Gold and Noa Sadka, three short listed artists vying for this year's Nathan Gottesdiener Foundation Prize.
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