It was a chance incident, call it serendipity. During a spontaneous discussion with a local art collector some time ago, Carmela Rubin, curator of Tel Aviv's Rubin Museum, learned of an unpublished Rubin painting that was unknown to her, her family, the auction houses and museums. Painted circa 1940 when the Rubins resided in New York, the small oil (39 cm. x 30.5 cm.), entitled Homage to Vincent, is primarily a still life and not an attempt to replicate a van Gogh original. Set on a table top, a vase of wispy white chrysanthemums is adjacent to a framed reproduction of Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, painted in Arles by the Dutch master in 1889. Pretty much of a rarity, Carmela is convinced that Rubin never before or after painting the van Gogh homage referred pictorially to the oeuvre of another artist.
The discovery of Rubin's homage, with an added bonus of the museum's 25th anniversary year, set in motion an initiative by Carmela that has burgeoned into a wide-ranging exhibition of works by 38 Israeli artists. The enormous visual energy displayed in the paintings, sculptures and installations in "Van Gogh in Tel Aviv" on the three floors of the Rubin Museum is a testament to the remarkable importance he has had on Western art. Not only is the show a commemoration of the master's name and influence but a celebration of the scope of the country's creative spirit in the plastic arts during the past half a century.
Long before Carmela decided on van Gogh as an exhibition catalyst, his name and important paintings were entrenched in this country more so than others. As early as 1954 five van Gogh paintings were included in a show at the Tel Aviv Museum entitled "Dutch Painting 1850-1950 from Dutch Museums and Collections." More to the point, more than 100 of his paintings were exhibited at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion and Haifa Museum in 1963, a cultural event that was a valued experience and a source of inspiration for every person who attended, especially the local artist community. To paraphrase the then director of the Tel Aviv Museum, Haim Gamzu, hardly a living room, bedroom or office wall could be found that did not have a reproduction of van Gogh's sunflowers or a Provencal night sky hanging.
If one had to list the dozen or so most important painters in the history of art, both East and West, van Gogh would be prominently displayed. In his short, but tragic, life Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was able to challenge the academic art world with a foundation for expressionist painting that, in the 20th century, moved from Fauvist France to the Bridge and Blue Rider in Germany and eventually to post-World War II New York. In a decade he created some 800 paintings in addition to several hundred drawings and prints. Considered the consummate artist, one who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, bouts of mental disease that required ongoing psychiatric supervision toward the end of his life, found no monetary success or critical recognition during his lifetime, self-mutilation and his eventual suicide, he became a legend and his paintings part of the public's visual memory. The Starry Night (Arles, 1889), painted a year before his death, is undoubtedly one the world's most recognized pictures.
The Israeli references to van Gogh's art at the Rubin Museum exhibition are mainly embedded in his range of self portraits. Sharif Waked's digitized design in green and black acrylics is as far as one could get from a direct van Gogh influence and unlike direct reference by others, including a charcoal and acrylic study by Ruth Schloss, Bandaging: After van Gogh (1990), in which she includes the same self portrait used by Rubin 50 years before. Her composite composition also contains a slight background suggestion of his blazing sun and dark tree stump from The Sower of 1886. Several collages and conceptual pieces incorporate van Gogh self-portrait reproductions, the most prominent are by Arie Aroch, Raffi Lavie, Yair Garbuz and Osvaldo Romberg.
Yellow is undeniably the dominant color in van Gogh's palette as shown time and again in his wheat fields, sunflowers, yellow houses and interiors. His bright buttery yellow bed and symbolic self-portrait, Yellow Chair (1888) are alluded to in two canvases in the current exhibition. Bouquet of Flowers for Tel Aviv (1929), a colorful cluster of flowers set on the seat of a yellow cane chair is Reuven Rubin's way of identifying with Esther, his wife-to-be, and to the naivetÃ© of Tel Aviv viewed from an open window above the chair. Using the same subject, Ori Reisman, in his Chair and Chicken (1952), plays explicitly on Rubin's emblematic declaration of love by twisting affection into sacrifice and replacing the ebullient splash of flowers with a plucked fowl ready for slaughter splayed on a gloomy yellow chair. The ungainly bird, coupled with an absence of any door or window that could shower the composition with exterior light, adds a measure of depressing irony to the picture.
A diagnostic theory related to why van Gogh perceived the world so often with a yellow tint is based on a condition called digitalis-induced xanthopsia. Digitalis, extracted from the purple foxglove plant, was administered by his physician, Dr. Gachet, as a sedative for his epilepsy and manic condition. On the two occasions that van Gogh painted portraits of Dr. Gachet he was holding a foxglove plant, possibly a cipher explaining the effects of digitalis poisoning, and its aberrations of hue, administered by the doctor.
Although the exhibition contains direct pictorial evidence of controlling elements hooked from van Gogh's zealous brush strokes and expressive palette - After van Gogh after Millet, an explosive 1980 oil by Uri Lifshitz; animated Yellow Cypress (1990) by Maya Cohen Levy; Yehezkel Streichman's watercolor, Plough, dated 1984 extracts details; Igael Tumarkin's mixed-media on paper, Vincent van Gogh Goes to Work (1988) is a graphic reenactment and both Meir Pichhadze's and Tsibi Geva's reflections on The Sower - there are abundant samples in which one finds only traces to associate with the Dutch master. Of these Mount Tabor in a Cloud, a striking landscape with foreground patches of yellow and a strong presence of ultramarine in the background painted by Michael Kovner in 2007, is a blurred allusion to van Gogh's wheat fields. Using staccato brush stroke technique Lea Nikel attempts, in her homage, to imitate Vincent's painterly mannerism, but her irrational abstract scribble and facial squiggles below a typical straw hat miss the mark.
The shepherd has appeared on occasion in van Gogh's paintings (note a nocturnal romantic picture The Shepherd from 1884) and so Menashe Kadishman is not that off base with his multihued Shepherdess (1987), a wildly expressive quasi-figurative acrylic on canvas that belongs more to Karel Appel and the CoBrA group than to van Gogh himself. On first glance the mixed-media works on paper from 1981 and 1982 by Moshe Gershuni seem to have little reference to van Gogh. But on further scrutiny the viewer begins to discern how he has paraphrased van Gogh's works and persona with blood marks, floral passages and handwritten statements, specifically I, Vincent and Vincent and Theo. Gershuni's extraordinary commitment to van Gogh was born of his personal and social crises in the early 1980s and as a retreat from his days as dedicated conceptualist creating austere minimal works.
Cutting off part of his ear went a long way to position van Gogh among the unstable that required hospitalization in an asylum and added to his personality cult. Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe is translated by several artists including Chaim Maor in an untitled self-portrait photograph; a pair of treated photographs in which Yehuda Porbruchai alters his character by manipulating photographs into ersatz homoerotic pictures; and Komar and Melamed, the Russian conceptual painters who created a sarcastic print series in 1978 they called Arles' World Leaders with Right Ear Cut Off. It depicts a front cover of Yediot Aharonot's Seven Days with brusquely rendered, bandaged portraits of Jimmy Carter, Leonid Brezhnev, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.
Surprisingly, the sunflower motif, a veritable icon of van Gogh's painterly opus, is referred to in only a few works: Joshua Neustein's conceptual video he has named Crimes of Sunflowers in Hebrew, Arabic and English (1996), Anisa Ashkar's carefully designed, arranged and treated color print Homage to van Gogh (Hakatif) from 2006 and Sunflower, a recent installation by Sharif Waked.
Exploring the obvious, the obscure and the almost ran this is an exhibition that Carmela Rubin, and her associate curators Edna Erde and Shira Naftali, have provided the museum visitor with sufficient material to grasp a sense of historical importance as "Van Gogh in Tel Aviv" spans time and place.
The house that Rubin built
When Chaim Nahman Bialik came to Palestine from Odessa in 1923, he built a house on a quiet Tel Aviv street that, in time, became Rehov Bialik. Not only did it attract the city's literati but was a magnet for neighborhood schoolchildren coming to pay respects to the national poet. Reuven and Esther Rubin became residents of Rehov Bialik in 1946 in a house built in 1930. In 1956 they bought the premises and added a north-facing third-floor atelier. Noticing the lines of children walking regularly towards Bialik House, Rubin remarked: "Why shouldn't they stop here?" - and with that rhetorical question the theoretical foundation for the Rubin Museum was laid.
When Rubin died in 1974, the house and 45 of his paintings were left to the city of Tel Aviv. Soon after the Rubin Foundation (Tel Aviv Municipality, Ministry of Education and Rubin family members) was established as a corporation responsible for managing the museum which opened its doors in 1983 under the guidance and curatorial direction of Carmela Rubin, wife of the Rubins' son David. Having gone through several renovations, the most recent a major effort from 2000 to 2002, supported by the Ted Arison and Tel Aviv foundations, the museum display spaces were expanded and today occupy two floors plus a third housing Rubin's atelier adjacent to an historic visual time line with space for video projections.
During her working years, Rubin's wife Esther, now 98, was the family archivist. The extensive files she maintained, still referred to today, are replete with detailed information regarding paintings, collectors, collections, exhibitions, catalogs and personal correspondence that she sustained for more than 50 years.
According to Carmela Rubin, the museum is as much a spiritual center for keeping the multicultural ethos of Eretz Yisrael alive as it is a site for showing art.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the museum, with a permanent collection today of some 80 Rubin paintings, can look back on several achievements. Supplementing the ongoing Rubin exhibitions dealing with several aspects of his career, Carmela has mounted important historically oriented displays on Bialik, Hanna Rovina, Nahum Gutman and Baruch Agadati who were in the vanguard of a secular Hebrew culture in Eretz Yisrael attached to the land and their Jewish roots.
Rubin Museum, 14 Rehov Bialik, Tel Aviv, Telephone (03) 525-5961. Open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 10 to 3; Tuesday: 10 to 8; Saturday: 11 to 2. Closed on Sundays.
Reuven Rubin time line
1893 - Born in Galatz, Romania, to hassidic family, eighth of 13 children
1912 - Left for Ottoman-ruled Palestine to study art at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem
1913 - Left Jerusalem to pursue his studies in Paris, Ecole des Beaux Arts
1914 - Returned to Romania where he spent the war years
1919 - Traveled to Czernowitz and met with poets and painters
1921 - Traveled to the United States; solo exhibition organized by Alfred Stieglitz
1923 - Emigrated to Eretz Yisrael
1924 - First artist to hold a solo exhibition at Jerusalem's Tower of David
1928 - Met his wife, Esther, on a return voyage from New York
1930s - Continued to paint and design scenery for Habimah and Ohel theaters
1948 - Appointed first Israeli ambassador to Romania, there till 1950
1964 - Awarded the Dizengoff Prize
1973 - Awarded the Israel Prize for his artistic achievements
1974 - Died in Caesarea, bequeathed his Tel Aviv house and 45 paintings to the city of Tel Aviv