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On his return to Palestine in 1923, after an 11-year absence, the painter Reuven Rubin (1893-1974) was undoubtedly struck by the vibrancy and animation of place and people, both Jews and Arabs, as he settled into his Tel Aviv studio to create a unique body of work and quickly become the doyen of early Eretz Yisrael art.
As my colleague Meir Ronnen commented on these pages in his article covering the Israel Museum's Rubin exhibition entitled "Prophets and Visionaries," "in less than five years the Rubin of Tel Aviv and Jaffa turned out a body of work that was suddenly mature, well composed, unified in palette and a complete break with his dark Expressionist/Symbolist past... His paintings reflected love of life, love of his environment, hope and pleasure."
The Rubin Ronnen succinctly describes is fully exposed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in "Dreamland," a splendid exhibition of more than 120 paintings, covering the artist's encounter with the land of Israel from 1923 to 1930. However, in order not to create any doubts about his academic proficiency, Rubin's penetrating, skillfully rendered Self-Portrait painted in Paris in 1915, launches the show.
But 1923 was the turning point in Rubin's life. A score of works from this period continue to sparkle with a European sensibility, especially in an early Self-Portrait and a large triptych entitled First Fruit. In the former Rubin summons up cubistic mannerisms in which the composition takes on a deconstructed appearance of upended tables, decorative patterns and shuffled diagonal planes that crush the artist's body into a vice-like frame. The sapling he gently holds to his chest and the lone flowers that occupy the picture's foreground signify the seeds of growth and renewal. The exceedingly structured composition of First Fruit is built around a half-dozen monumental figures rendered in a compressed sculptural manner supported by a range of symbolic agrarian elements. Although decidedly planted in the barren tan hills of a romanticized landscape, this seminal painting illuminates his penchant for narrative art salted with spiritual underpinnings.
Basically, however, Rubin and other European painters who arrived here in the first decades of the 20th century marginalized the modernist traditions already entrenched in Italy, France and Germany and resorted to avant-garde influences on a very limited basis. The colorful oriental environment, climate and exotic surroundings presented a sufficient number of stimulating armatures upon which to structure their descriptive genre, landscapes and portraits.
Critics searching for the roots of Rubin's distinctive na ve style have introduced several ideas, including late Byzantine wall decorations from monasteries in Moldavia where Rubin lived as a child, the eccentric canvases of the primitive painter Henri Rousseau and the monumentality of Near Eastern art. And, referring to a difficult concept to comprehend, that Zionism viewed immigration to Eretz Yisrael as a form of rebirth and subsequently, the artist, free from convention, restrictions and a historical perspective, viewed the world curiously and simplistically.
Whatever Rubin's influences might have been, images like Girl with a Potted Plant, Tel Aviv and the iconic Self-Portrait with a Flower had established a manner of painting so that by the time 1924 arrived, his canvases showed a mellowness and ease of drawing that stayed with him for nearly a decade, works that incorporated a recurring palette of pale yellows and sepias, pink, translucent green and wheat-colored tints played against a dark turquoise sea and blue sky.
New immigrant tents, unpaved roads and spartan views of neighborhoods sprouting up along the sand dunes of Tel Aviv gave way to small bungalows, electric lines and the pronounced silhouette of a water tower in Balfour Street and Water Tower on Rothschild Boulevard, both from 1924. These paintings not only tell a story of the Yishuv's dynamism, but also of the specific changes taking place in Rubin's own backyard and how he related to them.
Special attention should be paid to Rubin's portraits of important writers and artists of the time, as well as the unheralded yet significant laborers and Arab families and fisherman who, together with the burgeoning Jewish population, made up the multi-dimensional fabric of Little Tel Aviv. Generally integrated within a landscape, a portrait confirmed the model's identity and a sense of belonging to the land.
A marvelous portrayal of the poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, who arrived in Palestine in 1920 and was a devoted supporter of the pioneering spirit, shows the fiery, redheaded bard composed on a background of sea and shore and surrounded by an arrow-like plant with a fully seeded pomegranate set in the foreground. Cropped closely top and bottom, the carefully painted figure is anchored to the frame and to his surroundings. Tight-lipped and freckled with piercing green eyes that harmonize with the paleness of the sand dunes, Rubin, in order to maintain strict compositional control, divides the picture in two by drawing a continuous line from the sitter's forehead through his nose, chin, neck, tie and shirt to the base of the frame. Carmela Rubin, curator of the exhibition and editor of the formidable catalog, has labeled this exceptional painting a visual manifesto.
Other significant portraits include the sculptor Avraham Melinov, the painter Sionah Tagger and the author and Zionist theorist Ahad Ha'am. Suntanned and determined, Melnikov's powerful shoulders, arched across the entire width of the picture plane, reverberate in both the hilltop curves and domed roofs of an Arab village spaced across the entire background.
By contrast, Rubin's tight rendering of a frail and pensive Ahad Ha'am, who passed away in 1927 one year after the portrait was painted, show him to be the archetypal European gentleman, nattily dressed in an incongruous gray suit and tie, sitting motionless without the slightest indication of a physical gesture. Additional old-world trappings include a Thonet-like bentwood chair and imaginative foliage that physically and ideologically separate Ahad Ha'am from the barren mountains beyond.
Seated in a bleak interior on a round backed chair, a slouching Tagger, wearing a simple white frock with embroidered neckline and sleeves, projects feelings of apprehension and insecurity. Except for a low stool, the only other element in this particularly warm composition is a plant whose tension-filled stem curls its way up around the sitter's back, conforming to the contour of her shoulders, neck and head. Unlike many of his unemotional portraits, here Rubin has been able to infuse Tagger with a psychological presence; even the position of her left arm, tugging at her neckline, is a gesture accompanying feelings of anxiety or questioning.
Land, physically and conceptually, was a dominant factor in Zionist ideology. When translated into artistic terms, painting landscapes became synonymous with returning to one's historic roots and, therefore, prime subject matter for immigrant painters like Rubin. The exhibition is filled with landscapes and vignettes of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Galilee that display his confrontation with eastern Mediterranean culture, its landscape and relentless sunshine; fundamentals that dictated a rethinking of established norms and presented a need to investigate luminosity while formulating an alternate palette that would satisfy the artist's vision of his subject matter.
By the time 1929 rolled around, Rubin's works, especially views of Jerusalem and the Judean Hills, began to lose their free-flowing compositional flavor and glowing transparencies. Even his application of pigment onto canvas became ponderous and inflexible as images were tickled, not freely brushed, into realization. To understand the change, compare the placid feathery design and flowing robes in Arab Woman with a Mortar from 1924 with the fastidious, alternating front and side view description of The Goldfish Vendor, 1928, a work influenced by ancient Egyptian reliefs. Rubin's liberated compositions in Sheikh Munis, Sheep Shearer and Arab Family, all from 1923, were totally reversed by the time he painted the purposeful, heavy-handed Customs House in Jaffa in 1927. Even Les Fianc s, Rubin's celebrated double portrait of his wife-to-be Esther and himself seated on their Tel Aviv balcony overlooking the sea with Jaffa in the distance, is a rigid and pedantic portrayal of two people supposedly in love.
The five years between 1923 and 1928 were, for no better expression, Rubin's golden age. In time, he will be measured not by the whimsical olive groves and capricious biblical episodes that have recently become sought=after collector's items, but by the wonderful depictions of the sea, villages and cities rising on the dunes and of the vendors, farmers, rabbis, writers and artists who inhabited them.
His singular, unfettered, visual language is, as Dr. Motti Omer wrote, a faithful expression of Tel Aviv as it appeared to those who conceived of it, and who desired to create a new environment liberated from the weight of the past. The innocence of those who built and shaped the city and questions of identity and belonging continue to be addressed as part of the inevitable discourse about our very existence in this place. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, King Saul Blvd.). Till end of February.