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After the tragic death of Yoav Dagon in 2004, Ronnie Dissentshik (a former director of the Tama) is now the director of the Nahum Gutman Museum in the Neveh Tzedek quarter of Tel Aviv. The selection of exhibitions is made by chief curator Tali Tamir.
Under this relatively new team, two appealing exhibitions have been installed, Gutman at Home and Hebrew Illustrations: The Illustrated Hebrew Book for Children. An introduction to the former includes several photographs documenting fashionable interiors by Nathan Dvir in which the works revealed in the privacy of collectors' homes are those on view in the show. The latter show is a brilliantly conceived and documented display of stylish images used as teaching aides created in the early days of the Zionist movement from 1900-1925.
The rambling presentation of Gutman's rarely seen oils, watercolors and ink drawings, which is the essence of the exhibition, proves once again that his painterly talents were at their best in the 1920s and early 1930s, a decade before he began an obsessive range of decorative village scenes, seascapes and harbor views.
Together with other painters like Reuven Rubin, Siona Tager, Yisrael Paldi and Moshe Mokady, Gutman rejected the conservatism of the Bezalel School and began to describe the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael, more specifically the Galilee, in a combined robust and romantic manner.
The brawny simplicity of a pioneering energy formed the base of Gutman's effusive paintings, laden with billowing forests, clear sunny skies and carefully lined fields. He chose his venues vigilantly but rescaled and reshuffled their elements to satisfy his compositional requirements. Landscape in the Sharon Region from the 1920s best illustrates his attraction to the land as Rousseau-inspired cypress, oak and carob create a viridian cradle interspersed with umber fields and mannered, pale sepia hillocks in the background.
Observe the Portrait of Dr. Pochovsky, 1927, an oil study that attests to Gutman's traditional training and his ability to render solid human anatomy with ease and grace. Perfectly painted in a realistic style using tints of sepia, umbers, magenta and white, this conventional composition of a classic three-quarter view places the closed mouthed, resolute doctor attired in a white tunic with stethoscope in hand on a neutral black recess framed by a clinic and the tools of his trade.
A watercolor on paper, Portrait of Hava Gamzu, is not as traditional in its descriptions but more whimsical and transparent, a manner that perfectly fits the sitter.
Another imposing painting is Dedication of a Torah Scroll in a Tiberias Synagogue, 1929. The subject, a group of pious Jews marching through the cobblestone streets of the lakeside city, is dwarfed by the surrounding basalt hills and whitewashed buildings and a threatening range of treeless mountains whose craggy canyons, illuminated by rapturous bolts of light, command the entire upper half of the composition. This painting is more about the secular spirit and contrasting splendors of the land of Israel than it is about its playful spiritual underpinnings.
Gutman was also recognized for his undemanding, rather illustrative, watercolors and ink-wash drawings as well as humorous linear sketches for children's books and newspaper articles he penned himself. There are a number of pictures in this category whose excessively whimsical character detracts from the seriousness of his overall creative output.
A supplement to Gutman at Home is, if nothing else, an amusing presentation entitled Talking with Nahum. Organized in an antechamber, it revolves around a group of stylized works by six contemporary artists: Avishay Eyal, Drora Dominey, Dorit Figovich, Yair Garbuz, Elihau Eric Bokobza and Dudu Baraket.
IN THE upstairs gallery, Hebrew Illustrations is devoted to the history of children's picture books, composed and printed internationally between the years 1900-1925. It deals with an absorbing period in the development of Hebrew and how the children's library became an essential element in the process of rejuvenating the language into a modern spoken tongue.
Accompanied by a comprehensive Hebrew language catalogue researched and written by curator Ayala Gordon (with introductory remarks by Yoav Dagon, dated summer 2003), the show is a marvelous sampling of great illustrations in styles that range from the medieval Pre-Raphaelite mannerism of clearly defined etched lines to black and white avant-garde drawings by important international artists like Marc Chagall and El Lissitsky. The latter's renderings for Chad Gadya have become collectors items. Uriel Kahana's graphic design for Four Goats, printed in Poland, 1923, was an advanced use of a geometric layout coupled with a mixture of contemporary and traditional typography influenced by the Russian style of the period.
One of the most interesting things one learns from this exhibition is that the development of the illustrated children's book in Hebrew took place in Europe. Because the Palestinian environment under Turkish rule was unsophisticated with limited manpower and less interest, the books were published in cities like Warsaw, Frankfurt, Berlin, Vilna, Odessa and even New York on a limited basis.
Because of the biblical edict prohibiting the forming of graven images (sculptures and paintings) the illustrated book only began to develop with the onslaught of the industrial revolution, emancipation and the emergence of traditional Jews from their ghettoes and pious shells at the end of the 19th century.
Gordon takes us on a journey from narrative woodcuts printed in Livorno and Hanover in the mid-19th century to works by illustrators like Issachar Ryback, Zeev Raban and Meir Gur-Arieh printed in Frankfurt, Berlin and, finally, in Jerusalem from 1923 to 1926.
The titles were quite extravagant and ranged from simple card-like games of mix and match, alef-bet primers, biblical epics of David and Solomon to stories by Hans Christian Andersen and Lewis Carroll. The Nightingale, an opera based on a story by Andersen, was handsomely illustrated in book form when it was translated into Hebrew in 1918 in Odessa by the Russian graphic artist Georgy Narbut. His references to art nouveau are explicit and the detailing in his black silhouettes is magical.
One of the most interesting figures in the exhibition is Tom Zeidman Freud (b. Martha Gertrude), a niece of the great psychoanalyst and a talented educator. A writer and illustrator, she was also an acquaintance of S.Y. Agnon, Zalman Schocken, Gershom Sholem and Chaim Nahman Bialik. She and her husband even formed a short-lived publishing partnership with Bialik in Berlin in 1921. The plan was to publish five books with Bialik, but only two saw the light: A Book of Things and Ten Conversations for Children.
Zeidman Freud's drawings traversed a full spectrum of styles, from elaborate art nouveau decorations to a simplified geometric manner and acerbic colors in later projects. Travels of a Fish, 1924, a journey to utopia which she wrote and illustrated, is probably her most important work. Others include Rabbit's Stories, Folk Songs and A Book of Alef Bet by Agnon, a project that was never completed, although her beautifully rendered diminutive line drawings have managed to survive.
After her husband's suicide in 1929, Zeidman Freud rapidly spiraled into deep depression and soon after, leaving a drafting table filled with unpublished books, died at the early age of 38. (Nahum Gutman Museum, 21 Rokach, Neveh Tzedek, Tel Aviv). Till April 21.