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Reuven Rubin (1893-1974) was not only the first celebrated artist in the history of Israeli art, but in many ways remains the most enduring. Prices of his works from the 1920s and the early 1930s keep soaring at Christie's Tel Aviv and at Sotheby's Israeli auctions in New York, a few nearing half a million dollars; even his later, prettier paintings of idealized Israeli landscapes, dancing rabbis and flower pieces continue to sell well to Jewish collectors. Yet to most gentiles, he is unknown and to young Israelis, he is just a historical figure.
A new show at the Israel Museum, Prophets and Visionaries, mounted by curator Amitai Mendelsohn, offers us a first look ever at some of Rubin's early works. The curator acknowledges the reasons for his tendentious selection of Rubins painted between 1914 and 1923, the year he finally settled in Israel. Most were painted in the land of his birth, Romania. A parallel exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum shows us the mature Rubin of his later years.
Rubin, early bent on becoming an artist, studied at the newly opened Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem (1912-13), in Paris (1914), Rome (1915), Czernowitz (1919-1921), New York (1921), and Bucharest (1922). In 1921 he mounted a large exhibition in New York together with his friend Arthur Kolnik, held in the modernist gallery run by photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
By the time he settled here, Rubin had created hundreds of works. Many of these have been lost, but those in this show bear witness to his thoughtful complexity. The early, strongly composed self-portrait in this show, painted when he was 21, is evidence of his early talent, though oddly enough, it looks better in reproduction.
MENDELSOHN WRITES intelligently about the young Rubin's attempts to deal with subject matter that was a vehicle for his concerns with anti-Semitism, a rapprochement with the persona of Jesus and, ultimately, Zionism. The paintings chosen by the curator are therefore illustrations of his curatorial texts; they all portray either religious experiences or suffering and ascetic seclusion. Some depict biblical figures and the figure of Jesus himself, complete with stigmata.
Mendelsohn writes that Rubin also saw Jesus's agonies as symbolic of the tribulations of the authentic artist. The "suffering in the attic" view of the artist as a solitary hero whose works must emerge from the ordeals of hunger and emotional anguish was widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Jesus as a symbol of the artist's agonized struggle in the face of an indifferent society had long struck a chord with many modern artists. The curator writes that the possibility that Rubin chose to depict himself as Jesus - as his works Self-Portrait (1921) and Temptation in the Desert (1921) apparently imply - may be the first time that a Jewish artist saw himself in this role.
Mendelsohn also reminds us that Rubin often depicted Jesus admonishing the Christians for their treatment of the Jews. Just look at Rubin's painting Jesus and the Last Apostle and The Encounter (Jesus and the Jew); and The Madonna of the Poor, in which the image of Jesus is surrounded with Zionist symbols. In paintings made during Rubin's first year in Palestine, the figure of Jesus (and of Rubin himself) is transformed into the image of the robust Zionist pioneer.
Following his arrival in Czernowitz in 1919 and until 1923, his first year in Palestine, Rubin's forte was the tormented, self-mortifying prophet. Some of the figures in his paintings are tragic characters like Job or Absalom, others are dramatic characters like Elijah. Rubin's self-portrait as a kind of prophet-ascetic, his head bent in prayer at the top of a high mountain, recalls 19th century Romanticism.
Mendelsohn also identifies the influence of Ferdinand Hodler, the Symbolist landscape painter whose works left a deep impression on Rubin in 1915, when he saw them in Bern (Hodler's strongly colored canvases have recently made a dramatic comeback at auctions). One can also deduce the influence of the dramatized figures of Egon Schiele; like Schiele, Rubin drew in outline and filled in flesh colors with patches of green. His drawing of hands often recalls Schiele.
This show also includes two versions of a bronze self-portrait circa 1919-22 and a number of excellent woodcuts of Expressionist bent, all well composed.
RUBIN WAS reborn in 1923. All of a sudden, his European weltschmerz was shucked off in the liberating atmosphere of Little Tel Aviv. This show does not explain why or how. But it does feature his great, clearly Zionist self-portrait of 1923/4 and the mature visage of the newly sunburned painter. His left hand holds his brushes, his right a tumbler of water with the sprig of a flower, the promise of the soil.
Until he settled here, Rubin had been over-involved with subject matter, often at the expense of technique and palette. As the above self-portrait clearly indicates, by 1924 he had embarked on problem-solving of a deeper sort: how to construct a painting in an original manner, in an original style, in an original palette. Look at the rhythmic lines of the left shirt arm; they are all about composition, not just depiction.
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. Even his Zionism was muted. Securely home at last, he found pleasure in painting Arabs. His tormented prophets were replaced by lambs and goats that were no longer sacrificial. His paintings reflected love of life, love of his environment, hope and pleasure.
The key to his art of the mid-'20s was its flat, deceptively naive look, in chalky but gay colors that reflected the light of Tel Aviv, a town then pretty much all white buildings and blue sky. Even his paintings of Jerusalem were informed by his new confidence in composition. His influence, particularly that of his successful portrait commissions, fired up other Tel Aviv painters. Just think of early Mokady, Gutman, Paldi and Tajar.
The third and longest period in Rubin's life and work was a downward spiral into skillfully painted kitsch. In 1929, returning by sea from another trip to New York, he met Esther, a young Zionist beauty queen who had been rewarded with a passage to Palestine. They quickly married and Rubin, a few portraits aside, no longer worked in his trademark naive style. Instead, he painted saleable idealizations of orange groves and poplars located outside his idealizations of Jerusalem and Safed, rendered in ever more slick mannerisms. Esther became his business manager. They prospered, socially too, and in the new State of Israel, Rubin became the Israeli ambassador to Romania. Rubin later painted one of his mannerist landscapes for a mural in the Knesset.
Holding court in his beautiful home in Caesarea, Rubin never stopped painting, but despite his financial and technical success, he never again tried to be original. He will not be remembered for the many half-baked symbolic works in this show, nor for his late-life kitsch. His brief, early Tel Aviv period is his wonderful and lasting apotheosis.