Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit redefines Israeli portraiture

An integral part of the classical training of an artist is the craft of portraiture.

WORKS BY Jan Rauchwerger, Michal Memit Worke and Iddo Markus highlight ‘Portrait Time II’ at the Herzilya Museum of Contemporary Art. (photo credit: Courtesy)
WORKS BY Jan Rauchwerger, Michal Memit Worke and Iddo Markus highlight ‘Portrait Time II’ at the Herzilya Museum of Contemporary Art.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the first poem of his that was published, 19th-century British poet T. S. Eliot had advised his unseen interlocutor – perhaps a younger, elusive self – “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” The writer may have attempted to address the challenge of maintaining a facade of open friendliness among strangers, which one learns to cultivate the more one spends time in the company of strangers, but his accurate prediction can easily be adapted from the realm of interpersonal relations to that of art-making.
An integral part of the classical training of an artist is the craft of portraiture. The education of every beginning painter may include the sisyphic practice of copying still life from observation, but the true development begins when he or she learns to pick up their paintbrush and retrace the specific features of an individual. A successful portrait, the young artist learns quickly, is one in which the vivid and particular expression of their subject can easily be detected on the canvas.
Portrait Time II, an exhibition that recently opened at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, delves deep into the tradition of portraiture in the Israeli art scene. Through an examination of the practice as carried out by six different artists, the museum’s chief curator Dr. Aya Lurie (who had collaborated with five other curators) offers a wide-ranging interpretation of local portrait painting. Featuring established artists alongside emerging creators and forgotten masters from the generation that predated the founding of the country, the show raises an intriguing question: Who are the Israeli faces that these artists had lovingly and painstakingly tried to immortalize?
A lifetime model: The portrait of the artist’s wife
One of the most impressive bodies of work on display at Portrait Time II is that of veteran Israeli painter Jan Rauchwerger. In The Big Grove, Lurie had assembled dozens of portraits the painter had created over the years of his wife, Galit – most of which had never been showcased publicly, let alone together in one space. As Lurie explains, most of these unique works starring Rauchwerger’s ultimate muse were either purchased and now belong to private collectors, or have been stored away for decades.
Rauchwerger, who was born in 1942 in Turkmenistan and only immigrated to Israel at 30, is known for his trademark use of soft colors to paint everyday, mundane objects: houses, interiors, domestic animals and still life.
The exhibition offers an intimate peek into the kind of craft with which Rauchwerger is not usually associated. Lurie says that the artist told her that he met his wife when she came to model for him in his studio, “and stayed ever since.” According to her, many collectors or gallerists who heard that she was assembling Rauchwerger’s works in order to display them at the museum had offered to share paintings of his in which a blonde nude was painted, only to discover later that they were in fact other models and not the beloved Galit herself.
Sporting a head full of soft yellow curls, Galit’s gentle features modestly smile at the viewer in endless manifestations. Rauchwerger painted his wife in the nude, in profile, daydreaming with a faraway look in her eyes, napping under an enormous lamp at a hotel room on a vacation in New York and sitting alongside their children at the dinner table.
Walking around the large rooms of the museum, visitors are greeted by numerous portraits of the same beautiful and elegant woman, commemorated both in youth and in middle age. They see her through her husband’s gentle and doting gaze. Presented alongside one another, Rauchwerger’s paintings of his wife offer a time-lapse of sorts – the portrait of a woman who maintains her grace through the years.
Painting what you know: A portrait of Israel’s Ethiopian community
The only female artist whose works are on show at the exhibition is Michal Memit Worke, a 38-year-old figurative painter who moved to Israel from Ethiopia as a toddler. Worke, who studied art at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design as well as with Israeli masters Aram Gershuni and Israel Hershberg, draws from observation and says that her paintings are a reflection of what she sees from the window of her studio and on her city streets.
Hers are some of the only paintings in the exhibition that don’t necessarily fall under the strict category of portraiture, in that they don’t portray specific faces. Instead, they present a portrait of a community. Through clever use of soft pastel colors and careful brushstrokes, Worke turns a group of people celebrating Independence Day at a rundown backyard into a quiet and heart wrenching testament of poverty and friendship. In Worke’s confident gestures, a young girl seated next to a dog turns into a tasteful tribute to an iconic painting by British painter Lucian Freud (1922-2011).
“I correspond with art history quite a lot, but also look at contemporary artists for inspiration,” Worke tells the Post. “The exhibition is about portraiture, but I take it to other places. I draw from observation, and that’s the direction I took my works in. It’s an ancient practice, and through my visual language I try to extend the boundaries of this tradition. Via my actions as an artist, I ask all sorts of questions about painting,” the artist shares. “You can see it in my work: Sometimes it’s flat and other times it has more depth. I challenge the notion of what a correct painting should look like.”
Worke, who recently received the prestigious Lauren and Mitchell Presser Contemporary Art Grant, has been extolled by local art critics for shining the limelight in her paintings on her community – which does not typically receive robust representation in visual arts created by local artists. While she welcomes the accolades, Worke insists that her work is not necessarily political and does not seek to represent the Ethiopian Israeli community. “The theme of my paintings isn’t this at all, I don’t deal with identity in my work. But I know people always like to put me in this box.”
Obsessive repetition: Painting the same portrait hundreds of times
Another strong exhibition on display as part of Portrait Time II is that of Haifa-based photographer, painter and curator Iddo Markus. In Variations on 1679.jpg, the 40-year-old Markus disintegrates a single image, offering dozens of takes on the same portrait of a dark-haired woman.
In his epic The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, Eliot mused: “There will be time, there will be time / Time for you and time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions.” Markus appears to offer his viewer a tangible interpretation of these moving words, breaking the image of a faceless woman into millions of fragments and small pixels. Painted on canvases of various sizes and small wooden panels, the random picture the artist had found of an acquaintance of his on Facebook becomes an allegory to the painful process the artist delves into upon entering the solitary confines of the studio.
Markus explains that the collection of portraits, which he had toiled on for 18 months, is the result of a “long investigation of color and the medium itself. I wanted to test what we as painters and people can do in the digital age of Facebook and Instagram. I wanted to bring the process of painting to the forefront.”
Asked whether the show is a reflection of his struggle with compulsive tendencies, Markus laughs. “Being obsessive about something is part of what I do as an artist,” he admits. “I look at art as something that can be free, but when I put limitations on it – like deciding to paint the same image over and over again – that’s when it feels the most liberating.”
Portrait Time II is on view at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 4 Habanim Street, Herzliya, until June 20.