A master among us

Brilliance from Jan Rauchwerger's portrait collection at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Rauchwerger news 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rauchwerger news 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The very first gallery space devoted to Jan Rauchwerger: A Portrait is simply a brilliant preview of things to come as visitors to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art weave their way through scores of masterful oil paintings, pastels, watercolors and drawings created by the exceptional Russian-Israeli painter over the past 40 years. Each work in this small, but meaningful, section of the exhibition is a gem. Filled with a diverse study in character, the display of self-portraits is launched by a highly charged Self-Portrait with Woolen Cap (1991), in which a muddy, bodiless, face viewed from below is surrounded and ensnared by a ferocious chartreuse field. By design, this brutal personal assessment is at once confronted by several contrasting works that present Rauchwerger (b. Turkmenistan, 1942, in Israel since 1973) as a meditative, rather apprehensive, individual, as his image, depicted in a range of somber, leaden grays emerges from colorless backgrounds into the subdued light of his studio. Cleverly, the exhibition, honoring Rauchwerger as the recipient of the Rappaport Prize for an Established Israeli Artist, 2007, has been planned around specific subjects, rather than the usual distribution according to a chronological time line. Sections have been designated for family, friends, models, collectors, patrons and prominent persons in a variety of cultural endeavors. They are represented in several techniques and painterly styles on very small to very large formats. Rauchwerger is a true portraitist in the European classical sense, a talent absorbed from his traditional studies in at the Kiev Academy of Art and later with Vladimir Weisberg (who became his artistic-spiritual father) in Moscow from 1965 to 1973. It was Weisberg who taught him the importance of candor and confrontation with his model and of sustaining a pictorial sensuality by brushing gentle layers of pigment into indeterminable nuances of light and shade. This minimalist figuration is pronounced in several works, the best being Ira with Miri (1975), i (1990) and Aunt Clara (1980). This trio of oils, joined by several others, forms a cohesive unit exemplified by their pedantic simplicity, fragile chromatic transparencies and a preservation of subjective honesty. An entire room is dedicated to paintings of the artist's mother and old age, two subjects that span a period from a 1962 pencil drawing of Grandmother Hava to recent portrayals of his aged mother. Rauchwerger's integrity and an affinity for the darker shades of feeling provided the wherewithal to depict his mother in a series of gestural, deconstructed, pastel drawings in 2005 to the brutally realistic portrait of her two years later seated in a wheelchair, violently brushed in sordid greens and blacks. But despite the harshness of the predicament, Rauchwerger inserts tones of optimism that are relevant to his and her life as the background contains an open veranda door and a signed landscape on the wall. Michal Peleg, in her introduction essay to the catalog, correctly states: Jan leaves nothing out of the picture. Although there are several compositions that project pointless expressionistic tendencies, or on occasion unrealized reductive renderings, the viewer should zoom in on a number of skillful realist pictures that confirm Rauchwerger's observational talents - a double chalk portrait of collectors Dov and Rachel Gottesman (2007) projects a fearless optimism, a pencil drawing of fellow painter the late Lea Nikel (2003) and a monochromatic pastel study of a determined Yuval Neeman (1996). This affinity for unqualified realism couldn't be more unmistakable than in a pastel on paper representation of the eminent scientist Leo Sachs (1994), a most unlikely, yet splendid, total characterization of a tall and noble individual whose shoes are rendered larger than his head and his hands are folded in an angular line that bisects the picture frame into two equal parts - the top portion indicates a placid gentleman whose dignified features and torso recede into an ebony field, while the lower half shows legs and feet (planted on a Matissean-inspired floral pattern) that project well beyond the obvious picture plane. Several essays have been published attesting to key art historical figures and periods that have influenced on a number of occasions Rauchwerger's approach to portraiture. Rembrandt's use of dramatic light, Goya's abruptness and Beckmann's conscientious honesty in picture making are among them. A case in point is a painting labeled Sandra, Siena School (1999). The work displays a morose image of a seated female figure with clasped hands who attempts to free herself from the confines of her two-dimensional space. Shadowing a Madonna borrowed from Duccio or Simone Martini, Rauchwerger has co-opted the flatness and the misguided proportions of these early 14th Sienese masters who still maintained much of the hieratic style of Byzantine art. He not only draped Sandra in typical vermillion and viridian garments of the pre-Renaissance style and placed her on a vertical, ersatz gold panel (altarpiece) but has even replaced the ubiquitous symbolic halo with a ravishing yoke of plush hair. At times one wonders why Rauchwerger has chosen to describe his model in a range of unsympathetic, extremely callous colors and at other times a mixture of inspired hues. Two square, closely cropped compositions of Efrat (2004) are conspicuous examples of the former; monochromatic paintings brushed in a vexing narrow range of olive green with sharp highlights on her nose and brow roughly approximating underexposed photography. Then again, when he approaches his wife Galit, Rauchwerger surrenders his irritating palette and exposes her true nature by using diluted edges, softened forms and the most engaging tones. In both Galit (2001) and Galit, Red Portrait (2007) it appears as if the figures were observed through a field of diaphanous cloth as each in its own pose, one staring attentively from the luminous canvas while questioning her husband, the other absorbed in her book without concern for the painter, is a poetic statement occupied with the emotions attached to admiration and esteem. The artist's need to create poetry with color and pigment weaves it way throughout the exhibition. Subjects, views and mannerisms obviously absorbed from Pierre Bonnard's paintings of family groups at the table and his elongated, rather erotic, female nudes are evident in a good number of Rauchwerger's compositions including Watching the News (1987-88), Miri Asleep (1988), Portrait of the Children (1993), Sleeping Woman II (1997) and Morning in Jaffa (1998). Each work contains elements of the Frenchman's handling of pigment, especially the latter whose silhouetted figure is infused with a troubled intimacy among the shining frames and a glowing sun fighting to enter her life through a shuttered louver, a mood that evokes life in the effortless lane as silence, reflection and compassion pervade. This exemplary, virtuoso display of portrait painting is only a taste of Rauchwerger's entire yield. There is no other artist working here today who can approach Rauchwerger's dexterity in the pastel media and only a handful who can draw the figure (in several styles) with the same deftness. Moreover, this exhibition is akin to an autobiography. It is a personal look into his life as a son, husband, father and friend, as well as an artist to those who choose to be immortalized in a two-dimensional frame. The often sought-after quality of Israeliness is not to be found here nor an attachment to historical groups or styles that have permeated the local scene for decades. Nevertheless it provides the viewer with his astonishing range of observational and creative skills, as Rauchwerger cuts through the illusion of art to set free the truths that are at the core of life. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, King Saul Blvd.) Till July 5.