Growing without disturbances

Russian-Israeli artist Jan Rauchwerger eschewed the Moscow and Parisian art scenes to paint a quiet life here.

Rauchwerger 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rauchwerger 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Russian-Israeli painter Jan Rauchwerger is an artist of many talents. Soft-spoken and modest, yet full of energy and creative spirit, he has consistently made his mark here and abroad in scores of one-person and group exhibitions. Meeting in his large, light-filled, studio in South Tel Aviv last week surrounded by finished canvases, pictures that he will not part with, works in progress and stacks of art history books, Rauchwerger, 66, spoke frankly about his life experiences, people, challenges, emotions and his feelings about his chosen profession. You arrived here in 1973, you were 30 years old, still a novice. How did you find your way in an art environment totally different from the one you left in Moscow? First of all I was not a total novice. I started painting when I was 12 years old, so I had been active for 18 years, a minimum of experience. I was here in Israel but still very much in Moscow because I chose as my mentor a great teacher who was also a great artist, Vladimir Weisberg. It was he who provided me with the character tools and a sense of individuality so that when I arrived in Israel I was filled with confidence and a belief in me. Initially I knew I had a lot more to learn and that Weisberg was there to sow a direction, albeit from Moscow. As Weisberg's student I gathered enough strength and knowledge to stand up to Zaritsky and Streichman (influential New Horizon painters) and their group who left me alone, especially when they understood I was Weisberg's student. Others who gave me support and guidance were Aharon Giladi and Lea Nikel, possibly because of their Russian background. In the early days we conversed in the language of art. What was your motivation to come to Israel? You could have chosen Paris or New York or any other major art center. I was looking for a desert island, a place where I could create art without someone always looking over my shoulder. When I saw postcards with reproductions of artworks done in Israel, it seemed it would be a good place to develop something new considering the mediocre level of what I was looking at. Also my mother was in Israel already and I felt a need to be close to her and my family. When I arrived I was surprised to discover that it was not the island I was searching for but an active artistic culture and so I put down roots. It was nice to be left alone, not like in Paris in 1982 where my artist friends had an agenda - to succeed and to meet important curators and collectors. It was not my scene. That and the over-abundance of history there detracted me from my own work, and so I came home to Jaffa very fast. You have made considerable mention of your teacher Vladimir Weisberg, yet few of your paintings show much of his mannerisms. Have you neglected his teachings or were they limiting? Weisberg was not a teacher who asked his students to duplicate what he was doing. He taught me to observe, scrutinize, understand and translate my subjects into unlimited pictorial possibilities. He taught me to sense the model and comprehend the meaning of seriousness by maintaining a sober attitude toward art. What is it that keeps you coming back to paint your wife, Galit, and your children? What is important to me is what is close to me - in front of me. I don't travel or search for subjects anymore, they are under my feet. I work in a short radius which includes my models, my wife (the children have outgrown my needs), an occasional still life and my immediate environment. What I need is here at home. I can continue to paint Galit for years to come. In my article about your show of portraits at the TAMA I called you a Russian-Israeli painter. Does your art indicate a preference for one more than the other? Emotionally I feel the same warmth in Israel as I did in Russia. Professionally I grew up in a milieu of internationalism and so for me Russian art was not essential in my life's equation. Even though I have lived more years in Israel than in Russia, you must remember that I did not go to kindergarten here or play with peers in the neighborhood; and I was not in the army except for occasional reserve duty. I don't have the roots of camaraderie that so much of this country prides itself on. I assume then I will always be a Russian-Israeli painter. Can you describe for our readers how you approach being an artist? What makes you paint one subject and not the next? Is it emotional or academic? I have been painting pictures for 53 years. I have made pictures of everything: interiors, still life, portraits, landscapes, family - everything. Painting for me is work. If an artist doesn't come to the studio in the morning, nobody cares. He is not an accountant or an engineer or a baker whom other people rely upon. I am unto myself and I have to be disciplined. Painting is a terrible habit, something I must do every day. What I paint and how I come to it is not the issue, the act of painting is. Mordechai Omer begins his essay in the current exhibition's catalog describing your roots in the history of art. Can you detail the truly great influences and how have they manifested themselves in your paintings? Painting is a living thing. It is geographic and social based on references and memories, on my life yesterday and today. Simply you must love the subject in front of you, and the great works by Giotto, Matisse, Cezanne, Bonnard or Chardin to mention a few, are there all the time somehow, somewhere in my work. From the time I spent in New York, it was the Americans who influenced and inspired, especially Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko. Why haven't the great Russian realists of the 18th century been as important to you as the French and Italians? Did you reject them as you rejected the Russian way of life? Until 14 or 15 I enjoyed the simplicity of Isaac Levitan and even the symbolist Mikhail Nesterov. But their work did not talk to me. It was more the icons and Rococo artists that I admired. Later on the Russian modernists like Larionov, Malevich and of course Weisberg spoke to me more. And also Robert Falk. These were devoted artists who dealt with painting as painting. Whom did I copy? At times, when I am moving house or studio, until I became accustomed to new space I might copy a Piero della Francesca, Degas, De la Tour and Massacio. It is like understanding the person sitting in front of you, examining his personality, getting inside his head. On the technical side, where did you learn, or from whom did you learn the pastel technique? I didn't particularly like working with pastels. Even today I have a mental block against the medium. I didn't learn from anyone. Of course there are artists like Degas that I studied, but no one in particular instructed me. When I want to say or feel something at the moment, I do all the things that are permitted and all the things that are prohibited. It just means I am holding pastels instead of oils on a brush. By the way, you should know that in Israel customers want oils, not pastels. They don't buy pastels. It is nice to know that people are beginning to understand what pastels are. In the past it was oils, oils, oils. The end result is that love keeps the artwork alive and not the medium or technique. For hundreds of years it was love, not media, that kept artworks in good condition. What can you say about students you have taught recently? Is talent being overrun by technology? I haven't been teaching for 10 years. I taught in Moscow and here for 25 years. Many of my students have made their way in the profession but not necessarily in the same direction or style that I paint. Their work doesn't show any signs of being influenced by me. But I do feel that in the many years I have not taught, my work has maintained an influence on some sectors of Israeli art. When I lived for three years in New York, I realized I could live without teaching and so I concentrated on my work without classes. I didn't go to New York to advance my career. Other artists did. I didn't want to learn English so it would push me to succeed. For me it was not a healthy direction. Like a fruit or vegetable, I am a person who must grow quietly without disturbances. And New York had many. Irony is at the core of my New York paintings of a new man in a new world. It was a very good and interesting experience. No complaints. But I didn't want my children to decide when we would return. When the time came and I saw their lives changing, I decided to pack and come home. A revolution in the art circles had taken place in Israel only a few years before your arrival. Yet you chose not to become involved. Why? When I arrived here from Moscow, I was befriended by the older generation. I always had older friends even in Russia. It continued here in Israel. It was difficult to form any relationships here. The younger generation around Raffi Lavi didn't care what I was doing. But as an interested person I went to exhibitions to see their work. I didn't care what they were about. I still had Weisberg's criticisms and for the first five years I had to find my own path, not to be overly influenced and not to steal from others. But I should say that Raffi and Nahum Tevet, as critics, wrote very positively about my paintings in those early years. I was surprised. I imagined they didn't even know I existed. Do you have things in common with other artists who came here from Russia? I never get attached to groups, stylewise or geographic. I know how to judge all forms of art, conceptual or abstract. Being a professional painter, I had to develop my professional skills not to be success oriented. I was not interested in joining cliques that had an agenda. And I didn't have many friends from the Russian aliya of the '70s. Their art went in different directions than mine, often not about painting, and it just didn't interest me. Have there been personal crises in you life that have made you create works in a specific manner? The first real crisis was coming here! I left the sphere of Weisberg, of knowing when to be influenced by your teacher and when to separate from his aura. But even today, 23 years after his death, I still speak with him, but my work has nothing to do with how he painted. Two more points. All my life I lived in tall buildings until in 1979 I moved to a house in Jaffa on ground level. I became attached to the warmth of the earth, its strength, its smell and its color. The Israel Museum show four years ago covered this period. Another incident. When I lived on Dizengoff Circle, I had a taxi driver who would run errands for me. I asked him one day to buy me 100 sheets of paper. And because he couldn't park outside the studio, he rushed in, dropped the paper and left. I discovered all the paper was lemon yellow paper and not white. I couldn't catch him and so I had to use the yellow paper. And when there was no more, I missed it. I didn't know what to do without it. It was interesting to fight the lemon yellow. Also models that work with me for a couple of years provide me with difficulties and decisions. Pose, size, format, materials. Decisions, decisions! But I am basically an optimist and I get through all these problems with ease. In fact I look for problems so that I can run away from reality. And work more. When I separated from Ira [his first wife], it was traumatic; more than that I can't say anything. What Israeli artists do you relate to today that are on your level? As you get older, the distance between mountains gets bigger. You see friends less, as each wraps himself in his own world. I don't need people around me. A couple of friends is enough. I have the greats around me, Cezanne and Rembrandt. Lea Nikel was an important personality in my life - emotionally and professionally and sharing criticisms between us. How did you feel and how did your friends that you did not see for many years feel at the Tretyakov Gallery exhibition of 2004? It is difficult for me to see friends at my exhibitions. I am embarrassed. All I have done is simply put color to a canvas. My work often touches people and they say such lofty things and I don't know who they are talking about. Maybe someone else helped me. The atmosphere in Moscow was filled with affection and respect. They saw in my paintings from Israel what I meant them to see, pictures filled with light and warmth.