Saying it with flowers

I had always thought the little Palestinian landscapes of Shmuel Charuvi competent but dull, and his Bezalel-type illustrations stiff and even duller.

flower art 88 298 (photo credit: )
flower art 88 298
(photo credit: )
I had always thought the little Palestinian landscapes of Shmuel Charuvi competent but dull, and his Bezalel-type illustrations stiff and even duller. But the Israel Museum's new exhibition The Botanist's Brush, which features the watercolor and gouache paintings that Charuvi made in the early 1920s for the projected Hareuveni Floral Treasury of the Land of Israel, is a real eye opener and an unalloyed delight. And so is its lovely catalogue, which tells the story of an ambitious scientific encyclopedia that was never completed. Shmuel Bokser-Charuvi (1897-1965) was born in the Ukrainian village of Mikhaylovka. Still a boy of 14, he was sent to the Odessa College of Art. A visit to a Bezalel exhibition in Odessa in 1911 eventually led to his arrival in Turkish Palestine early in 1914, where he studied at Boris Schatz's Bezalel School until it was closed by the Turks in 1917. After two-year's service in the Palestinian battalion of the brigade of Jewish Royal Fusiliers (the Jewish Legion), Charuvi returned to Jerusalem to devote himself to painting landscapes and stiffly handled depictions of biblical sites. His new Hebrew name was drawn from that of the life-giving carob tree (haruv). Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, art schools everywhere placed great store on drawing plants and adapting them in decorative schemes. The acanthus, for instance, was incorporated into architecture, and students at every art school, including mine, were made to study and render its curves. The Old Bezalel was no exception, but its director Boris Schatz placed a special Zionist outlook on the flora of the Holy Land. The meticulous sketches of flowers and birds that Charuvi made while at the Old Bezalel must have led to the Floral Treasury commission, offered to him by pioneer Palestinian botanists Ephraim and Hanna Hareuveni late in 1922. Schatz had also met with and was impressed by Hareuveni. Works produced by artists of the Bezalel School displayed an abundance of floral motifs, serving as a metaphor for the Jewish national revival. The botanist later pointed up the uncanny resemblance of the Menorah of the Temple to the Palestinian sage plant (moriah); his sketch is included in the catalogue. Charuvi, then surviving as an itinerant farm laborer, must have jumped at the commission. Curator Tamar Manor-Friedman writes that as a botanical artist, he was called upon to document things exactly, just as they appeared. But one applauds her assessment that "Charuvi's impressive achievement bears witness to the fact that this very obligation, far from restricting his artistry, freed the painter's hand, awakened his inspiration, and led to the discovery of original solutions, yielding works that surpass everything in his oeuvre till then." Indeed, this show is an artistic delight, and despite being rendered on heavy watercolor paper, the gouache is handled with the precision of a skilled miniaturist. Charuvi used a magnifying glass; there is one provided for visitors as well. Charuvi studied the organic development of every plant; his details are rendered in the natural flow of leaf and stem; just look at his elegant but modest rendering of an olive stem (it also adorns the cover of the catalogue). This feeling for phyllotaxis characterized the very best of Renaissance artists like the great Albrecht Durer. Charuvi made every effort to treat the entire page as a composition, even occasionally employing collage. The dense foliage of the hop, a parasitic growth that winds itself around the pepper tree, he transformed into a stylized Art Nouveau web. Many pages were designed as assemblages of images. Next to the central image there are occasionally depictions of insects and blighted leaves or miniature landscapes showing the areas of natural growth. As is common in botanical illustrations, the plant itself is represented as a timeless archetype with roots exposed and seen in the various stages of its life cycle. At the end of 1923, the Hareuvenis left to promote their ideas in Europe and the United States, taking with them a collection of dried plants and a set of Charuvi's watercolors. In Vienna, they had proof collotypes of the Charuvi paintings made at the Hermes press. Three years later, after Hareuveni's appointment as director of the Museum of Biblical and Talmudic Botany and of Arab Plant-Lore at the Hebrew University, Hareuveni arranged a trial printing of his essays on the moriah plant, and signed up Charuvi for continued employment. Color printing was expensive and the botanist decided to publish the encyclopedia piecemeal, in slim volumes that could be bound later as a complete book. Ukrainian-born Ephraim Rubinowitz-Hareuveni (1881-1953), after obtaining a rabbinical ordination at the yeshiva of Kremenchug, studied natural science at the University of Nancy. In 1906 he settled in Palestine and taught science in various settlements. In 1909-1914 he completed his doctorate in Lausanne and Prague, then returned to Palestine and became a researcher and teacher at high schools and teacher training colleges. His twin loves were the worlds of Torah and flora. He coined many of the new names given to plants in the Land of Israel and tried to relate them to the ones mentioned in ancient Hebrew sources. He also pursued popular terms and traditions he collected from Arabs. Hareuveni's vision of a botanical encyclopedia was linked with two other endeavors to which he devoted most of his life: the Museum of Biblical and Talmudic Botany and his plan for a biblical botanical garden. Sadly, work on his encyclopedia soon came to a halt. All the notebooks, labels, photographs, written chapters, printed color plates and over 40 botanical paintings by Charuvi, some unfinished, were stowed away in the museum's cupboards and in the botanists' own home. A decade later, after the university on Mount Scopus was cut off in 1948, the campus was manned only by periodic convoys of Israeli police and the botanical museum died of neglect. Just a few of its exhibits and documents were transferred to Ephraim and Hannah's son, environmentalist Nogah Hareuveni, in the mid-1960s. During the 1930s, Charuvi continued to paint wild flowers, together with boughs of trees and flourishing meadows. Then the plight of Europe's Jews turned him to the planning of imaginary buildings and towns that would house Jewish refugees. With the rise of the New Horizons movement in the early '50s, Charuvi was finally sidelined into relative obscurity. This lovely and fascinating show restores him to us as an unusual and extraordinarily accomplished pioneer. (Cummings Pavilion, Israel Museum). Till June.