The raising of Engelsberg

Seasons come and go. Rain falls, the sun shines and clouds continually alter the chromatic reflections enveloping the landscape.

Leon Engelsberg 298.88 (photo credit: )
Leon Engelsberg 298.88
(photo credit: )
Seasons come and go. Rain falls, the sun shines and clouds continually alter the chromatic reflections enveloping the landscape. One would expect that the late Leon Engelsberg (1919-98), a veteran plein air painter, would have attempted at some time during his lengthy career to capture these ephemeral moments in nature. Regrettably, it didn't happen. An Engelsberg retrospective, now at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, was thoroughly researched by curator Tamar Manor-Friedman. As a means of introducing the public to an artist shunted aside by the cognoscenti and never fully accepted into the pantheon of Israeli painters, she has chosen to stack the display with an unwarranted number of pictures orbiting around Engelsberg's enthusiasm for the Jerusalem landscapes, shored up by a dozen stabbing portraits and several poignant canvases entitled Requiem. Among the many landscapes, Engelsberg's panoramic compositions and color references are seamless, all pretty much the same. Below swaths of a leaden gray or rare powdery blue or a pale champagne-colored sky, a cyclical range of warm local hues and tints of sepia, umber, yellow ochre and viridian are harnessed repetitively to describe the barren hills, wadis and vegetation of the Judean landscape. Uninspiring, the paintings project a strained uniformity. In long views of Silwan and Bethlehem, Engelsberg's oils and watercolors, as well as his preparatory sketches, bombard one's senses with aggressive drawing and raspy brushing that rambles uncontrolled across the canvas. Thorny shapes and broad strokes describing earth, foliage or air roll and swell indiscriminately without being tied to a plan of the larger picture. One exception is Landscape (1960s or '70s) from The Israel Phoenix Collection. It is an expressive picture that contains a distorted band of dark charcoal and grayed viridian trees running diagonally across the rectangle, separating an Arab village and copse of trees on a distant hilly abutment and small patches of farmed land in the foreground. By inverting subjective proportions, Engelsberg reduces reality to a pictorial phrasing of specific interests. The deformed wood and the rocky overhang hugging the picture's edge become an abstract expressionist belt of feverish textures, as lines and shapes recoil in all directions. But animated color, as an expressive component, is still missing. Engelsberg's range of colors and their rapid, un-diagnostic application to the surface provide a direct link to works by the Israeli-French painter Liliane Klapish. His long views of the sketchy, shrub-covered landscapes interspersed by an intricate arrangement of paths and terraces have definitely influenced the work of Michael Kovner. Engelsberg was born in Warsaw in 1919. One of four children, he survived WWII by escaping to the Russian front, where he enlisted in the Polish infantry. At the war's end he returned to his home town to discover that his parents and twin sister had perished in Treblinka, events that would affect the subjective content in his painting in later years. He enlisted in the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he received an academic art education, and in 1957 he immigrated to Israel. Engelsberg's life in Israel, from his initial studio apartment in Abu Tor until his death in 1998, was rife with problems of acceptance, personal history and psychological trappings. The loss of family, isolation and the change of venue from the melancholy skies of Poland to the sharp light of the Middle East were events he found difficult to cope with. Although Engelsberg found some minimal acceptance in his early years here, in time the art establishment and critics, writers and other artists passed him by. Despite a relationship with Jerusalem's Bineth Gallery and a one-time recognition by the Israel Museum at its inaugural exhibition in 1965, he retreated into his own shell and for all intents and purposes became a forgotten recluse. Except for a few close friends, his social and emotional ties were erratic. He broke off all contact with his only brother and treated his neighbors with suspicion. He never married, although had one sporadic relationship with a woman he first met in Warsaw, an intimacy that ended abruptly in the 1970s. In time, Engelsberg became an enduring outsider, rarely seeing friends and rarely willing to show his work to interested visitors. After his death, a locked room in his apartment was opened by the custodians of his estate and revealed hundred of paintings and works on paper, all of which he left to the State of Israel for cultural centers in the cities and the kibbutzim. A unique group of canvases dedicated to Jewish martyrology were bequeathed to the Yad Vashem Museum. Engelsberg was the archetypal European intellectual. In addition to being an accomplished violinist, he wrote profusely on subjects ranging from art criticism to literary retorts. But he never adapted himself to the oncoming trends in abstraction and was categorized by the few who included him in art overviews as an expressionist in the style of the Jewish School of Paris, and notably Chaim Soutine. Yet as he showed nothing of Soutine's fiery subjective upheavals and frenzied brush strokes, it is a label difficult to pin on Engelsberg. Specific to Engelsberg's self-portraits are his wearing of a pointed, kibbutz-type hat (kova tembel) and a recurring use of two black dots to represent his eyes. The former, a symbol of either clown or pioneer, and the latter, a metaphor for blindness and aimlessness, together present a piercing psychological presence. Whether holding a violin, trimming a cactus or tending his pigeons, his facial expressions and bodily gestures are witness to a penetrating and cheerless, if not depressing, personality. If he wanted to telegraph a message about his cloistered life and limited recognition as an artist, the portraits seem to do the job. Some 30 large-scale paintings and numerous preliminary sketches discovered in Engelsberg's secret room have been given the title Requiem by Manor-Friedman. Devoted to memories of the Holocaust, they are, like the tragedy itself, cut off from the mainstream of subjective logic and daily observation of his surroundings. Engelsberg referred to these works, some of the best in the exhibition, as Jewish martyrology, involving concepts and images that transcend his personal recollections by incorporating elements from the fields of collective national history and mythology. The associative visions populating his canvases find their source in the unknown fate of his family and, to a larger extent, in the subconscious nightmare that grips us all. Engelsberg's unrestrained and almost childlike images are records of a private hell. The gaunt figures, white funereal stelae, ghetto walls, trains, smoking chimneys and levitating bodies trapped in scumbled color fields have all the trappings of Holocaust art, yet in Engelsberg's hand they become intimate voyages. They are not narratives but snapshots, both exposing and concealing his innermost secrets, some possibly absorbed from a trip to Treblinka that he describes in his writings from the 1960s. (Tel Aviv Museum of Art. King Saul Blvd.)