The Israel Museum returns to routine with ‘The Bureaucrat’ exhibit

First live exhibit opening in a year enhanced by David Grossman’s thoughts on Matan Ben Cnaan’s painting.

MATAN BEN CNAAN (center) points out similarities in his painting to a Holocaust photograph, as curator Amitai Mendelsohn (left) and David Grossman look on. (photo credit: OFRIT ROSENBERG, ISRAEL MUSEUM)
MATAN BEN CNAAN (center) points out similarities in his painting to a Holocaust photograph, as curator Amitai Mendelsohn (left) and David Grossman look on.
The first live opening of a new exhibition at the Israel Museum in a year took place Monday night, as Matan Ben Cnaan’s new painting, The Bureaucrat, was presented in an event in which world-renowned author David Grossman read a text which illuminated and complemented the work.
There was excitement in the air as a small audience assembled in the museum – according to Health Ministry guidelines – to experience the sights and sounds of which everyone has been deprived for so many months. The audience got to view the painting and listen to Grossman’s text, from which he read excerpts in a quiet voice that amounted to a guided tour of his experience with this complex painting. In addition to reading his text about the work, he and Ben Cnaan sat down for a Q & A with exhibit curator Amitai Mendelsohn.
In an emotional introduction to the event, Israel Museum director Ido Bruno mentioned that it was exactly a year ago that the first lockdown began due to the pandemic, and said he was happy to report that The Bureaucrat is one of several new exhibits that will open in the coming weeks. 
“There is no more amazing way to mark the end of the year that we’ve had than to introduce this meeting between the painter Matan Ben Cnaan and the author David Grossman. This gives us an exciting opportunity to examine the connections between word and image,” he said.
Ben Cnaan is an Israeli painter whose work combines classical elements and complex narratives with contemporary art and present-day themes. He is the first and only Israeli artist to win first place in the BP Portrait Award in the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 for his painting Annabelle and Guy.
His work focuses on “scene painting” in which he creates realistic, contemporary scenes that often refer to a classical work, such as the Bible. The Bureaucrat, which he began in 2018 and completed in 2020, is in this style. It features a group of people, dressed casually, standing in a sunny field. Most wear expressions of worry or concern. One side of the group is mainly female, while the other is all male. In the center, a woman with her arms around two little girls faces an older man holding a clipboard, apparently the bureaucrat of the title. Her face betrays anger, while he looks down. 
There are odd details in the picture. A man has one bare foot. One woman kneels and pours water for another young woman, from the kind of plastic bottle Israelis tend to take on hikes. Two adolescent girls wear identical honey-colored sweaters, but while they look like the kind of cute teens you would find in any mall, they turn toward the bureaucrat with an uneasy mixture of tension and supplication.
BEN CNAAN EXPLAINED that he had two main inspirations for the picture. One, a painting by Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, is a realistic look at a funeral and the ordinary mourners there. The second is a photograph from Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 of a selection on the platform at the death camp. Three details of that photograph, which he incorporated into the painting, particularly struck him: a woman in the foreground holding a baby, a man with one bare foot, and a picnic basket next to another man. The newly arrived Jews cluster around a Nazi in a similar tableau to the one with the bureaucrat in the painting. As a child, he said, he would look at his great-grandparents’ passport stamps, which had allowed them to flee the Nazis, and this led him to ponder the nature of bureaucracy.
A short film that was screened at the event and which plays at the exhibition, about how Ben Cnaan created the picture, showed how he posed this group in a field in Tel Aviv near Hiriya Park and photographed them. The painter and the writer spoke about how, before they ever met, Grossman was given a picture of the work-in-progress, which the author, who at first felt he did not have time for the project, found himself looking at more and more as he worked. When he visited Ben Cnaan’s studio, he noticed even more details.
Grossman had not realized that the painting would be called The Bureaucrat, but said the title seemed fitting to him on many levels. “Bureaucracy is what I write about in so many ways,” he said.
Grossman’s text can be heard at the exhibition in recordings played at different times throughout the day, in Hebrew, Arabic and English recordings. Grossman himself reads the Hebrew version, actress Raida Adon reads in Arabic, and Anna Barber reads in English. The English version can be heard on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. There is also a written version of the text available at the exhibition in these languages.
In the text, which was translated into English by Jessica Cohen, Grossman wrote, “This is a disturbing picture that becomes more disturbing the longer one looks at it, the more questions one formulates. Who are these people? Where have they come from? Why have they gathered here, and what news are they receiving?”
As to the man with only one shoe, he wondered, “Could his bare foot be reminding them of a memory long silenced and buried, the memory of a distant catastrophe? One that might reoccur?”
Writing about the man who gives the picture its name, he referenced Franz Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial, saying, “I cannot think of bureaucracy without thinking of arbitrariness, of cruelty.”
He shared some of the many ideas about the painting that came to mind when he looked at it, including the possibility that the woman approaching the bureaucrat was being forced into a Sophie’s Choice moment where she is forced to choose between her daughters. 
“I search for a story because it is through stories that I can feel and comprehend. But when it comes to this painting, with its mysteriousness and vicissitudes, the attempt proves futile.”
Both the painter and the writer noted that the crazy and often scary pandemic year lent added resonance to the work.
In the end, wrote Grossman, “I cannot say with any certainty that I understand Matan Ben Cnaan’s painting, nor do I wish to understand it. But I think that I know it.”
For opening hours and to order tickets, go to the Israel Museum website at