Whose ‘Dove of Peace’?

Is a Jerusalem dentist's prized painting a Picasso or the work of a troubled Israeli artist?

picasso reiser 311 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
picasso reiser 311
(photo credit: Steve Linde)
In his Jerusalem dental clinic, Dr. Michel Rote has a beautiful, simple-line, Picasso-esque Dove of Peace sketch that faces his patients. It is signed by Pablo Picasso. And when Rote bought it in Paris, he was assured it was a Picasso. But he has long been wondering whether it is really the work of little-known Israeli artist Shalom Reiser.
Rote brought the picture with him when he made aliya in 1983.
“I purchased it in France and told myself that one day I would hang it in my office in Israel,” Rote said this week, looking up at the picture. “Then one day, an old man was referred to me through a social worker for dental work, and he sat in the chair and told me, ‘Picasso didn’t draw that. I did.’”
The year was 1996, and the old man was Shalom Reiser, an artist who spent much of his life in a mental hospital in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood, where he exhibited some of his work.
“I didn’t take what he said too seriously at the time,” said Rote, “but a short time later, his social worker came to the clinic and verified what he had told me. The social worker said Reiser had worked for Picasso in France, drawing dozens of doves that Picasso would then sign.”
Shalom Reiser was born in Tarnow, Poland, in 1920, an only child to Shimon and Etla Reiser, and made aliya before the World War II began in 1939 from Austria, to which he had moved with his parents when he was a child.
He studied at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in 1940, and started working as an artist. His name became familiar in literary circles in the 1940s, when he illustrated books by two well-known writers, Yigal Mozinson and Yitzhak Shenhar.
Reiser traveled to Florence in 1948 to learn lithography. A year later, he moved to Paris, where he later claimed to have befriended Picasso and Marc Chagall, who were much older than him, and worked as an apprentice for both of them, according to a documentary on Reiser’s life made by Micha Kovler.
It was in 1949, when the 29-year-old Reiser arrived in Paris, that the 68-year-old Picasso sketched the famous dove holding an olive branch in its beak. His original Dove of Peace lithograph was designed as a logo for the Paris Communist International Peace Congress that year.
The simple sketch was to become an emblem for the peace movement and a symbol of Picasso’s own work.
“We all know that art is not truth,” Picasso famously said. “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Following its popularity at the International Peace Congress, the prolific Picasso sketched hundreds of doves and turned many into paintings. Art experts do not rule out the possibility that he hired other artists such as Reiser to copy the dove for him.
During his years in Paris, the Kovler documentary claims, Reiser fell in love with a woman named Michelle. And when she left him, he lost his mind.
“After seven years of shared life, due to anti-Semitic biases of her family and some say due to Michelle’s love for women, the couple separated,” states the 52-minute documentary, called Broken. “Shalom crashes, shatters... loses his sanity.”
Reiser returned to Israel in the early 1960s, but never married, and suffering from constant depression, was hospitalized in mental institutions for most of the next four decades.
He continued painting, periodically, in a style that art critics say is reminiscent of both Picasso and Chagall.
Photographer Aliza Auerbach, who took pictures of Reiser in 1983, recalls that he claimed to have drawn for Picasso.
“This is what he was saying all the time,” she said. “It was a rumor that was never confirmed.”
Art expert Gideon Ofrat is more skeptical about Reiser’s claim that Picasso “stole his dove.”
“I published a catalogue on Reiser more than 15 years ago, with the romantic and heroic story of his life,” Ofrat said. “It was for a retrospective of his work at the Swed Gallery near the King David Hotel. I interviewed him and met him often in cafes. He claimed that Picasso stole the dove from him. I always considered this nonsense. I never took it seriously. I am confident, with all due respect to Shalom, that Picasso didn’t need Reiser to invent his dove.”
Ofrat recalls that Reiser was buoyed by the retrospective, which had caused quite a stir and attracted artists from all over Israel.
“It was a very exciting event. I remember very clearly that thousands of people lined up outside the gallery to see his work, and Israel Television did a report on it, and this gave him a boost,” he said. “Reiser was a fine draftsman and artist, and had a good hand, but he never reached the point of originality and never offered a breakthrough in style. He was first of all a great story and a missed career. He could have been a great artist.”
Jerusalem artist Aliza Olmert, the wife of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, revealed once in an interview with Haaretz that Reiser had made her a collection of paintings on paper napkins.
“Artist Shalom Reiser used to drink tea regularly at the Savyon restaurant where I worked as a waitress for three years,” she is quoted as saying. “He was hospitalized in Talbiyeh and he used to limp over there in the evenings. He never had money. I used to pay for his tea and he would paint for me.”
Reiser painted doves on several occasions, and they bear a striking resemblance to Picasso’s. But who copied from whom remains a mystery.
Today, Rote is philosophical about the sketch hanging in his clinic.Its symbolism, rather than whether it was done by the world’stop-ranked artist or the mostly forgotten Reiser, his one-time patient,is what’s important to him.
“Maybe it isn’t a genuine Picasso,” he said with resignation, butquickly added, laughing: “I’ll tell you, though, if I knew then what Iknow now, I would have smashed open the glass and asked him [Reiser] tosign it.”
Reiser died in Jerusalem 10 years ago, at the age of 80.