The first time that painters Reuven Rubin and Eliahou Eric Bokobza “met” was 22 years ago, when a tourist meandering on Tel Aviv’s Gordon Street purchased a painting of each at different galleries and asked to ship them together to the Netherlands. It was Bokobza’s first sale, while Rubin, who died in 1974, was already in the lofty position of Israel’s most celebrated national artist.
Now they “meet” again at the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv – formally this time – in a multi-media dialogue across space and time.
A century ago, Rubin traveled to New York City where he met avant-garde photographer Alfred Stieglitz (later the husband of Georgia O’Keeffe,) who introduced him to the right people and helped him organize his first American show.
Bokobza takes Rubin down memory lane in a fantasy five-minute animation in the style of the black and white silent films popular in the 1920s, as the exhibition’s title indicates: “Discovering America, Rubin and Bokobza meet in New York.”
To coincide with the exhibition’s opening on March 31 in Tel Aviv, the film was screened for three hours on the corner of 7th Avenue and 41st on one of the giant billboards in Times Square as a result of a collaboration with ZAZ10TS Gallery owned by Tzilli Charney.
“Here is Rubin and I am his shadow following him,” says Bokobza in an interview in his north Tel Aviv apartment accented with objects of intense color that may have somersaulted right out of his paintings. “The exhibition is an opportunity to allow the spectator to enter my head. If I can show them what I think, then I have to know what I want to say. So here I had to think of a wider approach about Rubin. The main question I ask is why Rubin is considered so much above the rest of the Israeli artists of the era. He’s an icon. He was much more respected and became ambassador to Romania, only by virtue of being a painter. He was a persona. What made the young painter Rubin become a persona that separates him from all the rest? He was a great painter, but others of the era were not completely below him. He had something that the others didn’t, and I am trying to depict what that thing is.”
Bokobza had only six months to prepare for the Rubin exhibition instead of the two years it usually takes to mount a project of this magnitude, but since he had pondered about Rubin over the years, he was ready when Carmela Rubin, the late painter’s daughter-in-law and museum manager approached him together with Galit Gindi, his classmate from elementary school and now director of the museum’s friends association.
“Most of my art is a kind of reaction to early Israeli art,” says Bokobza in an interview with curator Edna Erde in the exhibition’s catalog, which he himself designed. “I feel that Israeli art, even today, as it has most probably always been, is dependent on foreign collectors. The question is if, and how, this dependence impacts the art itself.”
According to Bokobza, Rubin understood the lure of orientalism’s in New York due to the release of the silent movie The Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921, which swept the world with an orientalist vibe. The Jewish collectors in New York were enchanted by the Eretz Israel landscapes and their exotic inhabitants.
Bokobza invites us to a 1920s animated cocktail party at a wealthy collector’s home where a film is screened showing Rubin walking the same Holy Land landscapes he will paint for his upcoming exhibition.
Bokobza lifted images from Rubin’s visual dictionary, a hookah-smoking dark-skinned local, a beautiful woman in oriental garb, an Arab riding on a donkey holding a bouquet of flowers. Bokobza rendered them in his own distinctive style with more vibrant colors than the original Rubins. To complement these romanticized Orientalist motifs, he chose for the film’s musical framework a hit song written in 1921, “The Sheik of Araby.”
“Oh sweety, take me to Palestine. I want to ride a camel,” pines a fashionable flapper toward the end of the film, a peacock feather in her hair. She is wearing long, black evening gloves with a cocktail-length cigarette holder between her fingers.
Rubin’s wife, the Bronx-born Esther Davis whom he met in 1928 aboard a passenger ship on his return voyage from New York, helped him connect with American collectors, says Bokobza.
The exhibition is the latest in a series put on by the Rubin Museum to show contemporary Israeli artists in dialogue with Rubin. The Rubin Museum opened in 1983 almost a decade after the death of Rubin, who bequeathed his elegant three-story home on 14 Bialik Street and a core collection of his paintings to the city of Tel Aviv.
Highlights of the exhibition include a “Map Room,” a series of seven works on authentic vintage maps of Ottoman Palestine that Bokobza painted with luscious colors. Drawing on maps comes naturally to Bokobza, who was an NCO in charge of maps during his army service.
“The maps hold a narrative in themselves, which at times can contradict or complement the overpainted figures,” says Bokobza who began drawing on vintage maps in 2001 and has since added one to some of his solo exhibitions until it grew into a series of 14.
The map he chose to create for the Rubin exhibition is titled “The Holy Land,” and on it he drew himself, the photographer, dressed in a colonial outfit, and Rubin, in a casual white shirt, light-blue pants, wearing Israeli-style sandals, both of them on an expedition to explore the Holy Land with a blue-eyed donkey.
“These (Rubin’s) paintings may have been intended to serve as ‘postcards’ of the land for foreign tourists,” he says.
Among Rubin’s oeuvre were several dozen self-portraits done at various stages of his life, usually holding a palette and a brush. Bokobza tends to paint himself as a sort of alter-ego, a figure of a child coupled with the self-awareness of an adult. Bokobza painted two for the exhibition, one of himself in a similar pose with a palette and brush, but this time, instead of the “naïve” figure in his repertoire, the wide round eyes, the plump childish body, he painted a verisimilitude dropping a splash of fuchsia on his palette.
To echo the famous Rubin painting with his fiancé, Esther, seated on a balcony holding a bouquet of flowers, Bokobza painted himself with his partner, Lolik, with the Tel Aviv view they see from their apartment near the Tel Aviv port. He calls it “The Painter and his Mate as Young Men.” Instead of flowers, Lolik is holding a cactus plant, symbolic of the Sabra, as Israeli-born are known.
“Neither of us are sabras,” says the Paris-born Bokobza, whose partner was born in Ukraine.
The exhibition also displays four of Rubin’s American paintings from the 1920s and 1930s, works less familiar than his celebrated Eretz Israel oeuvre.
“In the process of building the exhibition, I was surprised by Bokobza’s curiosity about Rubin and the times in which he lived and painted,” says Edna Erde, curator of the exhibition and head of the museum’s library and archive. “We added to the exhibition a few paintings that Rubin painted in the US in the 1930s because Bokobza asked to see them.”
Bokobza was born in Paris to immigrant parents from Tunisia, who then moved to Israel when he was six. (Bokobza’s English is softly accented by French.) His mother sang soprano in the opera of Tunis and his father had a law degree from the Sorbonne. To add to the cultural mélange, there is also his identity as an Israeli and as a gay man.
“I grew up playing piano and hearing Verdi and Umm Kulthum,” says Bokobza.
He studied pharmacy in Jerusalem and had his own drug store, when at age 32 he gave himself the luxury of studying art at the Pollack-Kalisher School of Art in Tel Aviv and becoming a full-time artist. On top of the kitchen cabinet in bold, red letters there is a sign, “Prescriptions,” a souvenir of those years. He also studied animation. He has held numerous solo shows and participated in group exhibitions at museums in Israel and Europe.
It is deceiving to consider Bokobza’s art as naïve despite the child-like style, the plump, wide-eyed figures, the beguiling, eye-candy colors.
“He lures the viewer to look at the paintings, but being aware or conscious that he is using a naïve technique cancels out the naivete of the works,” says Erde.
Behind the sweetness of the sugar-coated surface lies a bitter pill of subversive, gut-wrenching subjects he tackles: racism, militarism, and others of that ilk. Bokobza rejects the naïve title and considers himself a conceptual artist, a claim well buttressed by his iconoclasm and his debunking of revered subjects. His statements are intelligent, witty, and backed up by comprehensive research.
He has his own unique, unmistakable style.
“Naïve painting embodies attributes that I can employ as a trap to win the public’s attention,” he says. “Naïve painting is not threatening. It is always colorful and attractive at first sight. When I manage to capture and hold the viewer’s attention, I try to bring up critical subjects that would otherwise be overlooked.”
As to the question of what raised Rubin’s reputation a cut above his contemporaries Bokobza answers with one word: “Connections.”
He elaborates: “The answer is New York. He was there and no one else at the time had the same opportunity. Talent is very important, but connections are no less so. In Rubin’s case he also had charisma to spare.”
The exhibition is on display at the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv until June. ■