A few weeks ago, Mayor Moshe Lion ceremoniously opened David Rakia Plaza. In case you haven’t noticed the new blue municipal sign, it is at the end of Shlomzion Hamalka Street, near the junction with Ben Sira Street and just opposite the Mamilla Mall.
The location is particularly poignant as much of Rakia’s life, and oeuvre, fed off those downtown environs. And if you take the trouble to trundle a little way up the street, you come across the Rakia Gallery, established 10 years ago and still run by the artist’s daughter, Karin Rakia. The art space is chock full of canvasses and prints created by the Viennese-born artist during a career that spanned close to six decades.
David Rakia escaped the clutches of the Nazis when he got out of Austria, along with his parents and two siblings, and made it to Palestine. That was at the end of 1938, several months after the Anschluss when Hitler triumphantly strolled into Vienna saluted by millions of delighted Austrians. Rakia was 10 at the time.
His entry into the world of creative pursuit was triggered by a traumatic, and painful, experience.
“He was badly wounded in the War of Independence,” says his daughter. “Back then they sent him and other injured soldiers for sort of art therapy, with Mordechai Ardon.”
That was a telling stroke of luck. Ardon, who later received the Israel Prize, was already a highly regarded painter who was to achieve global recognition for his works that often tended toward the mystical side of Judaism. “He told my father he had a gift for art, and that he had to become an artist,” says Karin.
That was a game changer for the young man, who quickly enrolled at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. A couple of years later he relocated to Paris, where he studied at the famed Beaux-Arts de Paris and came under the spell of Surrealism and Symbolism. “The family had a sewing workshop on Ben Shattah Street [around the corner from Shlomzion Hamalka Street], but my father didn’t want to become a tailor,” says Karin. “He wanted to get away from that.”
He managed that with gusto, and soon started making strides with his newfound craft. He initially painted urban scenes in Paris, where he studied and worked in the second half of the 1950s, landing his first public showing there in 1957. That was swiftly followed by his debut exhibition in Israel, at the Jerusalem Artists House, and subsequent solo rollouts around the country, in the States and across Europe, including at the Jewish Museum in his city of birth.
Rakia says her father, who died in 2012 at 84, had his fair share of troubling episodes, but always bent toward the sunny side of the street.
“The family lived in Mamilla until an outbreak of violence by the Arabs [in the early 1940s], and they were taken in by the Ratisbonne Monastery” on Shmuel Hanagid Street, says Rakia. “My father bore the scars of all those traumas, but you never saw that in his paintings. I don’t think you could call my father an optimist, but he strove to show beauty and not the bad things.”
That comes across in his works stacked around the gallery – that, and his powerful attraction toward the metaphysical, much in the vein of his feted wartime art therapist.
By the 1960s, Rakia was getting ever deeper into spiritual realms, and began marrying the celestial and terrestrial spheres of Jerusalem in his works. He also increasingly featured the Hebrew Alef-Bet, which popped up at all sorts of points in his canvasses, and began to create layered vortexes comprising multitudes of letters with mystical and more mundane textual import.
Rakia’s spiritual explorations are also reflected in his adopted moniker, even though the catalyst for the move came from practical quarters.
“In 1958, someone told him he should change his name to something more artistic,” says Rakia. “So David Sternfeld, which means ‘field of stars’ in German, became David Rakia” – firmament or sky. There was also a biblical hook there, in Psalms 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God. And the firmament (rakia) display His handiwork.”
On his return to Israel in 1960, Rakia brought a strong grasp of 20th-century European aesthetics with him. That was soon augmented by the colors and spiritual energies he imbibed in Jerusalem, where he once again set up house. His works from the early 1960s are infused with heady ethereal dynamics, such as the Tree of Life oil painting from 1961. The dominant brown coloring suggests a strong hold on Jerusalem stonework and the rocky terrain, while the sturdy tree trunk traverses the full length of the base wood panel, thereby connecting the earthly with the heavenly.
Rakia’s daughter traces his initial encounter with the innate power of Hebrew letters to his childhood.
“His grandfather was a sofer stam (Torah scribe) in Vienna,” she says. “He would sit in a tub and write the Torah scrolls and mezuzot.” The watery workspace was a matter of religious observation rather than an ablutionary oddity, she explains: “He had to remain pure while he wrote the letters.”
That childhood witnessing of the process of creating stylized Hebrew lettering was tangibly complemented by a gift from his granddad of a sevivon, a dreidel. “It had Hebrew letters on it,” says Rakia. “My father said that Hebrew letters have a magical power, and he was drawn to that.”
That certainly informed his creative evolution following the Six Day War and the unification of west and east Jerusalem.
“My father always wanted to depict Jerusalem as a Jewish city,” Rakia explains. “But, of course, he didn’t want to paint Jerusalem in a realistic way. He was more interested in the spirit and soul of Jerusalem.”
That endeavor was fused through his choice of hues, which primarily took in blue, green and brown, and variations thereof.
“It was often a monochromatic approach,” Rakia notes. “Blue is a very spiritual color, green is the color of growth. If he used brown and yellow that portrayed heat.”
The latter would have been a natural means of expressing the much warmer climate here, considering he spent his early formative years in Austria, followed by the lengthy spell in Paris. “He had his own shade of blue – Rakia Blue,” says his daughter. “That is a well-known color. Green indicates the growth of Jerusalem.”
THE LATE 1960s finds Rakia working his way toward a distilled artistic vehicle for conveying his growing passion for Jerusalem, on various levels. There seemed to be an ongoing juggling act as he looked to achieve some form of equilibrium between his tangible urban surroundings and the unearthly higher Jerusalem. Celebration in Jerusalem, painted in shades of green in 1976, for example, features turreted walls – presumably referencing the Old City – as well as arches, which may be Arabic or even hark back to the Gothic architectural style he saw in his Viennese infancy, and cosmic-looking characters. The latter also infer Hebrew lettering forms.
Rakia also proved to be a highly versatile artist through his long working life. He progressed from Realism, dipping into the avant-garde avenues paved by the likes of Emmanuel Mané-Katz, Max Ernst and Marc Chagall. For a while he embraced the teachings of anthroposophy, but by the 1980s he was exploring the mysteries of the kabbalah. This became a motif of his work, particularly through his use of the Alef Bet. “You will see the letter shin in almost all his paintings,” Karin notes. “Firstly that stands for Sternfeld (pronounced Shternfeld). He retained that memory even though he changed to Rakia. And Shin stands for shamayim (heaven). It points upward. It is open to the sky.”
As any creative soul, Rakia maintained a lifelong search for the ultimate synthesis of his emotions, his hereditary and acquired cultural baggage, and his intellectual awareness and processing of all he observed and experienced.
The longer he lived in Jerusalem, navigating his way between the corporeal and the ethereal, Rakia continued to mine ever richer seams of meaning in Hebrew letters, which unlike Western characters, incorporate several layers of interpretation, including words and distinct aesthetics.
Portraying light is a constant dome-scratcher for artists around the world, and has been since time immemorial. Rakia also struggled with that, says his daughter, but unlike, say, the Impressionists who did their damnedest to capture transient lighting conditions and colors, Rakia used that as a way of imparting the profundity of his emotion and the power of his bond with terrestrial and heavenly Jerusalem.
That also goes for the Alef Bet. “The letters are part of the buildings he paints,” says Rakia. “There is the architecture of Jerusalem but that isn’t its soul. My father wanted to show Jerusalem as a Hebrew, Jewish and Zionist city. He wanted to introduce the special light of Jerusalem. It is the letters and the light that make it more spiritual. He saw Jerusalem as the center of the world.”
Light also infers a sense of hope. That comes across exuberantly, for example, in The Splendor of Jerusalem oil work that is a veritable festival of rich hues, with all the aforementioned structural elements. Reality and fantasy are seamlessly fused in the painting, with the odd lettering element sewn into the pictorial fabric.
The Alef-Bet took on ever-increasing artistic and spiritual meaning for Rakia, until he arrived at a juncture in his creative continuum when he produced paintings that were entirely devoted to Hebrew letters. There is always a captivating dynamism to the presentation of the characters, as the layering appears to both conceal and suggest hidden meanings.
There were two more conceptual shifts in Rakia’s artistic progression as he moved toward a more abstract, cosmic, mode of expression. In his later years, Rakia’s ability to lay down his thoughts and feelings onto canvas was increasingly limited by the onset and progression of Parkinson’s disease. “He got to a point when he could no longer control his brushes,” explains Karin, “so he started splashing paint and forming these lines. Art was his life.”
After viewing some of Rakia’s last works, we moseyed on down to the urban spot that now bears his name.
“I think my father would have been happy about this,” says Karin. “It’s right across the road from Mamilla, where he lived as a kid and was forced to leave, and in full view of the Old City that was such a source of inspiration for him. He passed by here a lot, down Agron Street on his way to his studio. This is a good place for the family.”
Rakia, who fled Nazi Austria and took Jerusalem into his heart, soul and art, now has his own spot in the city that meant so much to him.
For more information: david-rakia.com