A treasure lost and found

Beit Rosenthalis commemorates the life and work of a painter who discovered abstract art after immigrating to Israel.

Moshe Rosenthalis (photo credit: Ran Erdeh)
Moshe Rosenthalis
(photo credit: Ran Erdeh)
Are you in the mood for a little adventure? One of these weekends, take yourself to the old port of Jaffa. Wander southward, beyond the seawall and its spectacular view of Tel Aviv.
Continue walking, past the trendy little restaurants and smart little shops, into an area of huge warehouses – some old, some new. Eventually, you will find yourself on a quiet street called Namal Yafo, with a row of old houses high up on a hill overlooking the port and the sea.
When you reach No. 8, climb some stone steps, walk through a gate, climb a flight of stairs, and you will enter a house that was once the studio of a painter whom Israel has still not fully recognized as one of its great artists. Now a museum, Beit Rosenthalis commemorates the life and work of Moshe Rosenthalis (1922–2008), a painter who, despite his remarkable talent, still needs to be “introduced” to the general public, four years after his death.
If you go there soon, you will be able to see an engaging exhibition of Rosenthalis’s paintings called “Music Part II: Concerto for Love at First Sight” and perhaps even meet the amiable Avner Rosenthalis, 55, son of the late artist and keeper of his extensive artistic legacy.
“My father had a wonderful life,” says Rosenthalis.
That life began in Mariampol, Lithuania, a small town roughly 100 km. from Vilnius. In 1928, at the age of six, Rosenthalis started Hebrew school. The artistic muse seems to have visited him early in life, and he began studies at the Academy of Art in Kaunas, from 1940 to the German invasion of Lithuania during World War II.
As Germans and local Lithuanians began attacking Jews on the streets, Rosenthalis fled eastward into the Soviet Union, where he joined and fought in the Lithuanian division of the Red Army. He also found time for art during this period, illustrating Soviet propaganda posters.
This, along with his postwar studies at the Academy of Plastic Arts in Vilnius, firmly instilled in Rosenthalis a youthful orientation toward “social realism,” virtually the only form of art acceptable in a Soviet Union still governed by Stalin, and which now held sway over Lithuania. Rosenthalis joined the government-approved Lithuanian Artists Association in 1950 and continued to paint “socially useful” realistic figurative paintings for the next several years. He was an established artist, considered to have great promise.
In 1958 Rosenthalis and his wife made aliya. How were they able to do this, when so many other Soviet Jews could not? “My mom was born in a small Lithuanian village that was occupied by Poland before the war,” Avner explains.
“So she had a Polish passport, and they could move to Poland. From Poland in the 1950s, it was easy to go to Israel. The Lithuanians knew that my father was going to Israel, but since they hated the Russians so much, they didn’t say anything about it.”
Rosenthalis came to Israel, and his heart and mind exploded. The Lithuanian artist saw art like he had never seen before, like he never knew existed or even imagined could exist.
Says Avner, “My father got here, and for the first time in his life he saw abstract art. He saw abstract painting and was completely shocked. He knew only about social realism. That was the only kind of art he’d been exposed to. He was shocked by the abstract art. He didn’t know how to look at it,” he says.
“My father was told that he would have to work hard, perhaps for something like eight years, to get rid of the social realism he came with. He thought it would take only three years. But it took him more than three years to feel confident in himself. He started to be in group exhibitions, but he was looking and searching all the time. His art was already totally abstract in the early 1960s. And then he went back and forth between abstract and figurative painting for the rest of his life.”
It took a while, however, for Rosenthalis to restore and develop his confidence as an artist. At the time of his arrival, the Israeli art scene was still dominated to a great extent by the “New Horizons” school of painting.
Led by such painters as Yossef Zaritsky, Avigdor Stematsky and Yehezkel Streichman, this group championed a style that was sometimes called “lyrical abstract.” Although Rosenthalis knew many members of this group, he chose not to join it. He thus established a pattern that would continue for the rest of his life of not joining schools of art and remaining fiercely independent.
Rosenthalis did not really feel secure as an artist here until he went to Paris in 1973 to study for a year.
“He saw works by such lights as Picasso and Matisse and felt he was indeed a good artist, with the same confidence he had felt when he was young,” Avner recounts.
His first solo exhibition in Israel was in 1975, at the Yad Lebanim Museum in Petah Tikva, a full 17 years after his arrival in Israel.
“The exhibition got great critical reviews. It was a big breakthrough for him. And from then on, he became very famous here.”
However, that fame did not last long. According to the artist’s son, the blame for this rests largely on him.
“From 1979 I started to work with my father, as his manager. From 1984 – when his first big book came out, a retrospective – we didn’t have any big exhibitions in Israel. And this was a very big mistake, my mistake. I was young at the time. I thought the US was more important, that it was better to spend our time overseas. I didn’t realize that the right thing is to be first successful here, in our home, and then to do something outside. If we had continued to have exhibitions here, it would have been a totally different story. I should not have expected someone to put my father’s paintings in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art if he wasn’t exhibiting here in Israel,” he says.
“And at one point also I realized that when it came to dealing with the art world, I was like my father. I cannot telephone art critics, museum people or owners of important galleries. I’m not like that at all. I’m not a businessman.
And as the years passed by, I became more and more like my father. The result of all this is that people forgot about Moshe Rosenthalis.”
Avner has since learned the ropes, however, and has done a great deal to reestablish his father’s reputation here, with several solo exhibitions throughout the country.
One recent exhibition, in Warehouse No. 2 at the Jaffa Port, was, according to Avner, “a huge exhibition that drew tens of thousands of people.”
He says, “Aside from the fact that my father’s work is good art, people simply like the paintings. They like the optimism, the joy and the bright, joyful colors. Also, my father was very unique, and not only here in Israel. This painter constantly changed his style. All the time.
Constantly developing. Exploring. Changing, in every medium in which he worked. His watercolors are not like his oil paintings. His small études on cardboard are not like the big ones on canvas. His ink drawings are different from other things he did. His acrylics on paper were different from his acrylics and oil on canvas. And every year, you could see a big change in his style. He kept developing all his life, while so many artists when they reached a certain age chose to play it safe and produce the same kind of painting over and over again. Not Rosenthalis. My father was simply bored doing things that were easy for him. He had to struggle, he had to win the canvas. So, even when you look at his works from 2000 onward, when he was already in his 80s, you can see constant change,” he says.
Avner opened his father’s studio to the public in 2009, a year after the artist’s death. Interestingly enough, Beit Rosenthalis was only one of three studios the artist maintained. Another was at his home in north Tel Aviv, and the third was at his other home in Safed, where he and his wife spent the summer for four months every year.
Why so many studios? “He was always painting. He just had to paint. Listen, my father was a wonderful man, and everybody loved him. But if for some reason he couldn’t paint, he was unbearable. Unbelievable!” Avner recalls, laughing.
Beit Rosenthalis was the artist’s primary studio and also the venue for much of his art teaching, especially in his later years.
“My father started to teach soon after he came to Israel,” says Avner. “He never thought he was going to be a teacher. He taught from here right up until he passed away, because he loved it. My father said, ‘I know from the very realistic to the very abstract. When somebody comes, I teach him how to paint his way.
Whatever he takes from me, he takes. When somebody is good, he always will use it to do something from within himself, and take it someplace else.’ People were waiting to get into here to study, especially to study color.
Many artists wanted to come even for just a few months to get my father’s knowledge of color,” he says.
The exhibition “Music Part II: Concerto for Love at First Sight” will be on display at Beit Rosenthalis until October 13. It consists of music-focused oil pastels on paper, created by the artist between 1986 and 2003.
“I decided to put an exhibition together about music,” Avner says. “My father painted a lot of paintings of musicians and musical instruments. He hated titling his paintings, hated titles, and didn’t like giving interpretations to his paintings. But I decided that I had the freedom, as Rosenthalis Jr., to include paintings that were not specifically about music, musical instruments or musical notes, and call the exhibition ‘Music Part II.’ I decided to make a combination of paintings and to do it with a sense of humor. This was my father’s way. He loved to laugh and make a balagan [muddle] of things.
So I have titled the paintings as though Beit Rosenthalis was a center for the arts, with all kinds of people related to the arts stopping by – including drugged-out rock musicians and even groupies. I think that my father would have enjoyed it.”
Beit Rosenthalis, 8 Namal Yafo Street, Jaffa, is open to the public every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For further information about “Music Part II” and permanent exhibitions, call (03) 682-8578 or visit www.rosenthalishouse.com.