A brush with femininity

'Faces and secrets,' an exhibition of only 20 paintings, shows Reuven Rubin's range of styles, from academic through expressionistic.

Reuven Rubin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Rubin Museum)
Reuven Rubin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Rubin Museum)

Imagine spending a late afternoon rummaging around in your grandfather’s attic. You remember your grandpa, now deceased, as a kindly old man who sat you on his knee and told you stories when you were a kid. Now, as you browse through the dusty oddsand- ends that the elderly gentleman left behind, you find several old pictures of women, specifically young women – pictures that are at times very sensual, some actually erotic. Immediately, you begin to wonder: who were these women, when did grandpa know them and what exactly was his relationship with each of them?

These are some of the intriguing questions posed by “Faces and Secrets,” a special exhibition of paintings at the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv. Displaying 20 portraits painted by artist Reuven Rubin in Romania, New York and Israel, “Faces and Secrets” presents works that have never been shown before – some previously unknown and only recently discovered – as well as some new revelations about the life of one of Israel’s iconic founding artists.

The basic outline of Rubin’s life is well-known. Born in Romania in 1893, the eighth of 13 children in a poor hassidic family, Rubin spent 1912 in Ottoman-ruled Palestine studying painting at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. He left Palestine to study art in Paris in 1913 and spent the next several years in Europe before traveling to New York in 1922.

After a brief return to Europe, he immigrated to Mandate Palestine in 1923. During the 1920s, Rubin, along with such artists as Nahum Gutman and Ziona Tagger, formulated what came to be known as the Eretz Yisrael style of painting, influenced by contemporary European movements like Expressionism and Naïvism. Rubin died in 1974, bequeathing his house at 14 Bialik Street and a core collection of his artwork to the city of Tel Aviv. In 1983, the house became the home of the Rubin Museum.

The museum’s director and chief curator is the artist’s daughter-in-law, Carmela Rubin, who walks us through the exhibition. She tells us, “What we have here is a selection of 20 women’s portraits, some of which have surfaced only recently. The paintings have surfaced from whereabouts unknown to us. These paintings disappeared way before I came into the picture in the 1960s. And some of these paintings were sold or given away during the 1920s.

So there’s a big gap in time here. This painting for example, A Jerusalem Woman, was first shown in an exhibition in Paris in 1926. I knew this painting from a black-and-white still photograph taken in the 1920s before Rubin sold the painting. I knew it was somewhere, and it surfaced at an auction in France two years ago. And then it was bought by a dealer who sold it once again at an auction at Sotheby’s in New York. It was bought by a big collector, who loaned it to us now.”

We wander over to a painting of a young woman that looks like it might have been painted by Vermeer. Rubin says: “This is Portrait of Sheva, a portrait of Rubin’s first love, back in Romania, painted in 1914. They wanted to get married but her father was not so enthusiastic about a painter and a Zionist on top of that. The portrait has the look and feeling of an old master. I find it an amazing painting. And when it surfaced, I knew that I wanted very much to have it in our collection. I knew about the painting and eventually I managed to find someone who was willing and generous enough to buy it for the museum.”

Rubin communicates her excitement for chasing after long-lost artworks as she says, “It’s wonderful to have these paintings resurface, especially when I know the paintings from black-andwhite stills and all of a sudden the painting shows up. It’s a big thing for me.”

Asked if there might still be a lot of paintings by her father-in-law that she does not know about, Rubin replies, “Probably not many. We have already a listing of about 8,800 oil paintings. He started painting in his teens and he continued to the last day. He made his living by selling paintings. There are Rubin paintings all over the world: in America, of course, in Europe, in Latin America. Even in Hong Kong. There are two Rubin paintings in the collection of the Vatican. There is a member of the royal family of Jordan who is holding paintings. There are sometimes paintings in unexpected corners.

Upstairs here at the museum is a little display of black-and-white stills of portraits of ladies that we have documentation of, but we don’t know where they are. But all of a sudden these paintings surface, and you never know when, where or why. It just happens.”

And when these paintings surface, they often bring some surprises up with them. The identity of the woman depicted in Girl with Potted Plant may forever remain unknown, but the artist’s erotic and perhaps romantic attraction to her is obvious. Bronzed, buxom and bra-less, she stands amid the dunes of Tel Aviv in a painting that is almost identical to a well-known self-portrait of Rubin, holding a flower. The artist’s use of identical motifs and backgrounds in the two paintings leads Carmela Rubin to suspect that her father-in-law had a relationship with this woman, whoever she was.

As for the evident eroticism, she says, “Even though the woman is obviously feminine, Rubin is never exclusively erotic. Even when he’s erotic, he is also ideological. He tells us about the growth of Tel Aviv. He shows us this land of promise. And she looks like a person who is really comfortable in this environment, and really rooted to it.”

Far more erotic than ideological, however, is Rubin’s depiction of another unknown young woman, thought to be from Safed, in Near the Succa. The artist seems almost to adore this voluptuous young girl as she sits staring petulantly at the viewer – or perhaps at the artist. Similarly, Sophie, A Bukharan Jewess portrays a girl from Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter with one hand holding a potted plant and the other perched moodily on her hip. She wears a pouty expression on her face and is dressed up to her neck in a tight see-through dress that clearly exposes her ample breasts.

The most sensual and strangely compelling artwork in the exhibition may well be Portrait of a Lady, which Rubin painted in Romania before making aliya. This is a head-and-neck portrait of a young woman, whose haunting glance simply gets into your head and stays there. One wonders who she was and what eventually happened to her in the tumultuous years that were to come.

Other women depicted in these portraits are known. There are, for example, two paintings of Rubin’s fellow artist Ziona Tagger, his friend and colleague during the 1920s and a major figure among Israel’s pioneer painters. A Sephardi Jew born in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, Tagger was the first woman artist to achieve real stature here. While others stopped working when they married, Tagger divorced her husband and stayed with her vocation.

Curator Rubin recalls with laughter, “Years ago, when I was organizing a Tel Aviv Museum exhibition of Ziona Tagger’s paintings, she said to me, ‘Carmela, I want to ask a favor from you.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ She said, ‘You know that Rubin painted my portrait many years ago.’ I said, ‘Of course I know.’ She said, ‘And you know that Rubin wanted to give it to me.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t know that.

Why didn’t you take it?’ She said, ‘I didn’t like it, but now I want it.’ Well, by this time the painting was in the collection of the Phoenix Insurance Company. So I said, ‘Ziona, it’s a bit too late now.’” Two paintings, and only two paintings, are of Rubin’s wife Esther. Says Carmela Rubin, “We have quite a few black-and-white stills of paintings that don’t exist. I think that he painted over them. He simply wasn’t confident when he came to paint his wife. More so with her than with others. I think that with Esther there was some kind of emotional barrier. So some of these paintings don’t exist.”

Esther herself died only last year, at almost 100. Her daughter-in-law says, “She was American. She had been a member of Young Judea in the Bronx. She won first prize writing an essay, ‘What Palestine Means to Me.’ The prize was a trip to Palestine, and they met on the boat. And she stayed on with him. Her parents thought that she was coming for three months and she stayed for 80 years.”

Although consisting of only 20 paintings, “Faces and Secrets” presents a wide array of styles and emotions. Says Rubin, “It’s a small exhibition, but it is paintings ‘netto.’ There’s no politics or theorizing, just good paintings. And it shows Reuven Rubin’s range of styles, from academic through expressionistic through symbolic and naïve. All together, it is a very photogenic show."

“Faces and Secrets” is on display until February 15 at the Rubin Museum, 14 Bialik Street, Tel Aviv. For further information call (03) 525-5961 or visit www.rubinmuseum.org.il.