Sotheby’s recent annual auction of Israeli art was given an extra dimension this year with a large selection from the Phoenix Insurance Company, Ltd.’s collection – one of the largest, most comprehensive collections of Israeli art in the world, spanning from the founding of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 1906 through to the present day. The selection at Sotheby’s did not include this entire range. It was limited to smaller, more accessible works (there were no purely conceptual works, for example), and contained almost no sculpture, with the notable exception of Israel Prize-winner Danziger’s brass Chariot.
Nonetheless, it still provided an unusually wide scope to the exhibition. The show spanned from the pre-state Eretz Yisraeli period to work by contemporary young photographers, such as Tomer Ganihar and Pavel Wolberg, providing a concentrated snap shot of Israeli art history. Included were a group of figurative works portraying early life in pre-state Israel by leading artists such as Nachum Gutman, Yisrael Paldi, Menachem Shemi and Chaim Gliksberg; landmark works by the founders of the modern Israeli lyrical abstract school, Josef Zaritsky, Yehezkel Streichman and Avigdor Stematsky; works by the most influential artists of the 1960s such as Arieh Aroch, Aviva Uri and Raffi Lavie; and contemporary pieces by artist from the 1970s to present day, such as Ori Reisman, Moshe Kupferman, Moshe Gershuni, David Reeb, Ofer Lellouche and Avigdor Arikha.
This comprehensive context gave a different cast to the entire exhibition, even to works that were not from the Phoenix collection. Thus, the historical placement made it was possible to see anew ubiquitous, familiar artists, such as the ever-popular Rubin. Indeed, the contrast between the two temporal bookends of the exhibition – the Eretz Yisraeli period works on the one hand and the contemporary photographs on the other, lent poignancy to the early, pre-states pieces.
Lot 14 – Property from a Private CollectionReuven RubinSafed in GalileePainted in 1927. Est. $200/300,000. Sold for $410,500
One was immediately struck by the predominance of landscape paintings in these earlier works. Repeated and varied images of Jerusalem, Safed, the Galilee, Judean hills and infant Tel Aviv, make palpable the commitment of the artists of the Second and Third Aliyah to finding their identity through re-rooting themselves in the soil. Indeed, Reuvin Rubin’s luminous 1929 “Safed in Galilee,” painted a few years after his return from his studies in Paris, can serve as a visual manifesto of the Third Aliyah’s youthful idealism: Safed is seen from afar, with two roads converging into it. Silver olive trees and tidy rows of Jerusalem stone buildings accentuate the view, which is comprised of simplified and clearly demarcated strips of harmonious color, leading to the almost painfully clean cerulean of the sea, nestled between the soft curves and slopes of the Galillee. Upon his return from Paris, Rubin declared that “Here in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Tiberias, I feel myself reborn. Only here do I feel that life and nature are mine. The gray clouds of Europe have disappeared. My suffering and the war too are ended. All is sunshine, clear light and happy creative work. As the desert revives and blooms under the hands of the pioneers, so do I feel awakening in me all the latent energies.”
This painting pulses with these feelings. Though Rubin was highly influenced by Cezanne and the avant guard art in Paris, there is little of that to be seen in this painting, which is deliberately na?ve, almost childlike, the houses represented in clean, flat white squares, the goats in almost a simple silhouette, the colors sharp and clear. If there is a European influence here, it is that of Henri Rousseau. While Rubin’s later olive trees can at times feel almost mechanical, like a trade mark, this painting has all the freshness and excitement of a first encounter
The sense of encounter dominates even his later works in the show, where he moves away from landscapes, such as the 1964 ” Pomegranates – Open Window,” where the landscape is a generalized spot of green. The painting, which shows the influence of Matisse, is a vibrant composition in red, green and violet. The forms are flattened and decorative, indicated only by slight shifts of hue and the rhythmic scratching that demarcate the surface of the table. But when the artist reaches the pomegranate – one of the seven archetypal species of Israel – the paint becomes thick, the forms rounded, and the fleshy fruit pops forward, firmly itself, each pip demarcated. This is connection to the land in another form.
Lot 3 – Property Sold for the Benefit of the Israel MuseumReuven RubinPomegranates – Open WindowPainted in 1964. Est. $70/90,000. Sold for $116,500
Stylistically different, but driven by the same idealism, are Anna Ticho’s sensitive pencil and charcoal drawings (which surprisingly did not sell). The questing, tentative lines of her “Landscape” are an attempt to come into contact with the barren Judean hills with the tip of her pencil. Once can almost sense her line skimming over the bare outlines of the stones, the scattered shrubs and stunted bush, leaving the vast empty tracts as negative space. Her understated “Burning Bush” further attests to the desire to find spirituality within a direct contact with the land.
The gradual turn away from landscape can almost be seen as a visual symbol of the diminishment of the Zionist dream. Indeed, in this context, contemporary photographer Pavel Wolberg’s two untitled landscape photographs become even more somber. The contrast between the rich varied surfaces of the paintings and drawings to the thin photographic veneer give a sense of attenuated presence. What is more, the bleak cityscape, with its elongated composition and forbidding red skies, can be any desolate urban street. It is its lack of specificity that is the point. Rather than seeking connection, these are images of alienation.
Wolberg’s work as a documentary, journalistic photographer is present in the background of these works that strive towards objective observation rather than passionate engagement. It is ironically appropriate that these images of an alienated city are brought by the same eye that gave Israel some of its most disturbing images of a society at war with itself: the famous photos of the clashes between soldiers and settler youth in Amona. Thus, the broadness of the exhibition’s spectrum inadvertently provided not only an overview of Israeli art, but also a profound glimpse into Israeli history. Combined, these images act as a powerful emblem of a culture in crisis.