Sat 1 Apr 2017
A visit today at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was the occasion to see the very interesting exhibition ‘Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art’. I do not plan to write about the whole exhibition which could have been titled differently, as there are enough works of non-Israeli Jewish artists (presented as background) – maybe on another occasion. One of the revelations was meeting one period of the work of Reuven Rubin which had close relation with the Biblical text including the New Testament and the story of Jesus.
The period we are dealing with is the one between the years 1921 and 1923. Romania-born Rubin had studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem between 1912 and 1913, and then in France, but returned to Romania during the WWI years. In 1921 he traveled to New York together with his friend Artur Kolnik, where they met Alfred Stieglitz who organized an exhibition of their works. That was a period of self discovery which ended with the decision to emigrate to Palestine and start a new life in the Jewish Home in building. The Biblical connection of the Jewish people with the history and Land of Israel was part of this spiritual process, which was combined with the Christian connotations, as Rubin was very familiar with the New Testament stories and symbols from the country of his birth. The self-portrait above which has as a second title ‘My first Day in New York’ represents the tormented Rubin in an almost Christ posture, taking upon him not only his personal doubts but the sufferings of all mankind.
‘Temptation in the Desert’ takes the Jesus identification one step further, representing the fight of the artist with his own personal daemons and the desire to focus on his art as a way of transcending. It’s a daring metaphor for a Jewish artist, and Rubin is among the first to walk the path of acknowledging the Jewish fate and identity of Jesus (more followed later in the 20th century), which was kind of a taboo in the Jewish tradition.
The dialog between the fate of the Jewish people and the Christian Messiah is almost explicit in the 1922 work ‘The Encounter (Jesus and the Jew)’ probably painted in Romania, while Rubin was preparing his departure to Palestine. A suffering Jesus sits on a bank near a religious Jew who covers his face. Maybe he is deploring his fate, maybe he does not want to acknowledge the presence of the ‘false Messiah’ (in the Jewish tradition). The landscape behind them is from Eretz Israel, one of the first works were the new Zionist landscape show up in Rubin’s works – they will become a major theme later.
From the same period dates ‘Jesus and the Last Apostle’. It is Jesus’ face which is covered here, and he seems to ask pardon from the Last Apostle, whose figure is the one of priest and writer Gala Galaction, a pro-Jewish personality in the period in Romania, who tried to face nationalist and antisemitism and promoted reconciliation.
The Zionist dream of returning to the sources in Eretz Israel is also present in ‘The Madonna of the Vagabonds’ using again a New Testament metaphor. The Vagabonds are wandering Jews coming back to the land of their ancestors, now resting in deep sleep around a woman (mother Mary?). The lake behind with its fishermen boats is the Lake of Galilee where Jesus walked, preached and performed some of his miracles.
The last two works belong to the first year after Rubin arrived for good in Palestine. The self-portrait dated 1923 is already using colors from the new palette that Rubin starts using in the new country to represent the landscape and atmosphere of the Land of Israel. His attitude is much more serene and determined compared to the one of the 1921 self-portrait. Elements from the Christian iconography are however present here as well, for example the glass containing the white lily often present in Annunciation representations. Paired with the brushes he holds in his other hand they talk about the mission of the artist to build a new world (and new art) in the Land of the Bible.
The last work here also dated 1923 is part of a cycle of prints ‘The God-seekers’ and represents ‘The Prophet in the Desert’. It’s one of the last works (that I am aware about) with strong and explicit Biblical connotations. Rubin will become in the coming decades one of the leading artists of Jewish Palestine and then of Israel, and a legendary presence in the Tel Aviv bohemian life. He will return to Romania in 1948 as the first diplomatic envoy of the new-born State of Israel.