Nahum Gutman and Reuven Rubin

Early Israeli painting 1920-1930s

Gutman and Rubin’s vision is as primitive as a child’s and evokes the rich world of fairytales. 

At the dawn of the 19th-century, waves of Jewish pioneers started arriving in Palestine.  It was years before the Holocaust, but the drive to resurrect an independent Jewish state became stronger as the pogroms in Eastern Europe intensified the necessity for a safe haven.  Upon arrival, the pioneers found a bare-land and a hard life, filled with natural obstacles, administrative and financial hurdles.  Things got much harder in the 1920s when the local Arab population became openly hostile and confrontational.   Yet, those idealistic pioneers who were filled with values of Zionism and hard work persevered and succeeded.  Their vision of an independent state became a reality.  Two prominent painters of this early Israeli history were Nahum Gutman and Reuven Rubin. 

Gutman and Rubin’s vision is as primitive as a child’s and evokes a rich world of fairytales.  Their paintings are filled with light, sunshine, and a sense of joy and innocence.  Many of the paintings from the 1920-1930s depict a panoramic landscape with scenes from the daily lives of the country’s inhabitants.  There is a sense of optimism and of belonging to the Land of Israel.  This atmosphere, some critics say, reflected the spirit of the pioneers who felt that nothing would stand in their way.

Nahum Gutman (1898 – 1980) was born in Romania, immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of 7, and settled in one of the first neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.  What the young boy saw was the white houses of Tel Aviv, the sands, the sea, and the blue sky.  He later studied at Bezalel Academy of Arts, then after WWI, studied painting in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris.  In 1926, he returned to Israel and began painting the white houses of Tel Aviv, producing hundreds of paintings and drawings of his adopted city.  Gutman, it is important to note, was not only a painter but also a writer (like his father before him), and his paintings often have a narrative character. He has written and illustrated several children’s books.

In three paintings from 1926, “Lunch Rest,” “The Carrier of the Wheat,” and “Goat Shepherd,” Gutman depicted local Arabs at work or rest.  The influence of both French primitive-naive and Expressionist styles is evident in the distorted shapes, sharp contrasts of color, and simplicity of composition.  The characters are two-dimensional.  All three paintings describe a solid connection to the geography and the soil.  The bodies are not soft or passive but sturdy and self-confident. 

I have read all kinds of critiques about the meaning of the strong Arab figures in Gutman’s paintings.  Some suggest they evoke biblical figures of the past with a strong connection to the land.  Others suggest that the depiction of the Arab’s physical strength, which runs counter to the stereotype of the slain and helpless diasporic Jew, was a model by which the new Jewish women and men would be formed.  I think Nahum Gutman painted the land he saw through the spirit of his personality and the beauty and colors that excited his eyes.

Reuven Rubin (1893-1974) was born in Romania, immigrated to Israel at the age of 19, and studied art at Bezalel in Jerusalem.  Finding himself at odds with the artistic views of the Academy’s teachers, he left for Paris where he became acquainted with the great artists of the Louvre Museum and met with the painters of that time – Chagall, Modigliani, Matisse, and Picasso.  In 1922, Rubin returned to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv, where he painted for the rest of his life.  Rubin described himself as a combination of an artist and a pioneer; painting for him was an act of love to the land and its people. 

A word about the Bezalel Academy of Arts, a breakthrough institution in the history of Israeli modern art.  The Academy was founded in 1906 by the artist Boris Schatz.  It introduced traditional European methods and styles of art to the Mediterranean land of Palestine, where such institutions for fine arts never existed before.  The Academy’s art and teaching style was heavily influenced by European trends of the time, often resembling Art Nouveau and other decorative styles of the 1890s.  Two artists representing this style were: Ze’ev Raban and Ephraim Moses Lilien.  This approach did not sit well with the spirit of many of Bezalel student-artists who sought a new style of art, one that was distinct ‘Israeli,’ one that they felt related to their new lives in the new land.  Thus, many of them left, and the school closed in 1929.  It re-opened in 1935 and became the prestigious art institute that it is to this day.  This was the first art revolt in the Israeli art canon, and it won’t be the last one.

Shortly upon his return to Israel, Rubin painted “Tel Aviv.”  This painting shows Tel Aviv’s first houses and tents on bright white sand-dunes with the sea on the horizon.  It’s a modern style of painting.  What stands out in this work are the clean, bright, and bold color surfaces.  The houses have no scaling element, which makes them look naive and child-like.  The horizon is so high that it seems as if the whole landscape is rising.

In another painting from 1922, “Self Portrait with Flower,” Rubin reveals his character and self-image to me as a spiritual man.  He sits in a white suit; behind him are the golden sands of Tel Aviv; in one hand, he holds brushes like a bouquet of flowers, and in the other, glass with a lily of the rose.  His face and body are extended similar to the extension found in El Greco’s and Modigliani’s paintings.  The lily has many meanings in art history: the six petals relate to the Star of David; in the Christian culture, the flower symbolizes purity and virginity.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is widely depicted with the flower beside her.  Perhaps Rubin associated the flower with the virginity and innocence of Tel Aviv.  Or maybe the flower symbolizes the Israeli paradise – the reality in the country in those days was difficult, and it was hidden behind the vegetation, trees, and flowers to create a utopian, stylish being.

Other notable Israeli painters of this period were: Sionah Tagger, Israel Paldi, Pinchas Litvinovsky, and Anna Ticho.

One may ask why did you include photos of your mother in this gallery?  To which I will say: It’s all starts with the mother.

May 2020