Reuven Rubin, ‘Palestine’s Gauguin’, 100 years on

Featuring rural farmlands in the Galilee, vistas of Jerusalem's Old City and Tel Aviv's burgeoning modernity, Rubin's 1924 exhibition at Jerusalem's Tower of David Citadel was much more than the oft-cited 'first modern art exhibition in Israel.'

In March 1924, the Jewish-Romanian painter Reuven Rubin (1893-1974) held his first solo exhibition at the Tower of David Citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem. Much has been said in the literature on Jewish art concerning the importance of this exhibition in situating Rubin as the doyen of a modernist tradition in Israeli art. Looking back one hundred years, however, the event is worth revisiting for how it marked a turning point in the artist’s life and the Jewish art of Eretz Yisrael.


Plagued by melancholy and solitude as a struggling artist in Europe, Rubin’s move to Mandate Palestine at the age of thirty in 1923, and the success of his solo exhibition the following year, caused the “grey clouds of Europe” to disappear, in his words, and instilled new purpose into his life and work. The works displayed in Jerusalem — the result of months traveling the country to capture the authenticity of the land and its people on canvas — gave evidence through their vibrant colors and jovial motifs to his new perspective on life. The paintings were equally received by the Yishuv as artistic expressions of the Zionist enterprise, fostering a spirit of collective identity for the Jewish nation-in-the-making. A quarter-century on, with the State of Israel established, Rubin’s innovative modernism and thematic motifs from that period still resonated in the collective consciousness as emblems of national identity.


When Rubin (who was born Riven Zelicovici, but would later combine the Hebrew and Latin variants of his first name as the pseudonym “Reuven Rubin”) arrived in Mandate Palestine in the spring of 1923, artists, architects and poets were battling on the cultural front over what form of art and visual culture would represent the New Hebrew in the homeland. Several decades prior, the Lithuanian immigrant Boris Schatz had arrived in Ottoman Jerusalem to establish the Bezalel Arts and Crafts School for this very reason. In the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement sweeping across Europe and America in the late nineteenth century, Schatz’s enterprise harnessed decorative arts and handicrafts as a visual expression of Jewish rebirth in the Holy Land. By the beginning of the 1920s, however, Jerusalem — the cultural and political capital of the new British mandate — was gripped by what historians call the “first cultural strife” in Jewish-Israeli art. Schatz’s workshops now had to compete with a wave of new immigrants freshly indoctrinated by the avant-garde of Paris, Vienna, and New York.


Rubin had spent 1911-12 at the Bezalel School in Jerusalem. Having grown up in Galatz, Romania — a departure port for Jaffa and headquarters of the Romanian Zionist branch — Rubin’s childhood had been filled with tales of the Jewish homeland from visiting Zionist emissaries, and with books such as Abraham Mapu’s The Love of Zion that his father would read aloud on Friday nights. But having finally arrived in Jerusalem, he found himself “disenchanted” with the “sleepy, backwater, almost medieval, Turkish town,” as he recalled in his memoirs; he was even more disheartened when put to task in the Bezalel workshops making decorative trinkets and tourist souvenirs, as was the focus of the school in those days. After a year he left for Paris, studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts until the outbreak of WWI forced him back home.


Life turned dismal in wartime Romania. Working various factory jobs, Rubin withdrew from the world, keeping the flicker in his soul alive by painting, writing poetry, and reading. His canvases, such as The Temptation in the Desert (1920), took on a dreamlike and melancholic aura. A false glimmer of hope came in 1921, when Rubin set off with fellow artist Arthur Kolnik for greener pastures in New York City. They were befriended by none other than the American photographer and art patron Alfred Stieglitz, who managed to organize a joint exhibition of their work at the famous Anderson Gallery—an exhibition which Rubin described as more of a social event than an art exhibition. His nine-month stint in the city was overshadowed by “a feeling of dread” and “haunted by a feeling of time wasted.” The only saving grace was his discovery of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their works “injected new life into my veins,” Rubin recalled, and “made me feel that I would find my way out of the dead end at which I have arrived.”


The post-Impressionists may have reinvigorated his artistic spirit, but there was still a void in his sense of belonging. From New York, he headed to Bucharest for a year before finally boarding a steamship full of Russian pioneers in Galatz to try his chances once more in Palestine. “I can recall arriving in Jaffa on the first day and seeing the orchards and the sand and the sea and so on, and it was as if I had returned home,” Rubin recalled in his memoir. He headed straight to Jerusalem at a time when cultural strife divided the Holy City’s art scene. New immigrants self-labeled as “modernists” had banded together as the Union of Hebrew Artists (UHA) to claim artistic primacy and declare war on the traditional Arts and Crafts methods of the Bezalel School.


The Tower of David Citadel — an ancient Hasmonaean fortress, still standing today at Jaffa Gate — had been converted into an exhibition venue and became the staging ground for these two camps to compete with their latest works. Rubin joined the ranks of Joseph Zaritzky, Israel Paldi, Nahum Gutman, and other modernists, all eager to splash the walls of the ancient Citadel with Fauvist color and post-Impressionist and Cubist forms in the face of Bezalel’s decadent Art Nouveau and Judaica ornament from past decades. One writer for the daily paper Doar Hayom described the days before any new exhibition as a trail of artists carrying canvases from their city center studios to the Tower of David like a scene from the Left Bank of Paris, where students and professors would carry their work to the Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.


Rubin then set out cross-country, easel and brush in hand, to capture the authenticity of the land and its people in a fresh artistic language. He wrote of this sojourn in his diary:


I live with simple people, I walk the Galilean roads, and ride on horseback from Ir-Ganim to Tel Aviv with milkmen and farmers…The men here are simple dreamers; life is full of surprises for them; everything is new and their wide-open eyes regard the world with wonderment. I have pitched my tent on these ancient hills, and my desire is to tie together the ends of the thread that history has broken.


He returned to Jerusalem months later, in early 1924, with a new oeuvre. When Jerusalem Governor and arts patron Sir Ronald Storrs caught wind of his new portfolio, he proposed that Rubin hold a solo exhibition at the Tower of David.


The exhibition, Oil Paintings and Drawings from Life in Eretz Yisrael opened on March 9. It ran for three weeks until April 1, showcasing fifty-six oil paintings, nine drawings, and twelve abstract woodcuts from his earlier “God-seekers” series. His new paintings had shaken off the melancholic hues and dream-like figures, that had dominated the New York exhibition, seeking now to capture the authenticity of Eretz Yisrael in vibrant colors and relevant motifs.


Balfour Street (1924).

Rural farmlands in Galilee, for example, were cloaked in sun-bleached colors that highlighted its lush vegetation. Cityscapes of Jerusalem captured vistas of the Old City with its limestone walls and rolling hills while, in contrast, paintingsof Tel Aviv such as Balfour Street (1924) invited the viewer to the street level, to witness life unfolding amidst electrical wires, water towers, and other signs of burgeoning modernity. Farmers and merchants, women and children, turbaned Arabs, pale Ashkenazim such as The Red Bearded Jew (1924), and bronze Mizrachim were all portrayed as going about their daily business with a sense of peace and contentment.


One reporter from Doar Hayom pointed out Rubin’s “simple lines, clear colors, [and] distinct forms” as expressions of the artist’s “understanding of the truth, [and] a love of the world and its longings.” Another critic dubbed Rubin “Palestine’s Gauguin,” comparing Rubin’s primitive simplicity to that of the French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, who broke away from the sophistications of Western civilization and traveled as far as Tahiti in 1891 in search of a redeeming primitive culture on which to base his art. “In similar fashion [to Gauguin], though with deeper spiritual emphasis,” the critic recalled, “Rubin may be regarded as the artistic interpreter of Palestinian life.”


The exhibition opened to an estimated four hundred visitors, an eclectic mix of religious and secular Jews, Arabs, and British patrons. Ten days later, The Palestine Weekly reported that visitors were “still coming in a steady stream.” Rubin recalled a sheik from Bethlehem who visited twice, thinking that the exhibition was a gathering place for the aristocracy, and hoping to find a suitable husband for his beautiful daughter. According to Haaretz, a group of five Orthodox Jews from the Old City “did not have enough money to buy tickets for all of them…So they cast lots and the winner collected a piaster from each and then entered the Tower of David.” In her biography of Rubin, Sarah Wilkinson noted that the exhibition was all the chatter at cafes from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.


The exhibition’s moral and material success (Rubin sold five paintings for 85 pounds), together with finding his sense of belonging in Eretz Yisrael, marked a lasting turning point in the artist’s life. “Here, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in Haifa and Tiberias, I feel myself reborn,” Rubin wrote of his experiences traveling the country. “Here, life and nature are mine; the grey clouds of Europe have disappeared…As the desert revives and blooms under the hands of the pioneers, so do I feel awakening in me all my latent energies.”


Although he continued to live in poverty, his friends described him as “intoxicated with creativity.” They would often see him walking the streets “swinging a cane and always with a flower in the lapel of his jacket, clearly a man at peace with the world” — a sharp contrast to the way he would try to walk unnoticed in the streets of Paris and New York, for fear that his tall and lanky body, thick and curly hair, and aquiline nose might draw attention to himself as a foreigner—or worse, as a Jew.


First Fruits (1923). Source: Wikimedia

The exhibition also marked a turning point in modern Jewish art. The regional motifs told through Rubin’s signature modernist language contributed to the reception of his work as a new interpretation of Hebrew nationalism; and, in doing so, marked a decisive “win” for the modernists over the decorative Judaica of Bezalel in the battle for artistic primacy. “Rubin…has proven to us that one can be a Hebrew artist without painting the Mount of Olives or the Western Wall and be precisely purely Hebraic with all the mysticism and godliness of the Kabbalists,” noted one critic. There was talk in the Zionist organization of purchasing his seminal triptych, First Fruits (1923), for the National Library, and additional rumors spread of commissioning Rubin for murals at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.


But Rubin’s interpretation of authentic life in Mandate Palestine was also grounded in the controversial debate over peaceful Jewish and Arab coexistence. The portrayal of Arabs in Jewish art in Eretz Yisrael emerged as a major theme: one that, according to historian Yigal Zalmona, represented “a kind of ideological juncture at which the Bezalel artists and the modernists parted ways.” Whereas Bezalel maintained a romantic view of their Arab neighbors — biblical heroes merely dressed in local drab — the modernists presented local Arabs authentically as themselves and viewed them as symbols of vitality, passion, and belonging. In capturing Arabs as rooted and permanent in the land, Rubin venerated them as figures worthy of Jewish aspiration.


Arabian cafe (1923).

The Pinwheel Vendor (1923), for example, shows a Jewish pioneer trailing pack mules off to work while gazing longingly over his shoulder at the seated Arab merchant in the foreground. While a budding city clutters the horizon, signs of an emerging homeland-in-the-making, the pioneer’s eyes remain fixed on the firmly planted Arab as an established and venerated symbol. In The Arabian Café (1923), three Arab men leisurely puff on argilehs as music whistles from the gramophone, sleeping goats snore at their feet, the city of Jaffa unfolding in the background. One critic for The Palestine Weekly, after viewing this painting at the Tower of David, described the scene as having an “air of leisurely abstraction and obvious content with the world.” The same air of leisure and contentment can be seen in the Arab Barber at Jaffa Gate (1924), as two Arab residents of the Old City, perhaps old friends, pass the time over conversation and a weekly shave. The tranquility of the scene, highlighted by hanging plants, birdcages, and the local mule passing by for a handout, all point to its aura of rooted permanence.


Through this overt imagery and reverence, Rubin gave visual expression to the often-overlooked Zionist ethos that Jews and Arabs could coexist in the Land of Israel and should coexist as vital elements of the societal landscape. If his paintings weren’t clear enough, Rubin further attested to this belief in his design for the exhibition invitations and posters: “Printed in the three official languages of English, Hebrew and Arabic…I was elated by the thought that I was pioneering good relations between the three peoples through the sacred power of art.” This utopian aspiration crumbled however five years later with the August 1929 Arab riots that broke out in Jerusalem and spread to Hebron and throughout the country, resulting in the massacres of Jews. When the dust settled, opinions and trust between Jews, Arabs, and the British were forever fractured, and depictions of Arabs ceased to be revered in Jewish-Israeli art.


There’s no better time than a centennial to reflect on an artist’s life and to reconsider his most significant achievements. Upon arriving in Mandate Palestine, Rubin’s decision to filter everyday experiences and interpret his surroundings through the sun-bleached colors of joy and beauty, even while living with past failures and continual poverty, is a timeless lesson in perseverance that we could all learn from. Furthermore, his 1924 Jerusalem exhibition was more than just the “first modern art exhibition in Israel,” as often considered by historians, but possibly the greatest artistic expression of modern Hebraic values and reverence for a homeland—an artistic statement yet to be surpassed. Rubin’s paintings preserve an interpretation of life in the Land of Israel worthy of aspiration and praise even a century later: a utopian amalgamation of rural and urban landscapes, modernity and tradition, labor and leisure, and peaceful coexistence, not just between Jews and Arabs but also locals and immigrants.

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