An Israeli icon’s early years
Reuven Rubin achieved his fame as one of the first leading Zionist artists, but now an exhibition in The Israel Museum unveils the Israeli icon’s hitherto unknown early phase.
“Prophets and Visionaries: Reuven Rubin’s Early Years: 1914-23,” on display at the museum in Jerusalem through the end of June, offers viewers an unprecedented opportunity to study works from the hitherto largely unexplored early years of the Israeli artist. The exhibition illuminates the early work of Rubin (1893-1974), the period from 1914, when he lived and worked in Romania and was strongly influenced by the iconography rampant in his Christian surroundings, through his very first works in Palestine in 1923. “Prophets and Visionaries” features some 50 works, a number on display for the first time.
“Although much is known about the art that Rubin created in the Land of Israel after his immigration in 1923,” said Israel Museum director James Snyder, “little attention has been paid to the nine-year period beginning in 1914, during which he worked primarily in his native country of Romania. “This exhibition showcases Rubin’s early and previously unknown artistic achievements as powerful works in their own right, presenting the young Rubin as a complex modern artist who treated his subjects with originality and audacity.”
“Culminating five years of research, this exhibition and accompanying catalogue permit the public to discover a body of work that has never before been assembled for public view,” said curator Amitai Mendelsohn.
(The focus on Rubin is not limited to Jerusalem; concurrent with the Israel Museum exhibition, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is presenting “Dream Land: Reuven Rubin and the Encounter with the Land of Israel in His Paintings of the 1920s and 1930s.”)
The works on display at The Israel Museum highlight the artist’s transition from the work completed in the Diaspora to his Zionist phase after he moved to Israel. The early period was marked by a concern with religious experiences of a profoundly personal nature. In Romania, Rubin was heavily influenced by the Christian iconography rampant in his surroundings. He often depicted figures with stigmata and even the images of Jesus and the Madonna appear alongside prophets and ascetics. At the same time, some of these early works portray the intense experience of a young artist struggling to establish himself artistically and spiritually in a world torn apart. At that time, millions of Jews from Eastern Europe were on the move, migrating to the West and the New World. It is germane that encoded in the Christian symbols he depicts is a deep longing for Zionism and the Land of Israel.
Symbol of sacrifice
For example, according to Mendelsohn, in the painting The Madonna of the Vagabonds, Mary, seated on the ground and surrounded by green saplings, symbolizes renewal, her bare breast indicating fertility; the infant Jesus whose birth in Christian thought symbolizes salvation and the beginning of a new epoch in the history of humanity here symbolizes the “new Jew reborn in his homeland.” The Jew Rubin thus uses Christian iconography to convey his own Zionist yearnings.
In the painting Elijah and the False Prophets, Rubin again employs Christian icons to portray Jewish subjects, replacing the bull that figures in the Jewish narrative of Elijah with a lamb. Although an important symbol of sacrifice in Jewish narrative, the lamb’s presence in Elijah and the False Prophets is better explained as a reference to Jesus the “lamb of God” whose sacrifice was understood to redeem humanity’s sins and bring about universal salvation.
Despite the Christian signs Rubin frequently worked into his early works and his use of Christian representational images to express the suffering he felt as a struggling artist, it was clear he never intended to convert to Christianity. He always remained a true Jewish and Zionist artist.
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