Young Reuven Zelicovici 1893 - 1974 was born in Galati (in the east of Romania) and spent his childhood and adolescence in Falticeni (in Bukovina in the north of Romania). The family may have been poor, but they certainly had a horse and cart. Thus the lad was able to travel around. He was exposed to 15th and C16th art in the local monasteries and via the icons in the Bucharest Museum. Inspired by the frescoes, which were on the outside of the Bukovina churches as well as inside, Zelicovici adopted a didactic style himself.
Sucevita Monastery, exterior frescoes, Romania
Falticeni was the place where people thought that Zelicovici used the brush with a "godly grace". Yet it was a city with a small population, so I wonder why Falticeni seemed to have attracted a number of national or international celebrities, who were either born or who settled there: writers, theatre artists, painters and scientists. Did Reuven Zelicovici dream of being famous, as he might have been in the more important cities of Bucharest or Iassy?
On leaving Romania in 1912, Zelicovici changed his name to Rubin and studied briefly at Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem. Then he moved for some years to Paris, studying at Ecole des Beaux Arts and Academie Colarossi. Plus he visited Italy. Some naive works from that era survive eg Houses of Tel Aviv 1912 which is in the Israel Museum. In 1916, he returned to Falticeni, clearly missing his family and home town.
Still unsettled, Rubin went in 1920 to New York, where his work was noticed by Alfred Stieglitz. With the support of this important gallery owner, Rubin had his first one-man show at the Anderson Gallery that year, a large and successful exhibition. The painter met a young woman called Esther on the ship going back to Israel; there may have been a large age difference between them because her parents were sceptical about the union. However they married and had children, and were apparently very happy all their life.
In 1922 the Romanian-educated and French-trained Rubin finally settled in Israel and opened his Tel Aviv studio. That same year he exhibited in the first art exhibitions in Jerusalem, when he was 29. A collection of woodcuts entitled the God Seekers was published in 1923 and he painted a startling self portrait 1923. The maritime nature of his home and studio was very clear. As was his professional position in society as an artist.
Self portrait, 1923,
Israel Museum Jerusalem
His 1924 exhibit was the first one-man show in Jerusalem; his 1932 one-man show launched the Tel Aviv Art Museum. He was appointed chairman of the Association of Palestine’s Painters & Sculptors. Perhaps Rubin wasn’t at the very centre of the Bezalel movement, but he was gaining a reputation and influence as an important modern painter.
Although academically trained, Rubin's energetic depiction of a Fisherman 1922 looks naïve. It was a reflection of the artist's admiration for the hard working Arab and Jewish inhabitants of the country. Perhaps he loved their close, harmonious ties to the unspoiled world of nature, on land and sea. The bond between Arabs and Jews, and their animals, was often a motif found in Rubin's works.
Rubin continued to be enchanted with Arab and Jewish fisherman throughout the years. He depicted them on canvas spreading their nets into the waters of the Sea of Galilee, along the shores of the Mediterranean, or proudly displaying their catch with their families by their side. Goldfish Vendor late 1920s, one of his most famous, in the collection of The Jewish Museum in New York. What sets this painting apart from similar fishermen images was the single goldfish that had just been removed from the water and was flopping in the fisherman's hand. It is a typical Rubin work from the in its naïve depiction and style: the rounded forms, the flowing contours and the bright colours.
Goldfish Vendor, late 1920s,
Jewish Museum New York
His paintings from the 1920s were defined by a modern and naive style, portraying the landscape and inhabitants of Israel in quite an emotional manner. Then his style changed during the late 1920s and early 30s, from the naïve to an impressionist style. While other pre-State painters had to either earn their living as teachers, or to paint and live in poverty, Reuven Rubin was able to live entirely from his art. His paintings fetched high prices and were especially popular among wealthy American collectors. In particular there was very high demand for his landscapes paintings: The Orange Pickers, Road to Safed, the Road to Jerusalem, Tiberias and The Galilee.
Ramparts of Jerusalem, 1924,
Was Rubin specifically attempting to create an indigenous style of art? Perhaps the modernising, Israelifying tradition had always been with the early Jewish settler-artists of Israel, from the early Bezalel School in Jerusalem (founded in 1906). Certainly these young artists were eager to find a new artistic language through which their unique experience could be expressed. But eventually the young Bezalel artists rebelled against their academic teachers and went to Paris in the 1920s. Reuven Rubin was one of the most important artists who reacted against Bezalel’s classic Western orientation. Instead of 19th century Orientalism, Rubin and his colleagues drew everyday visions of the Near East in a modernistic style.
It was said that Rubin’s paintings in the 1920s-1930s era retained a naive style reminiscent of Henri Rousseau. Rousseau's innocence matched the need to return to basics, because Rubin felt his generation were exiles returning to their ancient land, rediscovering its landscape and remodelling its culture. Rubin might have incorporated Rousseau's influence but I think he was even more impressed with Cezanne.
Safed in the Galillee, 1927,
Rubin’s paintings focused on the landscape and life of Israel, but they were not fantastical. His landscape paintings in particular paid special detail to a spiritual, translucent light. It was clear that he had a great devotion to his people, his country and his religion. He may have been Romanian educated and French trained in art, but he became the distinctively Israeli artist!
Rubin put forward two of the losing designs for a national flag, just before Israel became a state in 1948. And he served as Israel's first ambassador to Romania, from 1948-1950. This was totally appropriate for the young man who had left his parents and homeland back in 1912.
Go down Bialik St in Tel Aviv to see that some of the old houses, combining European and Middle Eastern tastes, have been restored. Reuven and Esther lived here and were friendly with Jascha Haifetz, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, Edward G. Robinson, Ira Gershwin etc who dropped in on them, either in this Tel Aviv home or on their New York visits. Their Rechov Bialik home and studio has since became The Rubin Museum.
That studio is left just as it was on the day Rubin died in 1973, at the age of 81. Canvases being worked upon still lean on two easels. Everywhere pots and vases remain, filled with brushes. Mounds of hardened oil paints cover the palettes. Rubin had bequeathed his home and a selection of paintings to the city of Tel Aviv a month before his death.
Rubin’s Tel Aviv house, now a museum
This article was first written as a guest post for The Romanian Way blog.