The man who painted early Israel


The work of a painter who chronicled Israel’s early years in vivid colour is to be exhibited in London next week for the first time in a generation.

To mark 120 years since the painter dubbed the “Gauguin of Palestine” was born to a poor Chasidic family in Romania, 15 pieces of Reuven Rubin’s art are to go on show at Christie’s.

His daughter-in-law Carmela, curator of the 30-year-old Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv, said that nearly four decades after the artist’s death, there was still great interest in his work, with pieces fetching as much as half a million dollars.

But with a large proportion of his work held in private collections, the exhibition marks the first time since 1990, when his work formed part of the Barbican’s Chagall to Kitaj show, that British art lovers have been able to see a wide range of Rubin paintings.

One of Mrs Rubin’s hopes is that a London display will shed light on a 90-year-old mystery — the whereabouts of three of Rubin’s oil paintings. “They were last known to be in England and we have no clue where they are,” said Mrs Rubin. “Now maybe people will start looking.”

In fact, the locations of around 200 of his paintings remain unknown. Rubin, who went to Ottoman Palestine to study art at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy in 1912, was an established figure of the post-First World War art scene, with exhibitions in London, Paris and Frankfurt. Such was his reputation that his first New York show was organised by influential photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

He settled in Mandate Palestine in 1922, even serving as Israel’s ambassador to Romania after independence. He became the first artist to stage solo shows in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and designed scenery for the Habima Theatre.

‘There are some significant paintings,” said Mrs Rubin. She is currently working on a book telling the stories behind the pictures. “His story really is Israel’s, he came here, he witnessed the establishment of the state.”

Mrs Rubin is delighted to introduce a new generation to her father-in-law’s work. “He was a pioneer, not only documenting life in Palestine but also in showing his art to the Jewish diaspora. This is what he wanted, to share his narrative.”

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