The brushstrokes of Nachum Gutman reflect and reveal Tel Aviv’s rich and colourful journey from sleepy city to the ‘city that never sleeps’.
By David E. Kaplan
The art of Nachum Gutman is a colourful and vibrant roadmap into the past. It offers a visual narrative of days gone; but also an understanding of where we are today. If we marvel at the creativity and unpredictability of Tel Aviv today, explore the art of this great artist to best understand this great city.
Located in Neve Tzedek – the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the ancient port of Jaffa – the location and setting of the Nachum Gutman Museum could not be more idyllic. Perched on the east end of the narrow cobbled Rokah Street, with its quaint old, restored homes and lined with trees, the area exudes the ambiance of an artist colony.
In this aesthetic locale, the Nachum Gutman Museum is at home. Comprised of two buildings, the main one houses Gutman’s permanent collection called Beit Hasofrim (Writer’s House). Built in 1887, “It was one of the first buildings in Neve Tzedek and is the oldest in the neighborhood,” says Monica Lavi, the Director and Chief Curator of the Nachum Gutman Museum, whom I met in the foyer of the site.
“In the early years, Tel Aviv’s intellectuals favoured this new neighborhood,” says Lavi, “and Writers House acquired its name due to the impressive number of famous writers who lived here and gathered for literary meetings and discussions.” Such literary luminaries included the famed Jewish poet Hayim Bialik, S. Y. Agnon, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joesph Aharonovitz, Dvora Baron, and Nachum Gutman’s father, a renowned Hebrew writer and educator who wrote under the pen name S. Ben Zion. The Gutmans too lived in this neighbourhood, “so Nachum grew up here, absorbing as a child the local lifestyle and intellectual culture of a young city on the move.”
Between the years 1907 and 1914, the museum was home to the weekly newspaper, Hapoel Hatzair (The Young Worker), founded by A.D. Gordon, Yosef Ahronowitz, and Yosef Sprinzak, that followed a Zionist socialist agenda and sought to establish a Jewish foothold in Palestine through personal labour in agriculture. “These pioneering idealists,” says Lavi, “were active from 1905 until 1930. So, as you can see, this building was an intellectual powerhouse, a natural home for the art and writings of Nachum Gutman whose art captured all the trends that were shaping the emerging nation.”
We learn how intimate Gutman was to the historical sources from his contribution to the ‘Book of Tel Aviv’, which the Tel Aviv municipality commissioned his father, S. Ben-Zion, to write in honor of the city’s 25th anniversary. “Sometime after he began to work, S. Ben-Zion died,” says Lavi, “and the editing work was completed in 1936 by editor and translator A. Druyanov. Gutman produced eleven illustrations for the book, one of which was his father sitting and writing at night.”
As I reflect on Gutman’s father “sitting and writing at night”, I think of the lights of Tel Aviv’s commercial skyscrapers – separated by a century – indicating the young and the ambitious, working well into the night.
After all, Tel Aviv is now known as the “City that never sleeps.”
The first work that greets the viewer is a large colourful painting of Tel Aviv. A juxtaposition of images, it captures its iconic architecture, its outdoors way of life and that it’s a coastal city. With the sea in the background and ships coming in to dock – this was still the age when the docks at Tel Aviv still operated – one can identify Allenby Street as it reaches the seashore. We see outdoor cafés with people sitting around tables on the sidewalks, chatting, reading and watching the passing show. This is quintessential Tel Aviv – a vibrant city with people on the move. In this sense, little has changed. Gutman captured the essence and spirit of a city that stands the test of time.
I gravitated to a nearby computer screen where I waded through a most colourful compilation of Gutman’s paintings of Tel Aviv. All bright and expressive – the streets were bustling with honking cars, horse and donkey drawn carts, people standing around and talking in the middle of the streets ignoring the traffic. There were the residents of apartment blocks sitting sunbathing on rooftops reading newspapers, and in the distance in many of these paintings, one can see the port of Jaffa. The contrast from old and new Tel Aviv was startling. Relatively high-rise buildings in the foreground of a modern 1920s Tel Aviv with ancient minarets in old Jaffa in the far off background, convey the trajectory of a journey from the past to the future. Israel was changing and Gutman captured this transition in animation and vivid colours.
Moving to a mock up of the artist’s studio with his original chair and upright easel, one’s eyes gravitate to a huge black and white photograph of the artist sitting on the same chair, hard at work painting on a large canvass on the same easel now on display. The alignment of props and photographs is such, that one ‘feel’s the artist’s physical presence as well as his close feelings towards his family: on the wall is a painting of his wife Dora, one of many on exhibit.
The writer then moved along a wall mostly taken up with oil paintings of Gutman’s only son Hemi sitting on his mother Dora’s lap. Preceding these is a self-portrait of the artist with Dora sitting on his lap as if a pleasing portend of what was to follow – son Hemi. In each painting, ‘baby Hemi’ is dressed in a different baby outfit as is his mother – the affection between mother and son is so emotively evident.
Clearly, the artist was expressing himself as a loving family man. This sense was reinforced when curator Lavi explained some background to understating these paintings: “Nachum was twelve when his mother died and his father took another wife and left. Nachum was left with his grandparents who raised him so when he became a family man, he painted over and over again his wife and child, as if to show that he was the father that his own father was not.” The titles speak for themselves:
‘Dora, Hemi and a toy’, ‘Dora with Hemi on her lap’, ‘Sleeping baby (Hemi)’ and so on.
“He wanted to show through his art,” said Lavi that “he was a loving husband and father, and that the family was united.”
Ascending the stairwell between landings in the museum, I notice a large Gutman self-portrait standing before his easel but looking back over his shoulder, towards the viewer. It’s a powerful painting, all the more so when one understands that the artist was constantly in a retrospective mode. He was painting not so much what he was seeing in the present but what he remembered of the past.
“It is easy to forget that Gutman was only 11 years old when Tel Aviv was founded,” says Lavi. “Apart from one immature drawing, we have no childhood sketches by Gutman depicting the city. Even in that single sketch we see the houses in a built up street and not virgin sands. The Ahuzat Bayit and Tel Aviv that we know from his paintings and stories are all from memory, from his knowledge and historical materials. They were painted when he was in his thirties, decades after the city was established.” For this reason, explains Lavi, “when we tried to organize his body of work chronologically, we discovered that it was hard to arrange along a timeline. What we had believed to be an early work was actually a later one. His own adventures, together with historical events were written many years later and were based on written sources, and what seems as if it might have been painted as an observer at the time of an event, was actually painted from memory.”
Out of Africa
There were once few children in Israel unfamiliar with Nachum Gutman’s illustrated book ‘Lobengulu, King of the Zulu’. It was written during his visit to South Africa in 1934 when he was sent by the Municipality of Tel Aviv to paint a portrait of General Jan Smuts, who would later emerge as that country’s Prime Minister and a great supporter for a Jewish national homeland. The book in Hebrew was serialised in 1935-6 and became a children’s bestseller. Apart from the many prizes Gutman won for both art and literature – for over 30 years he was also the illustrator for the ‘Davar for Children’ newspaper – he was awarded in 1978 the country’s most prestigious civilian award, the Israel Prize for children’s literature.
In the museum there is a room dedicated to Lobengulu King of the Zulu, which is an adventure story, written in the first person, of the author and his friends searching for the treasure of the Zulu king. While they fail to discover treasure, the author does discover in his first of many books, something far more enriching – the ability to reach the minds and hearts of children; especially at a time when they needed an infusion of faraway fantasy.
“It was during the turbulent thirties. The Arab Revolt in British Mandate Palestine was in full swing, and Gutman provided with pen and brush a valuable service by taking the minds of young children away from disturbing events in their daily lives to a land far removed, where they could indulge their imagination in adventure and fantasy.”
The room is replete with colourful paintings of tribal and wild life in Africa, set in forests, mountains, open veld and rivers, crocodiles, elephants, monkeys and hippos engage the viewer. “The kids love this room,” says Lavi who is most proud of the museum’s commitment to children’s education in art.
The wondrous warm character of the artist is revealed here not by his brush but by his pen:
“Have you ever paid attention to how much the word tzayar (painter) is similar to the word tzayad (hunter)?
When I was a boy, I wanted to be a hunter,
And even now I’m a kind of hunter. I have the character of a hunter.
Not to kill the animal,
But to capture its soul on the canvas.”
Noting my interest in the many paintings of the artist’s wife and their child Hemi – all painted in the 1930s – Lavi asked: “Would you like to interview Hemi, he is a professor emeritus biophysics at Tel Aviv University?” I jumped at the opportunity, and Hemi was no less excited: “visitors are a museum’s oxygen,” he expressed at the beginning of the interview.
“What was it like growing up in the Gutman household?” I asked the retired professor, who until then I only knew as a toddler on his mother’s lap.
“It was like living with a legend. While on the one hand he was a normal father, I was constantly fascinated by what he was doing.” Smiling he adds, “I think I was a little jealous at times. I remember thinking that he was so busy writing, painting, and meeting important people that he was spending too little time with me.” He agreed that in a way he is destined to spend all eternity with his illustrious father being immortalized in so many of his paintings.
While Gutman immigrated with his parents to Eretz-Israel in 1905 at the age of seven, he was truly a product of his new environment “and as a student, he soon rebelled against the European style of painting at the Bezalel Art Academy,” said Hemi. “When my father attended Bezalel, all the teachers there were of European descent, and their entire treatment of subject matter was based on European landscapes and even on European lighting. Dad’s group rebelled; believing that the different landscapes in Israel, one in which summer days are often gray and filled with blinding light from dust, required a new and different treatment.”
In this way, Gutman was the leading ‘light’ – the operative word – in creating a uniquely Israeli style of art.
Before Gutman, “there was no such thing as Israeli art,” says curator Lavi. “Yes, you could say there was Jewish art and Judaica would fall into this category, but no Israeli art as such. This would be left to Nachum Gutman – one of the first children to live in Tel Aviv and one of the first students at Bezalel. His contribution to Israel’s culture is immeasurable.”
I concluded the visit by staring at a huge photograph taken of an art class of aspiring students at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. The year was 1912 and the students in the class, all fourteen of them, are painting while their teacher, Abel Pann appears in the front right corner, sketching. The large photograph appeared to me like an orchestra practicing with the teacher at the head looking like a conductor.
Seated in the back of this ‘composition’ was the emerging ‘maestro’ Nachum Gutman immersed in his work. While many in the class turn to face the photographer, Gutman’s eyes remained transfixed on the canvass in front of him, too busy capturing others to be concerned with others capturing him.
With each brushstroke, the young student was on his way to become the founding figure of Israeli art.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (O&EO).