Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Ze'ev Raban: painter, illustrator and father of Israeli design

2012 saw the 100th anniversary of Ze'ev Raban's arrival in Eretz Israel at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, first as a student and then as a teacher.

Born as Wolf Rawicki in Lodz, Poland in 1890, he studied decorative arts from 1905 to 1911, first in his home town and then in Munich, Paris and Brussels. Many of the influences he absorbed during this time would emerge in his later work, but with a distinctly Levantine take on them. It is this combination of styles and influences that appeals so much to me. I love the boldness and the optimism of his work, the rousing use of colour and the stylised depiction of biblical scenes and figures.

Raban came to Eretz Israel as part of the Second Aliyah, one of a wave of immigrants who revived the Hebrew language and worked on the land, creating a new type of society, different from diaspora Jews and not wishing to live on charity as some of the established communities did.

On arrival he joined the Bezalel at the invitation of its director - Boris Schatz, remaining there until 1929 as director of the repousse workshop and teacher of anatomy and decorative arts. Working with other departments, he designed a number of large objects including the beautiful Elijah Chair of 1925 that can be seen in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He came to be considered the main proponent of the Bezalel style, bringing together European influences, techniques of Eastern applied art and Jewish and biblical themes and motifs.

Over time, he took a stronger "eastern" approach to his work, particularly adopting the image of the Yemenite Jew as the model for biblical or Hebrew figures in his work. The second wave of Yemenite aliyah between 1908 and 1914 saw whole families arriving in the country and many were employed in the school, especially in the silversmith, stonemasonry and carpet making departments. Several also acted as models.

Raban was a committed Zionist and was commissioned by the Jewish National Fund to design posters to encourage tourism. He designed two which are still reproduced and sold today, original copies changing hands at huge prices. One depicts a western tourist pointing at a map of the country beneath the legend "Come and see Erez Israel", with a series of important Jewish religious sites displayed around the edges and a prominent advertisement in English and Hebrew for the Bezalel and its products. The other is a biblical scene overlooking the city of Tiberias and the Kinneret.

These themes were repeated in his illustrations of biblical scrolls, including the Song of Songs (1914-18), Book of Esther (1927), the Book of Ruth (1930) and his famous Ten Cities of 1930 which shows ten of the holiest Jewish sites in Israel.  My own copy of the Ten Cities is a personal treasure. Leafing through the tissue divided pages and gazing at the images of Rachel's tomb and Hebron stir me to want to visit these sites. It is still possible to pick up original copies of these and other Raban works from time to time. Trionfo at 9 Dorot Rishonim Street (off Ben Yehuda) in Jerusalem sometimes has copies as does Pollak in King George Street, Tel Aviv.

Trionfo is especially worth a visit as serious customers are offered strong arabic coffee and invited to take their time to look through the stock and chat with Abraham Medeisker or his son Gali, both of whom are extremely knowledgeable and able to locate just the right item! The shop is crammed with Israeliana, old books, posters and artefacts. It is a real treasure house.

Raban's tourist poster designs led to broader based work in advertising. In  1925 he was commissioned by S.Tokolwsky, the owner of the Jaffa Fruit Company to prepare labels for the orange crates. This resulted in an icon of early Israeli design showing a man dressed in a white blouse, red sash, blue narwal and turban standing on the beach and a robed arab figure. The city of Jaffa is visible in the background. The text reads "'Lord' Jaffa Oranges Famous for Flavour". Other advertising work followed including for Nur cigarettes, Ariel cigarettes, Carmel Oriental wine and, my own favourite, Havilio Halva. There is something about Raban's skills as a story teller that makes me want to buy these products, despite not being a drinker or a smoker!

I have often thought about the seeming contradiction between his use of biblical motifs and the production of commercial art to sell cigarettes and oranges. Some people argue that like all artists Raban needed to put bread on the table and this would certainly be true. However for me, the beauty of the commercial works and the iconic status they have achieved lead me to believe he approached this field with equal seriousness and also considered them to be important artistically.

Raban lived through some of the most turbulent years of Israel's history, including the Mandate period, the  War of Independence and the wars of the 1950's and 1960's. A story is told about how in 1922 during a period of strained relations between the British forces and the Jews, the Bezalel students were sent out to collect used gun shells for decorating vases or to be melted down for other works.

Normally the British would ignore this, but on one occasion arrested a young student, holding him for several days, believing the School was collecting weapons for combat. The episode ended with a surprise attack on the School, with the soldiers breaking the doors down only to find the shells being used for artistic purposes. To commemorate the event, Raban created new doors, now on display in the Artists House, Jerusalem.

It is still possible to see some of his ceramic designs used to decorate buildings in Tel Aviv in the 1920's. Several of these are on the exterior of buildings - real gems being the Municipal School in Ahad Ha'am Street, the exterior sign on the Ismaylof home and the Moshav Zkenim synagogue on Allenby Street. These works conjure up times of great creativity in Israel, a time when great artists, poets, writers, actors and musicians frequented cafes and salons, creating a unique Hebrew and Israeli culture from their many different backgrounds and influences, with Raban being a key figure in this renaissance.

Topping the bill has to be the recently restored Bialik House on Bialik Street in Tel Aviv. A beautiful, eclectic style building, whitewashed on the exterior, the interior is a blaze of reds, blues, greens and other vibrant colours showing scenes from Jewish history interspersed with the motifs of the 12 Tribes and the signs of the zodiac. Normally photographs are not allowed, but I managed to get a dispensation on my most recent visit. 

Raban died in 1970, blind and suffering from Parkinson's disease, a sad end for a man inspired to create beautiful images and who chose to communicate his view of the world through such visual means, but he has left a legacy that still inspires admiration today.

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