Portrait of the Artist as a Naive Man

His work has been exhibited alongside Chagall's, and critics say he is one of Israel's greatest naive-style painters. But three years ago, Gabriel Cohen disappeared. His friends found him only last week, in a filthy hovel, hiding from prostitutes and junkies.

cramped room with a stained, filthy floor and moldy smell is what Gabriel Cohen now calls home. The small refrigerator in the room is empty. An old transistor radio rests on a table heaped with open tubes of paint and paintbrushes that are stiff with paint that was never cleaned off. A tiny television set sits on a nightstand that has seen better days. The picture on the screen is blurry, but Cohen keeps on watching it as no one has taken him to get the eyeglasses that he needs.

It's hard to believe that this is the same Gabriel Cohen who is renowned as one of Israel's greatest living naive-style painters, recipient of the Jerusalem Prize for Art (1987), a permanent entry in encyclopedias of naive painting, who exhibited his work not only in Israel, but also in Paris, Venezuela, Denmark and Germany; the same Gabriel Cohen whose paintings were exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1987 alongside works by Marc Chagall; the same Gabriel Cohen about whom curator and art scholar Gideon Ofrat says, "There is no questioning his greatness."

Gabriel Cohen is a refined man. He still has a noble manner about him. He walks with difficulty. The old sweatpants he is wearing are torn and his shirt is sloppily buttoned. In the corridor leading to his room in a Jerusalem nursing home, whose name and location cannot be revealed for reasons that will become clear, he stops by a window overlooking a green, hilly landscape and says: "I don't see God from here. I look for him and I don't see him."

"It's good that he doesn't see God," Gabriel's younger brother Rafi explains the next day. "When his mental state deteriorates, he talks about seeing God. He says that God speaks to him and that he hears God."

Gabriel Cohen has a spacious home in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, only a few kilometers from the little room he is living in now. The house stands empty, and through the windows one can see paintings rolled up on the floor, thick plastered stone walls, an arched ceiling. He lived in this house for most of his adult life, at first with his parents and his 10 siblings. Later, when all the children left the house, he stayed there with his parents.

"He's not just a great artist," says Rafi. "He's also a wonderful, goodhearted person. When our father was sick, Gabi was the one who took care of him. He sat by his side all the time and fed him." After his father's death, he stayed with his mother, until she died at a ripe old age, a little over 12 years ago. Then he was on his own and that's when his troubles started. "Gabi isn't capable of living alone," says his brother. "And that's why he started to get mixed up with bad company."

Cohen used to be a frequent traveler. "I love to travel and Paris is my favorite place to go. My dream is to go to Paris - to the 18th arondissement. I also had a show in Paris on the Rue de Rosiers in the Marais. But how will I go now? I don't have any money," he says.

He at least tried to go on a little excursion recently. Last week, he left the nursing home without warning, after telling the guard at the entrance that he was going for "a little walk in the mountains," the same mountains that look so close from the window of the nursing home. He got lost.

For a day and a night and another half day, he wandered the streets of Jerusalem without knowing where he was going. His brother Rafi searched for him in the mountains. The police were also called in to help. In the end, his sister Rosette found him next to the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem.

"My sweet Rosette took me to a cafe and bought me coffee and a sandwich and this was a holy day for me," Gabriel says. "It was a pure day. But the night before that was so hard for me. I walked and I walked and I didn't know where I was going."

`A holy man'

His impressions of his journeys, mostly imaginary, yet some real, are expressed in Cohen's paintings. Huge, colorful canvases rich in precise detail and fantasy, in which he paints the Eiffel Tower and the Russian steppes (where he has not been) together, or the vistas of Paris and the Tower of Babel - a recurrent element in many of his works.

"In my opinion, it's also because the Tower of Babel has some kind of phallic, erotic meaning, but also because of the internationalism, of the mixture and confusion of nations, which is an essential element in Gabi Cohen's work," says Gideon Ofrat. "I bought one Tower of Babel painting from him. It's marvelous and extraordinary."

There is no superlative that has not been lavished on Cohen's work by art critics, since he began showing his paintings at age 40, through the Debel Gallery in Jerusalem. All the art critics seemed to agree at once that Cohen is one of the greatest naive-style painters in Israel. Their counterparts abroad seconded this view.

"For me, Gabriel Cohen is a holy man," says Ruth Zadka, director of the Jerusalem Artists' House. "He's an extraordinary artist, a good person, whom everyone oppressed."

About a year and a half ago, Zadka organized a show for Cohen at the Artists' House. "You should have seen the crowd that came. Tons of people. Gabi is an artist's artist. He's a painter for those in the know. The Tel Aviv Museum bought a painting of Gabi's and so did the Israel Museum, and several artists bought his drawings."

One purpose of the show that Zadka organized was to raise money for Cohen, who needed an adjustable recliner. "With the money, we bought him a good American Comfort recliner." He now spends most of the time in his room at the nursing home on this chair. Sitting, dozing, and sleeping through the night on it. There is not enough space in the room for a bed.

Gabriel Cohen was born in Paris in 1933, the sixth of 11 children of Rivka, from Jerusalem, and Yitzhak, a Jerusalemite of Parisian background, who was also a kabbalist. They met in Jerusalem, "but my mother lost her parents at age 19 and she had a brother in Paris who took her in, and my father followed her there and they married in Paris and lived there," Rafi explains.

Throughout World War II, the family hid from the Nazis in Paris. "And then, since my mother was pregnant and we were already a family with a lot of children, they moved us out of Paris to the country," Rafi adds. Gabriel found work on a farm. Images of Nazi soldiers appear in several of his paintings.

In 1949, when Gabriel was 16, the family returned to Israel. At first, they lived in an immigrants' camp in Pardes Hannah and from there they moved to the Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem. Then they managed to save enough money to move back to the quarter where both parents were born: Ohel Moshe in Nahlaot.

Gabriel served in the artillery corps and after the army, went back to live in his parents' house and earned a living polishing diamonds. The head of the polishing plant, who noticed his employee's artistic skill, allowed him to paint during work hours. He once asked Cohen if he could draw a tiger. Cohen drew him a tiger. And he did a lot of sculpting and painting on glass. He also loved to play the guitar, especially flamenco style.

Ofrat, who interviewed him for this magazine in 1987, described the atmosphere in which Cohen works: "A little chocolate liqueur, a little flamenco guitar and then he picks up the canvas and paintbrush from the corner of the room and paints something that is full of imagination, rich in color and charged with power. In his imagination, he will set sail for the snowcapped Pyrenees. He will take the snow down off the Mosque of Omar and turn it into the Temple. He will go for picnics by the rivers of Spain. He will vanquish all the enemies of Israel. Gabriel Cohen will be victorious."

Gabriel disappears

"For as long as I can remember, Gabi was painting," Rafi recalls. "He also sculpted. There was a time, when we were still abroad, that he painted the inside of bottles."

In the 1980s, the artist told Ofrat that he had to keep his sculptures away from the home of his religious mother, after her ultra-Orthodox neighbors complained that her son had made himself an idol and a mask.

As a youngster in Paris, Cohen got to see a lot of art. This greater artistic awareness is something that distinguishes him from other artists in the naive genre. But he never studied painting and when he started out, he used to paint on pieces of cardboard while sitting on a crate that he placed on the sidewalk in front of the Kings Hotel in Jerusalem.

He never married. "I didn't find the love of my life," he explains. "I looked, of course I looked, but I didn't find her. I was fixed up, too, but I loved prostitutes."

"He calls prostitutes `humoresques with tattoos,'" says Emanuel Kleidman, a painter and set designer from Paris, who now divides his time between his home and family in Paris and another home and a son in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. For three years, Kleidman tried to track down his good friend, who was also once his neighbor in the Ohel Moshe quarter, and only was able to locate him now.

"I looked for him so much," Kleidman told me by phone. "One day, about four years ago, I had to return to Paris and when I came back to Israel a few months later, I found that Gabriel had disappeared. No one could tell me where he was. I searched and searched and I didn't know what had happened. I saw that the house in Ohel Moshe was empty and the neighbors didn't know anything. The sign that we once painted for him, with his name on it, was gone, too. I asked everywhere and also searched for his paintings. I assumed he'd been kidnapped so someone could get control of his paintings, which are worth a lot of money. Together with a friend from French television, I started making a film called, `Where is Gabriel?' and we started to film all kinds of people we met to see if they knew where Gabriel Cohen had disappeared to."

Kleidman, 50, came to Israel to study at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. He and his first wife lived in Ohel Moshe, off the same tiled courtyard where Cohen lived with his mother. "We met a few times in the neighborhood and said hello, and once he invited me to come over and I saw his works and was enchanted. He is a great, great painter. There is no painter who is more of a symbolist and illustrative artist than he is. As a painter myself, I admire him."

Cohen and Kleidman became friends, and Kleidman began to care for him. Cohen was already being hospitalized occasionally for depression. Kleidman owns many of Cohen's works, some of which he bought and some of which were given to him as gifts, and in his apartment in Ein Kerem, he has folders crammed full of newspaper clippings about Cohen, from Israel and abroad. He has also photographed all of Cohen's works, "so there will be a record."

The big breakthrough

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 sparked an artistic breakthrough for Cohen; it was at that time that he began to sit on the sidewalk after his work as a diamond polisher and paint. Not long afterward, in early 1974, he did a painting he called "Moses on the Mountain." Ruth Debel, of the Debel Gallery in Ein Kerem, passed by and saw it on the street. She asked how much he wanted for it, and for the first time in his life, he realized that his work had financial value.

Debel (who declined to be interviewed for this article) decided to mount an exhibit of his work at her gallery. She and her husband Etienne Debel, who has since passed away, nurtured Cohen. "He is a naive and malleable person, and his fragile mental state was also evident in the years that he worked with us. But we kept that a secret. We protected him," Debel said when interviewed for an article in this magazine in 1990. His mental state notwithstanding, Cohen turned out to be a good investment.

"I saw him working," says Kleidman. "He paints for hours and very quickly. Every two days, he would finish a work. He painted a great deal for Ms. Debel."

His first show was at the Debel Gallery in 1974. The response was overwhelming. Cohen was immediately declared a genius. His paintings at the gallery were purchased and he continued to create new paintings. That same year, he was invited to take part in a group exhibition of naive artists at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, and a year later, his work was included in a traveling show of naive-style artists from Israel that was exhibited in Denmark and Germany. Soon after that he was invited to be part of group shows in Venezuela and at the Tel Aviv Museum.

Cohen had four solo shows at the Debel Gallery. His works sold for a lot of money - at least several thousand dollars apiece, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. Cohen spent most of the money he earned on his frequent trips abroad, Debel explained in an earlier interview.

"I suddenly thought - great, now I'm like Picasso. Life will be different. Happy. But it wasn't. The party ended," Cohen said in 1990.

His fourth solo show, in 1980, was his last at the Debel Gallery. "After the Lebanon War, there was a tough period," Debel explained later, "and he complained that we weren't selling enough." In 1984, Cohen decided to leave the Debel Gallery, and thus was left without a patron. He tried to sell his works to galleries on his own, but was unsuccessful. Now there was no one to keep pushing him. After two years, he tried to persuade Debel to take him back, but she refused. "We went to see his works and he wasn't the same as before," she told Haaretz at the time. "Someone sabotaged his trust in me and, without absolute trust, I can't work."