Of Stone and Schizophrenia

Revisiting the life and work of the late painter-sculptor Avraham Melnikov, who left Palestine for England in the 1930s and underwent a massive ideological and artistic transformation before returning later to Israel

Not long ago the Israeli art world was in a ferment over the bitter fate that had befallen the estate of Avraham Melnikov (1892-1960 ), one of the great names in what is referred to as Land of Israel sculpture. When the artist's elderly and incapacitated daughter was hospitalized a few months ago, the estate was confiscated by the custodian general and was then assessed as having negligible value. The storm provoked by this led to a suspension of the estate sale of his paintings, sculptures, letters, and other items.

Like other historians in the local art world, I too tended to ignore Avraham Melnikov's naturalist works. In my eyes, as in those of many other good souls, the more "important" Melnikov was the one who was active between the mid-1920s and 1934 - the year that his "Roaring Lion" monument to Joseph Trumpeldor was dedicated at Tel Hai, after which he moved to London. He returned only in 1959, at age 67, and died a few months later.

Avraham Melnikov

That same, early Melnikov was associated with Hebrew identity, specifically, what is called the pre-"Canaanite" one. This was manifested in his archaic-style sculptures, done in the spirit of Assyrian reliefs. Such were his twin wood reliefs, called "Martyrs," plus the wood reliefs "Exodus from Egypt" and "Efendi Head" (in the style of ancient Egypt ), the famous lion statue, and other works.

Decades ago I paid a visit to Chava Gabai-Melnikov, the artist's daughter, in Bat Yam, and saw - amid hordes of cats - a darkened room filled with his works. The majority were naturalist clay and plaster sculptures dating from his London days. In works from that period, I observed a surprising and inexplicable weakness of someone who had distanced and severed himself from his cultural origins, and consequently descended into an academic mediocrity that lacked any uniqueness.

Today, however, I am convinced that Avraham Melnikov, including his English incarnation, is worthy of a different assessment. The truth is that the roots of Melnikov's archaic-naturalist "schizophrenia" go back to the early pre-state period. Between 1921 and 1923, he created a stone bust of General Allenby, a Realist sculpture placed atop a column in Be'er Sheva, which was destroyed during the Arab revolt in 1938. In 1922, he also modeled in plaster (painted to look like bronze ) a Realist head of writer Avigdor Hameiri. Only after these two sculptures came his "Assyrian" and "Egyptian" period - a chapter that reached an abrupt end with the artist's departure from the Land of Israel, followed by a 25-year-long period devoted to naturalist sculpture.

How can such a "split" be explained? The answer has to do with the noted Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein. In an article from 1982, Natan Zach writes, among other things, about Melnikov's move from Palestine to Britain: He no longer created New Hebrew art that looked eastward, but rather naturalistic portraits, including very impressive ones, and other works than ranged from post-Rodinesque Expressionism ("St. Paul Delivering a Sermon" ) to lyric Impressionism, with Classical forays. Several of the works, notes Zach, reflected the influence of the British-based sculptor Jacob Epstein, whom Melnikov befriended.

The archaic-naturalist duality characterized the work of Epstein who, besides creating countless realist portraits, carved the Sphynx-like Assyrian sculpture in 1912 for Oscar Wilde's tomb in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Among other works, in 1925 he also did a stone relief of "Rima the Jungle Girl" (heroine of the 1904 novel "Green Mansions," by writer-naturalist W.H. Hudson ), surrounded by vultures, and in 1931 a relief entitled "Sun God."

A great many of Melnikov's English sculptures (some 200, by his own account ) were destroyed in one of the German aerial attacks during the Blitz of London in 1940. We know that while in that city, Melnikov designed a series of busts of notable figures, among them Arturo Toscanini (the sculpture was destroyed in the Blitz ), Lady Melchett and her son, the statesmen Bevin and Churchill, Lord Conway of Ellington, Sarah Churchill, the writer Gilbert Murray and others. Most disappeared without a trace. Of the sculpture "The Black Christ" (plaster sketch, 1948-1949 ), only a photograph remains; the same goes for the clay sculpture "The Beggar" (date unknown ), and the portrait of the Yiddish poet Malka Loker (plaster, 1936 ).

A 1936 photo of Melnikov sculpting in his London studio shows him standing among his own works, including some of colossal dimensions (such as a man in full frontal view, legs apart and torso exposed - probably the figure of an unemployed man, as described in a 1935 Palestine Post article ). All of these were evidently destroyed in the Blitz.

Nevertheless, a glimpse at the sculptures and photos that remain is enough to highlight the sculptural language and manner of the London Melnikov. A comparison, for example, of his portrait of Loker with those of women created by Epstein ("Nan," 1909; "Senegalese Woman," 1921; "Helen," 1919 ) shows the extent to which the Land of Israel/Londoner sculptor adopted the language of molding in clay or plaster before casting in bronze. Only a handful of Melnikov's sculptures were cast in bronze, such as "Beggar's Head," (1935-1936, in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam ). I am referring to the work of the artist's fingers, the "raw" traces of which were not concealed in the final product, but, on the contrary, are evident - as a dynamic foundation, sensual and even primitive - in the sculpted figures' hair and clothing. This has helped to preserve the living process of creating in clay.

Epstein's "The Risen Christ" (1919 ) presents a male figure in full frontal view, his realistic face that of the artist's sick friend, Bernard van Dieren. His elongated body, garbed in a long and thin cloak, stands barefoot and points with its left hand to the stigmata in the middle of its right palm. Melnikov's "The Black Christ" (a plaster sketch for a sculpture that was supposed to be installed in a cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria, but was never executed ) assumed a similar pose and was also barefoot (but stepping on a snake ), with a lavish cloak covering the body, a crown and palms outstretched in a benediction.

The two figures do differ. But the posture of both figures, the tension between the head shaped with pronounced naturalism and the garment "marked" with fingerprints, as well as the design of the large eyes - all these attest to a certain affinity between the artists. Melnikov's preoccupation with the "Black Christ" figure, with a Yemenite Jew and a mulatto woman (plaster, 1937 ), and with "Black Angels" (clay, 1948-1949, also designed for the Lagos cathedral ) - likewise parallels Epstein's ongoing interest in sculpting dark-complexioned people, some in the form of busts, and including the black American singer Paul Robeson (bronze, 1928 ), Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (bronze, 1936 ), a "Madonna and Child" in which the mother takes the form of an Indian woman (bronze, 1927 ), a Senegalese woman (bronze, 1921 ), Aborigines and more.

We do not as yet have any details about the friendship that formed, according to Natan Zach, between the Land of Israel sculptor and the U.S.-born English one, but it is clear that they developed a dialogue, at times more overtly reflected in Melnikov's sculptures and sometimes more subtly.

All of this leads us to three clay and plaster sculptures by Melnikov that eventually wound up at a Jerusalem gallery. They were originally part of Melnikov's estate, in his daughter's possession, but changed hands; two were not even shown at the Melnikov exhibition held at the University of Haifa in 1982. The one that was displayed and catalogued is "The Three Rapaport Sisters" - a clay statue that he did in London in 1950. The three were sculpted in a single embrace, with the eldest sister's arms around her two siblings, and the heads of all three close together. Beauty and innocence are embodied in the figures, who are dressed meticulously, their hair collected neatly in braids - as was only proper for girls from a good family. The look on the eldest girl's face is pensive and melancholic, her younger sister gazes off into the distance with ambition, and the baby's eyes are trained on her inner world.

Melnikov thus created an emphatically "realist-Epsteinish" sculpture that holds within it a universal humanistic sensibility that has turned its back on eastern and Archaic or any other "Hebrewness." Nor is there anything monumental about this sculpture; no heroism and no mythic symbolism. The very shift of the artist from carving hard stone, and even wood, to molding clay or plaster speaks of withdrawal from the primeval and primitive space, in favor of a softer and more expressive sculptural tradition.

This work, like most of Melnikov's London sculptures, also expresses how a rather avant-garde trailblazer relinquished his ego and came to terms with a modest, naturalist style of expression that is less egocentric. The London Melnikov, it appears, changed his personality structure and exchanged local-national cultural roots for universal expression loaded with a panhuman individual sensibility.

The stylistic shift contains within it a psychic shift whose significance is hard to exaggerate. For the enthusiastic Jabotinskyite of the 1920s, who was among the first members of the Jerusalem branch of the Haganah pre-state militia, the creator of the "Martyrs" reliefs, marble statues and "The Roaring Lion" of Tel Hai (roaring eastward as if claiming distant lands! ) - this national artist not only stopped using such themes and working with the materials and techniques that embodied a commitment to the place: He also did not even bother to visit the country in 1948 when independence was declared, but rather left the bloody battles to go elsewhere, beyond the sea.

In this same regard, it is interesting to note his sculpture of the prophet Jeremiah, made of plaster painted in a shade of bronze, apparently done in the 1940s. Melnikov gave the head of this prophet of doom a severe demeanor, which perhaps reflected the profound sense of severance that he himself felt, as a result of World War II and the Holocaust. No more hopes of greatness and no more models of heroic resistance against Roman-British colonialism for him; instead, angry prophecy without any utopian promises.

Perhaps careful study of Melnikov's letters from London - the ones piled in the storage rooms of the custodian general (unless they have been sold for pennies or thrown out ) - will reveal the secret of the transformation he underwent, and also the reason for his disappointment with Hebrew nationalism.

Dr. Gideon Ofrat is a Jerusalemite art historian and a curator.