Tel Aviv Art Exhibit Puts Spectators in the Bunker With Hitler

In a retrospective of Roee Rosen, we see art that two decades ago caused shock and sensation in Jerusalem and that today exudes intelligence and wit.

Maxim Komar-Myshkin's 'The King of Poland Cleans Horse Sperm from the Thigh of Catherine the Great,' 2012.
Maxim Komar-Myshkin

“You haven’t been to the doctor in years. Your clean skin. The skin is the paper on which the body writes its complaints, and yours is spotless.” – Roee Rosen, “Live and Die as Eva Braun,” Scene 6 – Tears

1. I went alone to see Roee Rosen’s exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In the room where the works of the Rosen’s own doppelgänger – Count Maxim Komar-Myshkin – are on view, I looked up toward the ceiling at this work: “The King of Poland Cleans Horse Sperm from the Thigh of Catherine the Great.” And I saw stars. In acrylic on paper, Komar-Myshkin created a made-up constellation in the form of the prodigious ruler of Russia, kneeling like a gryphon, with her lover Stanislaw Poniatowski, whom she herself crowned king of Poland, kneeling behind her, licking and cleaning.

I stood there between the overly colored walls, as though this were a museum of comics. Rosen, 53, is an artist who has made a point out of exhibiting under different names – as all post-modern artists are expected to do. His masquerading is a leitmotif that runs through his paintings, prints, illustrations, Christian emblematic art and video projects. I look around and realize that in his works by other “identities,” Rosen does not just penetrate reality, re-invent artists and create biographies for them – he also poses a question: how does he himself – as artist, teacher and social activist – penetrate into the field of Israeli art. How does he do it? By means of the return, time and again, and again, to painting and depicting one opening: the woman’s. The place where truth opens wide in your face.

And there, in the room in which Rosen’s work under the name of a Russian artist – a series of surrealistic horror illustrations – is on view, and after I’d already lived and died, like Eva Braun, in the section of the exhibition where Rosen has reinstalled his seminal 1997 work, “Live and Die as Eva Braun” – gentleness was poised. The gentleness of Rosen himself within the guise of the Russian artist who is painting this astronomical series. Heavenly gentleness. Surprising gentleness, without the spurting pain – or the vulgarity, the pretension, the self-aware genius.

It came to me that not often does Rosen show love such as this one vis-a-vis the heavens; the love which Poniatowski is showing with his tongue. Love that breaches even the postmodern layers of pretense and games – theoretical, conceptual and also aesthetic – in terms of the style of painting and the materials. Love that bursts even through the layers.

Roee Rosen, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Tomer Appelbaum

As a woman artist named Justine Frank, Rosen looked at history through the eyes of a fictional Belgian surrealist between the wars. Here, Rosen paints in 2012 a work in the name of a Russian artist whom he had “killed off” a year earlier, and signs the painting 2008. Influenced by Russian imperial history, in an anti-colonialist protest, he resorts, as always in all his characters, to psycho-erotic scenes of worship of women.

The constellation is both mythic and beautiful. Delicate. From it bursts a stream that opens into space, bottle-like. The trail that emerges from it and the trail that comes out of her mouth will meet in an unknown infinity.

2. Leaving the Russian room and reentering the room in which the works of the avatar Justine Frank are on view, and passing a portrait by “photographer unknown” in which the artist’s wife is photographed playing the role of Justine Frank – a practice that has been done to death in Israeli art and in general – I encountered a boy. Not a small one. The bold colors in the space, the picturesqueness, the games of perspective, as in a series of paintings of people gathered around a grave, seen from the bottom of the pit, with the deceased peering between the mourners’ legs and seeing, among other sights, the hole of a woman who reappears in the works as a model, together with a child – his parents? They strode near him with a horrified smile, folded jackets draped over their arms, in shiny expensive shoes. What is this? The boy saw.

Let him see, let him see, I think. This will not mark him. It’s the representation of something which he will encounter only as his own behavior later. He keeps looking. Rosen’s art can be seemingly infantile and of course ambitious, talking about the world with ideas, presenting a platform for writing and theory, art whose reflexive and intellectual aspect foments writing. For example, his postmodern surrealism, or his approach to Christian emblematic art, as the curator notes in his article in the catalog. Rosen’s art is also related to his consciousness of being a fomenter of articles, you could almost call it article-itis.

This show extends into the museum’s new section, and there, in a building now relatively empty of exhibitions, it suddenly seems different. Ghostly, and then ironic. Drawings from “The Blind Merchant” series are on view on the no-exit balcony named for Mordechai Omer, the museum’s late director, who declined to exhibit works by the then-young Rosen.

3. I go to the end. A rectangular passage of 10 stations, black strips of banners hanging as in a Third Reich parade, on which the instructions are written. The story invites the “customer” to experience a “virtual-reality scenario”: to be Eva Braun in late April 1945, in the Berlin bunker. There are 60 drawings here. My avatar is Eva Braun. I, Eva, lie next to him, smelling his sweat. Gradually I notice that I am surrendering, in reading. I know also that Rosen fantasizes about the body of the Aryan woman, that this not a speaking feminine being but a projection. But I identify, I am with Hitler in the bunker, he looks at my breasts, I am murdered. The act of reading is intoxicating: In times when everything is digital or narrated or screened, it’s power. What did the visitors feel then? I am surrendering. The prose is not consistent but drips down steadily. Not outdated. I wait for the hall to empty out. Eva doesn’t want to die. I know that in parallel, I am visiting a reconstruction of a formative moment in the history of the dialogue about Israeli art.

Rosen’s text, when it’s good, writes me with him. “You are being swiftly led through the air like a dog on a leash. It is suffocation beyond suffocation. Suffering outdoing suffering.” Scene 8.

4. Two decades ago, the original stirred a furor. That’s not possible today, because it’s being displayed in the museum also as testimony to the boldness of art. But also, in a certain sense, as part of the way in which the establishment always portrays itself as enlightened – after the initial shock wears off. There’s no basis for comparison between the primordial effect in Jerusalem 20 years ago, and the demonstration of power in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art today, of an artist who’s been given a retrospective. And in any event, I enter and leave the avatar at my will. I am at the last station, a wax museum. The avatar collapses.

I exit, pass Rosen’s marvelous series of self-portraits of himself as various odd Christian martyrs and then I pass a painting in which the good-looking artist is a black-faced woman.

5. Where talent is present, you don’t leave empty-handed. I encounter a boy and parents, somewhat taken aback. The boy is looking at the painting of those standing above the grave, between their legs, and immediately stops. He heads for the Russian room, to the gentleness. The empress panting amid the Zodiac.