The Other Stroke of Genius of a Great Israeli Filmmaker

Not everyone knows that David Perlov, who made the documentary film masterpiece 'Diary,' was also a painter all his life.

Eitan Buganim
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Eitan Buganim

Titled “David Perlov: Drawings, Photographs, Films,” the exhibition at the Museum of Art in Kibbutz Ein Harod encompasses a range of materials, including paintings on paper, lithographs, engravings, Polaroid snapshots, photographs, diaries and notebooks. Juxtaposed, they “reverberate through one another and infuse one another with in-depth meanings,” the exhibition’s curator, Galia Bar Or, writes on the museum’s English-language website.

Even though Perlov engaged primarily in film directing, he never regarded painting as merely a hobby. He was, according to Bar Or, a “special case.” He began to paint as a youngster growing up in Brazil, and initially viewed himself as a painter. Perlov began his art studies under the Lithuanian-born Brazilian Jewish painter and sculptor Lasar Segall, who lived near his grandfather in Sao Paulo.

Perlov encountered the “real thing” from the outset, Bar Or says in relation to Segall, who had previously worked in Europe with artists such as Otto Dix and other members of the early 20th-century German and French avant-garde. At the time, Perlov was active in the local socialist Zionist movement and a leader of the Dror and Habonim youth movements in his native city.

Many of the members went on to settle in kibbutzim. However, when 18-year-old Perlov’s turn came (at the end of the 1940s), he was allowed to study painting in Paris at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, and later on at the studio of Arpad Szenes, instead of realizing the Zionist vision in practice.

At some point during this period, Perlov felt he was not achieving what he wanted through painting, and turned to cinema. In addition to coming under the spell of the French New Wave, which was then – the 1950s – at its peak, Perlov was also deeply influenced by Jean Vigo’s 1933 film “Zero for Conduct.” He found work at an animation studio and started to make his own films as well. The 
legendary founder of the French Cinematheque, Henri Langlois, took Perlov under his wing and put him in charge of the Cinematheque’s collection of 16 millimeter films. Then, in 1958, despite tempting offers he received in Paris, Perlov chose to immigrate to Israel, to Kibbutz Bror Hayil in the Negev.

Affinity between two genres

From then until his death, in December 2003, at the age of 73, Perlov was a full-time filmmaker – but never stopped painting. “Painting was the most direct and intimate place for him, the dearest to his heart,” his widow, Mira, says. The exhibition shows that the disparities that might have been thought to exist between Perlov’s filmmaking and his painting were amazingly small. “There is a riveting affinity between the two genres,” Bar Or notes. “For example, the process he went through in making ‘Diary’ resembles what is conveyed by his drawings,” with the “visual complexity” evoking “the illusion of cinema and of the language of art in general.”

In all the mediums he worked in, Perlov chose to focus on the minor, indirect aspects, and not on elements that entailed an investment of technical or financial means.

Bar Or finds two parallel paths in the exhibition: “One is the way in which Perlov carves out a way of life gradually, modestly, with associations to his childhood origins, which come up time and again in something of a psychoanalytical process that unfolds with heart-touching simplicity and directness. The second path is the articulation of his language of art, or the way in which he decides gradually to focus on what is close at hand, around the corner, and precisely there to find the magical and the unexpected. The possibility of expressing the relevance of the political in the deepest manner, which is inherently poetic, can be found in the quotidian, in life’s small moments.”

Perlov's painting 'Live Mannequin from Joao Pessoa Avenue' circa 1964, at Kibbutz Ein Harod.