Watermelon, Fruit of the Land (And of Art)

Generations of Israeli artists have made watermelon a striking visual symbol of Hebrew culture.

Shany Littman
Shany Littman
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Nahum Gutman, “The Watermelon Vendor,” 1965.Credit: Nahum Gutman Museum
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

So common is the watermelon as a motif in Israeli art that in November 2009 it was the theme of an exhibition at the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv. The show’s co-curator, Carmela Rubin, says the idea came to her after she saw a number of works featuring that motif.

One of the earliest appearances of the watermelon in local art is in Reuven Rubin’s 1923 triptych “First Fruits,” which was shown at the museum exhibition five years ago; it had initially been exhibited at a solo show of Rubin’s work at the Tower of David in Jerusalem, in 1924. The painting has generally been perceived as an idealistic expression of the image of the Jewish pioneer and the connection with the Orient. The center panel, titled “Fruit of the Land,” depicts four figures: a woman and man from Yemen, and a pioneer man and woman, who present oranges, a watermelon, bananas, a pomegranate – and an infant.

“This is a significant work by Rubin, which he saw as an altar painting,” Carmela Rubin, the artist’s daughter-in-law, observes. “The pioneer is holding the watermelon as though it’s the globe. We always talk about the fruits of the land and the ‘seven species’ ... but the watermelon is plain and simple, and is less referenced. It’s more Arab than Israeli. Our research for the exhibition turned up some amazing things. For example, we found a photo by Liselotte Grschebina from 1935: a close-up with the caption ‘Hebrew watermelon.’ It was all part of the orientation of that naive period, in which suddenly the watermelon also became part of Hebrew culture.

“The [2009] exhibition,” Rubin continues, “touched on a social dimension but also intimated violence. Watermelon peddlers used to call out ‘on the knife’ [the sellers would cut off a small piece for the customer to taste], and also because of the watermelon’s red flesh, which looks like blood. We discovered that this innocent summertime item has underlying meanings that are not immediately apparent. This is not oranges or dates or pomegranates, but a simple fruit used as animal feed in Europe. Here it’s the summer delicacy.”

In her article in the exhibition’s catalog, co-curator Shira Naftali divided the theme of the watermelon in Israeli art into two periods. In what she called the “historical” period, in the 1920s, paintings depict the watermelon in the context of the celebration of the Orient, evoking a folkloristic atmosphere. In contrast, works from the last three decades, notably in photography, connect the watermelon to physicality, sexuality and politics. The place of the watermelon in the later works, she wrote, retrospectively influences the earlier, “historical” ones and makes it possible, indeed vital, to read them critically.

In addition to Rubin’s triptych, key paintings from the first half of the 20th century include Nahum Gutman’s “Resting at Noon” (1926-27), which shows Arab farmhands next to a sliced watermelon with a knife plunged into it; and another Rubin work, from 1922, painted before he settled in Palestine, which alludes to the Christian iconography of the Last Supper and to the Jewish custom of feeding poor folk during a family celebration. One of the items served to the poor here is a watermelon. Another Rubin work, “Arab Barber at Jaffa Gate” (1924), shows a watermelon almost incidentally. A man awaiting a shave, his face daubed with shaving cream, feeds his donkey a slice.

Watermelons are also found in works by Pinchas Litvinovsky and Moshe Kastel, two leading Israeli artists of the early period. In the 1950s and 1960s, the watermelon came to represent a particular social class in Israel – appearing, for example, in Micha Bar-Am’s 1955 photograph in which an elderly, kneeling Arab is seen eating a watermelon, or in a 1957 shot of three watermelons, into one of which a Star of David has been cut. Yohanan Simon painted Yemenite children with watermelons on a kibbutz in the 1950s in the socialist realist style; a 1973 photo by Nino Herman, who worked for the Government Press Office, shows a man amid watermelons and children on a moshav; and a 1976 painting by Amos Yaskil depicts a white-bearded Yemenite watermelon vendor.

In the 1990s, the watermelon evolved into a complex local motif. Internationally acclaimed artist Sigalit Landau has made considerable use of watermelons as a key image. One of her most striking works is “DeadSee,” a 2005 video in which a spiral of watermelons tied to each other floats in the Dead Sea with the artist, nude, floating among them. In “Tear Fountain,” another Landau work that was shown at the Rubin Museum exhibition, saltwater dripped onto slices of watermelon, causing them to disgorge their juices, which became a kind of fountain. Landau’s sculpture “Stranded on a Watermelon on the Dead Sea” (2009), which references the video, was also part of the show.

Other contemporary works in the 2009 show were Alex Levac’s 2009 photograph “Dimona,” showing two black girls eating large slices of watermelon; Yair Garbuz’s acrylic-on-plywood work “Still Life Decorated with Yemenites” (2005-06), a paraphrase of the Rubin triptych; and two photographs by Ohad Matalon, one of which, “Heroin (Watermelon Heart),” shows a junkie sitting hunched on the sidewalk and digging into a watermelon with one hand, while the other portrays two bare-breasted foreign workers eating watermelon.

The artist Naomi Tereza Salmon showed “Yarmulka with Watermelon Motif,” while multimedia artist Motti Mizrachi exhibited a 2004 work documenting an installation in which watermelons were scattered on the gallery floor. One of the most memorable iconic works in the Rubin Museum show was by the photographer Razi, showing Soviet Jewish dissident Ida Nudel sitting barefoot on a watermelon. The contrast between her foreign demeanor and the local fruit encapsulated the new Israeliness.