The Abel Pann exhibition at the Israel Museum is not called a retrospective, but in the introduction to the catalogue the director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, defines it as "the first comprehensive museum presentation of his work." In this respect, the exhibition joins a long series of retrospectives of Israeli artists that have been shown in recent years. At this very time, parallel to the comprehensive Pann exhibition, there are retrospectives on at the Tel Aviv Museum of Avraham Soskin and Sionah Tagger.
It appears the museums are celebrating the victory of new formula: they are both engaged in the writing of the history of local art. In and of itself, this is a good formula. However, the impression emerges that it also serves as a means of avoiding a weighty cultural statement, of the sort that more complex thematic exhibitions would entail. The feeling is that the museums have in fact joined the general wave of nostalgia that goes from community singing to the Jewish kitchen.
The Abel Pann exhibition is an interesting case, as Pann was never a forgotten artist, but the exhibition tries to establish a new presence for him. Its main weakness is that it does not try to relocate him in the Israeli context. During the first half of the 20th century, Pann was considered the leading Jewish artist, but in Israel he did not win the degree of success he won in Europe and the United States. From the 1950s until his death in 1963, he was sidelined from the center of the Israeli stage.
Pann's life story could be the subject of novels and films, and curator Yigal Zalmona was indeed captivated by him and wrote the catalogue more as a story than a critical article. It is only a pity that it lacks such essentials of a catalogue of this dimension such as a list of exhibitions and a bibliography.
Zalmona chose to begin with the story of the surprising visit in 1912 by Boris Schatz, the founder of Bezalel, to Abel Pann in Paris, where he had come after a number of incarnations in his life.
Abba Pfeffermann, as Pann was originally called, was born in 1883 in Latvia. For a very short period he studied with Yehuda Pan, who taught Marc Chagall and Osip Zadkine (to whom an exhibition really should be devoted in Israel), and then wandered throughout Russia and worked as an apprentice, mainly to sign-painters, until 1898 when he was accepted to the art academy in Odessa.
In 1903, he went to Kishinev and made documentary drawings of the pogroms that occurred there - a task that shaped his self-perception as an artist who documents the Jewish fate. That same year he went to Paris and lived in La Roche, a building in Paris that later became famous as the a way station for many of the Jewish artists who came to the city, among them Chagall, Modigliani and Soutine.
Pann became known primarily as a talented illustrator for the illustrated newspapers that were popular at the time in France, and at the same time he also did oil and gouache paintings of scenes from the life of the city that were well-accepted in Paris. In the catalogue Zalmona writes that the style of these paintings "resembles the style of many artists in France at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century," but he does not give any examples. From the works that are on show in the exhibition, such as "The Concert" from 1911 or two portraits, one of a woman and one of a man, from 1910 and 1912, it is obvious that Pann was a skilled artist, entirely cut off from everything that was going on in the Parisian avant-garde during those years (the painting of Picasso and Matisse, Gertrude Stein's salon and writers like Guillame Apollinaire and Max Jacob).
In 1913, Pann set out on a long journey, ending up in Palestine, and immediately on his arrival he visited Schatz. He decided to settle here, became the head of the painting classes at Bezalel and for a few months also directed the institution in place of Schatz, who was traveling abroad to raise funds. In the exhibition there are few works from this period on display, among them the lovely painting "Jerusalem" from 1913 - an urban landscape of a cluster of buildings, apparently at sunset, with a sky in blazing orange. In this painting Pann is more expressive and abstract that is typical of his work, and apparently the encounter with the city was indeed a strong emotional experience.
A year later Pann returned to Europe with the aim of settling his affairs, but because of the outbreak of World War I, he was unable to return to Palestine. His works from the war years are apparently the most important part of his oeuvre. Alongside patriotic French posters that he painted, he created a series of 50 drawings in which he depicted the sufferings of the Jews in the areas of the fighting between Germany, Poland and Russia, who were also persecuted by the local populations that suspected them of collaborating with the Germans. Pann based himself on the drawings of the Kishinev pogroms he had made about a decade earlier, on the testimony of refugees and on press reports, and created a series of shocking pictures that from today's perspective look similar to some extent to depictions of the Holocaust.
As Zalmona notes, these were pictures that were drawn as journalistic documentation, and in them the huge empathy that Pann feels for the victims is evident. The drawings were exhibited successfully in the United States. According to his autobiography, the Russians imposed a veto on the exhibition of the drawings in France, which was Russia's ally at the time. As in other instances, here too Zalmona does not bring supporting evidence for Pann's story.
The main body of Pann's work is pictures of the Bible stories, a kind of personal project that he began upon his return to Palestine in 1920. This is not impressive as far as the artistic statement goes, but it is fascinating as an example of Jewish-Zionist orientalism in all its complexity. From the perspective of our times, a large part of the project is irritating and infuriating, yet it is still enchanting in its naivete and the confidence with which it was executed. Pann fit in with the Bezalel perception that the Bible is a document that testifies to the Jewish people's right to the land, and that his job was to give these documents a visual image.
Like other artists, among them Ephraim Moshe Lilien, and Ze'ev Raban who worked in parallel to him, Pann was influenced by the European orientalism of the 19th century, by the Symbolist movement and by Art Nouveau. The influence is obvious, for example, in which the serpent is seen as a bare-chested woman. "You shall not surely die," a colored lithograph from Pann's illustrated Bible, which was made in 1924, is reminiscent of works by the British Aubrey Beardsley, whereas the prints of the creation of the world reveal the influence of the English William Blake from the 18th century. In other works there is evidence of the influence of the French Nabis movement and the direct influence of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, whose works Pann had certainly known in Paris.
Zalmona, who curated "Kadima - The Image of the East in Israeli Art" (with Tamar Manor-Freidman), writes extensively about Pann's orientalism, and also treats Pann's choice of Arab Bedouin and Jews from the Muslim countries as models for his biblical characters. It is a pity that he does not discuss how Pann's orientalism is different from and similar to that of his colleagues, apart form a mention of the fact that Pann draws the woman characters from the Bible as very young girls. There is something quite disturbing about Pann's erotic depictions and his depictions of the matriarchs of the people as wounded girls with staring eyes, as if they had just been through a terrible trauma.
This is not an exhibition that will locate Pann anywhere new with respect to Israeli art. Unlike the Ardon retrospective, which revealed him as an interesting painter to a public that had not been familiar with the whole of his oeuvre, Pann is revealed as someone who, apart from a key work - his series of pogrom pictures - was a middling, conservative artist who made pictures impressive in their rich color. His view of the east as reflected in the paintings was legitimate and absolutely accepted in his time, but today it is difficult not to look at it in a critical way.
"Abel Pann Paints the Bible," The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Curator: Yigal Zalmona. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10 A.M.-4 P.M., Tuesday 4 P.M.-10 P.M., Friday 10 A.M.-2 P.M. Until the end of January.
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