Celebrating an Artist Who Changed Israel's Visual Culture

Despite commercial success and recognition abroad of the humor, colorfulness and aesthetics of his oeuvre, Jean David was not a big star in Israel, where some did not see his graphic design as art. Revisiting the man and his work, on the 20th anniversary of his death.

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

In 1955 a competition was held to design the poster for the first Purim parade, or Adloyada, to be held in Tel Aviv since the declaration of statehood. Two young graphic artists, Paul Kor and Samuel Grundman, decided to vent their protest over the fact that one artist had repeatedly won these sorts of contests in the past − even ones for which the submissions were made anonymously. Apparently, despite the anonymity, each time the judges had been able to recognize the special style of this artist: Jean David.

Kor and Grundman submitted an entry in a “Jean Davidian” style, and indeed it won. It was a case of premeditated plagiarism, an act of defiance against David’s style and the method of judging such competitions, and as such also received substantial press coverage. However, beyond its anecdotal value, the act attested to the dominant place occupied by David − the 20th anniversary of whose death falls this month − in Israel’s visual culture back in those years.

David, born in Bucharest in 1908, did more than create posters. He was responsible for the interior design of El Al’s first Boeing aircraft and the airline’s passenger halls in the airports in New York and London; he was responsible for the decorative walls in passenger ships owned by Zim, in its heyday; and created large-scale artworks for various hotels in Tel Aviv, the Weizmann Institute, the Technion−Israel Institute of Technology, Hebrew University and more. In 1954, David also became the first local artist inducted into the Alliance Graphique Internationale − the most important association of graphic designers in the world, an honor granted to only a few Israelis to this day.

“David brought something new. In contrast to his predecessors, he did not use a photograph as a main image, but rather a drawing,” says the designer and Israel Prize laureate David Tartakover. “His humor, style and colorfulness were different from anything you saw around here. He was a style in his own right. Not for nothing was he the first Israeli to win international recognition, the first Israeli member of AGI, and also the one about whom a big article was published in Graphis, a magazine [then published in Zurich] that was then the bible of the field. And it is for good reason that a large share of his works is still relevant today. His work is timeless.”

But success − commercial included − turned out to be David’s undoing.

He had studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris; applied himself in the realms of painting, sketching, prints, collage and so on; was considered a Surrealist despite not seeing himself as part of any particular artistic stream; and was among the first to respond to fellow-artist Marcel Janco’s call to help found the artists’ village in Ein Hod.

Despite the distinguished background and his participation in the second exhibition of the New Horizons group at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, in solo shows there and also on the occasion of the opening of the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv, and other achievements − David was not generally held in high esteem. His last important exhibition was mounted at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv in 1974. Following that, despite the fact that he continued creating, and lived until 1993, when he was 85, he was gradually forgotten.

A poster for Zim from the 1950s
“The Royal Couple,” a work by David from the 1950s.
A poster for Viva beverages.
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A poster for Zim from the 1950s
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“The Royal Couple,” a work by David from the 1950s.
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A poster for Viva beverages.
Work by Jean David

“Jean’s story is an unusual story of an artist who never engaged in teaching and who lived very comfortably from his art alone. That is an unfamiliar phenomenon,” says Ruthi Ofek, director of the Open Museum of Israeli Art in Tefen, and chief curator there and at the open museums in Tel Hai and Omer. “It was also the problem: He was never accepted as an artist per se in the local art world. People saw him as a graphic designer − and there was undoubtedly envy as well.”

‘Silver is not good for caviar’

A decade after he died, in 2003, a comprehensive exhibition of his works was held at the open museums in Tefen and Omer − and at the Rubin Museum in Tel Aviv, under the title “Many Faces.” Ofek co-curated it with Carmela Rubin, curator of the Rubin. But even after his death, David was not thought of any differently.

“The Jean David exhibition is equally boring and riveting,” wrote Ruti Direktor, art critic at the time for the Tel Aviv weekly Ha’ir. “Boring by any artistic criterion − Jean David was an eclectic and unoriginal painter, who was influenced by various styles in a transparent manner − but also riveting by any criterion external to art: in terms of the relationship between the artist and the state, the style of the period, the artistic trait of being a bohemian and society figure.”

David was born and raised in a fairly wealthy family. His father − as he told Esther Zandberg in a rare interview that appeared in Ha’ir in 1986 − would open and later end up closing one Bucharest cafe after another, “each lovelier and better than the previous one.” The most famous of these ‏(perhaps in Europe in general‏) was Cafe Corso, opposite the Romanian king’s palace, a meeting place for journalists, intellectuals and politicians. In the summer, Jean’s father would take him to the Black Sea. ‏(In that interview, Zandberg reminded David of a story told by his friend, writer Dahn Ben-Amotz, about Jean and his father supposedly eating fresh caviar there, with a silver spoon, straight from the belly of a live fish that was split open in front of their eyes by a skilled waiter. “Heaven forbid with a silver spoon,” David corrected the interviewer. “Silver is not good for caviar. It was a wooden spoon.”‏)

David had his first introduction to Israel in 1935, when he came for a visit and wound up staying nine months; already then he painted advertising posters to encourage consumption of citrus fruit and safe driving. He returned to Bucharest in 1937, and five years later, in the midst of World War II, escaped. He boarded a ship that was captured off the shores of Lebanon as it tried to reach Palestine. In 1944, after two years in a British detention camp in Cyprus, he finally arrived in the country and enlisted in the British navy.

David initially chose Jerusalem as his home. There he became part of a group whose other members included artists Reuven Rubin, Bezalel ‏(Lilik‏) Schatz and his wife Louise, as well as their daughter Zahara Schatz, and writer Ben-Amotz and his wife Lewensohn, pioneers of the advertising industry in Israel. Of these, the friendship with the Ben Amotzes was especially close and included daily get-togethers and meals; over the years David illustrated books for Ben-Amotz and Haim Hefer.

After he moved to Tel Aviv, David and his wife Suzy, one of El Al’s first flight attendants and author of the book “The Sephardic Kosher Kitchen,” became friendly with fashion designer Pini Leitersdorf and her husband, painter Yohanan Simon, as well as architect Arieh Sharon, interior designer Dora Ga, and others. The Davids were clearly members of what curator Ofek calls the local socioeconomic elite.

Tartakover, who designed the catalog for the 2003 “Many Faces” exhibition and wrote the section in it about David’s design work − remembers a scene that epitomized the Davids’ status: “I remember the first time I met him at his home. He was with a glass of cognac in hand at 5 in the afternoon, wearing soft leather moccasins. He was a character, someone who knew how to enjoy life, drove a convertible with the top down, lived on Hayarkon Street opposite the sea. He was a handsome man, dressed in European style, and this European of all people did the most Israeli things.”

Carmela Rubin, artist Reuven Rubin’s daughter-in-law, recalls the same image. “In the eyes of the young girl that I was, they symbolized the ultimate bohemianism. That’s how I learned how to dress and to act,” she says. “They had style. I remember going into their house in Ein Hod; it was like being in a movie. Suzy had exquisite aesthetic taste. Her style was a special blend of antique and ethnic stuff, with modern furniture. It was eclectic before the term eclectic became fashionable.”

“Suzy was a kind of Balkan queen, a bit loud, large, very tall, with strong features. He was small, quiet and cynical, sarcastic, with a special sense of humor,” says Micha Lewensohn, director of the Beit Zvi school for the performing arts. During his childhood, Lewensohn often spent time with David, his parents’ friend; he remained friendly with the couple thereafter as well.

“I would come to his studio and he allowed me to watch him work, which he said he never allowed anyone to do, not even his wife. They lived on Hayarkon, in an apartment that had big windows looking out on the sea. He taught me to remain silent. As a child, being with someone and not speaking for two hours − it creates a special and firm bond. Lying on the carpet, facing the sea, listening to jazz and leafing through a magazine or graphics book in well-designed surroundings, with the only thing disrupting everything being myself on the carpet − it was fun.

“He had a tattoo from his navy days, and back then it wasn’t so common. It made him in my eyes a pirate of sorts, even though he was as far from that as could be. It was the 1960s, and if someone had a tattoo on his body, it was usually a number from the camps... To a large extent he was alienated from Israel. On more than one occasion he said he was sorry he left Paris. He was not really fluent in Hebrew, he had a limited vocabulary. He was also always dressed differently, with special ties, in good taste. Their apartment was very beautiful and well designed, long before that was the ‘in’ thing to do in Tel Aviv. It was also really well maintained, because they were childless ... everything was in its place. And he had a sports car. Who had a sports car back then?”

Ofek sees the personal traits Lewensohn mentions in David’s work too: “He was a remarkable man, particularly in his sense of humor − a recurrent motif in his work, in his collaborative efforts with Dahn Ben-Amotz and Haim Hefer ... Perhaps it was considered a sin, but he didn’t go for Expressionist art but rather for pretty art − pleasant and soft. That was out of the ordinary.”

It’s a bit unusual today as well.

“True. We look for personal expression by a person who reveals all his troubles and paints them. In David’s case, you didn’t see that, even when he left Romania, when he was a refugee. He was involved in all the shenanigans and Purim parties in Ein Hod. He traveled around the world. He also did erotic sketches that Suzy never let people see. He was capable of doing a painting using one line from start to finish − a masterpiece.”

‘Cocktail-hour art’

The art critics of those years were less impressed. Reuven Berman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth about the 1966 exhibition “Faces” that marked the opening of the Gordon Gallery: “Usually this regurgitation of 20th-century styles and schools − from Picasso and Klee to assemblage, to pop and advertising design of the first degree − constitutes something that borders on parody. David’s brilliant ability as a joyful illustrator-artist is something of a weighty argument in favor of the legitimacy of entertainment as a genre of the plastic arts.”

Yoav Barel wrote about the same show in Haaretz: “Jean David attempts to create as beautiful a product as possible and he succeeds in this, but the exhibition lacks another aspect of plastic art: that of painting as an art form that does not deal merely with the aesthetic and the beautiful, but also expresses experiential contents beyond what is pretty and pleasant to the eye.”

In 1979, critic Dorit Levita wrote about “Private Renaissance,” a one-man show at the Arta gallery in Jerusalem, that, “Jean David perceives art as ornament and decoration. Art that is meant to induce a deliberate and representative cultural ambience, cocktail-hour art.”

For his part, art scholar Gideon Efrat thinks today that Israeli criticism and historiography have completely missed the essence of David’s work. “Too many people addressed his joyful Mediterranean-ism and failed to see what I increasingly see the more I look into the depths of his paintings: the Holocaust. There is in his pieces a profound element of this grief, especially in the urban figures and landscapes that look out like mute witnesses onto a dead world. This lends depth to his work, but also explains why it could not be accepted by the local avant-garde.”

Another reason, no less important, for that lack of acceptance, Efrat says, is the surrealist quality of his pieces: “David carried with him deep cultural affinities for an art that was loathsome here. It isolated him. He fit the bourgeois model too well, and the bourgeoisie were also the ones who bought his works. He never stood a chance of being accepted by the small circle that ‘mattered.’ He could do designs for hotels, planes or ships, but to the bunch at Gordon Gallery and the Israel Museum, he could not gain access, even if he had not been considered an outcast there.”

Art and Craft

But more than anything else, Efrat ascribes David’s exclusion from the artistic canon to “the dichotomy between craft and art. The affinity between design and supposedly free art was perceived as an artistic failing, as though the pure artist is not meant to deal with design that contains practical compromises. His ties to a circle of friends in the world of entertainment also didn’t help him gain acceptance from the exclusive system that differentiates itself from that of entertainment. He was also too old to be part of the revolution of Raffi Lavie and his bunch. In the terms of those days he was an old fogie.”

According to Tartakover − who as a 16-year-old hung up a poster in his room from a well-known series by David called “Land of the Bible” − Jean David was left outside the canon for a reason: “If he occupied an important place it is by virtue of his graphic works, not painting. There’s no getting around it: His art was less good, less interesting, compared to the originality he displayed in his graphic work,” says the man who titled his article for the catalog of the “Many Faces” exhibition “King David.”

“I remember I suggested to Izika Gaon, the design curator of the Israel Museum, organizing an exhibition for Jean,” says Prof. Dan Reisinger, an Israel Prize laureate for design, the second Israeli to be admitted to AGI and also David’s neighbor on Hayarkon Street. “Izika was naturally enthusiastic about the idea, but when I told Jean about it, he asked me in which wing of the museum the show would be. I told him in the design wing, and he said no. He said: ‘I am not a designer. If there’s an exhibition, I want to be where the painters are.’

“Afterward I also suggested to the Tel Aviv Museum giving him a show, but they blew me off, said he wasn’t relevant. I couldn’t understand it even back then. Picasso and Miro also did posters. Dani Karavan also did designs at the Levant Fair [Yarid Ha’mizrah] for exhibitions, people had to make a living. Today, all over the world, people use all sorts of media to express themselves. In the Renaissance era too, all the masterpieces we know today, they were all commissioned. It was the church’s most amazing visual ad campaign.”

Reisinger − who says David’s works “were original and his approach was not seen in Israel, neither before, nor after” − attributes David’s being overlooked by the established art scene to the fact that “times had changed and people began to do more self-promoting. David wasn’t like that.”

Notes Ofek, who credits David with “incredible visual perception”: “David didn’t generate groupies the way Raffi Lavie did, maybe because he never taught and there was no one who followed in his footsteps and ensured that.”

“He was a professional and knew the material,” Carmela Rubin says, in summary. “He was a real Zionist and understood the meaning of marketing Israel to the world. Even though he had been raised and educated in Europe, he tried to connect with this place. He may not have come from a traditional home, but the Bible was a kind of bridge for him and his early works contain a lot of recurrent motifs from it ...

“Ultimately he’s a product of his era,” she continues. “You look at the work and see the zeitgeist. And while over time the style did in fact change, he remained where he was; he no longer hit the mark of popular taste. Maybe the work was seen as too design-oriented, too Zionist. In art, whatever is unfashionable today, after 10 or 20 years will seem different. I am sure that in the future we will see his artwork in a different light.”

Avraham Hai Jean David in his studio in 1982. “He never engaged in teaching and lived very comfortably from his art alone − an unfamiliar phenomenon,” says curator Ofek.Credit: Avraham Hai
Ruthi Ofek. David preferred “pretty art − pleasant and soft.”Credit: David Bachar

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