An article from Marek Yanai’s catalogue, Ma’ayanot Gallery, September 2004, Jerusalem
Many years ago, in the early days Of my academic career, I was taught R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art, in which the author made the distinction between “art” and “craft.” The craftsman, he wrote, knows the purpose of his work from the very beginning – after all, he has a specific commission – and he selects his tools and organizes his activity accordingly, in order to accomplish that purpose in the best way possible. The artist, on the other hand, cannot tell exactly in what direction he is headed. He experiences self-clarification and self-awareness in the unconscious process of his work. There is constant trial and error, and only at the end of the road, when the work is complete, is he able to understand what, in fact, its entire purpose had been. Thus Collingwood, the standard bearer of art as expression.
My hair has thinned and grayed with the years, life has taught me some lessons, and I hereby declare: It is simply not true! All those distinctions between art and craft count for little. Do we not know wonderful craftspeople who are superior artists in their field? And of course we know marvelous artists who have a clear picture of what their works will ultimately look like. Mozart, for instance, testified that he had an entire work written in his head, and all that remained was to put the notes on paper. Can we not admit the existence of brilliant craftspeople who fill their carpentry or weaving with expression? And are there not artists whom we admire precisely because of their amazing technical ability to create beauty? In truth, what remains of Egyptian, Assyrian or Greek statuary beyond their legendary craftsmanship? It is hardly necessary to mention, for instance, that Egyptian sculptures were created from obligatory, predetermined models, created, that is to say, as a “craft.”
All this is to say, with the confidence of age, that not every house painter is a Rembrandt, but there are definitely house painters whose trade is their art. Moreover, I no longer know where “craft” ends and “art” begins, or whether such a distinction even exists (in the case of Rembrandt, for example). And what is my purpose in writing this? To make my point that Marek Yanai is an artiste extraordinaire.
Modernism has forced us to become apologists when it comes to academic painting. All the stories of how Van Gogh suffered in Ferdinand Cormon’s atelier, shackled to a regimen of lessons in color, light and shade, perspective, anatomy and so on – all this has trickled down to us and left us with a residue of hostility towards those dark citadels of learning, those towers of oppression, the art academies. Art is born outside the walls of the academies, the modernists have taught us; and here too, in Israel, we only learned to identify art from the moment the modernists rebelled against the Bezalel Academy of Boris Shatz. In the 1970s, a group of Bezalel students sneaked into the classes of Yitzhak Pugacz and Yosef Hirsch under cover of darkness, so to speak, at a time when they were rejected by their avant-gardist colleagues.
Quantities of turpentine flowed in the various streams of abstract art until we finally recognized the Great Absence in Israeli art: basic academic knowledge, the training to represent things with a high level of skill. Was it the Russian Immigrant artists who held up a mirror to our deficiencies? Was it a weariness of “The Want of matter”? Or perhaps the iberation of post-Modernism ended the suppression of academic realism? The case of Israel Hirschberg, as a realist artist and a leading teacher of realism? Maybe the rediscoveries of Ludwig Blum? Or the rise of photography, and the technique of painting according to photographs? In any event, many of us become captivated by the charm of basic, ostensibly objective, representational skills, free of the camera as intermediary, translating the eye to the hand and vice versa, replicating landscapes, people, interiors and objects through the prism of selection. And the opening of the Musèe d’Orsay in Paris, with its neglected 19th-century treasures, opened a warm place in our hearts for academic realism.
This is not a purely Israeli phenomenon, therefore, and it is as well not to belittle it and reject it out of hand as decadent, post-Modern reaction. For years, abstract painters were rightly exempted from the need to prove their academic realistic skill; but today it is proper to defend academic realism, with its glorious historic depth, as a respectable artistic option that is no less valid than others. There is no need to restore academic realism as the foundation of art studies – there are important creative modes that manage very well without that kind of knowledge – but it should be taught. Year after year, end-of-year student exhibitions disappoint us with lackluster skills in realistic painting. I mention this in order to lake off my hat to Marek Yanai’s persistence and faithfulness. Over decades of artistic isolation, he has honed his academic-realistic language, and now teaches us a thing or two about painting.
But what about the “I” In art, you will ask? Where is the artist’s personal freedom of expression when all his/her powers and creative sources are focused on technical artistic skills. With all respect to the eye and the hand, what about the idea, the emotion, the drive?! Let us take it slowly. Locating the “I” in art is a speculative assumption which is based on metaphorical understanding: the movement of the paint brush shows emotional turmoil, monochromes symbolize melancholy, sharp contrasts indicate aggression, and so on. In other words, as we have learned from Nelson Goodman’s Languages of art, discerning the subjective expression is in the eye of the viewer, not in any objective feature of the work itself. I hereby testify that the “I” is definitely present in academic realistic painting, only it demands greater effort and detective work on the port of the viewer-interpreter. It seems. at first glance, as if the realistic painter has suppressed the “I” in his “objective” approach to the representation of landscape and people (for example): but that elusive “I” will appear in the detailed comparison of the artist’s paintings, or in meticulously tracing his/her perception of light, composition, visual view-point, subject matter, color preferences, etc. Then, hidden as a metaphor of obsession (or anxiety or eros) and camouflaged under a non-egocentric representative technique, the “I” will surely emerge.
This brings us directly to the paintings of Marek Yanai; but the reader will forgive us a slight delay, this time in a local city context. I wish to place the painting of Marek Yanai in the non-obligatory tradition of good Jerusalem academic realism. I refer to the string of Jerusalem artists with roots in Bezalel academia (Shmuel Hirschenberg is the prime example, but also Aharon Shaul Schur); to Anna Ticho (her early work, until the 1940s), Ludwig Blum and Shmuel Charuvi; and to the more contemporary statements of Yisrael Hirschberg, Daniel Enkaoua, Eli Shamir (before he moved back to Kfar Yehoshua), Yemima Ergaz and others – up to and including Marek Yanai, the veteran in this group, having graduated Bezalel in 1970. There is almost no connection, nor has there ever been one, among these painters.
There is an isolation that compels the academic realist artist working in his Jerusalem studio or out in the field. Whether because of the marginal nature of the Holy City by comparison with the centrality of Tel Aviv, or its stigma of backwardness by contrast with its younger sister chasing after innovation, or because of the tranquility and introversion that allow for a Jerusalem experience relatively free of the Tel Aviv rat-race and the quest for what is “in” and “Cool” – these Jerusalem artists share a context and a certain local mentality that perhaps unintentionally encourages their insularity. Some of them, like Hirschberg, Enkaoua and Shamir, have achieved recognition in Tel Aviv. (In this context, to reinforce the above, Tel Aviv art auctions have taken an interest in the works of L. Blum and S. charuvi in the last decade, after years of keeping them at arm’s length.)
And now, to the paintings of Marek Yanai, and first and foremost his aquarelles. These watercolors revive my astonishment at his wonderful ability to capture the range of different light that filters through banks of cloud and illuminates, for example, a stone parapet in the foreground, contrasting church steeples in the Old City, and the buildings of Mount Scopus on the horizon. In that 1991 painting of a Jerusalem landscape, I experience a polyphonic paean of light, entirely serene yet rich in nuance, creating In my mind an association with Vermeer’s view of Delft. In a similar-sized work of the same year, Mount Zion intrudes from the left like the prow of o ship, replete with shadows, the Old City wall flowing in its wake. It thrusts over the while roofs of Yemin Moshe, colliding with a burst of blinding light that rises from the Kidron Valley, and blends with the transparency of far hills and vast sky.
It is a Jerusalem scourged by light and shade, its landscapes Soft fabric of endless beams of light. Yanai’s view of the monastery of Mar Elias (1989), solitary among the far hills and under an autumn sky, shows the light filtering through the clouds and delightedly playing variations on the hillsides. In Quarry, Gilo (1992), the Sunbeams violently break over white surfaces, and meet the strong counterpoint of shadows in the quarry pit. It seems as if Marek Yanai does not paint the material world as much as the actions of the sun and the stains of its rays. The lyricism born on his easel gathers strength from the struggle between the light that splinters on angular structures (walls, roofs, parapets) and the translucent fluidity of the light that spills over slopes and plateaus. In these later works, the watercolors flow freely, and abstract transparent patches touch each other (see the slopes of Mount Zion in Palms at the Cinemateque, 1987). This is the source of Marek Yanai’s attraction to the Jerusalem tension between blocks of buildings and natural spaces. In the painting Lifta (1990), for instance, the view of mostly creeks and rocks is trapped from above and below within angular buildings. And, again, it is an act of creation by light, a kind of pictorial “Let there be light!” in which the amorphous and uncontained white flow finds its way between a roof and a twist of the wadi – and opposing it a well-smoothed whiteness among the sharp, angular shadows. What is built in Jerusalem by patches of light is built in the Dead Sea landscape by the shadows of the terrain and the rocks. The flat lake responds from below with the allure of its own calm brilliance, but is at the same time afflicted by the heat of the heavens and/or the baked-white fever of the land nearby.
No, there is no doubt about the language of Marek Yanai: the emergence of something heroic, a direct way of looking at the world and of viewing it as a realm of light that can be tamed. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and turned it into a tool of craft; Marek Yanai “steals” the sun from them and transforms it into art. There are moments when it almost burns up the painting, with whites and brightness playing out a symphony on the edge of fading and nothingness; but the artist, with barrages of while, always manages to orchestrate the duel between muted grays, turquoises and greens on the one hand, and shades of red and yellow on the other. These battles recall Cezanne, but demonstrate an amazing paradoxical ability to reconcile acute realism with a free flow of the hand. They are conducted as well in every one of Yanai’s many portraits; and from this aspect, every portrait is another landscape that survives between the sun’s scourge and the shadows. And this brings us to the heart of Marek Yanai’s personal expression: the relations between exterior and Interior.
The interior is Yanai’s answer to the power struggle he conducts with the sun. His vision seeks the room within a room, the door within a door, the window within a door, the window within the “window” of the painting, the entrance behind the door, and so on. In other words, Yanai constructs a secure composition of a frame within a frame; but, more than that, he channels the light, restrains it, and, by taming it, controls it, imprisoning it between light entering (from a door) and light shining out (from a window).
The interior is the artist’s home, his citadel. The shadows are only as deep as the house itself, and the shady house is the answer to the sun beating down. What is constructed of lashings of light outside is built up of curtains of gloom inside. An empty bed is illuminated by the light that breaks through a window-grill, its blinds open, its curtain undrawn. The light falls on part of on empty chair, standing by a half-open door, though whether inviting or rejecting the light is not clear. A number of interior stairs enveloped in darkness reflect the light of the courtyard that shines through o door. We have already mentioned Vermeer’s view of Delft in the context of landscapes, but we should also draw attention to the light flowing through windows and doors in that painter’s interiors. (And compare both artists’ use of floor-tiles, carpets and even a viola.) Yanai has done a watercolor portrait of his friend, Jerusalem painter Israel Zohar, who moved from Ein Kerem to London. Zohar once swore allegiance to Vermeer’s paintings, and Marek Yanai has reaffirmed the dialogue with that Old Master. The light that washes Yanai’s interiors is not a mystical-religious one, however, but a metaphor for survival: the war of electric light and shade inside and the sunshine outside. Yanai imposes a modus vivendi, a kind of respite, in the battle with the outside light. Rest and order characterize the interiors, contrasting with the turbulent dynamic of the violent light outside.
Metaphorical light. Pressing it into on interior and surrounding it with shadows symbolize the inner soul; while the victory of the bright and color-bleaching white in the outdoor landscapes represents the “I-world” relationship. The distillation of the soul is darkness. while the all-consuming whiteness is the essence of emergence into the world. Loss lies in wait in either place: sinking in the darkness of the self, or annihilating the body in the searing light outside. Marek Yanai endures in his paintings. Again and again he sallies out to the world in order to create it anew out of light, meaning: to save it from the light, to affirm it as a material entity and secure his own subjectivity. And again and again he returns into his house to ensure order in a world into which the sun penetrates only in safe and settled doses.
There is a tension between the “Heimlich” and the “Unheimlich,” between the home-like and the unhome-like. However, whereas Freud (1919) identified the “Unheimlich” os a horror that lurks in the house and then darts out of hiding, Marek Yanai finds tranquility in the house. Even if complete darkness within threatens to engulf him with nothingness, the shadows of the house are not fearsome but a protection against fear. It is outside that the angst lies in wait, in the very freedom of the “Dasein,” the individual being’s standing vis-a-vis reality. Only, this is the precise posture that guarantees the genuineness of the “I”. Marek Yanai’s interiors seem to affirm Emanuel Levins’ reflection, that sees the house as the answer to the human being separated from the world. “Home-like” means “acceptance by” and finding sanctuary. True, the absolute inner darkness is a form of meurt (dying) which has an echo in demeure (house) – a rhyming connection that Jacques Derrida insisted upon, and which exists in Hebrew as well, in the closeness of megurim (residence) and magor (terror) or migur (destruction). But within his home, Marek Yanai “sealed” a pact with the forces of darkness, and secured (temporarily, of course) his peace of mind.
The emergence of the artist is the Dasein going out to the real, to the revealed, and the revealed (thus Martin Heidegger) is the emergence of the phenomena from darkness into light. It is here that the war of attrition between artist and sun is waged. Al the present time, Marek Yanai has the upper hand.