Joie de Vivre
by Sorin Heller
This is the third time that I have been asked to write about the work of Alexander Bogen. Again, I find myself confronted with the greatest dilemma of the writer, how to express a work of art in words, how to bring across in a review of several pages an entire body of work, an entire life, the power of the artist. I faced this challenge in my prior reviews, where I have already praised Bogen, a partisan and an artist, a man who has recorded the chronicles of a period, commander of a partisan unit and painter of the landscapes of Safed and the Negev. But behind these words lives the exciting narrative of the man, his entire life and work.
This book relates not only the tale of Alexander Bogen, it is the story of an entire generation of writers, poets, musicians and all those working in the arts, many of whom died in the Holocaust. Some continued to work at their craft after the war, striving to build something new. Bogen's work is a kind of dialogue between two identities, that of the Jew and that of the Israeli, between two cultures, that of Vilna and that of Tel Aviv, on the background of the Modernism of the second half of the twentieth century.
In this book, a compendium of his life's work, the almost ninety year old Bogen has chosen to review and spotlight his more than fifty years of artistic activity in
Israel. He relegates the "there" to memory, to personal consciousness.
As far back as the eighties the artist made clear to Gideon Efrat that he did not see himself as a "Holocaust artist” but rather "an artist who lived through the Holocaust" (Efrat 1992). This clarification freed the artist from the obligation to deal exclusively with the Holocaust and allowed him to confront the fundamentals of modern art. This is not to say that the Holocaust, the revolt, the uprisings, and the need to refer to that experience ceased to be meaningful subjects of his art. He has returned to them, in concentric circles, throughout all his years of painting in Israel. However, in this time and in this place, he has chosen to discuss his art from the aspect of artistic developments in Israel.
As indicated above, Bogen's story is not only the personal biography of the artist, but the story of an entire generation of artists that came on aliya to Israel after the Second World War, and fought to be included in the cadre of Israeli art. This was, without a doubt the main thrust of the struggle of these artists, not only to be recognized as part of artistic life here, but to create an independent artistic identity within the new cultural environment of Israel. The "avant guard" streams in Israel, had become an unwanted "non grata" alternative to the establishment artists represented by the "New Horizons" group, the abstract artists of Israel. Bogen chose not to be in the opposition and is fully involved in artistic life here. Zaritsky, Streichman, and Krize are comrades in art. In 1969, Bogen was appointed head of the Artists and Sculptors Guild of Israel.
The artist's search for identity travels the paths of Modernism, "And if we speak of origin, my appreciation is for the colorization of Matisse and the daring and composition of Picasso". The search for artistic identity may be an explanation for Bogen's variety of subjects and styles, at a time when modern art in general, and Israeli art in particular, is directing itself to the formation of a unified style, a single language. This distanced him from the abstract artists of the "New Horizons" group who strived for a bright language, a clear signature, their proposition wrapped in the secrets of artistic language. In his abstract work, Bogen has chosen his own path.
The thematic and stylistic routes he has travelled, painting the landscapes and peoples of this land, and occasionally circling back to the forest, does not enable a chronological reading of his works. We can, nevertheless, divide his work into three stylistic time frames.
The first period, from the time of his arrival in Israel until the mid-sixties, can be categorized as what the artist calls the "realistic" style. The paintings are mainly figurative, concentrating on oriental figures, works such as "Woman holding Jug", "Arab on Donkey”, "Children". Intoxicating in their colors, these are mainly depicted in gouache, and their splendid tones succeed to arouse in us the scent of the land, the feel of the sands of the ma'abara. Although the images are figurative, the textural handling of the material belongs more to abstract art. In addition to the brush, Bogen makes use of the pallette knife or sprays of color and here can be considered abstract modernistic art.
That same enthusiasm for picturesque characters, the exoticism of the new land, can be seen in his approach to the landscape, scenes of Jaffa, Safed and the Negev. His landscapes on canvas and the watercolors and gouache on paper are notable for their vivid passion for the land: "The leitmotif is the musical aspect, the color and composition". Already at this stage of his work, especially in the landscapes, the artist's style is tangent to the abstract.
Bogen loves to journey, Paris, Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City, Sau Paulo and back to Paris, Braunschweig, Lodz, Warsaw, Cracow. In Israel he journeys to the Kinneret, Safed, Petach Tikvah, Tel Aviv. Safed and Tel Aviv are his central axis. In Safed the artist creates his artistic scenes often in the company of Moshe Rosentalis. These artists share the hometown of Vilna and an inclination to paint views of Safed and Jaffa. They each enjoy painting a kind of spontaneous "a la prima" sketch on a small format, on a carton surface. These formats can be considered "friendly", in contrast to the threateningly large canvas, which forces confrontation and demands total control. The white canvas has no known codes, the artist must reinvent each time. It never seems complete, demanding constant change, additions. And of course, for Bogen, the message must be conveyed.
In contrast, the small, intimate, friendly format, contains its own codes. Consistency continuity, organization are important. Sketch becomes painting, painting follows painting, until we have a kind of album of Safed, its synagogues, and tapestry of characters, the hustle of the marketplace - a conglomerate of a village in Lithuania and a Turkish bazaar. Behind the sure hand of the artist, here is much love of life, of the Land of Israel and of the art of painting.
The landscapes, for example of the Negev, are laden with a magical, mystical atmosphere, the painting is almost abstract, with just a hint at structure. Is this a Beduin tent, or a sheik's grave? A kind of nocturnal aura envelops the painting, twilight in the desert. The texture is rich and many layered, layer covers layer, but through the density of the paint, the layers are transparent. The artist exposes his subject, arouses the viewer to roam the painting's depths. As indicated above, Bogen obligates himself to a statement, to a search for that metaphysical, mystical nucleus hidden under the layers of paint. There is a kind of surrealism in the manner in which he guides us to discover that nucleus. In the paintings the proposition, the hint at the story is created by the correlation between the "almost childish" anonymous, human figure and the material background, rich in layers of color. This approach reminds one of local artists such as Aroch or even Ardon, but also the Frenchman Jean Dubuffet and the Russian-American Arshil Gorky working in Paris.
The second period, which Bogen terms half-abstract begins in the mid-sixties until and late seventies. Most of his portraits can be linked to this period, which also includes colorist compositions which suggest images. Concurrently, there is Bogen the nature lover, with his "joie de vivre", joy of life, the smell of the sea and the earth of the Negev, the tableaus of old city of Safed, and Jaffa port. He chooses to participate in what is happening here in his new homeland. He becomes part of Hebrew culture.
The abstract principle, based on the beat, on the musicality of color applies also to his many portraits painted over the years. His control of expression, and especially the finely-honed ability to sketch, enable him to edit the distortions: physiognomical and anatomical, into space and color. Many of his portraits are of the female figure, some nude, articles of clothing, hats, coats, dresses. Here too, the style is variegated, from touches of Povistic color, expressionist distortion, to a conceptual approach in describing light and shadow. Together they create a mosaic of figures and personalities which display an individual signature.
Too here, as in the portraits, the artist conceals his subject. The space is obscure and the artist does not simplify, creating a kind of material barrier of layers through which the observer must make an effort to delve and understand. This requirement of the viewer to work through, to dissolve the barrier, is in my opinion the ultimate request from man to rise above the material, in an effort to attain spiritual values. For Bogen his painting, especially on the subject of the Holocaust, is his effort to bring about a high degree of metaphysical merit as the response to destruction. It is the continuation of life.
The third period, which the artist refers to as "the stage of abstract paintings" is linked chronologically to the eighties. Some of the paintings are abstractions of the landscape, or partial landscape, for instance the painting which Efrat called
" The Walls", a translation of wall views in Jaffa to the language of painting. The peeling paint and plaster have become a colorful, almost abstract, magical weave.
Thus, for example, the origins of the conflagration painting, connected iconographically to the Holocaust, are in the scenes of Jaffa, translated into a wellspring of powerful, painted poetry. Efrat sees in these canvases paintings which are a supplementary chapter to sketches from the forest, "Response and Completion" (Efrat 1991). To a large degree one can see these as a rebirth, the victory of life by means of the artist's craft.
An additional group of abstract paintings is that in which the artist makes use of the architectural image, the structure, the building's framework, the architectural components. These images have dual meaning, on the one hand they indicate the foundations of building, but on the other, the tension between them and the background devours them. The dissolution indicates the dimension of destruction. It appears that the artist, even while adhering to the aesthetics of the abstract painting, cannot relinquish his statement, his prophecy.
The treatment of the background as a field of complex color made up of areas almost geometrical in nature, can connect him to the artists such as Michael Gross, and especially Ori Reisman. On the one hand, like Gross, Bogen's surfaces of color are not an abstraction of the landscape, on the other hand they are laden with symbolism like the color surfaces of Reisman.
Another group of paintings are dedicated to the ecology. The rich color and the images of the ecology paintings originate in the eighties. The abstract paintings of the eighties are also the wellspring of the geometrical structures formed here. In the ecological paintings the Holocaust becomes a metaphor for a universal holocaust, from the slaughter of the Jewish people to the destruction of the entire universe by man. The painting's surface contains a metaphorical meaning of Universe, in which two opposing powers battle it out - creation and destruction. Symbolically, the blue of the sea is confronted by the dark stains of polluted materials. Here too the artist creates a kind of architectural structure which contains the composition. The color work on the surfaces, the seemingly cubistic angles, float on the background. Notwithstanding the complexity of colors and shapes, what unites the paintings is the effort to reach an aesthetic creation, a kind of balance between the differing elements. For the artist, his dictum and prophetic vision, are presented through the complex of colors, the laying on of the brush, the layers of transparency. Perhaps the term "maestro" suits Bogen's work, in the sense of his control of material and the tools of his craft.
His colorist work, his tactile affect, through the tool of abstraction of shape, and the manner in which he connects to the modern masterpieces, especially to Picasso, presents us with an artist who speaks a unique language. His imagery, the many landscapes of Israel and lands abroad, together with his compositions of the forest and the ghetto create a variegated body of work, a wonderful combination of "there" - a world that has been extinguished - and the experience of rebirth in a land being built up, a new homeland. The artist's work provokes us to a relevant discussion of what it means to be an Israeli.
Alexander Bogen's life and work are to a great degree our own story, and our struggle for self-identity.