In an essay from 1970 by Yehuda Ha-Ezrachi, published in anticipation of an exhibition at the Engel Gallery in Jerusalem (a year after El-Natan passed away), the author tells how El-Natan described going with the painting in hand to Beit Ha’am (where the trial was held) and standing near the entrance. When Eichmann’s attorney, Robert Servatius, would pass, El-Natan would raise the painting, as if showing his client’s future. Do El-Natan’s works really foresee the future? Is it possible he saw things concealed from others? Whether or not we believe in his mysterious abilities, in this work we are witness to the free rein El-Natan gave his beliefs and his success in creating the image of a prophecy destined to come true.
The exhibition presents El-Natan’s narrative imagination. It contains works in which he attempts to tell a story, at times fictional, at other times poised on the border between imagination and reality. These works contrast with paintings inspired mostly by his aesthetic imagination. Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive; the narrative and the aesthetic aspects are very often merged in his works. But in some paintings the emphasis is on a story that occurred in the past or that will occur in the future (often past and future are mixed in his works – Einstein, Herzl, Ben-Gurion or Moses appear in one composition next to space rockets and futuristic aircraft). These narrative paintings shed a critical light on contemporary reality, instead of trying to interpret or conceptualize that reality through direct representation.
Let us take, for example, two works: Futuristic City and Futuristic End. Both show urban landscapes. Both are dominated by a brown-orange palette. Both are painted on cardboard, their size identical. And although only one work is dated (Futuristic City from 1955), I tend to think they were created in the same period.
Futuristic City presents an urban landscape at a morning hour, a landscape lacking identifying local features, with trees and vegetation growing everywhere. In the center of the city is an airstrip filled with spaceships and planes. In the sky, before the rising sun, a dozen futuristic aircraft drift in space.
By contrast, in the other work – Futuristic End – the sun is invisible, as are trees, planets and spaceships. The city lies in ruins. An image on the left side of the painting hints as to its manner of destruction – a huge mushroom cloud floats upwards. On the horizon, tall, menacing flames besiege the city, and in the sky a single airplane flees the inferno.
Gazing at these two works, we can read them as a single message. El-Natan seems to be warning us: this is your city, your country, your world, and you are standing, as ever, at a crossroads. One road leads to ruin, the other to salvation and prosperity. The crossroads gains deeper meaning in light of the period in which the works were made: in the background is a young state, founded on the blood and toil of its denizens and their brethren, now facing endless decisions and obstacles.
This prophecy, like the world itself, comes without operating instructions.
El-Natan tells us to find our way in the faith that our deeds are pure. His own way was the way of Torah, which guided him, at least during his life in Israel. But above all I believe he meant to lead us along the golden path of fairness and reason. With this faith we can, like him, touch the stars.