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Moshe El-Natan – Dreams of Peace & Prophecies of War

Past Exhibition

22.03.2016 - 17.06.2016

I’ve always been drawn to the swirling mists of the unknown. To life outside the boundaries of our time and space, where mythology ends and history begins. I’ve always wondered, is there, beyond the black velvet curtain of our life’s stage, a backstage full of actors and directors? Yet despite my desire to understand and accept the mystery of life, I was raised into a skeptical world that requires constant certainty. And there I’ve remained to this day, between a rock and a hard place, between great faith and the need for material proof. Moshe El-Natan (Khudadad is his Persian name; El-Natan, meaning “God-given”, is the literal Hebrew translation) was a man of great and true faith. One look at his paintings reveals his faith reflected in every aspect. Faith in his style of painting – which was colorful and “simply-complex”. Faith in his political opinions – stressing the importance of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, and, after the establishment of the state, the importance of preserving its power in the face of its enemies. But above all faith in a future concealed from all but the artist himself. This faith was expressed in a variety of images considered, then as now, to stand outside of reason. At times these were spaceships entering and leaving the atmosphere, as if cruising on an invisible space highway; at times they were landscapes of catastrophe and massacre, filled with atomic mushrooms springing up after the rain of war.

El-Natan was born in Persia in 1904. Soon his family moved to India, where he apprenticed with a street painter named Diharam, engaging in art for the first time. Over the years El-Natan travelled throughout Asia, until finding a home, in 1937, in a golden city named Jerusalem. Those first 33 years of his life are crucial for our understanding of his work, yet enigmatic. Presumably, his travels widened his horizons and fired his imagination. The encounter with a wide variety of cultures (most of them Eastern) provided background for the “naïve simplicity” seen in his works.
At his falafel “restaurant” on Agripas Street in Jerusalem El-Natan first displayed his works to the public: the restaurant’s walls and floor were full with dozens of oil paintings on canvas, cardboard and wood. The successful restaurant earned him his new nickname – the “King of Falafel”.

Beneath the surface, El-Natan attempted during these years to join the secret order of the Freemasons. His affinity for this group was expressed in many works made at all stages of his career. For example, his painting The Masons shows a steel square, a compass, Jewish symbols and a multitude of spaceships above a pastoral landscape, creating a sense of tranquility, a rosy future. But in the background, a wealth of tunnel openings and pathways lead into the mountain, underground, to the secret work that goes on there. Despite his efforts, it seems he was not accepted to the local lodge of the Freemasons. We do not know for sure why this is so (or if, indeed, he was rejected), but it may be because his opinions and vision were not conducive to those of Freemasonry, or because he poured the group’s ideas onto the canvas. He told those close to him it was because of his Eastern origins. In any case, Freemason symbols appear repeatedly in his works, sometimes covertly, other times openly. They are joined by many paintings that present the secret struggles between the black guards of darkness and the white knights of light, in the spirit of Freemasonry.

A few years later El-Natan leaves the restaurant, transferring it to his family. He takes his paintings with him and opens a haberdashery on HaNevi’im Street, which serves him as a studio and a permanent gallery. There he continues to investigate his dreams and visions, until his passing in 1969. El-Natan’s approach to his paintings and their display was ahead of its time. He was a visionary in his outlook on art, which saw art as originating everywhere and anywhere and arriving everywhere, with the aim of opening new horizons for its viewers – whether seen in a museum, a gallery, a haberdashery, or a falafel stand.

In April 1961 Adolf Eichmann stands for trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. Some months later, El-Natan creates a painting in oil on cardboard, in which Eichmann can be seen standing on a gallows, a rope around his neck, the rope held by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Beneath the gallows a fire is burning; dozens of skeletons and devils stretch their arms towards the detested man, pointing an accusing finger. This work was created months before the verdict was handed out, sentencing Eichmann to death by hanging.

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.