David Rakia: The Paris Years
Curator: Ron Bartos
3 Jun — 12 August, 2023
David Rakia (1928–2012) designed his grave in his lifetime, imprinting the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin (ש) on the tombstone. “The letter Shin reflects my name, Walter Sternfeld, David Rakia in Hebrew,” said the painter, adding: “The letter Shin (ש) is reminiscent of the letter w, which is also a part of my name.” This exhibition is dedicated to the artist’s early work, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s—the creative period between Walter and David, between Sternfeld (field of stars) and Rakia (Heb. firmament, sky), and between Jerusalem and Paris.
David Rakia was born in Vienna in 1928. In 1938, following the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria to the Third Reich, he immigrated with his family to Palestine, and in 1948 he fought in the battle to occupy the village of Qalunya (in the Jerusalem mountains) and was wounded by a bullet in his belly. During his hospitalization, Rakia became acquainted with painter Mordecai Ardon, who taught at the nearby Beit HaKerem Seminary, and thus became interested in painting. From 1953 he studied at the New Bezalel School of Art under Ardon’s direction, and two years later he went to Paris, which was still regarded by Israel’s artists as the capital of art. In the French capital, Rakia led a poor bohemian life. In the cafés of Montparnasse he socialized with the Israeli artists who lived in the city, with the local Jewish artists, and with their French colleagues. Shortly after arriving in the city he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied various techniques of printmaking, painting, and monumental work. He was apprenticed with artist Jean Souverbie, who advocated rooted painting, based on structural logic, and a profound affinity between the individual and his place, and rejected the distorting brushwork of the École de Paris artists, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Rakia himself, then still Sternfeld, adhered to Expressionist painting, from van Gogh to Soutine, a style which was considered to have Jewish undertones and characteristics, and on the advice of his friend, painter Samuel Bak, he also adopted his new name—Rakia.
The exhibition focuses on Rakia’s “Paris Years,” but it also includes paintings from the days before and after his sojourn in France, on the geographical axis Jerusalem-Paris-Jerusalem. The earliest chapter in this body of work, which also included landscapes, is characterized by proletarian representations in the spirit of Social Realism, which began at the New Bezalel school and continued in Paris. The major chapter of work created in Paris spans Expressionist scenes, painted with a quivering, expressive, at times Cubist brush. Some of these paintings are also characterized by a Surrealistic-visionary-symbolic aspect, which gave free rein to the artist’s imagination and state of mind. The final Parisian chapter, which began in 1958 and continued to develop even after Rakia’s return to Israel in 1960, is a series centered on the motif of a bridge. These paintings were another step taken by the artist toward the world of the imagination: “Every bridge strives to lead beyond the firmament,” he said, as if he were trying to elevate the spiritual nature of his art beyond the world of reality and beyond himself. This is also a hint at his future work, which from then on increasingly followed mystical and religious paths.