A TRILOGY OF PAINTINGS
Michael Kovner /Childhood Landscapes, Portscapes, The Valley and the Mountain – A Trilogy of Paintings
Three books published by the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, 2007
Ariel Hirshfeld, November 8 2007, Ha'aertz
Nobody who has spent even one night on Kibbutz Ein Harod will ever forget the sight of Mt. Gilboa towering over him to the south, establishing the place of all else in the world. The eye is drawn neither east nor west, but directly to it. In the morning, one's gaze gravitates first towards the mountain. If you were born there, your entire world revolves around the mountain. Even the sky rests upon it. Michael Kovner drew the Gilboa from Ein Harod. This large page is the Gilboa from Ein Harod. Kovner grasped in it something that is neither a landscape nor a symbol, but rather a clear affinity between a man and a place: the mountain has left its imprint upon this drawing. The page is filled with the mountain. Even if you were born as far south as Be'er Sheva, you will instantly recognize that this mountain exerts a powerful influence on those who live across from it; it stamps them with its presence, and anchors their identity.
It is not necessary to observe the Gilboa in order to experience this. The view extending outside your childhood window is always a reflection of who you are: a dry ravine, with a field and a thicket of trees rising up above it, or a street and shutters and water tanks and a road. Yet hardly anyone in Israel has ever considered such an affinity to a certain view, or place, to be a fundamental psychic and cultural element – or has ever thought that a place belongs to those who inhabit it. Not only artists and writers believe this, but also most of those who reside here and live their lives in this country. The majority of them abandon the places they belong to over and over again, and hardly any of them respond to the ways in which local and state authorities rob and destroy their infrastructure – both in the countryside and in the city.
Kovner paints landscapes. In the book Childhood Landscapes, they capture his childhood among the citrus groves and barns of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh. The rest of themes images belong to two other landscape families: the sea and the ports in Portraits, and the Valley of Jezreel and Jordan Valley east of Beit-She'an – to which The Mountain and the Valley is devoted.
His paintings are far from being mere landscapes. They bespeak moments of contact, colored by a profound sense of love and belonging that binds together man and place. The focus is not on the beauty of a given view, but rather on its character, on the many ways in which it exists in time and on its unique quality. Looking at the barns and the recumbent cows in Kovner's paintings, you feel that the painter not only passed by and "immortalized" the appearance of a place or captured an "impression of it," but that he was there with all of his heart and soul. The cows are not represented by means of academic painting techniques, but rather through a slow internalization of their forms in the painter's consciousness. The painting, in the end, is the encounter between what the eyes see and the landscape's imprint upon one's consciousness. What is important about this "realism" (and it certainly is a kind of realism) is that it is not focused solely on the "artistic self's " communion with the landscape; rather, it attempts to touch upon the landscapes of a community – to capture the impact of the landscape on a man present in a given place, so that those who inhabit it will recognize its language. Mountains, trees and sand dunes all undergo a process of abstraction that reveals in them a kind of hidden logic, while the bold palette imprints upon them the impression of the soul. The dunes of Michmoret or Givat Olga, the Hamadiya ponds facing the Jordan Valley, the orange trees (which are distinct from the grapefruit trees in terms of the colored atmosphere that envelops them), the gang of wind-swept pines and beaches – all remain present before you until you exchange the terms "pretty" or "interesting" for "right"; exactly right. This is the place. This is its essence. Kovner produces something important and extremely necessary – the evidence of belonging. He creates an art of belonging in a place where this concept is barely understood.
"For several decades, the Israeli artworld considered realism to be a form of backwardness, while non-realism meant progress," as art critic Gideon Efrat notes in his important essay "The Bitter Taste of Realism in Israeli Art." The reasons for this are both obvious and touching: Zionism was a modernist enterprise. Only modernism could presume to project onto a perceived reality images of a return to ancient times, to the days of the Patriarchs and of the Song of Songs; or – on the contrary – to represent a new Hebrew "individual," who exists solely in poetry. Reality, for Zionism, was a highly symbolic affaire, and its language was incredibly flowery. The future was so powerful and all consuming that no present could rival with it; the flashing tongues of modernism alone could adequately represent it in painting – Expressionism and abstraction, which remained connected to the realm of the symbolic. Paradoxically, however, Israeli painting was so deeply pervaded by an awareness of its marginal status in the world that it engaged in the dynamic typical of minorities: it was obsequiously derivative, and allowed itself to be overwhelmed by outside influences. The New Hebrew Literature established itself as a strong and independent national culture with a unique character and tradition, and thus filtered outside influences; Israeli painting, by contrast, had no valid infrastructure. Local painters wandered in a daze between Montparnasse and Mt. Moriah, attempting to integrate Parisian innovations into their canvases in the sweltering heat. Most painful of all, however, was Zionism's refusal to see what was lying just outside the window. A real, profound form of realism would have revealed so much about the country's character: about its inhabitants, about its largely hostile landscapes, about the physical unsightliness of the Zionist project.
The attenuation of the Zionist tension is strongly related to the strengthening of the faculty of vision, which as led to the return of realism. This is not a "return" to ancient traditions of painting, but rather the liberation of the eye from the tyranny of ideas. The liberation of the senses; the diminution of the power of rationality and understanding. It is no coincidence that the leading realist landscape painters in Israel today – Eli Shamir from Kfar Yehoshua and Michael Kovner from Ein Hahoresh – are members of the collective settlement movement; nor is it surprising that the artist who previously touched that same fundamental sense of belonging that binds together a landscape and its inhabitants was Ori Reisman, a member of Kibbutz Cabri. The landscape in these places was overwhelmingly present, in a manner that overpowered all intellectual ideas and traditions. This was not a political landscape. It belonged to the people who inhabited it.
The sense of belonging that imbues Kovner's paintings does not amount to a sermon, nor does it appear as a violent imposition. Nevertheless, it makes a serious argument: the place belongs to those who see it. This concept of ownership is unrelated to the concept of property; it is connected to a feeling of familiarity, of loving and of caring. It exists outside of the realm of politics – in a cultural and psychic realm whose boundaries are richer and more fluid. This is not an invented form of indigenous identity or "localness" composed of forced equations. It is based on a powerful insight, an outstanding painterly talent and a poignant sense of being connected both to the landscape and to those who inhabit it. This is the realm to which the texts collected in these three volumes of paintings belong – intellectual essays and poetry that shed a subtle yet powerful light on the historical discourse concerning these three domains: Israel's ports, the Sharon region and the Valley. Sight alone transforms them into sites infused with the potency of life and of fate.