| Old-New Land
 

Curator: Yigal Zalmona, Chief Curator-at-Large

Abel Pann's biblical scenes reflect a variety of nineteenth-century European.
Orientalist attitudes, according to which the East was a violent, barbaric place, but it was also idyllic, romantic, and drenched with sexuality. His representation of the Eastern woman as a sexual object or an uninhibited temptress is also typical of other Bezalel artists. Thus Ze'ev Raban illustrated the Song of Songs with a naked woman in the embrace of a man wearing a Bedouin robe.

Pann followed in the footsteps of a large group of nineteenth-century European artists who took a documentary approach in depicting scenes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: they painted as if the events had taken place in the Near East as it was in their own time. And since scientific method was seen as the only way to explain the world, it was also important for the artists of the period to validate even religious scenes, such as the events related in the Bible, by depicting them with as much historical accuracy as possible. That said, there can be little doubt that a very natural attraction to and curiosity about the exotic, the new, and the unfamiliar contributed to the success of this realistic approach in depicting Holy Scripture.

Abel Pann (originally named Abba Pfeffermann) was born in 1883 in the town of Kreslawka in the Vitebsk region of White Russia. His father, Nahum, was a rabbi and the head of a yeshivah, a religious academy, and Pann received a Jewish elementary school education in a heder until he was twelve. He studied the fundamentals of drawing for three months with the painter Yehuda Pen of Vitebsk, who also taught Marc Chagall and Ossip Zadkine. At the age of twelve he began traveling between cities in Russia and Poland, earning a living mainly as an apprentice in sign workshops. Aided by a wealthy matchstick manufacturer, in 1898 he went south to Odessa, where he was accepted by the Academy of Fine Arts.

The Kishinev pogroms, a turning point for the Zionist movement in Eastern Europe, broke out in the spring of 1903. Delegations were dispatched to appraise the destruction and loss of life. Pann also traveled to Kishinev and produced a number of documentary sketches depicting the scenes of devastation he observed there. One of these sketches was later transformed into a large oil painting.
The Day after the Pogrom (Yard in Ruins and Bereaved Family), which Pann submitted for his final examinations at the Academy. The Kishinev drawings were the first installment in an ongoing project of artistic documentation of the fate of the Jews to which Pann (as he himself writes) dedicated his life.

Pann moved to Paris in 1903. During his first years there, he continued depicting.
Jewish subjects - many of them from memory - in which he emphasized the misery of Jewish daily life. Eventually he also produced Parisian genre paintings in a free style. At the same time Pann was honing his talent for deft, psychologically insightful, humorous sketches and caricatures. His propensity for incisive criticism and his empathy with the poor and the wretched became well known. One milestone in his artistic development was the work he did for French illustrated journals.

In 1913 Pann began working in pastels and also prepared lithographs on the subject of Adam and Eve, but these early biblical depictions still belong to the humoristic phase of his work.

In 1912 Boris Schatz, the director of the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts in Jerusalem, invited Abel Pann to teach at Bezalel. A year later Pann arrived in Jerusalem to accept the invitation. His students, who included painters such as Nahum Gutman, later recalled that he had a profound influence on them: he heightened their awareness of the local colors and freed them from their dependence on an academic style of painting.

In August 1914 Abel Pann traveled to Paris in order to gather his personal belongings and return to settle in Jerusalem. Then World War I erupted, and Pann was not permitted by the Turkish authorities to return to Palestine - as a resident of France, he was considered an enemy alien. Forced to remain in Europe, he returned to Palestine only in 1920.

During the first years of the war, Pann concentrated on popular, nationalist posters and illustrations, including depictions of the German enemy's barbarity, which were aimed at inspiring patriotic feeling and strengthening morale.

In May 1920 Abel Pann returned to Jerusalem and resumed teaching at the Bezalel School. He established the Palestine Art Publishing Company in order to print his albums of Bible illustrations, to which he began to devote all his energy.

The most outstanding feature of Pann’s biblical paintings is that his heroes are presented as contemporary Middle Eastern characters in Oriental dress and local settings. The Zionist dream that the Jewish people was about to return to its homeland to "renew its days as of old" was manifested by means of the model he considered closest to the ancient reality: the Bedouins, Arabs, and Oriental Jews he saw in and around Jerusalem. These were his principal source for portraying not only clothing, but also physical characteristics, gestures, and customs. For example, because many of the local men took very young brides, he depicted the biblical Matriarchs as adolescent women.

Pann had other sources of inspiration to enrich his paintings, such as attire and jewelry from North Africa and silent films like Cleopatra that were set in the ancient Near East. The Oriental sets and costumes he had seen in the Paris ballet at the beginning of the century also influenced him, and he reproduced the exotic, fairytale flavor that had been so popular at the time.

In its early days, the Zionist movement regarded the Bible as the most important source book in the process of national revival. The return of the Jewish people to its land was also considered a symbolic return to the people’s ancient history, manifested in the biblical narrative. Writers, poets, and artists who were active in the movement at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth drew inspiration and validation for their work from the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and from the language of the Bible. Many Zionists saw this foundational Hebrew text as the ultimate historical and cultural affirmation of the connection between the people and the land. At the same time, the work of Abel Pann substantiated their view that truly authentic Jewish creativity could only be inspired by living in and relating to the Land of Israel.

"... [In Pann's work] we do not find - thank God! - a golden-haired Adam or a rosy-cheeked Eve. In biblical paintings on the soil of the Land of Israel, close to the Garden of Eden, there is no room for the ridiculous notion of setting Scandinavians in Eden." (Dr. Wolfgang von Weisl, Ha'aretz, 18 April 1924)

James Tissot (1836-1902) was a celebrated painter of Parisian high society when he underwent a personal crisis and a religious conversion that prompted him to visit the Holy Land in 1890. He remained here for five years, painting scenes from the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Shortly after his death, a Bible illustrated with his works was published in Paris, London, and New York. It seems that Abel Pann was inspired by Tissot's work when he himself began to paint biblical scenes.

From 1914 into 1915, the German-Austrian forces made great inroads on the eastern front, invading Russian Poland. Eastern European Jews living in the front-line areas were accused of collaborating with the German enemy, and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the Russian army: if not expelled or deported, they fled from the pillage, rape, and slaughter that followed the Russian onslaught. In solidarity with his persecuted brothers, and as part of his grand design to create an artistic record of Jewish history, Abel Pann decided to document the pogroms. In 1916 he created a series of fifty drawings depicting the many tragic situations of this period. Although clothed in an atmosphere of drama and pathos, these sketches resemble the eyewitness offerings of a war artist or photojournalist.

In 1917 Pann decided to take his works to the United States and try his luck there. A traveling exhibition of his art - mainly depictions of the pogroms, along with a few biblical subjects - enjoyed tremendous success, and he was described in the press as "the greatest Jewish artist". Markus Fechheimer, a Cincinnati shoe manufacturer, purchased the series of pogrom drawings - which became known as the "Jug of Tears" - and donated it to the Bezalel museum in Jerusalem in memory of his son. In 1925 the museum opened its "Jug of Tears" exhibition gallery containing, alongside the series, such artifacts of persecution as bloodstained and desecrated Torah scrolls. A few years later the exhibition changed. Pann’s series was put in storage, and now it is shown here for the first time in seventy-five years.

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