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
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
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
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.