WALKING AWAY INTO “LITTLE BIG LAND” – Israel painted through the romantic eyes of youth

My phase of painting large epic landscapes in oils happened to coincide with a period in my life when I spent most summers in Israel. From around 1978 until about 1986 I went there every year, partly out of idealism and partly because I just loved making paintings of the place.

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“Walking Away at Ein Kerem” (120 x 170cm∗) – In the Jerusalem Hills – southwest outskirts of the city…

Looking back on that time now I can see that the two motivations were part of the same “condition” and fed an inner yearning to find expression for my youthful optimism and romanticism.

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“Astrud at Tel Hai”  detail (150 x 100cm) – At the south-western entrance to the northern “pan-handle”…

As I think I’ve said before on these pages, Israel, although geographically a tiny country, can often feel vast to the naked eye. Among the hills and valleys of the “pan-handle” of the northern Galilee, and especially in the arid canyons of southern Judea and the Negev Desert, the landscape creates an illusion of almost infinite enormity.

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“Pickers at Rest” (153 x 213cm) – Hired Druze pickers enjoying ice-lollies during a break from apple picking on the northern border kibbutz of Yiftach…

My initial efforts were okay as paintings but they failed to transmit the epic quality of the scenes I was depicting. But then I remembered a device often used by my favourite painters of “sublime” landscape, such as Claude Lorraine, William Turner and John Martin, which was to offset the vista against a peopled foreground. This not only gave scale to the views beyond, but also created a feeling of depth and a sense of “moment” with the human figures caught in time.

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“The Banyas Falls” (180 x 120cm)  – The source of the River Jordan, at the north-western edge of the Golan Heights, and thought by the Macedonian conquerors of 332 BC  to be the birth place of the god Pan – hence: the Greek “Panias”, now “Banyas” in modern Hebrew via the previous “Banias…”

So, from about 1981 I began to inhabit my Israeli landscapes with people, normally young people like me, walking away, down a track or road toward some distant horizon. And for me, then, it did the trick, seeming to offer a message of future hope into the bargain.

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“The Coach Party”  detail (180 x 240cm) – On a roadside cliff edge overlooking the Hula Valley in the north western pan handle…

Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) I failed to record most of the “Walking Away” series (I think I did around ten of them over the course of that year) on camera. In fact, I have very little photographic record of any of my people-in-landscape pictures from that phase of my career.

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“On the Beach” detail (120 x 180 cm) – A group of my friends on Ashkelon beach on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast…

However, I have managed to cobble together what you see here, including two from the Walking Away series (one complete and a detail from another) and the rest, mostly details and sections from other pictures.

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“Resting at Montfort” detail (120 x 180cm) – Our tour party taking a break on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Montfort just south of the Lebanon border. Hence the need for the M16…

Despite the incompleteness presented, I still think one can sense the romance, and the optimism of the mostly-unseen whole paintings.

Wanderers Detail 1
“The Wanderers” detail (130 x  190cm) – The first of the “Walking Away” themed  series, set on the road down from Tel Hai south, towards Lake Kinneret  (The Sea of Galilee).

(∗ All sizes refer to the full canvases)

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“YOU SAY MERON, I SAY MAROMA – let’s call the whole thing a tantalising 2800 year-old probability…”

In 1983 I painted one of my largest oil paintings on Canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the center piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/06/15/masterpiece-or-merely-a-collection-of-successful-daubs/), I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.

6 Meron - Mount Meron detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – distance detail

Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.

5 Meron - mid distance detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – middle distance detail

Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.

4 Meron - Cemetary Detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – foreground detail

[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough (see: https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.

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Mt Meron From Sefad

Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!

Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.

The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.

3 Maroma Sunbathed
Maroma Sunbathed

About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.

Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.

This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma!  The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…