Monday, January 9, 2012

The painting

The Painting

Hagai Cohen

Reuven Arbel was well known in the artist's milieu of Jerusalem. He and his wife were always mingling with the rich and famous art lover's of the city. Arbel was never employed by any formal establishment. All his time was dedicated to his work. His constant need for expensive canvases and paints was supported by his wife's income. He claimed he was selling enough painting to make a good living. It was patently false. He did not sell but had no real need to do so.
His wife was a famous dress designer. No two dresses came out alike from her boutique. Her clientele were the wives of foreign diplomats, government officials and affluent women. Mrs. Arbel’s social connections and her dresses made Reuven Arbel reputable in the right circles.
There were many artists in Jerusalem with endless subjects to paint but few customers to pay for their work. Also there were no galleries to show or promote their paintings. This was not the case with Arbel. With the money his wife made she supported her husband’s artistic passion. She bought a three story house, the top floor of which became his atelier – a 200 square meters loft with windows all around.
As an artist he managed to find sponsors and with their donations he founded "The society of the artists of Jerusalem." To add to his self-importance, Reuven Arbel detached himself from his fellow artists and placed himself above them. The artist's society became his own private secret society. He wrote the rules, he collected the fees from the poorer members, he put price tags on the exhibits and he pocketed commissions when a paintings were sold.
It was a common knowledge he and his close friends got better exposure. Other artists had to bribe him secretly for some attention. On top of everything else, Arbel appointed himself the 'jury,' deciding what would be exhibited and what would be not.
My father was one of the few artists who did not care much about Arbel. He was not keen on selling paintings. He did not need Arbel and was not afraid of him. On the contrary, Arbel was afraid of my father who was outspoken, and his opinions were respected by his colleagues. My father, who never liked Arbel, could expose his true face if he chose but never did. Arbel's fear of my father was the best reason to embrace him and even share secrets with him..
The first time I saw Arbel's atelier was when he had a stroke and died, and my father took me to the Shiva. I was impressed by the unique architecture of the loft.
I understood Mrs. Arbel’s grief was short. Before her husband was buried, she found the time to arrange several of his paintings around the loft and price-tagged them. She then spread the rumor that her husband had left her with a large debt.
The woman did not stay when visitors came to console her; she retired to her room to 'mourn alone.' The people who were left in the huge loft without any family member, felt uneasy. For them her effort to sell her husband’s paintings during the Shiva was in bad taste, and her pretence at poverty was pathetic and disturbing. It was uncomfortably silent in the loft. One man whom I did not know broke the silence.
"Who has the key to the gallery? We should retrieve our paintings before Mrs. Arbel confiscates them."
More people spoke, mostly on ways to retrieve their paintings. Nobody trusted her. It seemed to me that many of the visitors came just to make sure Arbel had really died and was buried; not to grieve and definitely not to buy his paintings.
Some people talked about the future of the organization but most of them spoke harshly about Arbel. Some even used the word 'cheat.'
"We all know" said a young painter "it was hard to get good canvases during war time and I usually recycled paintings I did not like. I remember one time when I came to collect my painting from Arbel's, I found it had disappeared. I never got a good explanation."
"Yes, you’re right.” said another. “It happened to me too. Was he selling our paintings?"
My father decided to speak.
"Please, please," he said, angrily, "shame on you. The man was buried this morning and you are already 'looting his chest.' Let us wait until the end of the Shiva. I promise to speak to the widow and get the key to the gallery. After the Shiva, we will convene in the gallery and decide how to proceed."
"She did not grieve for one second," said one.
"She will rob us clean if we give her a chance" another asserted.
My father tried to silence the voices. "It is an act of disrespect to the deceased and his wife."
Nobody listened and the volume went up, everybody talking and no one listening. My father was completely ignored. I could feel the rage building up inside him. He was not by nature volatile or violent but I knew he was close to exploding. Like a movie in slow motion, he got up, picked up the most expensive painting marked at 600 pounds and said, "I'll take this." He glared at the astounded people, then grabbing my arm, yanked me and stalked away.
My initial surprise turned to humiliation. I did not understand my father. What was he trying to demonstrate? That he was a rich man? That he was morally superior to them? That he believed the widow was really in debt and was helping her? I was furious.
My father had returned home after a long stay in hospital just before Arbel died. For over ten months our family had no income. It was my own idea to found a small chicken farm. With the income I earned I supported my pregnant mother, my baby sister and my seven years old brother. My earnings paid my father debts, repainted the house, fixed the roof and even fixed his truck, in which I drove my mother to the maternity hospital. I felt I had been working ten months for nothing.
My mother became frantic when she saw the painting.
"Where do you think to get this kind of money?"
I left home a few days later and moved to my grandfather who lived alone. I realized that my presence at home would sharpen the conflict between my father and me, and would deprive my brother and sisters of food. My family had very little food for several months. My mother and I hated the painting.
In the years following Arbel's death, Mrs. Arbel used her marketing skills to increase the market value of Arbel's paintings. First she collected the paintings he gave away as gifts on the pretence she was organizing a retrospect exhibition. She gave creative and fancy titles to the paintings like: "The Wailing Wall from the private collection of Herbert Samuel, the governor of Palestine." Just the fact the painting was in the collection was enough to raise the bids in the auctions. The high prices she demanded and received for the paintings established Arbel as a leading painter among the art appraisers in the country.
For over thirty years until my father’s death, the controversial painting hung on the wall of my parent's living room as an unpleasant reminder. Among the many chores my mother executed after my father died was to get rid of the painting. She gave it to my cousin as a wedding present.
Unfortunately that was not the end of the story.
Some years later, after my mother’s demise, my cousin and his wife decided to end their marriage. Neither of them wanted to keep the painting.
"You are the legal heir of your mother's estate" they said and gave me the painting.
I took it but only out of respect for my mom's memory. It would have been impossible for me to say, "Throw it away." Never having liked the painting I tried to give it to my children who politely refused to accept it. So I tried to sell it and followed expert advice. I gave the painting an antacid treatment, anti UV coating, kept it in controlled humidity and stashed in a dark room. I offered it to many galleries, but nobody wanted even to look at it. This unwanted painting was the cause for my brothers and sisters to suffer malnutrition for some time. It was the cause of my leaving home; it also gave my parents a good reason for constant fights.
The story of the painting was a trauma I have endured all my life. I have been unable to purchase a single painting. Feeling I had had enough of the painting dangling in front of my eyes, I relocated it to my junk room. Everything there was destined for disposal.
For years I did not enter the storage room, but one day when I finally opened the door, a strong chemical smell confronted me. After evaluating the smell and ventilating the place I found that a tin of turpentine had rusted and leaked its contents. The leak had damaged Arbel's painting beyond repair. I was pleased now I had no other recourse but to throw it away but, strangely I also felt sad to part with it after all these years.
I carried the painting to the garbage bin. I looked at it for the last time and noticed another signature in the corner of the painting.
"Wow!" I said to myself. "The famous Arbel painted on someone else's painting."
Intrigued I surfed the internet and found a restorations expert. After an initial examination, the expert did not want to promise anything.
"I'll look at it when I have time" she said
"Don’t work too hard on it, I am just curious" I said.
She called me a few days later, late at night.
"Sit tight," she said, excited and with voice all atremble. "The canvas was hand woven in the 16 century from real cannabis fibers. The signature though is modern. I was astounded and did not respond.
"Do you understand what I’m saying? The canvas is five hundred years old." Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "With your permission I shall send it for an x-ray scan."
She spoke so fast I did not have time to digest the information.
"You have my permission" was the only thing I said.
The verdict came a few days later; the x-ray revealed that under Arbel's painting was a painting signed by Josef Piamenta, one of our local painters. Arbel had stolen the canvas. Beneath that was an old portrait of a woman.
"The composition of the old paint is typical of the 16 century homemade paints," said the report.
It was not difficult to find Piamenta. He was in the phone book, ninety years old, had been living in the same house in Jerusalem for the last 60 years and with crystal clear memory.
"I never forgave Arbel for losing the painting,” he told me. “He said it was not good enough for exhibition but when I came to collect it, it was gone. He stole it for the frame and the canvas. One can save a lot of money painting on used canvases. No expensive treatment is necessary to prepare it."
I still did not tell Piamenta that the canvas was a relic of the 16th century.
"During the siege and war of 1948,” he continued, “I could not get any canvases so I roamed demolished houses and looked for old paintings. I found this large old cracked portrait and painted over it. I could never have afforded a canvas and a frame that size."
"Do you remember where you got this canvas?" I asked.
"In fact I do," said the old man.
"There was this German family in Jerusalem’s Beth Ha-Kerem. A big intersection is built on the site today." After a short pause, he continued. "The man was an expert on talking birds. He had a small zoo. He taught his birds to say 'Yacob,' his name.
"Yes I know the place," I said. "My father took me to the bird zoo several times."
"The man was a Nazi as Nazi memorabilia was found in his house," said Piamenta.
In 1947, when the state was declared, he sealed his house and fled from Israel. During the War of Independence, the house was destroyed by a direct hit from a canon shell. Exploring the ruins, I found this canvas and painted a demolished house on it."
I thanked Mr. Piamenta and rushed home very excited.
Armed with this information, I tried to find a way to restore the original painting. All the museums and galleries I approached gave me a negative answer. None was willing to take a chance. After the intense excitement over the painting, the let-down was unbearable. So one morning, I put the painting in my car and drove to Jerusalem to pay a visit to Mr. Piamenta.
He was very excited to hear the story.
"We need to drink to celebrate this moment," he said and fetched a bottle and glasses from a cabinet and poured scotch.
"Are you still painting Mr. Piamenta" I asked?
"Yes I am, but not much. My eyes are not what they used to be".
"Well," I said, “you have two choices, Mr. Piamenta. One is to paint a fourth picture on this canvas; or two, to find Yacob the Nazi and give him back his frame.”

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