Those who burn paintings

Cultural terrorism is nothing new. Everybody knows about Palmyra and the giant Buddhas being blown to bits by ISIS. The tactic of destroying religious identity is the most ancient form of terrorism. That is why it must be addressed for what it is, straight out.

In Israel on Thursday night, terrorists are believed to have torched the art studio of internationally important artist Yoram Raanan. When one culture desires to end another, first intellectuals are murdered and then art and history are systematically destroyed. In Israel, few believe that the fires raging across the nation were not at least partially organized by Palestinian factions, much like the stabbings and car attacks. A culture losing its art and history to terror is a culture being brought down. The new onset of cultural terrorism brought to fruition by Palestinian terrorists must be addressed very fervently and immediately.

On Thursday night Yoram Raanan’s art burned in at Moshav Beit Meir outside Jerusalem. Apparently there have been arrests. In spite of arrests, no incarceration can bring back the loss of many, many paintings by Raanan. Yoram Raanan’s paintings hang in the reception hall at the Kotel, where dignitaries from across the world are hosted below them. They hang in major galleries, hotels and private collections all over the world. Raanan has been recognized as one of Israel’s most important painters.

Now, except for the paintings already hanging in distant places, they are all gone. Tragically and ironically, several of Yoram’s most important works were lost simply because he had an eye to preserve them in his studio and not sell them, much as Pablo Picasso saw fit to keep his most important work for prosperity. Today we have the Picasso collection almost intact; but we shall never see the early masters of Yoram Raanan because of the malicious terrorist attack on Moshav Beit Meir.

Art is the currency of culture. It represents the beating heart of a time and place and people, as well as the spiritual mindset of a culture. Art represents the religion of a people and no modern artist has represented the inspired Jewish spiritual experience better than Yoram Raanan. No piece of art is as important as a single life, or the loss of it worse than the horrific injuries suffered by those in places such as Maale Adumin; let me be very clear about that. On a personal level, no work of art is as important as the loss of a home and the cherished memories within. I know this from my own experience of losing everything in a fire.

However, beyond these points, like so many other times for Israel, the recent incidents of arsonist terror are a reflection of Israel’s struggle. When citizens are stabbed at bus stops by working class Palestinians who kill for a cash payments to their families, it becomes every citizen’s problem, of course. The act itself represents the insanity of terror over political honesty (for who could say a true partner for peace exists?). The results of the act is loss — and in the case of burning down art, it is a loss of national importance. When a nation’s art is burned like chaff, the culture itself is damaged. This is why the loss of Yoram Raaanan’s masterful paintings in the Beit Meir arson is a national tragedy and why the perpetrators of this attack must be charged with national level crimes and pointedly prosecuted for the loss the Raanan paintings. There is no doubt in my own mind the loss is worth millions, no matter insurance or not-I saw the writing on the gallery wall, Raanan was rising to the very summit of international art. When arsonists lit fires at the edge of Moshav Beit Meir on Thursday night, they set forth on a criminal act of unimaginable loss for the international art community and destroyed a collection of national importance to Israel and the Jewish people.

Before the fire. Yoram Raanan's studio at Moshav Beit Meir (YouTube Screenshot)
Before the fire. Yoram Raanan’s studio at Moshav Beit Meir (YouTube Screenshot)

I first met Yoram during a trip to Jerusalem in 2011 and visited his studio at Beit Meir. I had become interested in modern Jewish and Israeli art after writing a story about Alfred Skondovitch, the Jewish artist who abandoned Manhattan suddenly in 1949, leaving paintings hanging beside those of de Kooning and Rothko. He was arguably the most promising artist of his day, receiving more praise than even deKoning. He fled to Fairbanks, Alaska to paint for thirty years, eventually producing many masterful paintings discovered after his passing. His journey set me on my own and I began studying Israeli modern art.

In Israel, I sent weeks visiting the studios and galleries of Jerusalem artists, as well as the Musrara photography school and the Museum on the Seam and major collections. I spent time with master painter Arie Azene and ceramist Rutti Barkai before going farther afield to traipse across the country looking for blown glass, printmakers, sculptors and painters. Eventually I found Yoram Raanan in his studio in Beit Meir and it was there I encountered paintings so immediately magnificent, I found them intimidating. I had met a master and I knew it. Images of mystical beings, souls, wanderers, the enlightened and the found. And most importantly I also saw the Divine Light that was there too. At Beit Meir, I ceased my journey looking for the master of Israeli modern art. He was there, in his studio, entranced by his connection with the Lord and filled with the light of the divine, his paintings literally flowing from his fingertips onto the canvas–singing out joyously through the beings therein. There they were, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and the heavenly hosts. It took me back a few steps. To me, Yoram Raanan’s paintings bring the Divine to our own presence. In Raanan’s abstracts of Jews in the Divine light transcend time and medium. He is certainly among the very best artists Israel has produced.

Before the fire. Yoram Raanan’s studio at Moshav Beit Meir (YouTube Screenshot)

Most Raanan paintings are figurative images in mystical scenes. There is an immediate sense of place, of belonging. Many are scenes of gatherings and almost always a sense of journey, of wandering, of seeking and longing. The colors are brilliant, happy, gloriously bright and promising. In Raanan works, even longing and searching are filled with G-d’s positive light. Always there is a sense of connection, uplifting and rejoicing. Always there is the presence of the divine, for that is what flowing from Raanan’s very fingertips as he prays and paints what he is directed to paint. And they are luminescent, as if the Lord Himself were casting a light through the pigment. Jewish wanderers under divine direction moving along a timeless thread with a timeless Holiness.

Among the lost Raanan works were several very important masterpieces, lost forever. Knowing what pieces are gone is very difficult. I know of several that should have been in a national vault. Many were worthy of the greatest museum collections and I am convinced many of the surveying pieces will accelerate in value now that they are among the survivors of Beit Meir. Israelis are notorious pooh-poohers of such promotions, but the losses I describe here are of international importance to the art world. In years forthcoming, it will become significant that the loss of the paintings of Yoram Raanan created a major hole in Israel’s modern art collection. After all, it is a very young country, and in spite of Raanan’s art being current, it will not be current for long in the overarching scheme of things. I am very thankful I was able to see some of Israel’s greatest modern masterpieces before they were destroyed by nationalist criminals.

Yoram Raanan in his studio before it was destroyed by fire in November 2016 (YouTube Screenshot)

The day I visited Raanan’s studio at Beit Meir we spoke about mysticism while standing in his garden studio with his wife Meira and what it meant to him to paint the divine. A humble man, he graciously attempted to explain his inspiration. Later we talked about the political situation (because Americans always end up chatting about the conflict) and I asked what he thought would come of it all. I shudder to recall what he said. “It could possibly be catastrophic.” It has become catastrophic for the nation, in the form of a lost little art studio on a moshav miles from the Green Line. When arsonists use fire to destroy art, whether it is in a national gallery or a local studio, the charges brought against them must include nationalist charges of terrorism. At Beit Meir, undoubtedly, life will be restored and the community will rebuild. And master artist Yoram Raanan will carry on, too, painting the Divine in spite of the forces of fire and also the forces of evil.

Patti Moss David is a California writer who focuses on Jewish art, history and culture.

About the Author
Patti Moss David is a California writer who focuses on Jewish art, history and culture.