Essays

2021, David Grossman

A Homiletic Reading of Matan Ben Cnaan’s
The Bureaucrat

At first glance: a group of people, men and women, boys and girls, stand on a patch of earth or coarse sand. Bright sunlight illuminates them, casting their shadows. In the background, an Israeli landscape in “Israeli” colors: green fields, red loam soil, a few cypress trees. Slightly farther back: low, flat-topped hills. It might be Hiriya, the national landfill turned tourist site. Most of the people look anxious, almost fearful. Why are they worried? What are they afraid of? What is it that they are becoming aware of?


In the center of the picture, at the focal point of the viewer’s attention, is an enigmatic encounter – or confrontation – between a silver-haired man who holds a notebook or document of some kind, and a woman who stands opposite him, fixing him with a piercing look. She expects something from him: An explanation? Action? The reversal of a cruel fate?

The Bureaucrat, Painting by Matan Ben Cnaan, Reading by David Grossman
Israel Museum 2021, All Right Reserved

2021, Amitai Mendelsohn

The Bureaucrat, Painting by Matan Ben Cnaan, Reading by David Grossman
Curator Amitai Mendelsohn

Matan Ben Cnaan’s monumental painting The Bureaucrat presents a dramatic moment involving a large crowd of women, men, and children in an open landscape. Despite the clear daylight and sharp realism, the meaning of this scene remains obscure. What is happening? Who is the “bureaucrat” standing at the center, clipboard in hand? Who is the woman facing him, her arms around the two girls? And what are they talking – or not talking – about?

The eminent Israeli author David Grossman took a long, hard look at this work and proposed a reading that scrutinizes details while offering a broad overview. In this encounter between a writer of words and a painter of pictures, two artists grapple with an enigmatic scene that is both collective and highly personal.

As with other works by Ben Cnaan, The Bureaucrat was created in stages. First the artist
imagined the composition, after which he meticulously orchestrated the scene he had in mind and photographed it from different angles. Then he returned to his studio and turned the pictures into a painting. The setting he chose to stage his scene one fine morning is an open area southeast of Tel Aviv, near the Hiriya Park. There he assembled a large group of relatives, friends, and acquaintances and, as they took their places, he “directed” each one individually, explaining his or her role and motivation, in order to produce the overall mood he envisioned. Filmed scenes from that morning accompany the painting in the gallery space.

Amitai Mendelsohn, The Israel Museum, 2021.

2019, Dr. Doron J. Lurie

Matan Ben Cnaan, Jeremiah, 2018 ; Rembrandt van Rijn, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630

When the young Rembrandt (aged 24) painted Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem in 1630, he depicted an old man sitting on a rock (?), reflecting and perhaps even lamenting.

His left hand leans on a hefty tome, to which someone later added the word BIBLE (just to be clear?). The old man’s opulent clothes are decorated with gold embroidery – an allusion to his status prior to the destruction. Beside him are silver and gold objects. The veins and tendons visible on his exposed leg and the furrows in his brow are masterfully depicted, especially when considering the artist’s young age. Despite his clear prophecies, nobody heeded his warnings, and he now must watch his beloved city, Jerusalem, going up in flames as it is destroyed by enemy hands. Behind Jeremiah is a giant pillar – perhaps a vestige of the Temple.

Dr. Doron J. Lurie, from the catalogue: A Decade of the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art, 2019. Editor: Dr. Doron J. Lurie

2018, Yossi Yonah

Constructing a World: Mystical Realism in a Local Context

“Paradoxically speaking, one of the implications of the international interest in Israeli art is the growing demand for ’locality,’” as the art critic Ruth Direktor argues in her introductory article to the book Israeli Art  Now. “In the previous century,” Direktor continues, “the commitment to local concerns and current events was largely embodied in the language of figurative art; art that was outward looking, and even art that was inward looking, were identified with abstraction. Yet since the sweeping return to painting and narrative, and by extension to figurative art, in the 1980s, the art discourse no longer requires an ethical adjudication between abstraction and figuration, nor there is a need to be judgmental in any other sense in this regard. Surprisingly, the blurring of boundaries, and the relative integration of Israeli art into the international art arena, feed the expectation for art that tells its unique story, responding to an intensive political and social reality.”


These developments in the field of art explain the interest garnered by Matan Ben Cnaan’s works both locally and internationally. His paintings share a preoccupation with “locality” rendered through the language of figurative art; they correspond directly, yet in a subtle and multivalent manner, with the unique reality in which he is embedded. Ben Cnaan joins a generation of artists working in a post-hegemonic Israeli art world, which is no longer plagued by a provincial recoil from the local and the figurative, and no longer shares the desire to bask in the universal aura seemingly emanating from the myriad manifestations of abstract art.

Yossi Yonah, from the catalogue: Matan Ben Cnaan Paintings, 2018.  Editor: Emanuela Calò

2019, Galit Landau-Epstein

Matan Ben Cnaan, Still Life with Sardines, 2009

Matan Ben Cnaan’s works almost always carry a social or political charge. He describes his work as the intertwinement of content and form, and notes that the content “usually is not heartwarming.” Although he does not frequently paint still lifes, he has created three paintings concerned with sardines: the first captures a coffin depicted as a can of sardines, while the second presents a row of sardines on a cutting board, ironically calling to mind, for the artist, the verse “Here lie our bodies in a long row . . . ” which appears in a 1948 poem by Haim Gouri.


In the third painting, which is included in the exhibition, the image of the sardines is influenced by images of mass graves, as well as, indirectly, by the sprats that appeared in the paintings of Israel Hershberg, one of the founders of the contemporary realist school of Israeli painting. The sardines in this painting are transformed into decapitated bodies piled one upon another as they float in an oily liquid. The image is viewed from above, with special attention paid to the textured wooden board upon which the glass bowl containing the sardines is placed. The conventional, everyday appearance of the sardines in the bowl is suddenly recast as a horrifying scene depicting a mass death, while the wooden board comes to resemble clods of earth that welcome the dead bodies.

Galit Landau-Epstein, rom the catalogue: A Decade of the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art, 2019. Editor: Dr. Doron J. Lurie