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The Bureaucrat, 200 X 400 cm. Oil on board. 2018-2020. Photo by Eli Posner. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 

Special Project

The Bureaucrat


A Homiletic Reading of Matan Ben Cnaan’s The Bureaucrat
By: David Grossman

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 silver-haired man seems to be the source of authority and knowledge in this scene. His head is slightly bowed. He listens to the woman without interrupting, but his passive yet stubborn posture implies that he is not amenable to her demand. He may have just read out (or may be about to read out) an official
notice of some sort, a harsh edict that will change the lives of these people standing in the field.

He is doing his job, neither cheerfully nor enthusiastically. In fact, he appears slightly embarrassed, almost ashamed of the role he must play. Another look at his face suggests a note of anger and bitterness at those who tasked him with this job.
And yet he will perform it thoroughly, uncompromisingly: subservient yet unyielding, he stands there absorbing whatever this woman directs at him and at what he is introducing into her life.

And he does not meet her eye. Is this because the woman is warning him with her fiery look not to utter the bad news he brings? Not to give his words the force of reality, of a fait accompli? Perhaps the only way he can deliver the blow is to
avoid her eyes. Hers, as well as the eyes of all these people in the group – the community? – who surround her.
There is no doubt: he is “the bureaucrat”; it is he who gives the painting its title.

The Bureaucrat

Painting by Matan Ben Cnaan

Reading by David Grossman

Curator: Amitai Mendelsohn, the Israel museum, Jerusalem.


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.

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