In the superb example from the Ben Uri Collection, where it has been held since its purchase from Arthur Tooth’s 1938 London exhibition, Paintings of Palestine by RUBIN , Rubin the artist, face framed by a bright blue shirt collar, touches brush to palette in advance of reaching out to lay color onto an unseen canvas. A vase of delicately rendered flowers, a subject repeated in Rubin’s works, both in portraits and still-lifes, stands between the artist and his viewer. On the cover of the 1938 exhibition catalogue, another self-portrait from the 1930s (whereabouts unknown) shows Rubin in a similar pose, poised to paint and half hidden behind a lush bouquet of flowers – here with head wrapped in the artist’s turban.
“The vase with flower, a recurring motif in Rubin’s portraits, had come to symbolize the artist’s own mood… In the dark paintings of the Romanian period Rubin takes this symbol to signify redemption and re-birth. However weak or stunted the flower or plant may appear, its very presence invests the painting with a feeling of faith and hope;” (Carmela Rubin, Rubin: A Self-Portrait, 1993 p. 48) The single flower from so many of Rubin’s portraits from the 1920s has exploded in the 1930s into a full bouquet of flowers. The symbol of re-birth has grown into a lush, vital symbol of plenty.
The style of Rubin’s portraits shifted dramatically between the 1920s and 1930s. The flat surfaced, naïve style works of the 20s, full of symbolism and storytelling, have given way to the painterly exploration of color, light and texture. In the vein of the Impressionists before him, Rubin has grown enamored with the material possibilities of paint on canvas. Through his careful brushwork, each flower petal in his lush bouquet receives detailed attention. Light plays across the planes of the artist’s face, sculpting his jaw, nose and brow out from the feathery wall behind him. As Carmela Rubin wrote in the catalogue for Rubin: A Self-Portrait, her 1993 exhibit which included this painting “The thirties sees a great change in the self-portrait paintings. For Rubin, not unlike most early Eretz Yisrael painters, the experience of firstness and rebirth has by now played itself out. He relinquishes his mission as a harbinger, and now devotes himself to questions of paint and brush-strokes.” (p. 46)
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