Contemplating Israeli landscape paintings

Sorin Heler

The first thought that crossed my mind upon observation of Einan Cohen’s paintings was that of devotion. Devotion to pictorial theme. Einan Cohen consciously chooses to deal with landscape painting, a genre where, one might think, everything has already been tried and done and written about.  A genre which reached a climax in the nineteenth century, with romantic and impressionistic painting, and which, one would think, could not be exceeded. Moreover, the modernist tendency during the final three decades of the last century pushed aside the confrontation with landscape painting, leaving it almost completely to the sphere of amateur painting, enveloped with the sense of localism, and even that by negation. On this background, Einan chose to paint landscape, and he does it with kind of stubbornness, contrary to all contemporary trends, in a consequent and prolonged process, out of a sense of holy mission or obligation, compensated with pleasure.  That is the devotion.

Einan Cohen’s work is based upon all the known parameters of the genre: choosing an existing landscape, in this case the landscape of Israel; relating to the landscape as to a model of creation; observation; and working outdoors.  The working process is composed of two phases: the first, drawing out in nature, constitutes a kind of prep rational outline that contains the composition or an outline of the space.  Already during this phase feelings are expressed and the position of the artist is exposed.  The second phase, working in color, is done in the studio. In most of the paintings the landscape can be recognized, even in the most abstract works, in which it is hinted, its presence is there, shimmering through the formation of the painting.  In these too, the landscape is the power that drives the painting and the factor that determines the formation of the painting.

Cohen’s work can be related to from a different angle, the one connected to abstraction, and it can be placed in relation to historical process in Israeli painting.  Abstraction in Israeli painting is connected to ideological organization.  The most prominent one is the “New Horizons” group, which saw in the abstraction of the landscape an attempt to construct a new and harmonious formation between the human image and nature.  In contrast to them, the painter of Eretz-Israel chose to depict the pioneer, controlling the landscape and conquering it.  To a great deal, abstraction serves the member of “New Horizons” group as a metaphor for the longing to reach outward, to be absorbed in a greater cultural space, to burst the borders of locality, to be part of the international activity.  The following generations, those who, during the sixties, gathered to form the “Climate” group related to Israeli landscape painting as to defining or bearing the seal of locality.

Cohen’s painting frees itself of such definition; it is possible, that his long absence from Israel during the Sixties estranged him to the local debate. To Cohen, landscape is not an ideological battlefield – neither on the broad cultural level nor in the attempt to regard the local landscape as a representation of Israeliness, nor on the personal level, from the position of immigrant, who regards the landscape as a foothold in the homeland. Cohen’s approach to landscapes lacks all romantic heroism; in his paintings we find no glorification of nature as opposed to man, nor a sensation of the sublime, the exaltation and the pain in the face of the wonders of creation that accompany that position. His approach is much more intimate than that of the painters of the ideological groups, but at the same time the abstraction of the landscape presents a kind of purification process, through which the artist leads us into the hidden and the metaphysical.

The artist’s central images, mountain and water, are well-known in the lexicon of landscape painting, but at the same time they are charged with references to artistic traditions of the twentieth century, like Kandinsky, for example. The same thing happens with the artist’s equivocal approach to light as a local characteristic that can be identified with Israel’s landscape, but at the same time it exists as an undetermined mystical being, which, despite it being such, determines the process of the painting.  The dialogue between Cohen’s work and known milestones of the history of painting is characteristic for his overall work.  Kandinsky, Monet, Action painting, Chinese painting – of those can be recognized the same way as the landscape can be recognized. It even seems that the artist enjoys this correspondence, and be it as a form of provocation.  But the artist does not leave us locked in artistic dialogue, and he leads us with the means of emotional conductors to the personal, metaphysical experience.

Einan Cohen’s landscapes are not tranquil. Quite the opposite.  In many paintings he is wild and storming, but at the same time intimate and close. This peculiar fusion of awe and wonder in the face of the landscape and intimacy is at the basis of his perception.  The first position requires a certain form of distance from the landscape, while the other demands a relationship of closeness, control and ownership.

When I went through the drawings, executed in color pencil, for the first time, I reflected upon Eastern concepts, such as Zen Buddhism, but they shone in the light of Israel. From the larger paintings, executed in Acrylic on paper, too, emanates a sense of Israel, beyond all interpretation offered by the artist or as I allowed myself to express, because Einan Cohen, born in Zagreb, who spent many years in Amsterdam and in Paris, is a painter of Israeli landscapes.