Photographs by Moshe Reviv in Safed

Avoiding the repetitive, kitsch Judaic art in the winding corridors of the Old City of Safed, I found the perhaps less visited section of the Artists’ Colony where one will find what I believe to be treasures.

The Artists’ Colony was from its inception a meeting place for important artists after the War of Independence and, coupled with its mystical ardor, stemming from the 16th-century Kabbalists, a beacon of inspiration for many.

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I highly recommend a visit to what is known as the General Exhibition of Safed, a large space that was a mosque in the Turkish era, ranges from traditional painting and sculpture to slightly more experimental work. Then, curator Shelly Bernstein (alongside Ludmila Feigen) directed me to the photographic exhibition of Moshe Raviv, where a rare collection of early photographs is on display.

Raviv is quite an iconic personality, having studied at the famed Bauhaus with the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy, the latter of whom probably influenced his photographic eye insofar as the delight in architectural form – verticals, horizontals and diagonals – gives his photographs their compositional strength and depth. The beauty of the work is that it at once documents early Safed and, at the same time, they are fine arts pieces that exhibit a keen sensitivity both to the emotions of the characters he has captured and the context in which they inhabit.

I have always found photographs a little inscrutable as it denies texture and seemingly just records with little capacity to interpret. But this is erroneous and none more so in the case of Raviv. Working with what today may seem antiquated equipment, he seems to capture the texture and being as faces light up, and close-ups of walls, alleys, bridges, stairs and doors lead the eye on a mystical journey. All this with black and white! The images are not diluted in an overall greyness, and neither is the black and white stark and rough. Rather, the artist’s keen sensitivity is such that he is able to communicate an eeriness and joyfulness just as easily. In some images there seems to be the lurking presence of a phantom, while in other images characters light up the picture format with unpredictable charm.

Raviv is famed for having developed the photomontage technique and in one image this comes to the fore quite strongly as the Eiffel Tower and what appears to be birds are superimposed.

In this way there is an interesting confluence between the methods of photography and the surrealist style of painting, which would have been in vogue at the time. In fact, Raviv was also an adept painter and there is a painting of his at the exhibition as well which clearly illustrates his mystical bent and interest in the Kabbalah.

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What is refreshing is that this series of work – miraculously still intact as it were – demonstrates a surprising use of collage and cutout photographs in odd shapes, and then reassembled into “pictorial units.” These units reveal a gentle hand and heart coupled with the technical swagger to both record a significant page in the history of Israel, while carrying a universal message of hope and redemption.

On another note, you might want to explore a few paces further, the Museum of Dolls, also under the General Exhibition, where you will find Mila Rozenfeld’s unique artistry. Culled from her knowledge as a history teacher and fashion designer, she accurately portrays dolls in the correct attire. Her daughter was a victim of a terrorist bombing in 1994 and the art become a way to deal with the tragedy, as a form of catharsis and transcendence. It has thus become a museum dedicated to loss, as the dolls somewhat exist on the precipice of life and death.

At the same time, such loss is transformed into a creative act.

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