Conversation between Naftali Rakuzin and Eva Vishnevskaya

During the course of many years the main "heroes" of your works have been books. How would you assess the evolution of the "book" theme in your art over the years?

Indeed, I have been painting books since the end of the 70s with a break of 5 years in the 80s and then constantly, without a break from 1989, that is for the last 20 years. I look at the world through the book. In this book theme there are two aspects. The first is when I paint books on a shelf, just as they stand for all of us on shelves, with their spines towards the viewer. This series I call my internal, domestic landscape. The second aspect is when I take a certain separate book, interesting for me, and paint, portray it. These two lines have run parallel in my work over the last years, without change. The only thing that changes over the years is the artistic interpretation of this theme. At the beginning I painted books "in general", in a more abstract way. Gradually I began to be more interested in their titles, the calligraphy of the typefaces. There is also an evolution in the painting style, manner. If one were to place side by side works, let's say, from 1989 and 2008, then one would have two different artists, although the theme and iconography are the same.


You began as an illustrator. Why didn't this genre capture you as much as the portrayal of the book per se, and how did illustration become the springboard for discovering your own method?

I am from a family of book illustrators and graphic artists. My father designed and illustrated books the whole of his life, and 1 grew up and was educated in this atmosphere. Then I studied in the Polygraphic Institute in the 60s in the atmosphere of the cult of V. Favorsky. And after emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1974 I continued to consider myself an illustrator. Already living in Israel, I made a few graphic series — illustrations: "The Trial" by Kafka, short stories by E. T. A. Hoffman, "The Three Musketeers" by A. Dumas. Several of them I even now consider not bad, for example, 10 etchings on the themes of Kafka. Why did it stop satisfying me? A brief digression into history. In the USSR, illustration and book design were very prestigious and highly artistic occupations. In the West, being an illustrator — is a separate profession, not to be mistaken for Art, with a capital letter. Generally they illustrate books for children, and I cannot do this at all. Occasionally, famous artists allow themselves to make series of illustrations, as, for example, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, in our day D. Hockney and a few others. But they are published solely because of their names, which they earned not as illustrators. This is the social background of why I was not needed as an illustrator. On the purely artistic level, the illustration of others' stories gradually ceased to satisfy me. In parallel to illustrating I had always painted from nature — still-lifes, landscapes, interiors. At one point, towards the end of the 70s, these two lines of my work merged into one: I call this my flash of inspiration. I looked at my bookshelf and understood that the books, which were standing there, are whole worlds, contained within their covers, and that it was far more interesting and captivating for me to paint them, than to illustrate stories which I had not written. My meetings with Israeli conceptualists in the 70s played a strong role in this process of trying to understand books as the theme and object of art. 1 do not know whether or not this was left over from my work with illustrations, but I think of my paintings as artistic tales, and of myself as — the narrator of artistic stories.


Looking at your paintings for the first time one can characterise them as "still-lifes", but on the other hand — the landscapes in them do not allow one to do that with full certainty. Do you define some sort of genre limits for your works?

That's a very good question. Strictly speaking, as a genre, everything that I do is still-life. But I prefer the English name of this genre — still-life, and not nature- morte, that is calm, motionless nature, but not dead. But because a book is a universe, the whole world, a book on canvas is a window into this world. A window, through which I look at the world. If this window opens out onto a landscape, then the painting becomes a landscape. I do not make a "still-life with a book", but a still-life in which the book is the main and sole hero and character. This can also be called an "intellectual still-life", but I am not sure that would be right, moreover, I do not consider myself an intellectual, but an artist.


Citation is an integral part of Post Modernism, which in contemporary art is very difficult to brush aside. Your multiple reproductions — are theycitations, the creative re-examination of the artisticheritage or something else, special?

It is very difficult for me to answer this question simply. Although conceptualism influenced me, I do not consider myself a conceptualist. My creative method is not conceptually-intellectual, but intuitive. 1 paint, and then, during the process of painting, I try to understand why I am painting that. Of course, I understand that I cite all the time. When in my works there are reproductions of the Old Masters, then it is my dialogue with the Old Masters, with the history of Art. There are no such pictures in this exhibition. There are mainly landscapes (because I call these pictures landscapes) of cities, in which I lived: Moscow, Jerusalem, Paris. Thai is why I called the exhibition "Memorable Views", that is memory as a concept is very important for understanding these works. All these landscapes — are photographs in books which I chose myself and bought. Am I citing someone here? Perhaps the photographers, who photographed these views? On the other hand, these photographs, were printed in a book, the book placed on a table in my studio, opened on a particular page, the page bent at a particular angle I think that this already is not citation, but interpretation, artistic re-examination. Generally speaking, it is not for me to discuss this, I do not want to be my own art critic. It would be better for me to tell you about my own feeling. When 1 go into a big book shop, where there are albums on Art, albums with photographs of cities and so on, I feel like an artist-impressionist en plein air, for the motif, as Cezanne said, and I perceive the books lying around as my "motifs".


One of your works is the cover of a book on Alexander Rodchenko. What does this master mean to you, why did you become interested in the given project?

Alexander Rodchenko is not one of my favourite artists. He was a wonderful photographer, and many of his photographs delight me, but on the whole, his art does not touch me, just as the revolutionary art of that epoch generally. But the cover of his catalogue, which was made, by the way, in Moscow, touched me deeply. There is in it the tragedy of that time: in the composition, in the colouring — black-red-grey, in the framing, when Rodchenko's face is not visible, but a close-up is given of a hand with a camera. This was very interesting for me to paint: Rodchenko as an actor and victim of the Revolution.


In the contemporary situation the impression may form/emerge that the book in its printed embodiment loses its status and role as the "stronghold of culture". Not least of all because it is being replaced by electronic carriers, audio-books etc. In your view, what is the fate of the book today, and is your method still topical?

I think that you are right when you say that the book is losing its role as the "stronghold of culture", which it still had a few decades ago. On the other hand, throughout the whole world a vast number of books are being printed and sold, in spite of the Internet and all the new technologies. So, maybe, it is too early to bury it? Nevertheless, it seems to me that the "Guttenberg epoch" has ended, and we have moved into some other epoch, in which the book will by no means disappear, but will have a different status and different role. It seems to me that, in my obsessive painting of books there is something nostalgic: to capture, to hold in memory this image, this object. Citing the poet, one can say: "it's the end of a wonderful epoch".


March 2009