Between Three Cities

By Shlomo Shva

Every morning Rabbi Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land would greet his mother with a "Good morning". On his way to her room he would pass the room of his young boarder Chaya Schwartz, a student at the Bezalel Academy already on her way to her studies. Rabbi Kook would draw near the walls of the room and inspect closely the new paintings which hung there. After the examination he would murmur "beautiful, beautiful" under his breath and continue on his way.

When Chaya Schwartz completed her studies at the art academy in 1931, Rabbi Kook stood at his lectern, as was his habit when writing or studying, and wrote a letter to Dr. Elishkovski, the director of a religious teachers' college.

"I find it proper to inform you that the young woman Chaya Schwartz has resided in our house for some time and that we are well acquainted with her. As she has had a good Jewish education and is a skilled painter, it is only appropriate that you find a suitable job for her in one of the Mizrachi movement schools, particularly in the one under your direction." The Rabbi signed his name and applied his seal of Chief rabbi of Israel.

Chaya Schwartz did not become a schoolteacher. A year later, Chaim Nahman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet, became her patron and opened an exhibition of her paintings in Tel Aviv with the intention that she sell her work and use her earning to travel to Paris, the capital of the arts. The young woman was the daughter of a rabbi who had not wanted to use his learning as a source of livelihood and had become a farmer instead.

The Schwartz family came from a village on the Polish-Ukranian border. Chaya's father studied and was ordained at the Yeshivah of the Hafez Hayyim. Although the Yeshivah was not especially sympathetic to Zionism, he was drawn to the movement at a young age. According to family lore, he travelled to one of the Zionist congresses on foot in order to see Herzl.

Schwartz married. He and his wife lived in poverty but raised seven children. In 1926 he came to Erez Israel. Rabbi Kook was his friend, but Schwartz did not want to exploit this friendship to find work as a rabbi. Instead he went to work in the orchards of Petach Tikva. He was joined by his family two years later.

They settled in the neighborhood of Mahlul on the Tel Aviv seashore. Chaya remembers her father telling the family, upon bringing them for the first time to the hut: "This place is small but the bathtub is large", pointing to the sea spread out before them.

Chaya loved to draw from the time she was a child and filled her notebooks with drawings. One day, she saw a man in a black bathing suit and a broad-brimmed hat, a palette in his hand, standing and painting on a canvas the huts of the neighborhood and the sea. Chaya had never seen a painter before. The man returned each morning and Chaya would watch him with great curiosity until finally she mustered the courage to approach him and show him her notebook of drawings. The painter was Mordechai Levanon, a famous Israeli painter who then lived in Mahlul together with other poor painters. Levanon looked at her drawings with great attentiveness and asked to see her father. He and the rabbi got on well; he was a rabbi's son himself and well versed in the Talmud.

"Your daughter could become a painter", Levanon told the man. "What does she need to do?" asked the father. Levanon told him there was a school for artists in Jerusalem called "Bezalel" and that there she could learn the secrets of the profession. The father took his daughter to Jerusalem to meet with Professor Boris Schatz, the director of Bezalel, and asked him about the school and conditions for acceptance. "Stay and study painting", he told Chaya. The father then went to his friend Rabbi Kook and asked him to take Chaya into his house as a boarder. The rabbi agreed. In order to buy Chaya the art supplies that Professor Schatz had specified her father had to sell some household goods.

One part of Rabbi Kook's house was the family's apartment and the other was the Synagogue and Yeshivah. Chaya ate at the rabbi's table as a member of the family and the rabbi followed her progress.

Professor Schatz spent much of his time traveling among various Jewish communities trying to raise funds for Bezalel, which was in a constant state of financial crisis. On one of these trips to the US he had died and the school had subsequently closed. Chaya returned to her family, by then living in "Neve Zedek", another Tel Aviv neighborhood. At that time the painter Paldi used to teach a group of young people at his studio in the yard of the Herzliya School, and Levanon brought Chaya to join the classes. Paldi was so impressed with her work that he accepted the young woman without fees. Some time later she was asked to pose in the nude for the class. Shocked Chaya fled and never returned. Zaritsky had also opened a painting studio. It was there that she was able to continue her work. This time she was able to pay for her studies because she got married. Chaya painted a great deal during this period with Hendler, Fein, Levanon, Abramowitz, and Krize.

Zaritsky encouraged his students to travel to Paris, and all of them including Krize and Aroch continued their studies there. Zaritsky himself, however, only traveled to Paris some 20 years later. Chaya, like the other students, dreamed of going to Paris but had no money. She decided to exhibit her paintings, sell them, and thereby finance her trip. She was introduced to the poet Bialik through her friend Yehuda Burla, the writer, and Bialik came to Neve Zedek to see her work. He met her father there and the two of them sat and discussed Jewish law and lore. Finally, Bialik announced "I will open the exhibition". He gave the opening speech, and Tel Aviv's mayor, Dizengoff, spoke as well.

Chaya sold some paintings and went off to Paris. As the painter Aroch was returning from Paris, she rented his Paris studio. For two years she studied at the Academy, visiting the exhibitions and breathing the air of the city, which was the capital of art. She made friends with Mane-Katz, Pressmane, Kikoine and other members of the Jewish School of Paris. She travelled with the painter Holzman to the outskirts of the city and the two of them painted with great passion. She was also introduced to Soutine, by then already a very well known painter. Chaya invited him to her studio, to see her work. She relates: "Soutine was an introverted Jew, very shy, always wrapped in a big coat, as if to hide. We spoke Yiddish. He came close to examine the pictures. I asked: 'Master, what do you advise me?' and he said 'Look closely at Utrillo'." The next time Chaya found herself next to Soutine was on a gallery wall. She took great pride in the fact that at an exhibition of works by Parisian painters one of her paintings was displayed next to one of Soutine's.

In 1937 she returned to Israel and was accepted into the Artists Guild as its youngest member. A year later she held an exhibition in the Katz Gallery, the first commercial gallery in the country. Once again the exhibition was opened by a poet, this time by Yaacov Cohen.

During the 40s, Chaya Schwartz painted in the style of the "Jewish School of Paris" with a strong blue as the dominant color. Her friends were artists. She participated in the yearly General Exhibitions of the Artists Guild and received the Dizengoff Prize twice.

Chaya recalls that during this time members of the art world, painters, poets, and actors, spent much of their time together. The artists would travel to Zichron Yaakov, to a place called "Bet Daniel", a resort for musicians, writers and painters. Chaya was among the many artists who painted the village, nestled as it was among the hills of the Carmel. The paintings that emerged out of this period are still called the "Zichron Yaakov paintings".

Mrs. Rish, the woman who ran the place, was very strict in matters of cleanliness and order and often scolded the painters who would return from the countryside dirty with paints. For this reason the painters had to stay in a cabin in the yard and hire their own cook. The musicians and actors stayed at the main guest house. The painters' residence was a merry place, and actors such as Rovina and Gnessin spent long evenings there.

Chaya Schwartz held her first solo exhibition in 1949 at the Tel Aviv museum. Soon after, she travelled to Paris where she held another one-man show. The well-known art critic Vladimir George wrote the introduction to the catalogue of the latter.

It was a different Paris to which she returned. The effects of the war were still felt and the city of light was only partially illuminated. Many of Chaya's Jewish friends were no longer alive, having been murdered by the Nazis. Soon she left Paris for London, where she held another show.

In the 1950s, Chaya was one of the first artists settle in Artist' Colony in Safed, which became her second home.

In 1958, Chaya Schwartz participated in the Venice Biennale. She again received the Dizengoff Prize in 1960. In the early 60's she moved back to Tel Aviv, spending part of her summers in Safed and travelling to Paris every two or three years. She painted landscapes, interiors, young girls, flowers, and still lifes. Three cities inspired her art: Safed, Paris and Jerusalem. Chaya saw color as her main means of expression. Kikoine, the Parisian painter, once said to her "Chayale, you draw Safed everywhere".

It is true that Chaya Schwartz "geographical" biography is like that of many other Israeli artists and her choice of subjects similar. But her paintbrush is hers alone.

An introduction to the book about Chaya Schwartz' paintings, published in 1984 by Keter, Jerusalem. (Cat. Number 534405)