Reuven Rubin was one of the most important young artists in Palestine of the 1920s who reacted against the classic Western orientation of Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy. Rejecting the use of Oriental motifs and local landscape to depict biblical subjects, these artists drew instead drew everyday visions of the Near East in a modernistic artistic style.

In his joyous portrayal of the land of Israel in "Goldfish Vendor," Rubin focuses on a current theme in Israeli art of that decade - the portrayal of the Arab. Rubin's colleague, Nahum Gutman, wrote that the Arab with his ties to the land represented the antithesis of the Diaspora Jew; in this painting the Arab clearly represents the physical vitality of the people, his sense of belonging to and identification with the land and its landscape.

This painting, housed in The Jewish Museum (NY) collection, is temporarily on display in Beit Rubin in Tel Aviv, as part of a temporary exhibition of Rubin's works, entitled "Moledet" (Homeland).   

Arab and Jewish fisherman were among Rubin's favorite subjects from the early 1920s, and he continued to be enchanted with these hard-working people throughout the years. He depicted them on canvas spreading their nets into the waters of the Sea of Galilee, along the shores of the Mediterranean, or proudly displaying their catch with their families by their side. "Goldfish Vendor" in the collection of The Jewish Museum in New York is one of the earliest representations of this subject in Rubin's art. What sets this painting apart from similar depictions of fisherman, is the solitary goldfish that had just been removed from the water and is floundering in the fisherman's hand, alluding most likely to Alexander Pushkin's Russian adaptation of "The tale of the fisherman and the little fish."

"Goldfish Vendor" is a typical Rubin painting from the late 1920s in its naive depiction and style: the rounded forms, the flowing contours and the bright colors. The application of paint onto the canvas is no longer flattened and smoothed as it used to be in earlier paintings, and the painter is at last allowing his brushwork to show in slightly tactile layers of paint.

Rubin has "zoomed in" on his subject so that the magnified image fills the entire picture plane, leaving only the margins of the canvas for the blue sea and the cloudy sky which meet on the horizon. The abundance of details seen on Rubin's early canvases has given way to a more focused attitude. The background is simple, consisting of only seven goldfish swimming in a water jug, a few clouds in the sky and white foam on the water. Eliminating other familiar details, the artist has focused his entire attention on the fisherman's physical presence and his unexpected fixed gaze at the goldfish he holds in his hand. This unusual attention which amounts to an almost hypnotic attraction, is the one dramatic element in this seemingly frozen composition. It is further enhanced by the contradiction between the crude, robust figure of the man, and the gentleness with which he holds the tiny creature in his hand. Rubin typically painted fishermen with their catch of fish strung and hanging on their arms. But here, the goldfish flounders in the fisherman's fingers seemingly "standing up" and returning the fisherman's intense gaze, looking back and magically catching its fancy....

Fish, we recall, are symbolic of fertility and abundance both in Jewish tradition and Christianity. Fishbowls also represent a Matisse-like joie-de-vivre. Primarily, however, Rubin was reflecting on the local inhabitants, admiring their harmonious existence in an unspoiled world of nature. The almost "human" bond between Arabs or Jews and their animals is repeatedly represented on Rubin's canvases. In this work, Rubin portrayed the magical moment in the folktale, when the fisherman has accepted the request of the tiny goldfish to release him and grant him his life. The lesson of the story is that virtue is rewarded and greed punished. The circular nature of the story is echoed in Rubin's portrayal of "equality" between the goldfish and its captor.

Goldfish Vendor © The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Kitty and Harold J. Ruttenberg, 1985-227.
The painting is hanging temporarily in the Rubin Museum, Tel Aviv.

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