I met Rachel Shavit Bentwich in 1954, when she arrived in America with her spouse Nechemia Shavit–my husband Ernest’s classmate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem–and her son. Rachel was to spend a year studying art at the University of Wisconsin. We have been friends ever since, even though most of the time 7000 miles separate us. My house is filled with Rachel’s works: early representational images of buildings, and her later more abstract ones. One of these is of a small house her aunt built in Zichron Ya’akov in the early twentieth century, which everybody takes for a Maine cottage. Our 2012 trip to Israel was occasioned by Rachel’s show at the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa.
The first thing that catches one’s eye upon entering the exhibition is the artist’s self-portrait, not as you might expect a picture of an attractive woman, but a mural depicting her spacious studio. In actuality the latter is a small, enclosed terrace overlooking the roofs and backyards of her Tel Aviv home. The mural is filled with two easels, one propping up a canvas that is being painted on by a surrealistic hand. A comfortable Victorian armchair occupies the center of the mural. Elsewhere we stumble across a copper pot filled with flowers, and a chest whose top is overflowing with paints, jars and brushes. The surrounding trees, houses, roofs, windows, shutters and chimneys form a protective cocoon around Rachel’s intimate world. Indeed, the current show is entitled “From Within the House.” It is all about looking out and looking in, about light and shade and about the drama of the familiar and ordinary.
Rachel Shavit-Bentwich’s mural will be destroyed at the end of the three-month exhibition. Fortunately, much of its imagery is permanently recorded on canvases that fill this retrospective. We find the easel and a chair draped with a sweater in paintings dating from 1991. There are sharp-edged paintings entitled Window and Shadow, Corrugate Roof and Shadow, Shutter and Shadow, all dating from the 1970s, as well as a sketch, From Within the House, made in 2011, perhaps in preparation for the mural itself.
A few days later we visited Rachel at home and saw the view from her studio through her eyes. The gutters, corrugated roofs, trees, windows and chimneys took on another dimension. Her walls were covered with actual portraits, photographs and other mementos of her remarkable ancestors all of whom participated in the rebirth of the Jewish Homeland. The day after the visit my husband and I flew off worrying about the fragile peace that surrounds Rachel’s world.