Meet the artist who risked time in prison by drawing the massacre of the Jews in the Land of Israel in 1929.
A human skull, bearing a threatening grimace, crudely drawn, in an almost childish fashion. Next to it rests a bloody knife. Spurts of blood that have fallen from the blade form puddles and stains on a black background, bringing to mind prehistoric cave drawings. It is unclear if this grotesque scene which we have been forced to witness has come to its end or if it is still unfolding before our eyes. “The blood is still fresh…” the viewer likely concludes, like a line from an old cop show.
Nachum Gutman’s roaming artist’s hand was not known for its subtlety. Reality was the raw material which this Hebrew painter, known for his depictions of villages, kibbutzim and cities, sought to mold into visual art. With the release of his first book, In the Land of Lobengulu King of Zulu, in 1939, it began to inspire his writing as well.
Sometimes Gutman chose to represent reality directly, with the painting serving as a clear reflection of that which it was intended to portray. Other times, when the events were too chaotic to capture in a single painting, or too brutal to depict directly, Gutman would turn to satire, exaggerating those things which the heart and mind refused to absorb. This was the case with The Palestine Disturbances – News and Telegrams in Illustrations produced and published by Gutman in 1929 along with Nachum Eitan and Saadia Shoshani. The booklet served as a record of the murderous riots which became known in the Jewish Yishuv as the 1929 Massacres.
He was warned not to do it, that the British overlords would not be fond of the idea and that they would like the final product even less. He was told the drawings would speak for themselves if he would only agree to remove their English captions. His friends warned him that the long arm of the censor would reach him as well.
Gutman actually had some previous experience in preserving the dignity of authority figures. When he was only fifteen he painted a large portrait of Djemal Pasha at the urging of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor Tel Aviv, to honor the visit of the Ottoman ruler of Greater Syria (a region which at the time included the Land of Israel).
When the riots began more than a decade later Gutman was already married and in his early thirties. Four years earlier he had returned from a period in Europe to settle in Tel Aviv with his wife Dora Yafeh.
The five years he had spent abroad (mainly in Vienna, Berlin and Paris) left their mark. The once shy youth, who had previously been popular mainly among associates of his father, the writer S. Ben-Zion, had now matured and developed his abilities and talents, becoming a well-known artist in his own right.
The first of the hostilities began in mid-August 1929, with an assault by an Arab mob on the Western Wall plaza following incitement by the Supreme Muslim Council. Jewish worshippers were expelled from the site and their Torah scrolls were set on fire. In the days that followed the floodgates of hatred and violence were opened. By the end of the week of riots, 67 Jews lay dead in Hebron and dozens of others had been killed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed, Hulda and Be’er Tuvia.
The prevailing feeling among members of the young and vulnerable Jewish Yishuv was that the British government, which the Jews had been told to respect and protect, had not responded in kind. The Jews felt that that the British, for all their strength and might, had barely raised a finger to stop the riots – even after Jewish blood had begun to flow in the streets.
Without being asked to do so, Nachum Gutman began to formulate a response befitting his strong feelings about the events. In simple black ink he drew the riots – those that he saw and those that he read about, in rage and desperation, in the British Mandate press.
He drew the acts of wild incitement that took place without interference.
He drew the murders that were committed, with no justice for the perpetrators (the British judges were usually portrayed as turning a blind eye and in a few cases even expressing support for the crimes).
He drew the Arab police reporting to their British officers: “All quiet, Sir!”
He drew the hypocrisy contained in official British statements, among them a leaflet with a proclamation issued in Hebrew, English and Arabic by the High Commissioner John Chancellor that was dropped from Royal Air Force planes.
When Gutman had finished the eighteen drawings that made up the booklet, he showed them to his wife Dora who looked at them doubtfully.
“You will never find a publisher who will agree to print these drawings. They’ll offend the Brits!” she told him.
Gutman knew this. “No Hebrew newspaper will dare to print a caricature offending the British authorities. They’ll shut down the paper immediately!”
Gutman knew that as well. He explained to his wife that ordinarily, he would prefer to paint beautiful, serene pictures of the Land of Israel, but not now. “Look what they’ve forced me to draw!” he told her.
Gutman gathered up the drawings and took them to Herzl Street in Tel Aviv. He laid them out on the sidewalk and waited. A crowd of emotional, stunned onlookers soon formed around them. The first to offer a response was the writer Avigdor Hameiri. He was hypnotized by a drawing depicting the looting of the city of Safed. All he was able to say was: “And in the paper they wrote: The Jews of Safed are in security in Government house. The city is quiet”.
Gutman quickly wrote the sentence down just below the drawing.
Before long, Avraham Shlonsky and Uri Zvi Greenberg, both of them well-known poets in the Jewish Yishuv, also appeared on Herzl Street. Together with Gutman, they wrote provocative captions for each of the drawings, most of them based on real news items taken, almost without editing, from the press.
Only one drawing was added to the collection following the impromptu street exhibition. It received the caption: “The saviors of England’s honor.” This was also the only drawing not to include any hint of irony. Gutman had drawn a group of Oxfordian students who were in the country during the time of the riots and who had come to the defense of the Jewish victims.
Emerging from the crowd that had gathered around the caricatures, Nachum Eitan approached Gutman and asked him a question which had not yet received an answer: “Where will you print the drawings?”
Eitan offered himself up as a publisher and his friend Saadia Shoshani as a printer (“I know him well. He’s brave. He’ll agree, surely.”). After two days of hard work the booklet was published – about half of the time it took for the British police to ban it. Before long though, an order was issued prohibiting any selling or viewing of the booklet.
Only the intervention of Mayor Dizengoff and other dignitaries of the Yishuv saved Gutman and his partners from facing prosecution. Shoshani’s printing press, which was shut down after the publishing of the pamphlet, reopened after he explicitly promised not to print it again. Shoshani passed the printing clichés on to Eliezer Levin-Epstein, the owner of a famous Warsaw-based printing press, where they were also translated into Yiddish. Thanks to the translation, the booklet achieved great success throughout the Jewish world. The drawings themselves were also printed separately in the international Jewish press.
Nachum Gutman’s free hand forced us to take a long hard look directly at the riots, which later historians, as well as those who experienced them, labeled as “the opening shot of the Arab-Jewish conflict”, a struggle we are still living with today.
This article is based on Leah Naor’s wonderful biography of Nachum Gutman, “The Hunter of Colors”, published in 2012 by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Publishing.
Pictures courtesy of the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art.