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Veteran Jerusalem artist paints small city moments in new exhibit

Marek Yanai’s ‘On the Threshold’ offers up deep, rich oil and watercolor paintings of Jerusalem at Beit Avi Chai, and is available online as well

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • 'Breakfast in the Katamonim,' oil, by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022. (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
    'Breakfast in the Katamonim,' oil, by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022. (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
  • 'Detail from Kiryat Hayovel, Oil on canvas,' by Marek Yanai on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
    'Detail from Kiryat Hayovel, Oil on canvas,' by Marek Yanai on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
  • 'Breakfast in Talbiya,' Oil on canvas by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
    'Breakfast in Talbiya,' Oil on canvas by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
  • 'Dusk from the King David Hotel Rooftop,' Oil on canvas by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)
    'Dusk from the King David Hotel Rooftop,' Oil on canvas by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, 'On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,' through July 2022 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)

Jerusalem-based artist Marek Yanai offers an ode to his city with a collection of oils and watercolors currently exhibited at Beit Avi Chai in “On the Threshold: Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor.”

There are, of course, paintings offering views of the Old City, as well as works displaying the golden hue of Jerusalem stone, but they are relatively scarce in this exhibit.

Instead, Yanai, 76, a longtime senior lecturer at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, portrays his personal Jerusalem, which includes apartment building entrances, tables set for breakfast, and lone pine trees.

The paintings of “On the Threshold” are divided into three sections; Beit Avi Chai’s first-floor main gallery displays Yanai’s oils, moving onto his watercolors on the second floor. One gallery is devoted solely to his portraits, also in watercolor.

The entire exhibit starts with a colorful abstract work from his studies at Bezalel in the 1960s, “which is how he started,” said curator Amichai Chasson.

It was only a few years later, while studying in Europe, that Yanai rediscovered realism and the works of the Old Masters, recognizing how much he identified with that form of expression.

‘Marek,; Watercolor on paper, by Marek Yanai, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, ‘On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,’ through July 2022. (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)

The deep, rich oils used in Yanai’s large canvases offer the very essence of that European art, capturing the romanticism of Jerusalem with modern details that offer touches of present life, such as electric boxes in the entrance to an elegant apartment building, or a digital timer set on a breakfast table.

“He forces you to tell a story,” said Chasson, on viewing one of Yanai’s building thresholds, framed by arched doorways and tiled floors, or while looking at a table set for breakfast — whether one in the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh, set with a white cloth, teapot, bread and jam, or Yanai’s own simple Formica table in the Katamonim, with cornflakes, a bowl and spoon.

“You see how he lives in this city,” said Chasson. “The two very different tables, set for breakfast? Those are only half a kilometer from one another.”

As curator, Chasson added poems about Jerusalem to read in between the paintings, including one of his own, reminding viewers of what they are looking at and who else has reflected, while surveying those very same views.

The Moon Grove
Amichai Chasson

At night a howl
is heard in Jerusalem’s heart
and he who cannot sleep goes out to seek
in the streets empty of people.
a defiant jackal that walks among us
and it happens that in the Moon Grove
a man sits under the lofty pine,
a burning bush consumed at his feet
his hands coals and his voice
the voice of the jackal.
(Trans. V.E. 21.11.21)

On the second floor of the Beit Avi Chai exhibit, Yanai’s watercolors come into relief, featuring portraits of trees and people, including famous names, students and beloved friends.

“You have one shot with watercolors,” said Chasson of Yanai’s watercolor skills. Paintings have to be completed in about three hours in order to capture the moment while not losing the color. “You don’t have a lot of time.”

Even so, Yanai manages, whether he is painting a friend’s living room furnished with an overstuffed floral couch and shelves of books, or the familiar façade of the Jerusalem YMCA.

‘Entrance in Beit Lehem Road, Oil on canvas by Marek Yanai, Dubi Shiff Art Collection, on display at Beit Avi Chai exhibition, ‘On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,’ through July 2022. (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)

The first watercolor in this part of the exhibit is a view of the plain, cement walls of Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel apartment blocks, representing another kind of city wall.

Yanai has been a student of Jerusalem since immigrating there at age 11, in the late 1950s, with his parents, from Poland after World War II.

He later graduated from Bezalel, and has taught the art school’s required basic painting class for decades, shepherding students around the city or to his studio in the Talpiot industrial zone, situated between two branches of the Rami Levy discount supermarket.

“His biggest power is he takes the familiar and shows you how to look at it, from what perspective, from what color, it’s the filter of a painter — someone who brings us to another place,” said Chasson.

“On the Threshold, Jerusalem in Oil and Watercolor,” is also available to view online, at the Beit Avi Chai website. The exhibit also includes a full-color exhibition catalog.

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