As a Jerusalem artist myself, I have witnessed Rifkah Goldberg painting in many corners of the city (see attached photograph). Lately, she has been working in the area of Jaffa Street between the marketplace and Zion Square; before that, it was the area of Mahaneh Yehudeh; and, earlier, on Agripas Street. She sets up her easel, canvas, paints and brushes and is then at the mercy of the weather and the people around. Painting is not an easy occupation in the rough reality of Jerusalem, where a shove or harsh words often come in place of a simple request. Yet, Rifkah persists with her large canvases, tens of tubes of oil paints, her brushes, and, finally, her vision.
Rifkah's vision is extraordinary. I have seen artists working in studios, whether alone or in classes. They generally have some dogma, a set of rules that aid them in capturing the scene before them. They often have a master whom they follow religiously. Rifkah is an original. Her vision is based on her internalizing what is in front of her. Only after much deliberation and feeling does she begin to paint the scene. This is not an artist in a rush. The work must touch the correct notes within her soul before she can move on to another location. There is no formula for her craftsmanship. She struggles with how best to translate what she perceives into color and line, into composition and atmosphere. But technique is not the issue in Rifkah's work. It is a question of soul: The soul of this artist and the soul of her city Jerusalem come together to create a very special body of work.
Rifkah's presence at the scene of a painting she is executing becomes an event for the surroundings. She returns day after day, sometimes for months, attempting to capture that which is rapidly changing. (At times Rifkah will tell me that since she began her latest painting the sun's path has altered the shadows, or that some element in the scene has disappeared). Painting for Rifkah is a continuous discovery of that which is before her.
Rifkah has created a visual history of the city of Jerusalem since 1975. The story that her work tells is based on a close inquiry into the fashion of the time as well as carry-overs from the past. The buildings are often on their way to being destroyed or renovated. The stores she records will be gone in a few months or years. The elders who set up a table to sell homemade hilbeh or schoog will not be there much longer. The gentrification of the city center will lead to a more modern city, which will have no place for these "ugly" yet romantic realities that Rifkah is now capturing in her paintings.
As a photographer, I compare the reality of a photograph that documents Jerusalem to Rifkah's view aided by oil paints and canvas and ask what is gained by the great effort of this painter of Jerusalem scenery? The answer is that my camera can record the precise optical characteristics of a scene, but it fails to capture the imperfections of the architecture including the stone upon stone for which Jerusalem is known. Doing so requires a considered element of exaggeration and imagination that one finds in Rifkah's work. It comes from the lines that make a staircase slightly more crooked than it is. It is in the slant of the rooftop that is not as level as it appears, or the balcony that receives irrational linear folds that give one cause to pause and consider how true this representation is in comparison to the "correct" image offered by a camera's optics.
Later in the day, as I board the bus to return home, I see Rifkah squeezed in among the crowded passengers, her large canvas wrapped in plastic, with a shopping cart for brushes and paints by her side. She stands stoically while the packed bus jerks rudely along the road with everyone holding on for life's sake.