The Art of Shmuel Bonneh


Shmuel Bonneh began painting at an early age, and left behind him a wealth of varied works. At the beginning of his artistic career his imagery and his talent attracted considerable attention. His paintings were frequently displayed in solo and in group exhibitions, and he represented Israel at important exhibitions abroad, including four biennales. All his presentations at the various artistic venues were warmly received by viewers and professionals alike. A selection of critiques from the press and from catalogues of his exhibitions can be found in “What the Critics Said” at this site.

Bonneh created a unique artistic world, quite different in character and sources from the streams and fashions of contemporary art, in Israel and worldwide. In spite of many changes, his work remained rooted in three principle sources: the Bible, the landscapes of Israel, and his Jewish heritage. In these he found the subjects and the great inspiration that imbue his work.


The Bible came first in creating his artistic world. He was imbued with the stories and events, descriptions of scenes and places, the language and sayings of the prophets. He transformed his impressions of the Book of Books into plastic designs full of inspiration and imagination. His many works on Biblical subjects and the artistic heights he attained in them placed him in the first rank of biblical painters.


The landscapes of the ancient Land of Israel hold an important place in his creations, envisioned not only from his readings of the Bible, but also from the contemporary scene, experienced and absorbed while walking through the country during his years as a surveyor, when he spent much time in Israel’s outdoors. His landscape paintings, which he began when he started out on his artistic route, were subsumed in the series “Maps of Eretz Israel’, with which he was preoccupied during the last two decades of his artistic career. In this series he created a new, original style of geometric expressionism that conveyed an authentic sense of the Israeli landscape.


Bonneh was deeply imbued with Judaism, and depicted it with penetrating historical vision. His works combine Jewish motifs, ancient and modern, biblical and Israeli. Thus he imaginatively connected the Jewish folk art that had impressed him in his youth with Jewish art that had been created to adorn and embellish ritual and ceremonial artifacts, from the time of the Tabernacle of the Ark until the present. Bonneh revived this art in a new, original approach, turning it into a unique artistic genre.


As a young man, Bonneh was interested in the art of biblical times, and in archaeological discoveries, particularly those in Israel, and this added yet another artistic and cultural element to his work.


Together with constant focus on his personal and cultural world, from which his works always arose, he was impressed with the great antiquities of Mesopotamia, Persia and Byzantium, as well as the ongoing trends in European art. From all this he acquired a criterion of the greatness of art, thereby enriching his own expression in form and colour. His works are a synthesis of East and West, of ancient and modern, a subtle mingling of colours and contrasts. He was captivated by the colour and expression, decoration and naivete of oriental and Mediterranean painting, and he was also able to appreciate the freedom, simplicity and power of contemporary European art.


These two conflicting approaches are evident in his works. On one hand, Bonneh was a painter with a strong pictorial graphic style, treating each painting with delicate specificity. On the other hand, he was an expressive, impulsive artist, painting with freedom and enthusiasm, his brushstrokes fiercely eager and daring. In both cases a naïve primitivism is evident, original and authentic, full of simplicity and innocence.


The architectural aspect is evident in all his approaches and styles; his paintings are very constructed, and linearity of form is integral both to the flowing line of his stylized, decorative works, and to the thick energetic strokes of his free, expressionist works. Bonneh was both a gifted architect and an imaginative colourist. He recognized the mysterious power of colour and knew how to employ it to construct his world of imagery. Art critics have frequently emphasized his strong sense of colour, and there were some who called him “the wizard of colour”.


Narrative and depiction stimulated Bonneh’s art, like a teller of folktales. The creative process itself, however, was free of any bounds apart from the urge to paint. His acute awareness was disclosed in the construction of his paintings, filling them with content and spirit. They are moving, associative, free, far from superficial, thereby accounting for their richness and great vitality.


The human figure is the focus in most of Bonneh’s paintings, usually against a background that conveys the drama of the work. However, he was not just a figurative painter, and abstraction was incorporated in his work very early in his career. Nonetheless, for him abstraction was not a style but a means of achieving artistic equilibrium, and his cubist expressionism never became standardized or repetitive.


Bonneh was an independent spirit who did not defer to the accepted laws of art. He was never associated with any specific school, did not belong to any particular body or group, did not restrict himself to any ideologies. He remained individualistic, and his art always derived from his personal world. But in his ability to raise his work to the highest spiritual level he achieved a human, universal quality.


The association “Shvil” (Pathway) has been established in order to perpetuate Shmuel Bonneh’s artistic heritage and to present his works to the general public – in exhibitions, documentation and printed material. This site is one of its functions. The works presented at the site are intended to convey, as far as possible, Bonneh’s breadth of vision, the strength of its roots in Jewish culture and in Israel, ancient and modern, and its vast store of richness.