A bit of magic for “Shtisel” artist
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A bit of magic for “Shtisel” artist

Israeli artist Alex Tubis talks online about creating Akiva Shtisel’s art for the Kaplen JCC

Alex Tubis stands near one of his works, “Boy with Goldfish,” which he made for Akiva Shtisel. (Photos courtesy Alex Tubis)
Alex Tubis stands near one of his works, “Boy with Goldfish,” which he made for Akiva Shtisel. (Photos courtesy Alex Tubis)

Spoiler alert: Akiva — the charedi artist whose life we share in the hit Netflix series “Shtisel” — did not paint the iconic pictures featured in the Israeli show.

While Michael Aloni, who played Akiva, did take some art lessons in preparation for the show, it was his teacher, artist Alex Tubis, who created the artwork that moved audiences with their poignancy and authenticity. And if Akiva looked like he was really painting, that too is attributable to Mr. Tubis’s guidance.

Mr. Tubis, an artist who lives near Tel Aviv, began his association with the show in its second season. He had not heard of the show, “but someone saw my art and said it would be perfect.” The call, he said, “came out of nowhere.”

When the show’s art director said they needed a painter, “I asked if they had the money for it.” He thought, he said, that they wanted it for free. “That happens a lot in art,” he said. But in this case, the money was there.

When Mr. Tubis later mentioned this offer to a friend, “he raved about” the show, inspiring the artist to look it up on the internet, where he discovered that the series had been garnering many awards.

“‘Seriously,’” Mr. Tubis reported his friend as saying. “Shtisel. It’s something serious.’”

So he took it seriously.

“I wanted to get the job,” Mr. Tubis said. “I came to an interview with the director, art director, producer, and one other person. I brought paintings, thinking they wanted the kind of paintings going strong today. I said maybe they wanted art in Peter Doig’s style. It was really an emotional moment.

“They said, ‘Listen, Alex. We have seen a lot of pictures before we came. We want your paintings to be Akiva’s paintings.’”

Alex Tubis’s “Indoor Basketball Court in Naan,” 2019.

Mr. Tubis did not have to change his style for the show. “Of course, I wouldn’t decide to paint a boy with a goldfish or Libbi in a bridal dress,” he said. “I was told what to paint, but decisions about composition were mine.” And, he said, “I didn’t read much from the script. First, I didn’t want spoilers. Second, I do not come from that world, the charedi world, and I cannot exactly understand how things should be.

“When I was working, I needed other people to guide me. The main person in Seasons 2 and 3 was Ori Elon, one of the writers. He had a profound understanding of painting, and good taste. He really guided me toward what he wanted.”

Something magical happened during this process, Mr. Tubis said. In fact, something somehow — in ways that he can’t explain — helped him capture the precise emotional tone of the action. When he watched the episodes where some of his art played a large part, “I got emotional,” he said.

For example, in painting Libbi in her bridal dress, he first assessed what she must be feeling. “Coming back after their marriage, Akiva looks at her and wants to paint her,” he said. “For him, that’s everything. He makes love to her through the painting. Libbi wants to do other things rather than standing for the painting, but she also loves Akiva.” Capturing that mixed sentiment, Mr. Tubis gives Libbi what some see almost as a Mona Lisa smile.

“I am not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person,” Mr. Tubis said. “I don’t have any explanation for how the picture looks, but the gaze in Libbi’s eyes is very precise for what the show needed.

“There’s sadness and love in that gaze.”

He feels that the same spiritual force was in place when he painted Racheli in the fire. “I think it works in a number of ways,” he said. First, “Akiva has a dream that his paintings are burning. But it’s also connected to Libbi. Racheli is his new woman, but the flames are Libbi, and they’re all around her.”

The painting also relates to Racheli’s bipolar disorder, he added. “I saw the actress and she looked so gentle. But I felt she had some inner spark, that she can be really angry. In the painting, you can see the darkness in her eyes.”

He’s often asked if he has anything in common with Akiva, Mr. Tubis reported. Akiva is very self-confident — but at the same time, he’s not confident, he said. He knows what he wants, and “he wouldn’t compromise his truth for anything. If he tries, he goes back to his truth very quickly.” And when he tries not to paint, “he finds that he cannot be without it.”

Mr. Tubis, on the other hand, said that his family is supportive of his art, though his parents probably would have preferred had he gone into high-tech. “But I also feel strongly about my truth,” he said. “When I finished Bezalel, I didn’t go in search of a job in design; I went to work as an instructor in a rehab center. It wasn’t great money-wise,” but it was what he was called to do. “I just do the things I really like. I make art that really feels right to me, whether people will like it or not.

“I don’t compromise myself.”

For example, Mr. Tubis said, while there are artists today who excel in Judaic art, he, like Akiva, has chosen not to pursue that field but to focus on realism. “I didn’t choose to be a painter to make money,” he said.

Mr. Tubis was born in Moscow and moved to Israel in 1990. He draws artistic inspiration from the Old Masters, he said, particularly from Velasquez, Veronese, and Vermeer, as well as from some Russian landscape painters. He also credits American artists such as Edward Hopper, “who was really great in composition.”

He calls “Shtisel” “a strange bird flying in the skies of Netflix. You don’t see this every day. The producer said some guys came to her and said they had written a show about the charedi community and one of the main characters will be a painter.

“If they made him a gangster, it would be more exciting to watch. But it’s just very human. There’s really something special about Shtisel. There’s no tension for its own sake.”

It’s got a specific value in the Jewish world. “For many Jews, hearing so much Yiddish brings you back to your roots,” he said. It brings back memories of his own grandparents, who were deeply connected to Yiddish culture.

Working with “Shtisel” has been a bit of a mixed blessing, Mr. Tubis said. “I’m still not famous, although this year I had some moments of glory” because of the show. He was able to add another class to those he already had been teaching at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Now he also teaches in the school’s department of visual communication, in what he called the “charedi branch.”

He receives some guidance in the department. “If I want to make a presentation and show a female, it must get approval,” he said. “And of course I cannot show any nudity or Christian symbols.” Still, he said, “There are other ways to teach important stuff. You don’t have to see Christ on the cross to teach composition or how to draw a person.”

But one downside of working with the megahit is that “now most people are only interested in my ‘Shtisel’ work,” he said. “I have other works that are even better.” Still, “I am grateful that people are talking to me and know who I am.”


Who: “Shtisel” artist Alex Tubis

What: Will speak about his art and the works he created for the Israeli series for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

When: On Wednesday, March 2, 11:30 a.m.

Where: Zoom (the link will be sent the day before the talk)

For more information: Go to www.jccotp.org/programs/day-trips-experiences, call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454, or email her at kgraff@jccotp.org.

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