Friday 15 December 2017

What lies beneath: Annabelle and Guy

Annabelle and Guy, Matan Ben Cnaan, oil on board (2015), courtesy of the artist

Matan Ben Cnaan's Annabelle and Guy
Matan Ben Cnaan's Annabelle and Guy

Niall MacMonagle

Man. Woman. Dog. An everyday sight but not in this way. You wouldn't mess with the bow-wow in 35-year-old's Matan Ben Cnaan's prize-winning painting.

The ponytailed, ear-ringed, tattooed man, seated in his plastic chair looks tough. She, Miss Defiant, big frizzed hair bunched back, flip-flopped, with hand on his shoulder, hand on hip, has a "don't-mess-with-me" stance and stare. The clothes are modern; the broken, damaged, ugly background looks modern too in a war zone kind of way. The whole scene is drenched in harsh sunlit glare and is filled with a something's about to happen atmosphere.

But these blue and charcoal-clad figures are only Annabelle and Guy, father and step-daughter and friends of the artist and not Annabelle and Guy. This is also a portrait of Old Testament figures Jephthah and his daughter. And she, poor soul, comes to a bad end. Jephthah, in the Book of Judges, before fighting the Ammonites promised, if victorious, to offer up "whatever or whoever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return". Thinking it would be his dog and not his only daughter, Jephthah, the victor, ends up sacrificing her and loses everything. Warning: making promises to Holy God can damage your health and wreck your head.

Fast forward to the turmoil of the 21st century and the Middle East. Conflict, violence, then and now. Politics, history, the Bible come together here in this arresting portrait and are given a modern spin. It could be a scene from gang-land, love/hate territory anywhere.

From 2,748 portraits, from 92 countries, Ben Cnaan's portrait won this year's BP Portrait Award worth £30,000. The first Israeli ever to win, it's Israel, the land and its people, that feature in his work.

"I capture and study the local Israeli with a non-romantic yet sentimental view" though in this particular work, it's more shocking than sentimental once the allegorical narrative is known. And the Jezreel Valley setting with its sinister shadows connect contemporary and historical, current and Biblical, now and then.

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