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Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross

Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Professor of Medieval Art History, Tel-Aviv, University



From the very beginnings of Israeli ceramics the presence of the local Palestinian water jar has been significant and played a prominent role as object and image. The water jar served as sign and symbol of the human figure and as an intuitive code for specific characteristics of Palestine-Israel, such as its lack of water, its desert, and the dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

In this context I shall discuss the multi-spout jar, a very rare Palestinian form, which has served as a source of inspiration for the creation of specific multi-spouted vessels by the ceramic artist Eytan Gross. Both the Palestinian multi-spout jars and those of Gross are exceptional items within the local traditional ceramics and within contemporary artistic ceramics, and have been turned by Gross into meaningful contemporary symbolic objects.

Key words: multi-spout jar; water jar; Eytan Gross; Israeli ceramics; Palestinian ceramics

This article discusses the water jar and in particular the multi-spout jar as used in the work of the Israeli ceramic artist Eytan Gross.1 The form has relationships with Palestinian clay water jars on the one hand and carries a significant iconography in the context of Israeli ceramics on the other.

From the very beginnings of Israeli ceramics the presence of the local Palestinian water jar has been significant and played a prominent role as both a material object and an image that has been a source of inspiration for numerous works by Israeli ceramic artists. The water jar served as sign and symbol of the human figure and at the same time became an intuitive code for Palestine-Israel as a place with specific characteristics, such as its lack of water, its deserts, and the dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

In the early stages of the State of Israel, the water jar seems to have unified two ideas: it was a biblical image, known from the stories of Rebecca and Rachel, but it was also typical of local Palestinian daily life of the period.

From the beginning of the twentieth century and parallel to ceramic artists’ use of the jar, similar images of traditional water jars began to appear in other Palestinian and Israeli plastic arts and visual culture.2 Thus, from that period numerous photographs of Palestinian women with water jars were taken by professional photographers – Palestinian, British, Israeli and others. Photographs made from an anthropological viewpoint show women carrying very large and heavy water jars (Fig.1); whereas the staged photographs show them dressed in traditional costume and holding smaller and more elegant jars. Pictures of Palestinian women with similar water jars, photographed near a well, were also popular particularly from the period of the British Mandate. Thus the image of the girl with the water jar comes to symbolize the Eastern way of life. (Fig. 2)

Images of the water jar have had different meanings in various contexts in Western art from earlier times: for example, in Roman art a tilted jar with water flowing from it and figures of gods and goddesses leaning against it represents a river or spring; in Roman funerary art the urn was used to contain the ashes of the deceased; and in Early Christian art an isolated amphora with deer and birds on both sides symbolized the source of faith for the souls of the believers.3

I believe that the image of the girl with the water jar was familiar to Israeli designers primarily through Gustave Doré’s engraving depicting Jacob and Rachel by the well, which illustrated popular editions of the Bible studied in every elementary and high school in Israel from the 1920s till at least 1970. (Fig. 3) This source was much more prominent than the works of other nineteenth century Orientalist painters who frequently used this topic, or of Israeli painters from 1920-1960, who also used the image of the water jar. The girl with the jar features as a major image in the monumental carpet woven for the very modest wooden reception hall of the second President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi ( 1953-1963).4 The girl with the jar was also the theme of numerous Hebrew songs of the 1950s and 1960s, relating to a spring and the girls beside it. In this context, it should be noted that the logo of the metalcraft workshop of the Dayagi Brothers in the 1960s was that of a girl kneeling, holding a water jar on her shoulder with both hands. Reuven Dayagi, who designed the logo, explained that the reason behind his choice of the water jar was its link to the figure of Rebecca, the Jewish matriarch, as reflecting both an appropriate artistic form and a typical Eastern image.5 (Fig.4)

Eytan Gross and his multi-spout jar

In this article I want to consider how the rich associations of traditional ceramic form are deployed in the work of Eytan Gross – in particular the water jar and the multi-spout jar. The latter constitutes a rare Palestinian vessel which has served as a source of inspiration for a series of works. An unusual form in local Palestinian pottery and in contemporary artistic ceramics, Gross transforms it into a meaningful contemporary object.

Who is Eytan Gross?6 He belongs to the generation of the 1960s that was open to new trends in the arts, but at the same time maintaining a dialogue with traditional art and life. For the past thirty six years, Gross has lived and worked in Jaffa, in a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood. His work integrates forms related to the visual traditions of both these worlds, reflecting issues of the conflict and symbiosis of these two traditions. At the same time his work reflects his own personal identity as a homosexual and its place in Israeli society. In the course of his artistic career, Gross has created varied and multifaceted works, while returning repeatedly to engage with certain themes. Early on, it was possible to distinguish between his functional and his conceptual ceramic works. Over time, however, these distinctions have become blurred, as the functional objects evolved into symbolic objects, bearers of formal, individual and social meanings.

Local motifs in Eytan Gross’ work7

As well as using traditional vessel forms, Eytan Gross also uses imagery from the natural world drawing on themes with deep roots in the visual culture of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. There are two strongly recurring themes: the bird motif and the less frequently employed images of floral and arboreal ornamentation. Although found widely in Mediterranean artistic traditions, what distinguishes Gross’ work is his innovative and personal assemblage of forms, and the novel relation he creates between various motifs - some of which reflect autobiographical associations.

At times, his use of different motifs is derived from the local Palestinian lexicon of forms; in some instances the forms he creates entertain a dialogue with images that were part of the visual culture of 1950’s Tel Aviv, while in others they acquire a ritual or ceremonial quality. Regardless of whether the imagery is sculpted or painted, figurative or abstract - the textures of his works in color, the drawings and even the colorful gleam of the surface enhance the original power of the material.


In the course of my conversations with Eytan Gross I discovered that already as a boy he had felt a close connection to birds. Some of his most important early memories are related to birds - including the observation of a pair of turtledoves that nested on the porch of his childhood home; not to mention his construction of wings out of branches in order to fly like a bird... His great love of birds is also related to his love for the bird imagery that features in the work of his teacher, the ceramicist Yael Gurfinkel Pasternak.

Birds, represented individually, in pairs or in flocks, have appeared in local pottery ever since Antiquity;8 at times a vessel itself was shaped like a bird. Linear and graphic representations of birds, often specifically of doves, appear on pottery created by the Philistines, the Canaanites and other local peoples. Bird imagery was depicted throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and in Palestine in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine art; it can be found in synagogue floor mosaics and in churches; and in Roman and Byzantine stone reliefs - where small birds are portrayed nesting in grapevines. In Syria and the Holy Land mosaics featuring multiple pairs of male and female birds nesting in grape vines are common and form a kind of ‘lexicon of bird imagery’. Among these works, for example, is a fifth-century Armenian mosaic located near the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, surmounted by a dedication to the anonymous Armenian soldiers who served in the Roman legions. The imagery that characterizes this mosaic also appears on twentieth -century Armenian pottery produced in Jerusalem, and continues to be used in contemporary ceramic works. Bird imagery also appeared later on in Islamic ceramics and in three-dimensional sculptures. One such is an eighth-century sculpture of a row of partridges, located in the Umayyad palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, near Jericho.

Birds are variously represented in numerous visual traditions - including those of China, Turkey, Italy and Spain. Oftentimes, birds were depicted as symbolic representations of the soul, of freedom or of natural beauty. Indeed, it seems to me that bird imagery has occupied an important place in those visual cultures that do not privilege the representation of human figures, focusing instead on geometric and organic motifs.

Since the 1980s, bird imagery has constituted an independent chapter in Gross’ work. The birds on his ceramic vessels are painted in blue and white, or sometimes in a range of browns. Represented individually or in pairs, each one is drawn with one continuous line, and resembles a sparrow with the long, slender legs of a water fowl. These birds are thus transformed into a kind of legendary avian hybrid, composed of the legs of one bird and the body of another. On many of these vessels the birds are interwoven with sensual floral motifs or painted against a circumscribed colorful ground. In other works, the artist transforms them into a template, which he uses to create linear compositions that can extend over an entire bowl. One such example is his depiction of owls with human faces, which are flanked by smaller birds perching on the same branch. This group of works is characterized by bold brush strokes and a linear and direct application of color.

Gross’s sculptural works can be divided into several different periods, and the birds he created during each period are imbued with different meanings. Early on, he sculpted doves, inspired by photographs of his own or others. These birds are portrayed in a complex circular motion that reveals the different aspects of their sculpted bodies, rather than portraying them as monolithic visual entities. The palette of these works is rich and variegated - ranging from spotted browns to bright whites. The doves are accompanied by smaller birds, inspired by those that the designer Tamara Yovel-Jones had brought Gross from Peru. At times these white birds are individually attached to the different blue vessels, and each gleams against the other.

During the 1990s Gross began sculpting more abstract bird forms, transforming their bodies and legs into sculpted vases. The base of each vase represents a short bird leg and the top resembles a bird’s head. Some of these birds have long sharp beaks, while others have short and ‘friendly’ ones. Similar abstract bodies are sometimes surmounted by roosters of various colors; their combs are sculpted to expand over the head and body, and their depiction is enhanced by drips of paint. In some instances, the flocks of birds include a combination of the early dove images with the later birds created during the 1990s.

Floral Ornamentation

Gross’ images of flowers are usually stylized, and appear as an ornamental frieze adorning the vessels. A prominent group of such bowls and similar vessels was created in the 1990s in a range of blue or earth tones, and includes images of specific flowers. Among these is a painting of narcissi that evokes a Tel Aviv childhood during the 1950s: on Saturdays, children would plod through the mud on the then-unbuilt, northern bank of the Yarkon River in order to pick these flowers (which were not yet a protected species). Other vessels include images of cypresses and palm trees, both of which have long represented the Tree of Life in Christian, Moslem and Jewish visual cultures; as well as other forms of vegetation, all of which powerfully reveal Gross’ signature style and his involvement with the country’s mental images of nature.

The Palestinian water jar in Eytan Gross’ work

Gross participated in the exhibition ‘A Homage to Palestinian Pottery’, in which he exhibited two water jars with images of grapes on them. The two were installed in a cage made out of wooden building blocks, symbolizing the Palestinians circumscribed in their occupied areas while also being construction workers in Israel, building Israeli homes for their living. (Fig.5)

The Jar with Multiple Spouts - from a Ceremonial to a Ritual Vessel

For many years now, Gross has chosen to use the more unusual form of the multiple spout vessel as a vehicle for his ideas. This vessel has been traditionally used during Arab wedding ceremonies in the Galilean village of Kafr Kanna (the Cana of the New Testament). About thirty years ago, Gross purchased one such jar from a Palestinian who had brought it from Galilee, and it came to serve him as a point of departure for what is still an ongoing creative process. (Fig.6) The form of this traditional jar is quite unusual: its bottom part is shaped like a regular water pitcher ( jara in Arabic), while its upper part resembles a chimney, or perhaps even a mosque minaret. The elongated upper part is surrounded by small drinking spouts, each of which is connected to the base of the chimney by an arched form. Two of these spouts - on either side of the vase - were designed for drinking by the bride and groom. The vessel is composed of two layers in order to prevent leakage.

A very similar jar with multiple spouts, almost the same shape as that from Kafr Kanna, is known from another Palestinian village, Jab`a, near Jerusalem. The difference here is that on the central, higher, element of the jar a nesting dove is depicted. Doves are familiar images of love in the Song of Songs and other books of the Bible, and also in Muslim poetry; thus a pair of such jars would be given to the Muslim bride for her wedding.

About twenty five years ago, during a visit to Kafr Kanna, I purchased a Palestinian jar with multiple spouts like the one owned by Eytan Gross. (Fig.7) Later, when I was studying the origins of these vessels, I found two similar ones during a visit to the village in July 2006, made by the same potter and sold in the same village shop. The only element that had evolved was the size of the chimney, which had become significantly taller. The potter, 80 years old, had since moved to another village and I was unable to locate him.

Another vessel that may be related to this type of jar belongs to the Yemenite pottery tradition. Its shape is that of an elongated bowl whose circumference is punctuated by numerous short, closed, spouts that serve as candlesticks, and it would have been balanced on the head during dances celebrating the traditional henna ceremony for the bride prior to her wedding.

It is problematic to trace the pictorial tradition from which the multiple spout vessel may have emerged. Ancient Cypriot and local jars sometimes have two spouts, but I have not seen one with multiple spouts in either of these ceramic traditions. In Palestinian pottery, too, the multiple spout vessel has remained very rare. It differs greatly from other forms of Palestinian pottery. From the second half of the nineteenth century on, a tradition of Palestinian clay pottery that is close to Lebanese pottery can be followed. This tradition produced jars that play a prominent role as simultaneously ordinary domestic vessels and as significant sculpted objects. In Muslim visual culture there are almost no figurative images, and no three-dimensional sculpture. Therefore such jars play a central role as both functional and meaningful objects. Their forms can also be given a gendered reading. (Fig. 8) The most common are: the water jar with two handles close to its neck and the water jar with two handles at its midline. Their outline recalls the rounded shape of the female body, while the handles can be associated with the hands. By contrast, the water jar with a handle on one side and a spout on the other might suggest the male body. Larger jars, often with three handles, serving as olive oil containers were blackened using special techniques and are produced particularly in Gaza. (Fig.9)

Palestinian clay pottery production is vast and has always enjoyed great popularity among Palestinians and Israelis alike. The same vessels have been produced for generations, but the water jars have become much smaller over time, as nowadays water is piped into the villages and there is no longer any need to go to the water sources and carry water home in a jar. At the same time, there has emerged an extensive production of garden pottery, adjusted for the new functions but often retaining the traditional forms.

Gross’ approach to the multiple spout jar is thus an extraordinary one, deviating strongly from the normative production of the traditional Palestinian jars and their standard representational images in Palestinian and Israeli visual culture. He made a considered choice to concentrate on this one rare type of wedding vessel as a particular artistic expression that presents clusters of forms, thus deviating from his other projects, in which he sometimes uses elements borrowed from the ordinary Palestinian jar mentioned above.

An examination of this unique model developed by Gross over the course of several decades reveals an ongoing dialogue with the original wedding jar, whose formal vocabulary he has made the subject of further elaboration. He focuses intensively on the upper part of the vase, and the spouts in these works are deliberately crowded together - having undergone significant formal transformations. They have become the dominant components of the vessel, and endow it with new qualities. (Figs.10-11) The multiplication of these forms, moreover, draws one to investigate their meaning further.

In his work, the jar with multiple spouts does not have a specific function, but has instead acquired the quality of a ritual or mythical object; the intensely crowded, multiple forms allude to fertility and abundance and might thus be associated, for instance, with the famous statue of the Cypriot Aphrodite - a fertility goddess with multiple clusters of breasts.

These qualities are expressed, for example, in a jar with a blue chimney and a palette of brown and white tones. (Fig.12) Some of its spouts resemble birds, while others resemble miniature elongated jars themselves, prominent in contrast to the original vessel from Kafr Kanna, whose chimney bulges in several places and whose spouts are small and almost functional. In Eytan Gross’ jar the spouts have been transformed into a crowd of juxtaposed birds and the chimney has acquired a sculptural quality that is no longer linear or functional.

In another vase, whose turquoise color evokes the colour of walls of Palestinian houses, the spouts are closed and each one is topped by a sculpture of a tiny pomegranate. The pomegranate, a symbol of plenty in Judaism, is often found in ancient local imagery and is integrated into this new entity lending it the appearance of a fruit-bearing tree. (Fig. 13)

In yet another work, the lower part of a red jar is transformed into a more elongated and less voluminous form, while the spouts are taller and surround a straight chimney. (Fig. 14) Color also plays a significant role in these works, whose gleaming palette is composed of bright turquoise, white, brown, beige and a deep, earthlike red.

In a recent exhibition9 Eytan Gross included two multi-spout vessels. One is shaped like a bird, with a tail on one side and a mouth on the other; the other one has retained the form typical to this artist. Printed or painted on both jars are images of Gross family members alongside David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel and the first prime minister of the new state. These images have personal associations. Ben-Gurion was a role model for Eytan Gross when he enrolled into the Israeli army, while his own family was not always supportive. The colours of blue and white--the colours of Israel’s flag--create a texture of poster imagery. This pictorial language competes with the original jar form and subordinates the vessel to the images using it simply as a stage for the presentation of various modes of pictures.

Like the rest of his work, Gross’ ritual-cult jar entertains a dialogue with an object belonging to local Palestinian tradition. It remains, nonetheless, unique within this tradition as well as within the corpus of Israeli imagery. This mythical object however is multi-layered. It presents codes of artistic creations reflecting individual perceptions, as well as the collective hopes and dreams of the region.


  1. Website for CV and images of work http://eytangross.com:80. back to text
  2. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Modern Creations from an Ancient Land: Metal Craft and Designs in the first Two Decades of Israel’s Independence, Eretz Israel museum ,Tel-Aviv-Yad Izhak Ben -Zvi, Jerusalem, 2006, pp.39-42. back to text
  3. Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’art chretien, Paris, 1957, vol. 1. back to text
  4. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, ‘From the Orient and from the Bible: Israeli Landscape Images in President Itzhak Ben-Zvi’s Cabin’, in Motar: Journal of the Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts 10, 2003, pp.49-56. back to text
  5. Kenaan-Kedar, Modern Creations, p 40. back to text
  6. See Eytan Gross website http://eytangross.com:80motifs back to text
  7. Local imagery material and colors have been integrated in numerous ways into Israeli ceramic art; they appear in works by several generations of ceramic artists, and their use has been commented upon by various scholars. back to text
  8. Irit Ziffer , ‘O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock’: The Dove-Allegory in Antiquity, Tel-Aviv, 1998. back to text
  9. Eytan Gross, ‘Zippora, if Eytan were a girl, I would wait for him’, Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat-Gan, 2006. back to text

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© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated

Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross • Issue 10