Melnikov's Roaring Lion

The sculptor Abraham Melnikov has been almost forgotten. Nevertheless, his monument to Tel Hai defenders "The Roaring Lion", located at the Tel Hai Memorial in the Upper Galilee region of Israel, is probably the best known sculpture to most Israelis and one of the best known Israeli national symbols.

The Roaring Lion - a statue, fashioned in the Assyrian style, of a lion roaring towards the sky - is also one of the best examples of a style of primitivism that artists living in the Land of Israel developed in the first decades of the 20th century, borrowing elements from ancient Assyrian art to create a new and unique Land of Israel style (this style started to gain traction after the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design was established by Boris Schatz in 1903; it was later, in the 40's, enthusiastically endorsed by the Canaanism movement, which called for the creation of a secular Hebrew nation that is not identified or defined by Judaism; the artists that initiated this style and Canaanism are otherwise unrelated ).

Abraham Melnikov was born in Bessarabia in 1892. His parents sent him to Vienna in 1909 to study medicine and he spent his evenings studying art at the Vienna Art Academy. When he decided to drop his medical studies and devote himself wholly to art, his parents ceased supporting him and he went to stay with his brother in Chicago.

In 1919 Melnikov volunteered for the Jewish Legion and arrived in the Land of Israel from Egypt. He soon obtained his discharge from the army and began to devote himself full time to art. In 1922 the Association of Jewish Artists was founded under the presidency of Boris Schatz and Melnikov served as his deputy. During the period 1921-28, Melnikov took part in all the exhibitions held by the Association in the Tower of David. He gained acceptance in British ruling circles and achieved a prominent position in local art circles. Sir Ronald Storrs, Governor of Jerusalem, put at his disposal a workshop in the Old City of Jerusalem over the Damascus Gate (the workshop was later looted and destroyed during the 1929 riots).

On March 1, 1920, Joseph Trumpeldor and five of his comrades fell at Tel Hai, an early small settlement, in a battle with local Arab fighters. The battle inspired an enduring Israeli heroic myth of "few against many", profoundly influenced Zionist defense and political strategies for many years afterward, and its date (Yod Alef Be'Adar according to the Hebrew calendar) has been designated the national "Tel Hai Day".

In 1925 Melnikov came to Tel Hai and was shocked to see that the communal grave of the fallen has no proper stone and started to push for the erection of a monument at the site. The idea was well received, but initially there was nobody to finance it. In 1928, Lord Melchett (Sir Alfred Mond), responding to the initiative of the Zionist Executive, agreed to be responsible for financing the construction of a memorial to the heroes of Tel Hai. He consulted with Melnikov who suggested a memorial in the form of a roaring lion. At the same time, the executive of the Histadrut (the General Labour Federation) issued a public tender for the erection of a memorial on the same spot. This resulted in the outbreak of a fierce controversy among the Jewish population.

Lord Melchett eventually accepted Melnikov's suggestion, and Melnikov then went to live in Kefar Giladi and began work on his memorial. With help from Gdud Ha'Avoda (The Work Battalion, headed by Yitzhak Sade), a 22-ton block of stone from the nearby quarries was put in position in 1930 and Melnikov began to carve the sculpture. However, the funds collected by Lord Melchett ran out and Melnikov, who refused to compromise on the size of his work, continued the work using his own money and help from volunteers. Melnikov completed work on the statue in 1934, and the memorial was officially dedicated in the presence of N. Bialik, Y. Ben-Zvi, E. Kaplan and other Jewish VIPs.

Shortly after, Melnikov left for London and stayed there for the next 25 years, achieving reputation as a sculptor of busts. In 1940, his studio and most of its contents were destroyed during an air raid.

Melnikov came back to Israel in 1959, a sick man. In 1960, while clearing his possessions from Haifa Port, he collapesed and died. In compliance with the terms of his will, he was buried alongside his wife at the foot of his "Roaring Lion".

Unfortunately, with the exception of "The Roaring Lion" and his statue "The Awakening Yehuda" located at the national park of Ramat Gan, Melnikov's works today have been mostly forgotten, destroyed, or simply vanished. The 1st retrospective exhibition of Melnikov's work was held in the Haifa University Art Gallery in 1982.

The stamp was issued in 1984, one of three dedicated to the art of sculpture. It was designed by A. Berg.