Art in Modern Israel

by Haim Finkelstein and Haim Maor

Art in modern Ereẓ Israel can be dated from the first Zionist immigration to Palestine. Its evolution followed to a certain extent the pattern of the successive waves of immigration. One of the central questions concerning art in Ereẓ Israel, and later Israeli art, concerns identity, the question of assigning it precise defining characteristics that will distinguish it from the Jewish art of the Diaspora. The art in Ereẓ Israel of the first decades of the 20th century might be considered in terms of the continuity of the artistic and cultural traditions that the artists, who were all immigrants, had brought over with them. However, they also participated in the Zionist project of creating a new identity for an old nation creating itself anew. The creative awareness of artists of later generations fluctuated between, on the one hand, the desire to create a native art based on an indigenous independent language, an organic part of the land, and its physical and social conditions; and, on the other, the attraction to artistic developments overseas, which, particularly until the 1960s, were associated with Paris.

The Creation of the Bezalel School

The creation of new symbols of identity for the Jewish people in its ancient homeland was, indeed, at the heart of Boris *Schatz's life project. In 1906, Schatz (1867–1932) immigrated to Ereẓ Israel from Bulgaria. He was a painter and sculptor and had been head of the Royal Academy of Art in Sofia. In the year of his arrival he realized his dream of founding a school of arts and crafts in Jerusalem. He called it the *Bezalel School after the biblical architect of the Tabernacle. The founding of an art institute in Jerusalem in 1906 was an adventurous undertaking. The Jewish population of the Yishuv was small and the Orthodox were certain to protest vigorously against a school which might violate the biblical prohibition against the making of graven images. Nevertheless, Bezalel received the full backing of the Zionist Organization. The foundation of the school must be considered the beginning of genuine artistic activity. Until then the only art forms produced locally were by Arabs and the small Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias. They consisted of arts and crafts and pictorial representations for devotional purposes. Schatz wanted to establish a cultural-artistic center that would advance the utopian vision of a Jewish home-land. He planned his school to train painters, sculptors, and craftsmen on two levels, which he was careful to define as the "technical level" and the "national level." The teachers he hired included local artisans (goldsmiths and Yemenite weavers) as well as Jewish artists who were already well established in Europe, such as Abel *Pann (1883–1963), Samuel *Hirshenberg (1865–1908), Ephraim Moses *Lilien (1874–1925), Zeev Raban (1890–1970), and Joseph *Budko (1888–1940). They all came from Eastern Europe and their artistic training had tended to lead them away from Judaism, but they had come to know both the horror of the pogroms and the nationalist revival in Europe. They now felt the need to use their academic knowledge to relate to the past as represented by the Bible and to the future as represented by the advent of Zionism. The Wandering Jew by Hirshenberg, the biblical pastels of Pann, and the reliefs of biblical figures and Zionist personalities by Schatz represented this outlook. In Lilien's illustrations and etchings, Yemenite Jews, Bedouins and Arabs in their traditional dresses served as models for images of biblical figures. The "Bezalel Style" was consequently quite eclectic, combining Oriental arabesques and Jugendstil flowing lines and decorative flatness. The themes combined biblical motifs, often in a Zionist perspective, and landscapes done in an idealist-utopian and Orientalist spirit. The products included jewelry, religious artifacts, ceramic tiles, postcards, illustrated books, and posters. Bezalel under the directorship of Schatz closed down in 1928 because of economic problems and because its generally conservative orientation seemed inimical to the modernist outlook. It reopened as the "New Bezalel" in the 1930s under the guidance of immigrant Jewish artists from Germany who oriented it toward the spirit of the Bauhaus School.

The 1920s

Early criticism of Bezalel is already in evident in the first important exhibition in Ereẓ Israel, organized in 1923 by the younger generation of Palestine artists. It was held in the so-called Tower of David in Jerusalem and included the work of Nahum *Gutman (1898–1980), Reuven *Rubin (1893–1974), Pinhas *Litvinovsky (1894–1985), and Israel *Paldi (1892–1979), all of whom had been pupils at the Bezalel. The work of newcomers such as Yossef *Zaritsky (1891–1985) was also shown. These young people had realized how anachronistic the style and ideas of their teachers had been and it was this group, who were mainly landscape artists, that formed the nucleus out of which Israeli art developed. With the new waves of immigration of 1919–25, Tel Aviv, a modern new city, became a lively cultural alternative to Jerusalem, drawing writers, artists, musicians, and theater people who felt the need to create a new local Hebrew culture. The three exhibitions of "Modern Artists" at the Ohel Theater during 1926–28 exhibited the modernist orientation of the young artists such as Nachum Gutman, Arieh Lubin (1897–1980), Moshe *Mokady (1902–1975), Israel Paldi, Reuven Rubin, Menachem *Shemi (1897–1951), Tziona *Tagger (1900–1988), Moshe *Castel (1909–1991), Yossef Zaritzky, and others.

The artistic alternatives these artists proposed were defined by a desire to become acculturated in the new Oriental surrounding and adopt the figure of the Arab as a model for the new "Hebrew." They went out to the landscapes in order to bring together the biblical past and the modern pioneers, the local Arabs, and the rooted Oriental Jews. Stylistically, they were guided by the need to create a national art, and, at the same time, to develop universal means of expression which would qualify them as modern artists. The conflict persisted throughout the 1920s and 1930s, even when definition of its components – national art, universalism – underwent slight alteration. Thus, in the 1920s, nationalism was equated with the ideals of pioneering and national renewal. The anti-Diaspora ideal and the demand for an original Hebrew culture found expression in stylistic primitivism (with affinity to the art of the Near and Far East) and exotic-naïve predilections which were realized in flattening and use of color planes with strong contours (corresponding, to some extent, to the expressionistic tendencies in European art which rejected the art of the museum and sought the roots of art in its primitive sources). At the same time, these artists showed a desire to belong to a modern artistic context as evinced by the borrowing of the trappings of modernism as represented by cubist and constructivist trends. These included simplification, even some distortion, and, to a certain degree, geometric construction of form, while preserving the realistic character of the work. Such artists as Tagger, Itzhak *Frenkel (1899–1981), and Mokady found the model in the work of André Derain, whose moderate modernism fitted the needs of a young art lacking in tradition.

The 1930s

In the late 1920s artists from Ereẓ Israel began flocking to Paris; this was accompanied by a tendency to abandon the former modernistic manifestations and folk-loristic character and by an intensified desire to root art in an established artistic tradition, all the more so since France in those years was marked by the trend of reverting to traditional artistic values. Paris offered the Ereẓ Israel artists a wide range of choices. There was the French landscape tradition of the 19th century (Corot, Courbet) and various impressionist and post-impressionist trends (Cézanne, the "intimist" artists). The Jewish School of Paris artists (Soutine, Mintchine, Kremegne, Menkès) offered an expressionism based on a dark palette with the paint laid thickly as an element conveying atmosphere and feeling. Artists such as Haim *Atar (Apteker; 1902–1953), Mokady, Frenkel, and Moshe Castel were shaped by the extreme expressionist manifestations, as represented by Soutine. Others, such as Shemi, Haim Gliksberg (1904–1970), Avigdor *Stematsky (1908–1989), Eliahu Sigad (Sigard; 1909–1975), exhibit a more moderate expressionism together with post-impressionist influences.

From 1933, artists and architects who had fled the Nazis constituted an important element of the art scene in Palestine. Some of them were associated with German avant-garde expressionist groups; others studied at the Bauhaus under Itten, Kandinsky, Klee, and the architect Gropius. Jakob *Steinhardt (1887–1968), Mordecai *Ardon (1896– 1992), Miron *Sima (1902–1999), Isidor *Aschheim (1891–1968), and Shalom *Sebba (1897–1975) came in this wave of immigration. With the exception of Sebba, they all settled in Jerusalem. They created a "Jerusalem School" which was dominated by certain aspects of German expressionism. These artists were preceded by two Viennese painters, Anna *Ticho (1894–1980) and Leopold *Krakauer (1890–1954). By the mid-1930s, some of the painters of the first generation of Bezalel graduates had begun to lose their originality and vitality. The coming of new artists, in particular Ardon and Sebba, revived the artistic scene. Mordecai Ardon, a graduate of the Weimar Bauhaus, achieved this through his efficient teaching at the Bezalel School. Sebba aimed at applying a European archaistic-primitivist tendency to a "localism" associated with the figures of shepherds and exerted his influence through stage designs and the decoration of public buildings.

The 1940s

World War II brought about a feeling of isolation from the outside world for the younger artists of the period, but also an increasing sense of a local identity that was antithetical to the image of the Jew of the Diaspora. This trend was exemplified by a group of writers and poets – Amos *Kenan, Benjamin *Tammuz, Aharon *Amir, Jonathan *Ratosh – who became known as the "Canaanites." They called for a separation of the Hebrew identity from Judaism and for its re-attachment to the ancient land of Canaan and its culture. Artists such as Yitshak *Danziger (1916–1977) and Aharon *Kahana (1905–1967) adopted a primitivist-Oriental imagery and borrowed the myths of the Ancient East. Danziger's sculpture Nimrod, with its archaism, nudity, and non-Jewish connotations, became a manifesto and a model to young artists such as Yehiel *Shemi (1922–2003), Shoshana Heiman (1923– ), and others. In the late 1950s, Danziger abandoned the "Canaanite" orientation and turned to abstract sculpture inspired by the Israeli landscape.

Alongside the "Canaanites," there was another group of artists whose orientation was geared to the expression of social issues. Among the "social realists" were kibbutz artists such as Yohanan Simon (1905–1976) and Shraga Weil (1918– ), who endowed daily life in the kibbutz with a religious-mystical romantic mood. There were "engaged" artists, with pronounced socialist leanings, such as Avraham *Ofek (1935–1990), Naftali Bezem (1924– ), Shimeon Tzabar (1926– ), Moshe Gat (1935– ), and others. In the 1950s, in the midst of the great waves of immigration to Israel, Ruth Schloss (1922– ) Gerson Knispel (1932– ), Bezem and Weil evoked in their works the hardships of the temporary homes for the immigrants in the ma'barot.

New Horizons

By 1945, Israel painters had become aware that the two Paris schools had ceased to exist. The Jewish painters had almost all disappeared. A younger generation of abstract painters had succeeded the post-cubist fauvist schools, and these painters now began to exercise a considerable influence on Israeli artists, including several veterans among them. The work of Aharon Giladi (1907–1993), Mordecai *Levanon (1901–1968), Litvinovsky, Paldi, and Frenkel evolved toward a more "modern" style, which in some cases resembled that of Rouault or Picasso, rather than that of the two Paris schools. The influence of Parisian abstraction could be seen in the work of Castel and Mokady. The most important event of this period was the creation of the New Horizons Group in 1947/48. The leaders were Zaritsky and Marcel *Janco (1895–1984), a painter of Romanian origin who had gained renown as a member of the dada movement in Zurich, and who arrived in Palestine in 1941. Around them were grouped Yeḥezkiel *Streichman (1906–1993) and Avigdor Stematsky. They all made a decisive contribution to the development of what became known as "lyrical abstraction," combining free, abstract style with a predilection for the expression of the light and color palate characterizing the local experience. Zaritsky followed his own path with some debt to Braque and French "intimisme"; Streichman and Stematsky were influenced by Picasso as well as by the lyrical trend in the School of Paris. They were joined by Avraham Naton (1906–1959), Kahana, and Yeḥiel Krize (1909–1968) who were still working on figurative though somewhat simplified themes; Jacob Wexler (1912–1995), Avshalom Okashi (1916–1980), Moshe Castel, Zvi *Mairovich (1909–1974), Arie *Aroch (1908–1974), and the sculptors Yitshak Danziger, Yeḥiel Shemi, and Moshe *Sternschuss (1903–1992). A little later the two leaders split over the choice of entries for Israel's first participation in the Venice Biennale. The reactions were so violent that Marcel Janco left the New Horizons Group after its first exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1949. Zaritsky inherited the leadership. Group exhibitions were held until 1963. Although certain members returned later to figurative work (Kahana), or geometric abstraction (Naton), the formation of the group marked the end of the expressionist phase in Israel art and opened the way to new ideas.

The 1960s

Lyrical abstraction dominated Israeli art until 1955. Streichman and Stematsky, both teachers at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv, played an important role in the formation of a second generation of artists that took abstraction to new directions, at times more extreme than those of their teachers. Of this group should be singled out Lea *Nikel (1918–2005), whose work was highly abstract, sensual, lively, and colorful, and Moshe *Kupferman (1926–2003), a Holocaust survivor whose paintings might be seen as representing both formal abstract qualities and thematic connotations associated with his personal experiences. The way was already clear, however, for new experimenters. The most important of these was Arie Aroch, whose work may be associated with the spirit of the poetic revolution of the 1950s, embodied by Nathan *Zach, David *Avidan, Meir Wieseltier, and Dalia *Ravikovitch. Aroch proposed an alternative to lyrical abstraction by developing a calligraphy that was based on children's drawings, developing uncommon techniques (rubbing, erasing, scratching) and utilizing motifs and forms taken out of "non-artistic" sources (such as street signs), Jewish manuscripts, and other readymade forms. Aviva *Uri (1927–1989) chose to work with pencil, charcoal, and oil sticks and to develop an expressive line that reflected anxieties and emotional tensions. The third artist to work away from lyrical abstraction was Igael *Tumarkin (1933– ), who in the early 1960s began making rather violent assemblages that combined readymade objects, expressionist brushwork, texts sprayed through matrices, art historical citations. These works, with their controversial political-social stand, echoed the new Pop Art and new Realism then current abroad. This new spirit, and the direct influence of Aroch and Uri, were seen in the work of several young painters, notably Rafi *Lavie (1937– ), who formed the "Group of Ten." Lavie's work, in its connotation of a municipal billboard, with its torn posters and dynamic and haphazard piling up of images, evoked the essence of the spirit of Tel Aviv. An exhibition entitled "The Want of Matter – A Quality in Israeli Art," curated by Sara Breitberg-Semel at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1986, provided a major summing up of all these trends of the 1960s.

The 1970s

The "Group of Ten" reflected the beginning of the trend of the "Americanization" of Israeli art that was augmented by the greater exposure to American culture brought about by volunteers who flocked to Israel following the Six-Day War and by young Jewish-American artists such as Joshua *Neustein (1940– ), who immigrated to Israel in 1964. The art of the 1970s mirrors American trends such as conceptual art, body art, performance, environmental art ("Earth Art"), and minimalist art. The years 1967–83, encompassing three wars, also brought about an eclipse of the former spirit of national identity, with the private identity replacing the collective dream. Michal Na'aman (1951– ) searched the limits of language in their application to national or sexual identity; the works of Michael Druks (1940– ), Motti Mizrahi (1946– ), Yocheved Weinfeld (1947– ), David Ginton (1947– ), Gideon Gechtman (1942– ), Moshe Gershuni (1936– ), and Haim Maor (1951– ) examine the human body and the limits of pain and suffering, at times in relation to war. Artists such as Avital *Geva (1941– ), Micha *Ullman (1940– ), Pinchas Cohen-Gan (1942– ), Dov Or-Ner (1927– ), Dganit Berest (1949– ), Menashe Kadishman (1932– ), Dov Heller (1937– ), Dani *Karavan (1930– ), and others, dealt with the question of borders, maps, environment and ecology. Alongside the trends that emphasized themes and contents, there was a more abstract trend, which engaged in examining minimalist form. This trend was amply reflected in the works of Yehiel Shemi, Michael *Gross (1920–2004), Nahum Tevet (1946– ), Beni *Efrat (1936– ), Rita Alima (1932– ), and Ori *Reisman (1924–1991). It should be recalled that there were artists, such as Naftali Bezem (1924– ) and Moshe Tamir (1924–2004), who remained figurative painters. A return to themes which were figurative and evocative of the Holocaust and to traditional Jewish subjects, first noticeable in the work of Ardon himself, is illustrated in various ways by Yossl *Bergner (1920– ), Shmuel Boneh (1930–1999), and Shraga Weil.

The 1980s and After

Critical post-modernist attitudes, which became quite dominant in Israeli art in the 1980s, express a growing tendency to give voice to the "Other" – artists raised in immigrant families, homosexuals and lesbians, or artists belonging to minority groups. The "Israeli experience," based on a collective, monolithic memory, had fallen apart. The paintings of Yair *Garbuz (1945– ), David Reeb (1952– ), Tsivi Geva (1951– ), and Avishai Eyal (1945– ), or the photographs of Micha Kirshner (1947– ), Michal Heyman (1954– ), Shuka Glotman (1953– ), and Adi Ness (1966– ) are examples of a new critical and deconstructive examination of the Israeli experience, of local history and its visual representations, and of the manipulations of the collective-political memory. Various aspects of the post-modern condition gained in prominence in the course of the last two decades. These include an erasure of the borders separating illusion from reality (art based on the virtual worlds created in the cinema, for instance, as reflected in the paintings of Anat Ben Shaul; the sense of apocalyptic threat expressed in the works of Dorit Yacoby and Moshe Gershuni). The threat of loss of the family home or the national one is given form by the prominence of the "house" motif in the sculptures of Micha Ulman, Philip Renzer (1956– ), Gideon Gechtman, and Buky Schwarz (1932– ). For more than a decade now, there has been a growing emphasis on the Holocaust as one of the major constituents in defining the Israeli identity, especially on the part of artists such as Yocheved Weinfeld, Simcha Shirman (1947– ), Haim Maor, and Uri Katzenshtein (1951– ), who are second-generation survivors.

The particular problems of identity and the tensions surrounding the broad concept of the "Israeli experience" largely account for the development in the Israel of recent years of an art that is fully sensitive and attentive to what is happening both in the public sphere and in the private domain, and that has gained a prominent position in the global art scene, as evinced by the interest shown in exhibitions of Israeli art in various venues abroad.

Resources. Traditional Art ; Modern Art ; Art in the USA ; Art and the Holocaust (Art, Jewish Virtual Library, 2008-2013).

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