Painting and Sculpture in Israel

KARL KATZ, Curator of the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem, is an art historian and archaeologist who received his training at Columbia University and who was first employed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Bezalel collection over which he presides was begun fifty-five years ago and is soon to be moved into new quarters; its recent acquisitions include the lifework of sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and Jacob Epstein. In the pages which follow, Dr. Katz discusses the work of some contemporary Israeli artists.

THE painters and sculptors from Poland and Russia, Austria and Bulgaria who went to Palestine early in this century found brown, barren earth and Arabs with goat flocks. There were no commissions for portraits, no heroic scenes designed for grand houses, and no markets for their easel paintings. These transplanted artists — Boris Schatz, Hirschenberg, Lilien, and Pan — set down their memories and lived in the past. They depicted young boys with earlocks, engrossed in the study of the Talmud, rabbis with saintly visages, and the recollections of terrible persecutions. These artists were confronted by types of Jews they had never seen before, natives of the Middle East, whom they portrayed romantically.

In 1906, the Bezalel Art School and Museum (the latter, eventually given the status of the National Museum) was founded by Boris Schatz in Jerusalem. Three years later, Tel Aviv, the first all-Jewish city in Palestine, was established on the sand dunes to the north of the Arab coastal city of Jaffa. The population increased, more collectives (kibbutzim) were set up, and local craftsmen soon found ready markets for the wares they produced in the Holy Land. The Jewish community became a permanent part of the population of Palestine. In the new waves of immigrants came artists with less conservative backgrounds than those who had studied in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. Artists began to observe and record with interest and insight the topography, color, and spirit of the country. Anna Ticho’s Jerusalem drawings are among the best examples of this period.

After World War I, and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the British received Palestine as a mandate, and this provided an opportunity for the European artists there to establish closer cultural ties with the West. In 1922 there were enough artists in Palestine to warrant establishing the Association of Painters and Sculptors. A year later an art gallery was opened in Jerusalem’s Tower of David for regular exhibitions of the work of local artists. Painters, sculptors, architects, and designers were given commissions for murals, memorials, villages, and stage-sets. By 1927 general art exhibitions were held in Tel Aviv, and shortly afterward the Municipal Museum of Tel Aviv inaugurated its activities with a show of the work of Reuven Rubin.

If there is any aspect of Jewish creativity which forms a link between the Jews of the Diaspora and their coreligionists who returned to Zion after two millenniums, it is expressionism. Yankel Adler, Chagall, Epstein, Kisling, Jack Levine, Lipchitz, Pascin, Rattner, Lazare Segall, Ben Shahn, Soutine, Weber, and many others are both Jews and expressionists. The early pioneer-artists brought with them this self-conscious style, these creations of lonely and unintegrated persons. In this respect, Levanon’s Jerusalem scenes can be compared to Chagall’s Vitebsk reveries and to Soutine’s explosive views of Cagnes. Expressionism seemed to stay with these artists until they could call the land their own and be part of a majority group in a country they claimed after twenty centuries.

During the early phases of painting and sculpture in Palestine, the art students reflected the stylistic tendencies of their expressionist teachers, for the members of the Bezalel Art School faculty studied in Munich, Weimar, and Breslau with Feininger, Klee, and Otto Mueller. Bezalel students Reuven Rubin and Moshe Mokady are both products of this European and Palestinian synthesis.

BETWEEN the riots of 1936 and the end of the war in 1945, Palestine suffered internal and external shocks. Yet, during this period museums were founded, artists’ studios were established, and a number of publications devoted to the arts were inaugurated. The decision of the United Nations to establish a Jewish state, and the war to enforce this decision, culminated in the reality of Israel’s existence. How did the artists react?

The example of Marcel Janco is to the point. In 1916, together with Arp, Ball, and Tzara in Zurich, he was a founder of the nihilistic Dada movement. He was more firmly committed than the other members, and he remained a Dada artist after the others had shifted to surrealism. In 1940, he emigrated to Palestine, and he taught painting in Tel Aviv. With the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he reoriented his aesthetic outlook and became an expressionist-realist reporter, a complete reversal from his earlier Dada non-point of view. He was later active in founding the artists’ village of Ein-Hod.

Yitzhak Danziger provides an example of a different artistic reaction to this phase of instability and ultimate triumph. In the victory of the Israelis in 1948 he saw the revival of the might and power of Biblical heroes, among them Nimrod, who was one of those ancient Middle East figures. In creating this evocative form, a personification of strength, the artist attempted to establish a connection between the present and the past of the Old Testament.

In the same year that Israel achieved its independence, the New Horizons art movement was founded. It proclaimed as its doctrine the advancement of abstract tendencies and other modern means of creative visual communication, in order to establish a contemporary link between the population of Israel and sensitive people throughout the world. It might have been expected that an attempt would have been made to establish a national style, but in reality the contrary was true. For, the Jewish artists who had lived in cultural isolation in Palestine for so long now saw themselves as part of the world community. They were to join artistically diverse groups and associate themselves with New York, Rome, London, and particularly Paris.

Janco and Mokady, a painter in the spirit of Soutine, were in the New Horizons movement from its inception. Janco contributed the playful point of view of Dada, and Mokady, the selfconscious approach of expressionism. Mairovich, Stematsky, and Zaritsky were the other founders of this movement, which is now nearly disbanded. Both Mairovich and Stematsky were born in eastern Europe a little over fifty years ago, and although Stematsky was graduated from the Bezalel Art School in 1928, he went to Paris to continue his studies. He and Mairovich returned from France to Palestine in 1945 and started to teach. Since then they have been of great influence in Israeli art, and their works have been exhibited regularly in Israel and abroad.

Zaritsky left the Kiev Academy in Russia nearly forty years ago and settled in Jerusalem. Four years later he returned to Europe to continue painting in Paris, and he, more than any other artist, has been the leader in abstract art in Israel. For a long time he was the primary force in New Horizons. His early water colors, lyric in their color, clearly hint at the character of his more mature canvases. These paintings of abstracted forms created in washy oils are fresh and original. In Zaritsky’s work there is a certain light which is perhaps typical of the atmosphere of Tel Aviv. Today, at seventy, this warmhearted Russian Jew is one of the most lively figures in Israeli art.

Mordechai Ardon (Bronstein), now an officer of the government, was born in Poland about sixtyfive years ago and has been a painter since 1920. He studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar with Feininger, Klee, Kandinski, and Itten, and at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts with Doerner. He is probably Israel’s most important artist and one of its least-known painters, although he is well known abroad, having had one-man shows in Munich, Amsterdam, London, and New York, and having participated in numerous international shows. His oils are owned by major museums and collections in Europe and the United States. In 1933, Ardon arrived in Jerusalem, taught at the Bezalel Art School, and was appointed director, a post which he held until 1952, when he became art adviser of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

For nearly thirty years this quiet man has been developing a language of his own which requires the viewer himself to search for its roots. The symbols that he creates with technical brilliance are set into large, well-ordered compositions in miraculous colors which he grinds himself. The sources of his iconography are the Psalms, the cabala, midrashic legends, numerology, and the mysticism that permeates the east European Jewish tradition. More than that, his inspiration stems from the uninhabited desert Negeb, the rock on which Jacob dreamed, and the silent hills of Jerusalem, the witnesses of history.

WITH the exception of Danziger, the artists already mentioned are all over fifty. They were all born in Europe; the majority studied there; and all came to Israel before the establishment of the state in 1948. The present young generation of mature painters and sculptors is represented by a group whose ages vary from about thirty to forty and who were either born in Palestine, went there at an early age, or emigrated to Israel more than ten years ago. Most of them studied art in Israel, and nearly all of them have spent some time in Europe, primarily in Paris.

Naphtali Bezem and Avigdor Arikha are both students of Ardon, and the disparity of their points of view is a credit to their teacher, who transmitted not his style but the skill of a draftsman’s sure hand and a knowledge and respect for material and love of color. Arikha’s book illustrations are examples of inspired draftsmanship, and his abstract paintings are sensitive statements translated into translucent colors.

Another successful teacher is Avigdor Stematsky. Among his students was Lea Nikel, who worked in his studio before going to Paris, where she lived until recently. Her paintings are full of color, and the forms, like the tones, are impulsive. They are symbol-like, but they never communicate their specific or literal meaning.

Sculpture has always been neglected in the Jewish tradition, and it is only very recently that the Jews have made contributions in the field of sculpture. Yehiel Shemi, a student of Danziger, works, like his teacher, in welded metals and has distinguished himself in iron constructions, recently becoming more and more abstract.

Two other members of the abstract movement, who are, however, at diametrically opposite extremes, are Fima (Ephraim Roeytenberg) and Ygal Tumarkin. Tumarkin solders odd pieces of scrap metal onto his tarry canvases, and Fima blends colors in fine glazes. They get otherworldly effects of tensions and depths in which an imaginative viewer may journey along different paths with both artists.

In spite of the strong abstract movement in Israel, figurative painting still has some very talented young adherents. Foremost in this group is Yosl Bergner, who was born in Poland and came to Israel in 1952 with his wife, Audrey, by way of Australia. His early paintings were illustrations in an expressionist style of Yiddish stories, like those his father writes. Slowly this artist matured and developed a fantasy world of angels, anonymous sad people, and clowns, in a monotone color scale. Recently his work has become freer in stroke and conception, and richer in color.

Women form a relatively large percentage of the artists in Israel, and they are highly successful. The equality of artistic opportunity may in part be the result of a leveling effect that comes from a society like Israel’s. In the group of twenty-two artists whose works are reproduced here, five are women. They all reflect diverse artistic attitudes.

Louise Schatz is an American who settled in Israel in 1951, and her work consists of delicate water colors. Her lyric hues, sparkling and light, full of personal charm, wit, and insight, are a constant joy, whether the subject is a tower, a flower, or a wisp of an idea. In the past two years, the palette and vision of Audrey Bergner have developed greatly. She has broadened her horizon, extended her color scale, and made stronger and more adventurous thrusts at the canvas. Aviva Uri, a native-born Israeli, creates works which speak in a whisper, and she draws in sparse strokes. Her abstract landscape compositions of a few liquid lines suggest depth, volume, and immense space.

Michael Gross and Yosef Halevy are also native Israelis. The latter is of Yemenite origin. He creates nearly abstract images of Oriental Jews, together with the many symbolic elements often associated with them, in earth-tone paintings. Gross’s color range is so dazzling in its brightness that it causes the viewer almost to squint. A sculptor who paints, he translates planes in large color blocks and produces vast landscapes which look as if they were carved out of the canvas.

Is there a national style? Is there a common denominator? The answer seems to be no. The artists of this exciting country more and more are discovering the land, its colors, and its moods. The population of Israel is at last in a position to support the arts and its artists. The painters and sculptors continue to be influenced by the techniques and points of view of the schools of art of Paris, Rome, and New York. They are still searching.