Israeli Art On Its Way to Somewhere Else

By Avraham Levitt

Fear and loathing in the century-old search for a Jewish national art.

Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape... he has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization1
So accustomed are we by now to hearing Israeli painters and sculptors pouring ire and brimstone on their country, that one could almost imagine that the Jewish state and the plastic arts were somehow inherently inimical to one another. Yet things were not always this way: At the same time Zionism’s political founding fathers were preparing the diplomatic and physical soil for a Jewish state, Jewish nationalist artists in Europe and Palestine were already working towards what they believed was to be a Jewish national renaissance in art, and even created Israel’s first academy for national art in the days of Theodor Herzl. At first, it seemed as though these great Zionist artists would succeed in fulfilling their vision, and such a renewal did indeed get under way. But the effort withered after only a few years, and Jewish art in the land of Israel plunged into a seemingly inexorable process of decay, passing through five distinct stages: From (i) the national, historic and religious consciousness of the early Zionist immigrant artists; to (ii) a preoccupation with the Jewish land itself; to (iii) an obsession with the material of the land, stripped of any connection with a people; to (iv) an overt campaign to destroy any traces of Jewish nationalist sentiment; the final stage, the calm after the battle to destroy the Zionist heritage had largely been won, produced artwork distinguished by (v) a powerful sense of human rootlessness, wandering and the preparation for departure from the land. Thus less than a century after its inception, the art of Israel had carried out a complete about-face: At first a celebration of the reentry of the Jews into history in their ancient homeland, Israeli art has now become a celebration of their exit. The story of how this reversal came about is the tragedy of a culture. And in some ways, it is the story of the Jewish state itself.
The history of Israeli art begins with a Bulgarian-Jewish sculptor named Boris Schatz, whose life and work were transfigured by the revival of Jewish national strength at the turn of the twentieth century, as dramatically represented by the Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine and Herzl’s Zionist Congresses. As Jewish nationalism gained momentum, Schatz became a devout Zionist, friend to Herzl and Ahad Ha’am; his work, too, came to be dominated by images of Jewish national power, as reflected in sculptures such as Mattathias (1894),in which the Hasmonean warrior-priest is depicted crushing the body of a fallen Greek soldier underfoot. While his later work focused increasingly upon more religious subjects, these continued to express his admiration for the strong and vital in the history of the Jews; his Moses with the Ten Commandments (1918), for example, portrayed the prophet as muscular and spirited, gripping mightily the two tablets of the law.
Following the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901 (which had been devoted in part to a debate over the issue of Jewish cultural activities), Schatz approached Herzl privately with the idea of a school of Jewish art in Palestine. According to Schatz’s account, Herzl responded enthusiastically, and together they agreed on the name for the school: “Betzalel,” said Schatz, “after the first master craftsman who built us the sanctuary in the wilderness.” Herzl responded: “Yes, a sanctuary in the wilderness.”2 Schatz set to work building interest in his new art school, publishing articles and giving interviews in the Jewish papers. Schatz’s fundraising efforts carried him across Europe and to America, and as a result the Betzalel Academy of Art and Craft formally opened in Jerusalem on March 1, 1906. Its faculty was handpicked by Schatz from among his associates in the Zionist movement, and the school was founded explicitly on the principle that “nationalist art is art which comes from the heart and works in harmony with the heart of the nation.”3 Accordingly, the curriculum featured instruction in the production of Jewish ritual objects, and both its faculty and students often served as illustrators for Zionist literature and propaganda.
Among the school’s leading instructors from its first years was Ephraim Moshe Lilien, whose works had already been featured at the Fifth Congress, and who had designed the memorial postcard issued by the Congress that year. Lilien’s drawing on the card shows a broken old Jewish man, collapsed in despair behind thorns and barbed wire. His attention is directed by a tall prophetic figure pointing to the sun—which rises beyond a pair of oxen being driven by a religious Jew. This image of exile and redemption is accompanied by an inscription taken from the traditional daily prayers: “And our eyes will behold your return to Zion with mercy.” Other illustrations by Lilien carefully undergirded the ongoing national efforts with images of the glorious Jewish past, employing Herzl’s likeness, for example, in illustrating biblical figures such as Moses and various redeeming angels (Fig. 1).4 Zev Raban, who arrived at Betzalel in 1912 and headed its illustration department beginning in 1914, produced a formidable body of Zionist works as well, including some of the original posters aimed at attracting Jewish tourism and business to Palestine.5 In Raban’s illustration for the cover to Schatz’ novel Jerusalem Rebuilt, Schatz can be seen sitting on the roof of the Betzalel building—in front of its famous menora, itself designed by Raban—in conversation with a biblical prophet. Artists at Betzalel also worked to create Bible illustrations based on what they saw around them, drawing upon their daily experience to depict the characters and landmarks of the biblical narrative. The great Bible illustrator Abel Pann was a Betzalel student who worked almost exclusively from the likenesses of local Jews in their surroundings in Jerusalem.

Fig. 1. Ephraim Moshe Lilien, Moses Breaks the Tablets, 1908.
The first two decades of Jewish artwork in Palestine were virtually without a trace of criticism against Jewish efforts to build a national home. Artists of darker temperament turned their attention instead to the exile; most important among these was Samuel Hirschenberg, a Polish painter who came to study at Betzalel in the last year of his life. His painting The Wandering Jew (1899), completed while he was still in Poland, occupied the most prominent position in the Betzalel museum. It portrays a bearded figure running terrified, his arms outstretched, through a forest of looming crosses beneath a stormy sky. At his feet lie the emaciated bodies of his fellow Jews, lying in pools of their own blood—a horrifyingly prophetic glimpse into the fate of European Jewry within a generation. Aside from its impressive technical accomplishments, the painting was so well-regarded at Betzalel because it so powerfully drove home the idea that national reconstruction in Israel was the only solution to the bitterness of life in the dispersion; Schatz frequently brought guests to be photographed in front of it.
The artistic pioneers who first built Betzalel devoted all their energies to finding the voice and technique with which to express their hopes and aspirations for the redemption of the Jewish nation. As a result, the artists of this period exuded an idealism and romanticism of Jewish identity which would not be seen again. They approached every subject with the desire to create and express a uniquely Jewish perspective—an effort which Schatz expressed in his personal life by becoming increasingly observant as the years went on. And while the Zionism of Betzalel’s students seemed hardly to decline over the two decades of Schatz’s stewardship, these students gradually came to espouse a national vision which differed substantially from that which had been championed at the establishment of the school.

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