Seven Decades of Israeli ArtA Moment Symposium
To mark the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Moment asks curators from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and Ben-Gurion University to choose outstanding works of art from each decade.
Art Selected by: Emma Gashinsky, Dalit Matatyahu, Amitai Mendelsohn
Edited by: Marilyn Cooper
Immigrant Transit Camp
1953/Oil on Canvas
Ruth Schloss (1922–2013) was born in Nuremberg, Germany and made aliyah in 1937. A student of Mordecai Ardon at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem, she also studied Cubism in Paris. Her work shows the influence of Social Realism, a school of art focused on depicting the everyday conditions of the working class and poor. Unlike many social realists, however, she was concerned with the vulnerability of individuals, and her subjects were most often marginalized people such as refugees or women and children. Tent camps like the one represented in this painting were established in Israel to house the thousands of refugees and new immigrants who arrived after World War II. Schloss’s use of soft and warm colors reflects a certain tenderness toward the women and child at the center of the piece, which is painted in a loosely Cubist style.
1957/Oil on canvas
Moshe Kupferman (1926-2003) was born in Jaroslaw, Poland. After surviving the Holocaust, he moved to Israel in 1948 and helped found the Kibbutz Lohamei HaGetaot, the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz, in the Galilee. He studied with Joseph Zaritsky and Avigdor Stematsky of the Ofakim Hadashim, which means New Horizons, a Modernist Israeli art movement.This work represents an early phase in Kupferman’s career. Concealment of form and meaning, accomplished by applying layer upon layer of color, is used here as a metaphor for memory and forgetfulness. Concealment is a central theme in all of Kupferman’s art and relates to his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
Sheep of the Negev
Itzhak Danziger (1916-1977) was born in Berlin and came to Palestine as a boy in 1923. Danziger played an important role in the cultural-political movement known as The Canaanites, which advocated for cutting off relations with the diaspora and replacing Jewish religious traditions with a new Hebrew identity based on ancient Middle Eastern culture. Danziger’s affinity for nature and place, developed while he was on reconnaissance missions in the Negev desert, led him to create numerous sculptures and drawings of animals. Sheep, the domesticated animals of desert nomads, made frequent appearances. On the border of “sculpture as object” and “sculpture as environmental work,” this piece embodies the intersection of landscape and local life, with the form of the sheep taking on the shape of nomadic tents.
The Hour of Idra
1951/Oil on board
Mordecai Ardon (1896-1992) was born in Galicia in Austria-Hungary as Max Bronstein and changed his name after arriving in Palestine in 1933. He studied at the Bauhaus school of German art and was particularly influenced by Swiss-German Expressionist Paul Klee, as well as Old Masters such as Rembrandt and El Greco. Ardon’s work is distinguished by his blending of classical painting techniques with abstract and modern styles. This work makes use of kabbalistic symbols and is thought to be inspired by mystic Yeshayahu Tishbi’s book The Doctrine of Evil. More generally, it shows the influence of the theosophical Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-72). Ardon believed in art for art’s sake and, like many of his pieces, this work is devoid of any larger political or social messages. Rather, the painting is an abstract image of religious ecstasy.
1964/Oil and crayon on wooden panel
Arie Aroch (1908-1974) was born in Kharkov, Russia. After making aliyah in 1924, he studied at the Bezalel School and was influenced by Israeli Abstract Expressionists Raffi Lavie and Aviva Uri. He founded the Ofakim Hadashim (New Horizons) movement, which sought to give Modernism a Zionist flavor. A diplomat, he began this drawing, considered to be his masterpiece, while serving as Israel’s ambassador to Sweden. It brings together a variety of times and places, both personal and historical. The street sign is reminiscent of a shoemaker’s sign from Aroch’s childhood in Kharkov, while Agrippas is both a street in Jerusalem and a reference to the scion of the Hasmonean Dynasty (41-44 AD) who sought to serve the Romans while still protecting the Jews. Aroch intended the historic reference as a commentary on Israel’s contemporary state of affairs.
He Walked in the Fields
1967/Partly painted bronze
Igael Tumarkin (1937-) was born in Dresden, Germany and moved to Palestine with his family at age two. He is best known for designing the Holocaust memorial in Rabin Square and for his sculptures of fallen soldiers. He worked as a stage designer in East Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris during the 1950s. When he returned to Israel in 1961, he became a driving force behind the break from abstract art, which until then had dominated the Israeli art scene. This sculpture takes its title from a 1947 novel by Israeli author Moshe Shamir that refers to a Nathan Alterman poem about a dead soldier. Like most of Tumarkin’s works, it deals with death, war and sacrifice. Thought to be a realistic portrayal of the horrors of war, the work created an important precedent for the use of art as a form of political protest in the 1970s.
1973/Lithography on paper
Michael Druks (1940-) was born in Jerusalem. He grew up in Tel Aviv but has lived in London since 1972. His work frequently incorporates images from TV, often in a subversive, humorous or politically charged manner. Many of his works include maps. To create this piece, which has attained an iconic status in Israeli culture, Druks scanned his face, mounted a map of Israel on it and then adapted the map to fit his facial structure. The result is a pointed comment on the country’s involvement—both geographic and cultural—in defining the identity of its individual residents.
1969/Oil on Canvas
Lea Nikel (1918-2005) was born in Zhitomir, Ukraine and immigrated with her family to Palestine in 1920. A longtime resident of Moshav Kidron in central Israel, she was known for a form of expressionistic abstraction sometimes called lyrical abstraction. Unlike the works of other Israeli abstract artists of the 1950s and 1960s, Nikel’s untitled painting is not connected to nature but to the internal balance and tension between color and line. The result is a work full of energy and life.
Motti Mizrachi (1946-) was born in Tel Aviv and studied at the Bezalel Academy. He is a multimedia artist whose politically engaged works combine sculpture, video, photography, public art and performance. He contracted malaria as a child, which left him disabled in both legs. This installation is a work of performance art. To create it, the artist carried a portrait of himself down the Via Dolorosa, which is said to be the road Jesus walked down on the way to his crucifixion. The piece is simultaneously an identification with Jesus, in which suffering is a path to enlightenment, and a critique of the use and misuse of iconic portraits in both religious and secular society.
Tel Hai Courtyard and the Ideal City
1977/Blackboard paint and chalk on canvas
Tamar Getter (1953-) was born in Tel Aviv. She studied in the Hamidrasha Art School in Beit Berl in central Israel with artist and critic Raffi Lavie. She currently teaches at the Bezalel Academy. This piece is part of a series of paintings called the Tel Hai Cycle. Tel Hai is the name of a former Jewish settlement in northern Galilee that was the site of the first military confrontation, in 1920, between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. It is a collage composed of polyethylene, paint, chalk and photographs.
Aisha el-Kord, Khan Younis Refugee Camp
Micha Kirshner (1941-2017) was born in an Italian refugee camp while his parents awaited permission to immigrate to Palestine. Kirshner studied photography in New York in the 1970s and then returned to Israel to educate a generation of Israeli photographers while exhibiting his own, often iconic “opinion portraits” in museums around the world. This photo is a portrait of a Palestinian woman and her child in the Khan Younis Refugee Camp; the woman had been shot in the eye by a rubber bullet. The image drew criticism from both the left and the right. Those on the right felt that Kirshner should have chosen Jewish-Israeli subjects for his work; the left criticized him for making the woman’s pain look beautiful. The photograph evokes both the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Pietà, the Roman Catholic tradition of artwork in which the Virgin Mary holds the dead body of Jesus in her arms.
1982/Gelatin silver print
Raffi Lavie (1937-2007) was born in Palestine. He founded the influential Ten Plus Tel Aviv School of Artists and was one of the most dominant figures in the Israeli art scene during the second half of the 20th century. His work is a cross between graffiti and Abstract Expressionism. This collage is an example of the artist’s recurring theme: the juxtaposition of the rich legacy of Western art—represented by a reproduction of a classic Roman statue—with the more pedestrian history of visual culture in Israel—represented by a photograph of the desert and an advertisement for a contemporary cultural event. In explaining the piece, Lavie asserts that the absence of a strong Israeli visual tradition is the result of the Jewish religious law that forbids the making of images. This tension between the new Israeli culture and the older Western traditions is one of the most prominent themes in Israeli art.
Binding of Isaac
Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015) was born in Palestine and spent part of his childhood working as a shepherd. He studied art first at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in Tel Aviv and later at schools in London. Kadishman created these sculptures around the time his son was drafted into the Israeli military. They are part of a large series of paintings and sculptures on the theme of the Sacrifice (Binding) of Isaac. In this large-scale, multi-piece sculpture, which is located in the courtyard of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Isaac is represented sprawled on the ground with an enormous ram, reminiscent of a cross, looming over him. The pair of weeping women standing to one side connect the piece to the Crucifixion.
1988/Oil on paper
Assam Abu-Shaqra (1961-1990) is one of the few Palestinian artists accepted into the canon of Israeli art. He was born near Haifa in Umm el-Fahm and came from a family of artists. He studied at the Kalisher Art Academy in Tel Aviv, where he also lived—sleeping on the floor—because he was unable to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. Throughout his short life (he died of cancer), Abu-Shaqra experienced conflict between his Arab and Israeli identities. This painting depicts the image that is most identified with him—the sabra (cactus) plant. An important Palestinian symbol, the sabra is both desert flora and a term for a person born in Israel. The cactus in this painting is uprooted from its natural desert environment and transplanted as a seedling into a flowerpot, which drains it of color and life.
Green Line in Hebrew Alphabet
1989/Oil on Canvas
David Reeb (1953-) was born in Rehovot, Israel and graduated from the Bezalel Academy. Reeb is known for a style that mocks convention, and his work is explicitly political, although he sometimes denies that this is the case. He creates paintings in the style of photographs, using images taken from TV or the internet. In this painting, letters of the Hebrew alphabet overlay the outline of the borders of Israel to create a political statement about the fraught relationship between the biblical ideal of the Promised Land and the contemporary fight over the modern borders of the state. In a broader sense, it also explores the complex ties between culture and politics.
1992/Acrylic and oil on canvas
Tsibi Geva (1951-) was born on Kibbutz Ein Shemer in northern Israel and currently lives and works in Tel Aviv. Geva’s work often juxtaposes paintings with sculptural installations and has been exhibited around the world. This painting is an homage to Palestinian artist Assam Abu-Shaqra (opposite). Tsibi Geva and Abu-Shaqra taught together at the Kalisher Art Academy in Tel Aviv. The keffiyeh, a scarf emblematic of the Arab, is overlaid with an image of a chain-link fence; Abu-Shaqra’s signature image of a sabra cactus is in the background of the painting. The work is intended to evoke the challenges of the Arab-Israeli experience.
Cell # 6
1991–1992/Mixed media sculpture
Absalon (1964-1993) was born Meir Eshel in Ashdod on the Mediterranean seacoast. After serving in the Israeli Air Force, he spent much of the 1980s in a wooden cabin he built in the sand dunes south of Ashdod, earning a living as a jewelry maker. In 1987 he moved to France and changed his name to Absalon. The artist planned to live the rest of his life in the six “cells” he designed to resemble his six ideal cities, but he died at age 28 from an illness associated with HIV. Absalon employed arrangements of geometric forms to create his series of habitable enclosures: the six “Cellules.” Conceived as personal living units that would have enabled the artist to live in the six different cities that were important to him, these nomadic structures range in size from four to eight square meters (13 to 26 square feet) and were precisely designed around his own body’s dimensions. Absalon’s work bears witness to the rise of mobility and globalism and questions the permanence of home.
Sigalit Landau (1969-) was born in Jerusalem and studied at the Bezalel Academy. She uses a diverse range of media, including drawing, sculpture, video and performance art. Her complex works touch on social, political and ecological issues and include topics such as homelessness and victimization. Golems, which in Jewish folklore are humanoids brought to life through kabbalistic magic, are a popular subject in contemporary Israeli art. The sugar and polyester resin sculpture (left) depicts a wounded Israeli soldier as a golem and evokes the living death caused by continuous wars. Landau also creates large-scale, on-site installations using salt, paper and ready-made objects, incorporating her own body as a key motif. She then documents these performance pieces on video. This video (a frame from it is below) records a gradually unraveling spiral of approximately 500 watermelons, floating on the Dead Sea. The connection between the spiral of sweet watermelons—symbolic of a life force that resists the death around it—and the artist’s body creates a complex and, at the same time, plaintive statement relating to vulnerability, place and continuity.
Untitled photo known as The Last Supper
Adi Nes (1966-) was born in Kiryat Gat, Israel, to Iranian Jewish parents. He is famous for his masculine and often homoerotic photos of Israeli soldiers. His work borrows from, and makes subversive use of, iconic images from the history of art and philosophy. The models in his staged photographs often evoke art of the Baroque period. Nes has said that his works are also partly autobiographical and are intended as a reflection of his personal experiences growing up as a gay youth in a small Israeli town. Popularly known as “The Last Supper,” this untitled photograph is inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same name. In the photograph, set in abandoned barracks, the apostles of da Vinci’s work are replaced by relaxing IDF soldiers. The central “Jesus” figure is staring, preoccupied, into the distance. The image conveys a poignant message about commitment, sacrifice and betrayal.
2005/Installation and video
Guy Ben-Ner (1969-) was born in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Ben-Ner studied at Columbia University in New York City with film critic Jerry Saltz. His humorous yet profound video productions usually feature himself and his family as actors. His stories make pointed references to well-known works of Israeli literature, philosophy, art and cinema. This video installation consists of a prefabricated tree sculpture and an instructional video featuring the artist. In the video, Ben-Ner dismantles the tree and puts it back together in the form of different pieces of furniture. The work is a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story and is intended as a critique of contemporary “ready-to-assemble” society. It challenges viewers to reconsider our relationship with nature and the impact we are having on the environment.
Ben Hagari (1981-) is a New York-based artist who was born in Tel Aviv. He describes his films and video installations as “tragicomedies that unfold in absurdist environments.” His work is concerned with the relationship between identity and territory; he frequently depicts domestic spaces that function as both prison and refuge. This 11-minute film portrays a day in an inverted world. Invert, the figure of the artist, seen here in color, spends the day attempting to teach his silent parrot to speak. The words, all names of objects appearing in the film, are said in Hebrew and spoken backwards. The images, mainly presented in negative colors, are intended to evoke a feeling of being trapped.
And Europe Will Be Stunned
Yael Bartana (1970-) was born in Kfar Yehezkel in northern Israel. After graduating from the Bezalel School, she studied in New York City and Amsterdam. Her works of film, installation and photography investigate the relationship between identity and memory. She divides her time between Berlin, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. This 65-minute film trilogy confronts the traumatic relationship between Poland and Israel and depicts the two countries as still under the shadow of the Holocaust. By blending real historical events with fictionalized ones, Bartana’s work explores issues of collective identity, trauma, displacement and assimilation.
While Dictators Rage
Michal Helfman (1973-) was born in Tel Aviv, where she still lives and works. She is a multidisciplinary artist who works in sculpture, architecture, video and drawings. Because of her interest in the relationship between the physical and the artistic, she frequently collaborates with Israeli choreographers, dancers, gymnasts and musicians. This installation is inspired by “Triumph of Death,” a drawing created by German-Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum in 1944 while in hiding in occupied Belgium. In the lower left side of Nussbaum’s drawing are the opening notes of the song “The Lambeth Walk,” from the musical “Me and My Girl,” which the Nazis claimed was emblematic of Jewish deceit and evidence of Europe’s moral decline. By evoking these ideas, Helfman asks: Is popular culture a tool for civilian distraction and passiveness, or is it a vital source of power and hope?
Emma Gashinsky is an art historian and a curator in the field of Israeli art and visual culture. She teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Gashinsky is also the curator of the Levin Collection of Israeli Art in Jerusalem.
Dalit Matatyahu is the curator of Israeli Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. She is a graduate of the Haifa University Department of Fine Arts and was awarded the Young Artist Award in 1997. Matatyahu has published many essays on Israeli and international art in both journals and catalogues.
Amitai Mendelsohn is the senior curator and head of the Israeli Art Department at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. In 2010 he co-curated the permanent exhibition of Israeli art in the renewed Israel Museum with Yigal Zalmona, and in 2015 he curated the museum’s current permanent display of Israeli art.