Israel's oldest museum takes a fresh look at Israeli art

TEL AVIV — When the permanent collection of Israeli art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art reopened in February, the first work visitors saw ...


TEL AVIV — When the permanent collection of Israeli art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art reopened in February, the first work visitors saw wasn’t even Israeli. It was a bust of a Scottish Jewish artist, Benno Schotz, who spent most of his life in Glasgow.

The largest work was a 30-meter-long painting by a Ukrainian Palestinian citizen of Israel, Maria Saleh Mahameed, who grew up in an Arab town in the north of the country.

The oldest, a small oil painting by Samuel Hirszenberg from 1908, depicts the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem that has since become an emblem of Palestinian nationalism.

For months the collection, the largest permanent public exhibition of Israeli art in the world, had been closed while the museum exchanged the artworks. The new exhibition is nothing less than a reimagining of the Israeli artistic canon and how it should be presented.

It features artists from outside the traditional pantheon, including West Bank settlers and Palestinians, spotlights some lesser-known works by well-known artists, and departs from a chronological narrative that puts art at the service of the Israeli history.

The goal is for visitors to appreciate the artworks on their own terms, rather than as illustrations of a moment in Israeli history or a particular aspect of Israeli identity, the official said. curator of the collection, Dalit Matatyahu, in a recent interview.

“We were taught, or taught, to see art as a symbol for something else,” Ms Matatyahu said. “I try to look at art as if I don’t know anything about it.”

Although the Tel Aviv Museum was not the first in Israel to tackle such ideas, it is the most important.

A recent exhibition at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan explored the extent to which Israeli art can challenge Israeli institutions; awkwardly, it closed prematurely after the town’s mayor complained about a job that appeared to poke fun at devout Jews. Last year, a major retrospective at the Haifa Museum of Art won plaudits for highlighting several artists, including local Palestinians, who had previously received little attention.

But critics say the changes to the Tel Aviv collection are particularly significant: it is Israel’s oldest art museum, holding one of only three permanent public collections of Israeli art, and c t is one of the main gateways to Israeli culture for foreign visitors.

“It’s a very big change,” said Gilad Melzer, art critic for Haaretz, a major Israeli newspaper. “It allows us to look at what has been done in Israeli art, over the past 120 years, through a different lens.”

Since the first Zionists built the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem in 1906, the creation, exhibition and discussion of Israeli art have been closely tied to the history of the Israeli state.

At first, some artists explicitly associate their work with the Zionist project of building a new state and a new Jewish culture. Early Zionist illustrator Ephraim Moses Lilien, for example, portrayed Jews as strong and triumphant figures. After the establishment of the state, artists often linked their work to debates about Israeli identity.

Later, after Israeli artists became less directly concerned with this discussion, curators often presented Israeli art chronologically – telling the story of Israeli art, just over a century, through narratives of Zionism, Jewishness and Israeli identity.

The new version of the Tel Aviv collection, titled “Material Imagination,” turned heads by forgoing that sense of storytelling. His 130 works are presented neither in historical order nor by historical theme.

Rather, the art is loosely grouped according to its aesthetic content – ​​earth-related paintings and sculptures fill one room, for example, while more water- and sky-focused rooms fill another. The resulting selection, which is expected to remain in place for several years, juxtaposes contemporary artists with the long-dead, painters with sculptors, and religious Jews with secular Arabs.

“Israeli art was preoccupied with its identity from the start,” Ms. Matatyahu said. Throughout the history of Israeli art, she added, artists and curators have asked themselves, “What is Israeli in art? What is Israeli art?

“I’m trying to get out of this narrative,” she added.

By prioritizing artistic content above artistic reputation, Ms. Matatyahu omitted some of the biggest names in the Israeli canon, like Menashe Kadishman and Micha Ullman, and occasionally selected lesser-known works from the canon artists who still made their mark. the cup.

More than a quarter of the works on display had never been shown at the museum before. Forty-one of the artists are women, about a third more than in the previous incarnation of the permanent collection. And if the exhibition does not make it a point of honor to favor the work of Israel’s Arab minority, some of whom do not wish to see their works exhibited in Israeli institutions, the number of Arab artists is always higher than ‘previously.

In some senses, this approach is almost apolitical, creating space for many contrasting perspectives, but devoid of its own unifying ideological premise.

This lack of a hard-hitting thesis is Mr. Melzer’s main criticism of the show: “I don’t think I have to argue with it,” he said.

But even if the exhibition lacks an overarching political arc, some choices and juxtapositions are deeply political – but not in a uniform or predictable way.

Some works have left-wing overtones. There are paintings and photographs that deal with Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, including the work of David Reeb, an artist associated with the Israeli left, who depicts a Palestinian protester in the occupied West Bank.

The bust of Benno Schotz is that of Theodor Herzl, the first Zionist leader, depicted not as a triumphant hero, but as a morose and ponderous thinker.

Ms. Saleh Mahameed’s vast canvas – so large that she had never seen it exhibited in its entirety – is a stain on the police surveillance of Israel’s Arab minority.

“Coming to see the Israeli art collection, and also seeing myself as an Arab and as a woman,” Ms. Saleh Mahameed said in an interview, “is so important.”

But there are also works not usually associated with secular leftist cultural institutions like the Tel Aviv Museum.

Ms Matatyahu dedicates most of one wall to Jewish religious art, including a large canvas filled with Jewish symbolism by Samuel Bak, a well-known artist previously considered old-fashioned in Israel, and whose work was not on display in the previous incarnation of the permanent collection or at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Most strikingly, the exhibit includes a diptych of a West Bank settler who was imprisoned for planning a bomb attack on Palestinians. The work of prominent settler artist, Porat Salomon, the diptych is a painted facsimile of two captioned screenshots of an actual television interview with activist Yarden Morag. In the first part of Mr. Salomon’s article, the captions suggest that Mr. Morag is apologizing for his actions; in the second, it becomes clear that he is apologizing to God, rather than to his potential victims.

For Mr. Salomon, it was a surprise that such a work was included in the rehung collection, exhibited to a largely secular and liberal crowd. And it was precisely because the show itself lacked a single overarching narrative that it could give voice to a kaleidoscope of more marginalized voices, including his own, Salomon said.

“It’s totally new,” he said. “It’s the start of a new perspective – of enabling new perspectives.”

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