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Israel’s Oldest Museum Takes a New Look at Israeli Art

todayApril 13, 2022

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

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

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 world’s largest permanent public display of Israeli art, had been closed while the museum swapped out the artwork. The new exhibition constitutes nothing less than a reimagining of the Israeli artistic canon and how it should be displayed.

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

The aim is to allow visitors to enjoy the artworks on their own terms, rather than as illustrations of a moment in Israeli history, or a particular aspect of Israeli identity, the collection’s curator, Dalit Matatyahu, said in a recent interview.

“We were taught, or learned, to look at art just as a symbol for something else,” Dr. Matatyahu said. “I’m trying to look at the art as if I do not know anything.”

Though the Tel Aviv museum was not the first in Israel to address such ideas, it is the most prominent.

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

But critics say the changes at the Tel Aviv collection are particularly significant: It is the oldest art museum in Israel, holding one of only three permanent public collections of Israeli art, and it is one of the main gateways to Israeli culture for foreign visitors.

“This is a very big shift,” said Gilad Meltzer, an art critic for Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper. “It allows us to look at what has been done in Israeli art, in the last almost 120 years, through a different lens.”

Since early Zionists built the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem in 1906, the creation, display and discussion of Israeli art has been tightly entwined with the history of the Israeli state.

At first, some artists explicitly allied their work with the Zionist project of building a new state and a new Jewish culture. The early Zionist illustrator Ephraim Moses Lilien, for example, depicted Jews as strong and triumphant figures. After the state was established, artists often connected their work to debates about Israeli identity.

Later, after Israeli artists became less directly preoccupied with that discussion, curators often displayed Israeli art chronologically — telling the story of Israeli art, barely more than a century old, through the narratives of Zionism, Jewishness and Israeli identity.

The new version of the Tel Aviv collection, titled “Material Imagination,” has turned heads by forgoing this sense of narrative. Its 130 works are neither displayed in historical sequence nor by historical theme.

The art is instead loosely-grouped according to its aesthetic content — paintings and sculpture related to the land fill one room, for instance, while pieces more focused on water and sky 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 beginning,” Dr. Matatyahu said. Throughout the history of Israeli art, she added, artists and curators have wondered, “What is Israeli about art? What is Israeli art?”

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

By prioritizing artistic content above artistic reputation, Dr. Matatyahu has omitted some of the biggest names in the Israeli canon, like Menashe Kadishman and Micha Ullman, and sometimes selected lesser-known works of the canonical artists who still made the cut.

More than a quarter of the work on display had not been shown in the museum before. Forty-one of the artists are women, about a third more than in the previous incarnation of the permanent collection. And while the show does not make a point of prioritizing work by Israel’s Arab minority, some of whom do not wish to have their work displayed in Israeli institutions, the number of Arab artists is still higher than before.

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

That lack of a punchy thesis is Mr. Meltzer’s main criticism of the show: “I don’t feel I have to argue against it,” he said.

But even if the exhibition lacks an overall political arc, certain choices and juxtapositions are profoundly political — though not in a uniform or predictable way.

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

The bust by Benno Schotz is of Theodor Herzl, the early Zionist leader — depicted not as a triumphant hero, but as a morose, ponderous thinker.

Ms. Saleh Mahameed’s vast canvas — so big that she had never seen it displayed in full — flecks at police surveillance of Israel’s Arab minority.

“To come to the Israeli art collection, and also see me as an Arab and as a woman,” Ms. Saleh Mahameed said in an interview, “it’s so important.”

But there are also works that are not usually associated with left-leaning, secular cultural institutions like the Tel Aviv Museum.

Dr. Matatyahu devotes 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 unfashionable in Israel, and whose work was not displayed in the earlier incarnation of the permanent collection or in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Most strikingly, the exhibition includes a diptych of a West Bank settler who was jailed for planning a bomb attack against Palestinians. The work of a prominent settler artist, Porat Salomon, the diptych is a painted facsimile of two subtitled screen grabs from a real-life television interview with the militant, Yarden Morag. In the first part of Mr. Salomon’s piece, the subtitles 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 would-be victims.

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

“It’s totally new,” he said. “It’s the beginning of a new perspective — of allowing new perspectives.”

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