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At the outset, Bezalel’s artistic orientation, which aimed at creating an ‘original Jewish art’ by fusing European techniques with Middle Eastern influences, resulted in paintings of biblical scenes depicting romanticized perceptions of the past linked to utopian visions of the future, with images drawn from the ancient Jewish Eastern communities as well as from the local Bedouin. Artists of this period include Shmuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908), Ephraim Lilien (1874-1925), and Abel Pann (1883-1963).
The first major art exhibition (1921), held at David’s Citadel in Jerusalem’s Old City, was dominated by painters from Bezalel. Soon afterwards, however, Bezalel’s anachronistic, national-oriental narrative style was challenged both by young rebels within the Bezalel establishment and newly arrived artists, who began searching for an idiom appropriate to what they termed ‘Hebrew’ as opposed to ‘Jewish’ art. In an attempt to define their new cultural identity and express their view of the country as a source of national renewal, they depicted the daily reality of the Middle Eastern environment, with emphasis on the bright light and glowing colors of the landscape, and stressed exotic subject matter such as the simple Arab lifestyle, through a predominantly primitive technique, as seen in the works of painters including Israel Paldi, Tziona Tagger, Pinhas Litvinovsky, Nahum Gutman, and Reuven Rubin. By the middle of the decade, most of the leading artists were established in the new, dynamic city of Tel Aviv (est. 1909), which has remained the center of the country’s artistic activity.
The art of the 1930s was strongly influenced by early 20th century Western innovations, the most powerful of which was the expressionism emanating from the ateliers of Paris. Works of painters such as Moshe Castel, Menachem Shemi, and Arie Aroch tended to portray an emotionally charged, often mystical reality through their use of distortion and, although themes still dealt with local landscapes and images, the narrative components of 10 years earlier gradually disappeared and the oriental-Muslim world vanished entirely.
German expressionism was introduced in the middle of the decade with the arrival of immigrant artists fleeing the terror of rising Nazism. Joining German-born artists Anna Ticho and Leopold Krakauer, who had come to Jerusalem some 20 years earlier, this group, which included Hermann Struck, Mordechai Ardon, and Jakob Steinhardt, devoted itself largely to subjective interpretations of the landscape of Jerusalem and the surrounding hills. These artists made a significant contribution to the development of local art, notably through the leadership given to the Bezalel Academy of Art by its directors, Ardon and Steinhardt, under whose guidance a new generation of artists grew to maturity.
The break with Paris during World War II and the trauma of the Holocaust caused several artists, including Moshe Castel, Yitzhak Danziger, and Aharon Kahana, to adopt the emerging ‘Canaanite’ ideology which sought to identify with the original inhabitants of the land and create a ‘new Hebrew people’ by reviving ancient myths and pagan motifs. The 1948 War of Independence led other artists, including Naftali Bezem and Avraham Ofek, to adopt a militant style with a clear social message. But the most significant group formed in this period was ‘New Horizons,’ which aimed to free Israeli painting from its local character and literary associations and bring it into the sphere of contemporary European art.
Two major trends developed: Yosef Zaritzky, the group’s dominant figure, tended towards an atmospheric lyricism, characterized by the presence of identifiable fragments of local landscape and cool color tones. His style was adopted by others, notably Avigdor Stematsky and Yehezkel Streichman. The second trend, a stylized abstractionism ranging from geometricism to a formalism frequently based on symbols, was strongly evident in the works of the Romanian-born artist Marcel Janco, who studied in Paris and was one of the founders of Dadaism. The New Horizons group not only legitimized abstract art in Israel but was also its dominant force up to the early 1960s.
Artists of the 1960s provided the connecting link between the activities of the New Horizons group and the search for individuality in the next decade. Streichman and Stematsky, both teachers at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv, strongly influenced a second generation of artists, including Raffi Lavi, Aviva Uri, Uri Lifschitz, and Lea Nikel who, on a search for a personal imagery, challenged the refined brushwork of lyrical abstractionism with pluralistic works, encompassing various expressive and figurative abstract styles derived from sources abroad.
These artists were part of "The Group of Ten," established in the late 1950s, who argued against the prevalent universalist tendency in art and strived towards making art that drew upon the Israeli landscape and Israeli individual. Unlike the European, elite aura that surrounded the New Horizons group, the Group of Ten was identified with the native Israeli ‘Sabra’ and the Palmah generation. In the late sixties, "realist" artists Ori Reisman and Yitzhak Mambush joined the group.
At Bezalel, Ardon’s influence, especially with regard to themes and techniques, evidenced itself in the works of Avigdor Arikha, who developed a world of forms filled with intense spiritual meaning, and in the return to figurative themes evocative of the Holocaust and traditional Jewish subjects, as seen in the surrealistic paintings of Yossl Bergner and Samuel Bak. Jacob Agam, whose style is radically different, is a pioneer in optic and kinetic art, and his work is exhibited prominently both in Israel and abroad.
While the minimalism characteristic of art in the 1970s almost always included amorphic, transparent forms reminiscent of local abstract painting, the exposition of ideas rather than aesthetics dominated the works of artists such as Larry Abramson and Moshe Gershuni. The artists of the 1980s and 1990s, working in an atmosphere of individual experimentation, appear to be searching for content and a sense of Israel’s spirit by integrating a wide range of materials and techniques, as well as images based on local and universal elements as diverse as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the human emotions of stress and fear. Current trends, as in the work of Pinhas Cohen-Gan, Deganit Beresht, Gabi Klasmer, Tsibi Geva, Tzvi Goldstein, David Reeb and others, continue to strive towards broadening the definition of Israeli art beyond its traditional concepts and materials, both as the unique expression of an indigenous culture and as a dynamic component of contemporary Western art.
The art of sculpture flourished in the country due to the efforts of a few sculptors over a long period of time. While Avraham Melnikoff (known for his massive stone lion at Tel Hai), and Ze’ev Ben-Zvi introduced cubism, the more academic school of sculpture, represented by Moshe Ziffer, Aharon Priver and Batya Lishansky, dominated the field prior to the establishment of the state.
At the end of the 1940s, the ‘Canaanite’ ideology influenced a number of artists, notably Yitzhak Danziger, whose figure of the pagan hero-hunter Nimrod, carved from red Nubian sandstone, is an attempt to create a synthesis between Middle Eastern sculpture and the modern concept of the human body, while the forms comprising his sculpture of sheep resemble those of desert rocks, water canals and Bedouin tents. Sculpture in the 1950s employed new materials and monumental scale as it became increasingly abstract, stimulated in part by the recent introduction of iron and Cor-Ten steel as a sculptural medium.
The desire to provide a tangible memorial to those who fell in Israel’s wars gave sculpture a new impetus from the 1960s on, and a great many monuments, primarily nonfigurative, were introduced into the Israeli landscape. This genre is represented by Yehiel Shemi’s welded steel naval memorial at Achziv, which deals both with the harshness of nature and the human capacity for violence and destruction, and Dani Karavan’s "Monument to the Negev Brigade" outside Be’er Sheva, evoking the special character of desert combat.
Under the influence of the French school in general and expressionism in particular, and utilizing a wide range of materials, contemporary conceptual artists are creating installations and environmental sculptures to depict their individual reactions to social and political realities. Incorporating a powerful play of shapes and symbols, the works of controversial Israel Prize winner Yigal Tumarkin express his protest against war through geometric and figurative abstract forms, while the trend toward geometric minimalism is especially pronounced in Menashe Kadishman’s persistent use of the images of sheep, which call up both an echo of the ram in the biblical sacrifice of Isaac and a personal myth symbolizing the helpless victim.
Several Israeli sculptors have gained international recognition, including Tumarkin, Karavan, Kosso Eloul, and Israel Hadany, whose works can be seen in public and private settings abroad.
Today’s art photography in Israel addresses both the personal – probing questions of life and death, art and illusion – and the national/political. It is characterized by intimacy, restraint, and a preoccupation with the self; both a reaction to and an outgrowth of the romantic, informational style which dominated its early stages of development. In the mid-19th century, local photography was based largely on providing photographic services, concentrating on the depiction of holy places (mainly Christian) to sell as souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists. From 1880 onward, photographers began to document the development of the Jewish community in Palestine (Land of Israel), portraying the pioneers working the soil and building cities and towns through a heroic lens, oriented to a modern, secular ideology and the requirements of clients who used their pictures to further particular causes, such as the Jewish National Fund.
The country’s development in its early years was faithfully recorded by a number of talented photojournalists, some still active today, including Tim Gidal, David Rubinger, Werner Braun, Boris Carmi, Zev Radovan, David Harris, and Micha Bar Am. Crossing the invisible boundary between ‘photography as documentation’ and ‘art photography’ are, among others, Aliza Auerbach, who concentrates on portraiture; Neil Folberg, Doron Horwitz and Shai Ginott, who focus on nature; David Darom, an expert underwater photographer; and Dubi Tal and Mony Haramati, a team specializing in aerial photography.
Several important venues for displaying photographic work have come into being in Israel, foremost among them being the photography biennale at Mishkan Le’Omanut in Kibbutz Ein Harod and the new Museum of Photography at Tel Hai in the northern Galilee.
In recent years, as photography as a pure artistic medium has become a legitimate art form, a number of creative photographers have emerged, with the active support of galleries, museums, curators, and collectors both here and abroad. The most notable of these creative photographers is Adi Nes, (b,1966). Born in Kiryat Gat to a family of immigrants from Kurdistan and Iran, Nes started making waves in the 1990s with ‘Soldiers.’ This series explored questions of national identity and particularly Israeli male identity in a homoerotic, ambivalent, and highly insightful context. His work, Bible Stories, which takes Biblical figures and recreates moments of their narrative in a troubling, contemporary setting (homeless, poverty stricken), addresses the shift in Israeli society from socialist values to a modern capitalistic way of life. The recent sale of his piece, untitled, (The Last Supper) for $264,000 at Sotheby’s annual sale of Jewish and Israeli art, is considered a turning point in the global appreciation of Israeli art.
Barry Frydlender’s photography is composed of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs seamlessly combined to create single images of unnerving precision, clarity, and perspective. His 2007 exhibition, ‘Place and time,’ featured recent photographs that explored the circumstance of contemporary Israel: an all-male gathering in an East Jerusalem caf?, devout Haredi Jews on an annual pilgrimage, and the forced evacuation of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. The exhibition was originally held in the Tel Aviv Museum Of Art, and then moved on to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first solo exhibition of an Israeli artist at that museum.