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The best works of the outsiders, for all their originality and vitality, reveal off-kilter and, at times, insular mind-states. The inclusion of the local naive and folk artists and the more idyllic scenes rendered in their work have a charm and lightness not present in the more intense visualizations of the outsiders. The world of folk and naive art, referred to as the peaceable kingdom by the art critic Harold Rosenberg, is a more innocent and decorative place.
The story of Shalom Moscovitz, also known as Shalom of Safed, the best known of the local artists on view, has become part of Israeli art world folklore. Moscovitz was an artisan who worked as a scribe, a stonecutter and a billboard painter, to name only a few of the trades to which he applied himself. His vividly colorful paintings incorporated biblical scenes and the local landscape, often placing them in horizontal rows atop one another in a manner similar to Egyptian hieroglyphic formations.
The painter Yosl Bergner, who at the time also lived in Safed, discovered Moscovitz. As the story goes, while visiting Tel Aviv, Bergner chanced upon some wooden toys that had been carved by Moscovitz. Inquiring as to their maker, he was told it was a religious man living in his very town. After his return, Bergner met with Moscovitz, brought him paints and paper and encouraged him to take up painting. The two men remained in contact until Moscovitz’s death, in 1980.
The colorful scenes in Moscovitz’s paintings give way to more muted hues in the paintings of Shimshon Lemberger and Natan Heber. Both were born in Poland and immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. Bittersweet memories of the Old Country are evoked in scenes of family life, such as Lemberger’s “Baking Shmurah Matza.” This is not, however, the shtetl of the bustling marketplace or joyfully dancing Hasidim, but a more somber place where blank faces seem to peer out at us from town squares or while engaged in their daily tasks.
Naive and outsider traditions find a meeting point of sorts in the work of Nissim Kahalon, presented in a series of photographs and documentary video footage. Admittedly far less grandiose, Kahalon’s self-constructed habitat is nevertheless akin to extraordinary structures such as Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais Ideal in Hauterives, France, and Nek Chand Saini’s Rock Garden of Chandigarh, India.
Using local sandstone, found materials and a process of trial and error, Kahalon has built and decorated his home and many variously shaped structures, tunnels and sculptures in and around the area between cliff and beach at Seidne Ali, in Herzliya. Kahalon has worked for the best part of 40 years constructing a unique artistic and ecological environment for himself and his family.
The sheer originality in Kahalon’s endeavor and indeed in most of the artworks in the exhibition is what continually attracts us to outsider and folk art. Their works, which more often than not went undiscovered or acknowledged during their lives, can now be seen in major art museums throughout the world, prompting some art critics and academics to call for these works to be integrated into the collections of the modern art pantheon.
Can the best of Darger, Wolfli and Bartlett, not to mention others, and the best that folk art has to offer, stand beside the work of such artists as Picasso, Ernst and Klee? Certainly, on the evidence of this exhibition, the works more than hold their own.
Graham Lawson is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. He writes articles connected to the Israeli art scene.