Jerusalem’s Shrine for the Muses

The customary thing for men and institutions is to flame out into a full-blown midlife crisis at 40. But who likes customary? No one, apparently, at the Israel Museum, which is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary with a sumptuous and supremely self-possessed exhibit called Beauty and Sanctity.

It is, in fact, an über-exhibit — nine shows rolled into one, with each department at what amounts to Israel’s national museum being called on to produce its own take on beauty, sanctity or both. The exhibits are, in fact, too varied and wide ranging to review in depth in a single piece of writing, yet they hold together, responding to the subject of the Israel Museum’s own moment of panache as much as they do to beauty and to sanctity.

The Israel museum was dreamed up by the Viennese-born then-mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, who believed that any self-respecting capital city needed a proper museum. (Teddy, as he is universally called, now 94, still maintains a basement office there; museum workers know he is in residence by the trace scent of Davidoff cigars that follows him.) Architect Alfred Mansfeld dreamed that his creation of a cluster of low, white stone pavilions dotting a small mount would be reminiscent of a Mediterranean village.

And the museum’s current director, James S. Snyder, a puckish, white-haired man of 53 and perhaps the only New Yorker in the world to actually preside over his own small Middle Eastern paradise, dreams that his realm is “an oasis, a place to renew your spirit.”

His is not that small an empire: Excluding the ranging hillside sculpture garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi to blend East and West, the Israel Museum is a half-million square-foot facility. The museum has not had an easy time of things since the current intifada commenced five years ago. Tourism to Israel has dropped by 90%, and internal Israeli tourism to Jerusalem has suffered a significant slowdown. As a result, the museum lost half its visiting public (which approached 800,000 people in 1999) and 20% of its annual budget, which now rests at a modest $18 million. (The state contributes about 12%.)

Snyder, a native of Pennsylvania, was deputy director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1986 to 1996, until he relocated to Israel with his wife, author and graphic designer Tina Davis Snyder. Their reception at the hands of the Israeli media left something to be desired: The Tel Aviv-based art press, anti-Jerusalem in general and often cliquish and chary, was less than welcoming; many journalists had been championing favorite local curators for the most coveted position in Israel’s art world. Snyder is reticent about the subject. “Let’s just say that it was a very bold move, at the time, to choose somebody who was not a citizen of Israel for this job,” he said in a recent interview with the Forward.

Since then, he has been widely credited for brilliant fund-raising techniques and for recasting the Israel Museum as an operator on the international stage. In 2004, the museum had six traveling shows exhibiting in nine cities on three continents; in Brazil, its show on Dada and Surrealist art was voted exhibition of the year. “I took the job because I thought it would be a great thing to do,” he said. “A great thing for me, of course, and a great thing for Jerusalem, and great for Israel and, really, a great thing for the whole world. Really. This is a great thing in the world.”

Snyder makes this sort of statement without displaying the merest hint of any discomfort, as if he belonged more to the Greeks — whose term, mouseion, meaning a shrine for the muses, we still use — than to jaded urbanity. It is clearly his vision of the museum as a sanctuary and of the supremacy of art that has wrested from the raging world the promise represented by human creation and, as a result, this current festive show.

The museum’s principal gallery space has been transformed into a sort of catwalk-in-reverse in which the top models — a breathtaking procession of diverse masterpieces ranging from Marcel Duchamp’s mockery of the Mona Lisa in drag to treasures of African iconography — rest still on black platforms as the public ambles by. The subject of this compendium blockbuster, the principal show in this year’s parade, is “The Beauty of Sanctity,” wherein sanctity is broadly interpreted.

The sequence of objects includes Itzhak Danziger’s iconic 1939 red sandstone “Nimrod,” the first “New Jew” and the weary, gorgeous 18th-century sculpture of Japanese monk Ganjin, made of wood and gold leaf; it includes the heart-stopping Roman-era bronze Hadrian found at Tell Shalem and Rembrandt van Rijn’s heartbreaking “St. Peter in Prison (St. Peter Kneeling), 1631,” a recent museum acquisition.

Each of these pieces is a treasure, but the opening hallway leads inexorably to the feet of a mesmerizing marble Venus, more elevated than the other displays and inclining ever so slightly away from a mischievous Cupid, nestled by her right thigh. To say that the newly exhibited Venus — found in a museum-led archeological dig at Beit Shean — is stunning would be beside the point. Following eight years of painstaking restorative labor, the ancient tincture that has remarkably clung to her gleaming flesh, alongside the strands of hair cascading down her shoulders and on her left breast, is stark and vivid and confers upon her a ruddy audaciousness that is as uncommon in classical sculpture as it is on the street. Members of the public observing her on the first day of the Passover holiday lingered at her side much as they might at a scene of celebrity spotting — self-conscious but unable to avert their eyes.

Is it vulgar to be immobilized by beauty, or is it appreciative? Is it anachronistic? Whatever the case, it is not customary to see reactions of stupor at the sight of raw beauty. But it is not principally for this virtue that the choice of the Beit Shean Venus is so apt a symbol for this jubilee year: Like each of the other showstoppers on parade, she belongs to the collections of the Israel Museum itself.

Few eminent general-subject museums remain; even fewer span all epochs from prehistory through contemporary art and all six continents, and fewer still exist that would be able to put on a show as lavish and multifaceted as this one — much less from their own holdings. The breadth of this production says much about Snyder’s leadership, but its impact is even greater as a statement of the museum’s coming-of-age. It may even say something about the Israeli psyche’s slow recovery from the intifada: Close to 40,000 people took advantage of the free entry provided by Bank Hapoalim’s sponsorship during the Passover holiday, more than double the figure that attended last year.

Still in the principal exhibition area, before progressing to the more focused offshoot exhibits, the concepts of beauty and sanctity are given a humorous and bold tweaking: Is the Mona Lisa that Duchamp vandalizes as sacred as the 17th-century golden German Kiddush cup positioned beside it? Is the Israel Hershberg painting “Cow Tongue” — which depicts the severed organ itself, served up on a green wooden table — as true an altar as the ancient limestone altar, authentic as can be, that finds itself on the black carpet in front of it?

The show offers no simple answers. However, it does proffer a tender and profound recognition of the human longings behind each visualization of the hallowed object. In one corner, a live olive tree chosen in 1999 by Yoko Ono sprouts from its oversized earthenware pot, there to be a repository of wishes. It is a recycled, reconceived Western Wall: Two weeks into the show, the tree was laden with scraps of paper strung on its twigs and branches, each bearing the handwritten yearnings of a visitor — one, written out in immature lettering by a young Amitai, asking “always to know what is going to happen before it happens.”

Among the other displays the museum has unveiled already is Vanishing Point: Hidden Beauty in Contemporary Art, an exhibit that expounds on present-day, laical quests for the sublime. For example, Catherine Opie’s lone surfer, a tiny black human form caught in the early-morning mists that blur the sky and sea, seems to seek out something in the far-beyond. Similarly, the ashen box produced by the Pole Miroslaw Balka seems to search for something, or at least seems to urge us to be unafraid. The work, called “Dead End,” is a room wallpapered in ash — a grave, in other words, that is part of life. You walk into it, then you walk out. Whew.

Camera Sacra: Capturing the Soul of Nature, the exhibit put together by the department of photography, presents landscape photography from its inception as a pursuit of the transcendental. The American presence in this show is noteworthy, ranging from Ansel Adams to Robert Adams and arcing back to an entrancing 1936 Edward Weston image of endless dunes of sand, an image of eternal and restless aridity, titled “Oceano.”

On the lower level, a small jewel of an exhibit called “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: Saints in European Art” should quench the thirst of any lover of the cathedralic timbre who has not made it to Old Europe in a while; the walls have been painted sapphire blue, in gold and russet and shades of emerald; the semblances of the saints shine through.

But perhaps the most subversive of all these exhibits, and therefore worthy of a lengthy detour, is “Beyond the Eye of the Beholder: Ideals of Human Beauty in Africa and the Americas.” It is, in effect, a show of what were once called primitive depictions of the human form, created over a period of 2,000 years. There is nothing particularly shocking about any of these forms, and beauty appears in great abundance — stop and gaze at the Mayan Maize God or at the Yoruba head — but the assertion of sanctity (in Jerusalem, no less!) is staggering.

It is paganism, pure and simple, but there is nothing profane about it. Instead, it is stirringly potent: We find ourselves back at the deific human form — remember Venus? — as the ultimate expression of the temple of our desires, and as the one truly knowable thing.

It goes without saying that visiting this exhibit is an endeavor requiring several days. All labels are in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a writer living in Jerusalem.

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Jerusalem’s Shrine for the Muses

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