Pogroms in Russia before and during the First World War sent waves of Jewish emigrants fleeing to Palestine. Around the same time, Jewish painters from across Europe settled in Tel Aviv, where an arts scene flourished in the 1920s, planting the seeds of Jewish national identity. It is this compelling chapter that opens “The New Hebrews: A Century of Art in Israel,” a context-heavy exhibition running through September at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum. Sprawling in scope, the show examines political, historical and ideological forces that have shaped Israeli art over the past century.
“Jewish art is not something you can put your finger on,” said Doreet LeVitte Harten, the show’s curator, who explained that people around the world misunderstand and misrepresent Israel. Her show, she said, aims to “tell a more fragmented story,” exposing the public to modern Israeli art while debunking religious, militarist and other stereotypes about the country.
But why Berlin? In fact, the importance of “The New Hebrews” appearing in Germany, where the memory of Jews and the Holocaust runs deep and at a time of intense European criticism of Israel’s policies, cannot be understated. According to LeVitte Harten, when Germans come to see this exhibition of Israeli art — which was timed to coincide with and commemorate the 40th anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations — they discover that they know very little about Israel. And not just about its art, but also about its history. “Here, people aren’t aware of the things they are about to see,” she said. “Israel is unfamiliar to them. Jewishness is a fascination, an other.”
‘The New Hebrews” begins with earthy pastel drawings by Abel Pann (born Abba Pfefferman, 1883, in Vitebsk, Belorussia), depicting Jewish massacres, funerals and marches into exile during the Russian pogroms of the early 20th century. On the opposite walls, grotesque photographs of Jews slaughtered from Bialystok to Odessa, and an enormous, inferno-like oil painting by Shmuel Hirszenberg, called “The Wandering Jew,” set an apocalyptic — and victimized — tone.
More pleasing to the senses are the expressionist, cubist and naively influenced paintings by Jewish emigrants trained in Europe and awed by the freshness of an Arab Mediterranean landscape. Works by Romanian-born Reuven Rubin stand out for their boldness in colors and smooth, spatial balance. Set against a warm desert background, Rubin’s figures at times resemble the hunched tan
bodies of Diego Rivera; at other times, the long and haunted faces of Modigliani. His triptych, “First Fruits” (1923), shows Bedouin Arabs and Israelis harvesting crops together, while a portrait, “Sophie, Bukharin Jewess,” depicts a pale, full-breasted woman with large eyes and jet-black hair holding a flower pot in her hand, symbolizing fecundity, exotic beauty and — or at least it seems — the aspirations of a Jewish national identity just coming into being.
Some artists worked explicitly to promote that identity — like Ephraim Moses Lilien, a chief designer and illustrator for the Zionist movement, and Boris Schatz, the Lithuanian-born sculptor who founded Israel’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 1906. But the painters who chose nature and the rich colors and characters of daily life as their subjects produced the most lasting works. One example is Russian-born Arieh El-Hanani, whose charming expressionist watercolors depict the café and port life in Tel Aviv that Arabs and Jews inhabit side by side. While Pinchas Litvinowsky captures then-Palestine’s vibrant desert landscape, the strong, crafted oil canvasses by Nahum Gutman celebrate a rugged farming world of fruit fields and olive groves, which are tended mostly by Palestinian workers. The Arab population served as models for Jewish artists all through the 1920s until Arab attacks in 1929 led to 130 Jewish deaths, abruptly ending the era of peaceful co-habitation.
“The New Hebrews” moves quickly through the 1930s, a period of increasing Jewish economic strength that climaxed in the Levant Fair, which lured commerce and more than 600,000 visitors to Palestine from 1934 to ’36. In the 1940s, popular art emerged in the forms of photographs, portraits and posters reflecting a new identity of “muscle Judaism,” which transformed the passive, physically weak Jew from Europe’s shtetl days into a strapping, can-do pioneer living in harmony with his surroundings. New Hebrews who yearned to “shed the rags of exile and to wear the garment of home” kept their sleeves rolled and carried spades, shovels and scythes. Nowhere was the Jews’ romance with the land more proudly idealized than in Hungarian-born Zoltan Kluger’s black-and-white photographs portraying robust life on the kibbutz.
Sionah Tagger’s portrait of Avraham Shlonsky, the first modern poet in the Hebrew language, connects a face to the era of confidence and optimism that Jews felt about the utopian world they were building in Palestine. Shlonsky, with his enormous head of hair, luminous green eyes and melancholic expression, embodies an archetypal Jew, brilliantly creative, who has emerged from the West in successive generations — from Leon Trotsky to Albert Einstein to Bob Dylan.
The exhibition devotes a large space to architectural models, showing influences that Bauhaus and other European avant-garde movements had on Israeli building — from Richard Kaufmann’s modernism to Leopold Krakauer’s functionalism and the expressionist buildings of Erich Mendelsohn. The show also sneaks in a rare artifact linking Israel’s past with its present: the Temple Scroll, a 3-meter segment of parchment dating from 120 BCE that Bedouins discovered in 1947 in a cave on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The scroll, which is partly burnt, decayed and rounded on the edges — but on which the Hebraic writing is still clearly visible — serves as a connector between ancient and modern Israel that viewers here rarely get a chance to see and feel.
But the further the show moves into contemporary times — beginning with the Holocaust and continuing through works completed this year — the more it abandons art and relies on weighty texts and a hodgepodge of installations, videos, childlike drawings, maps and contemporary (too often kitschy) experimental canvasses to describe abstract chapters such as “Religion,” “Homeland,” “War” and “Conflicts.” Photographs ranging from crowded bus stops, clothes hanging out to dry in an Orthodox neighborhood, shot-up military jeeps and a soldier with yarmulke on his head but otherwise half-naked in a sexual pose make it easy to feel misled about what the exhibition promised versus what it delivered.
That’s not to say that the show makes no attempt at presenting genuine art from (often young) Israeli artists in the second half of the century. Ori Reisman’s large, semiabstract canvases; 29-year-old Nir Hod’s sorrowful adolescent soldiers attending a funeral in the wall-sized portrait “Lost Youth” (2004-5), and Avner Ben Gal’s brooding, barren five-painting cycle of acrylics called “The Eve of Destruction” (2000-01) attest to a strong artistic tradition continuing today in Israel.
A strong point of the exhibit is that it pushes an identity of Israel forward — not only by examining the country’s past but also by looking toward its future. However, in the leap from the painters of the 1920s to those born after 1965, it’s hard not to feel an absence of art from the century’s middle decades. Did the Holocaust, wars with Arab countries and ongoing political crises subsume the arts in Israel or devastate them, and how? Or are we simply not getting a full picture of modern Israeli art — if a full picture after 100 years is even possible? “The New Hebrews” offers little in the way of an answer, giving a lethal dose of graphic and installation projects while leaving a gaping hole where a half-century of fine art should be.