Of Pogroms and Paintings

`The New Hebrews' exhibition in Berlin does not tell the story of Israeli art, but rather the development of Israel.

Two days after the opening of "The New Hebrews: A Century of Art in Israel" at the Martin Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin in May, a group of Israelis toured the exhibition with the curator, Dorit Levita. Afterwards, one of the women asked the curator why she chose not to include the artists of "New Horizons," who contributed so much to the development of local Israeli art and especially to the secular discourse.

This question popped up again and again, before and after the opening of the exhibition. Not only in the Israeli art world, which expressed its displeasure with the selection, but also from the German media that covered the exhibition and wondered if Israel had any abstract art. "In an exhibition like this, which engages in the devising of a new, secular, artistic language, you simply cannot do without this chapter," said curator Amnon Barzel, who visited the exhibition.

Based on a tour of the exhibition, New Horizons does not seem to have fit in with the story Levita wanted to tell. An Israeli who has lived in Germany for over 20 years, Levita had a mission: showing Germans the culture that has developed in Israel in the 20th century. She wanted to differentiate between "Diasporesque" Jewish tradition and the Israeliness that has evolved in the Middle East, and the difficult scenes shown daily on television, and the cultural life simultaneously taking place in Israel.

The name of the exhibition, "A Century of Art in Israel," deceived many of the critics, and justifiably so. The exhibition does not describe the development of Israeli art, but rather the development of Israel. One could say it impressively highlights the various chapters of its history: the pogroms in Russia that were in the background of the waves of immigration, Zionism, the establishment of Bezalel, the Holocaust, wars, religion, utopianism, etc. The artwork is only one component; the exhibition includes a wealth of documents, photographs, architectural models, posters and texts.

Levita responded to the visitor's question: "I chose not to show the works of `New Horizons' because they were not innovative enough or good enough in comparison with other things being done in Europe at the same time. I preferred to show less well-known things. For instance, a lot of the contemporary Israeli art."

She added that if she could have, she would have curated an exhibition purely composed of contemporary art from Israel. But the museum would not have accepted this proposal, "because everyone wants to exhibit contemporary art in Germany," she said. You could say that the proposal for the historical exhibition - which she wrote overnight - enabled her to find a way around the problem.

The only abstract paintings in the exhibition were painted by Moshe Kupferman, who died two years ago. The two large canvases hang in a room that is entitled "Holocaust." In the years preceding his death, Kupferman spoke expressly about his work in this context, which he had until then denied. Levita told a group that went through the exhibition with her that this is the first time Kupferman's work has even been shown in Germany. "He did not agree to have his work exhibited in Germany," she says. After his death, I asked the nonprofit association that is handling his estate for special approval to exhibit him, and they consented."

One wonders what Kupferman would have thought. Even more interesting, what he would have to say about the decision to curate a room devoted to the Holocaust, in which the Holocaust is barely present, or to be more precise - present in minor scale. Aside from Kupferman's painting, the room has a video work by Yael Bartana, photographed during the Memorial Day siren, and a video work by Erez Israeli, in which a mother is embracing her son, who repeatedly slips out of her grasp. Playing in the background is the Jewish requiem, "El Malei Rachamim" (Merciful God). Another room dealing with the Holocaust shows segments of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Israel, on three screens.

Levita has seemingly chosen not to address directly the emotionally loaded topic. When one listener commented that the compositions do not directly relate to the subject, she replied: "I didn't want to present it too harshly; the Germans already feel guilty enough as it is." This desire not to anger or to challenge, not to ask tough questions or to irritate, is also expressed in a room entitled "War." Among others, Levita chose to exhibit critical artists like Miki Kratsman and David Reeb, but selected relatively mild (and unrepresentative) works, thereby neutralizing their fury and their message.

Many of the Israelis who have visited the impressive and extensive exhibition, which runs until early September, did not like it. It seemed a bit too superficial and representative to them. One of the most common arguments is that it mixes two types of media that seemingly have nothing in common - works of art and documentary records. The combination of the two was the result of the curator's consideration of the visitor to the exhibition, and very few art exhibitions devote so much space to the visitor. It seems as if in this exhibition, the visitor's understanding is more important than the status of the artwork.

Some of the Germans visiting the exhibition, who are well aware in the contemporary art discourse, thought the texts were unneeded, and like them, documentary films such as those of the Eichmann trial. However, hundreds of German visitors filled the museum in the opening days of the exhibition and watched every archive film that was screened and diligently read every written word.

Micha Ullman, who is participating in the exhibition, and who divides his time between Israel and Berlin, could not answer the question of how the exhibition looks through German eyes. But Ullman himself believes that messages can be transmitted by minimal means. "Art is mute," he says. "And it has the power to transmit messages without speaking."

One example that comes to mind is the "Empty Library" monument that Ullman exhibited 10 years ago in Bebelplatz, where students burned books by Jewish authors on May 10, 1933. The memorial is situated below-ground, and a parking lot will soon be opened underneath it - after Ullman lost the fight he waged against its construction - in effect converting it from a burial site into a mezzanine level. Another example is the installation "Fence," which Ullman is showing in the current exhibition. It consists of seven steel rust-textured columns that create a sort of imaginary separation wall. Each column is perforated by several house-shaped holes. Each time, the roof of the house turns in a different direction, like an illusive directional signal that sabotages the attempt to show the right way.

Herzl's photograph

One exhibit, found in "Zionism" room, is a fascinating example of the way composition and documentation are combined. Suspended from the wall are four photographs from the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, showing stage-by-stage how the famous photograph documenting the meeting between Herzl and the German emperor Wilhelm II was produced. The meeting was photographed in Jerusalem in 1898 by David Wolfson, but when the negative was sent to Jaffa to be developed, it turned out that only part of Herzl's left leg appeared in the photo (as seen in the first photograph).

Herzl was immediately summoned, and asked to stand in the same pose as in the original photo, and was photographed again on a rooftop in Jaffa (the second photo). Afterwards, when they wanted to connect the two photos, they discovered that part of the face of the horse on which the emperor was seated was outside the frame, so that Herzl would end up standing too close to the horse's rear end. So it was decided to move the emperor from the white horse and to seat him on a black horse. In the original photo, the black horse was standing behind the emperor, with another rider on it (the third photo). In the fourth and final picture, which was sent to the Jews of the Diaspora, the pasted-on Herzl is shaking hands with the pasted-on emperor.

The transition from documentary photograph to work of art is expressed by captions placed by the organizers of the exhibition alongside the photographs. David Wolfson's credit was replaced by a credit to "Unknown photographer" and in the final photograph to "Unknown artist."

Yet this work not only exemplifies the blurred boundary between artistic composition and historic document, but also the essence of Zionism, as Ullman puts it. Herzl was European, pasted-on, alien - a little like the way the State of Israel was pasted on to the Middle East.

IDF at the Brandenburg Gate

Curator Levita has fashioned interesting links between works of art, which occasionally create new meanings, as well. In the first room of the exhibition, she chose to hang Shmuel Hirszenberg's "The Wandering Jew," which describes the flight of Jews in a pogrom - alongside a contemporary apocalyptic painting by Avner Ben Gal. In a room about "Migration" she hung photographs of immigrants from the mid-20th century alongside photographs by Reli Avrahami in which Russian-born children sell flowers at urban intersections.

In one case, she even converted an excerpt from a feature film by Chaim Buzaglo, "The Cherry Season," into a new conceptual work. The 1991 film about the Lebanon War tells of a Tel Aviv advertising man who is called up for Lebanon and feels that he, too, is about to be added to the list of war dead. Levita cut out a brief excerpt from the end of the film, in which an army jeep is driving, as a soldier with wings rides on top, his back to the camera. The scene is shown in a loop on a colossal screen in the upper exhibition space of the museum, and generates a bizarre, fantastic atmosphere that is at the same time apocalyptic and entertaining.

The Israeli viewer recognizes the vehicle, the desert, the IDF uniform and the white styrofoam wings, which allude to the inevitable death. It also recognizes the irony with regards to the pioneering Zionist myth that arrives in a place that is not its own and dreams of taming the "wilderness."

Yet removing the scene from its feature-film context, and showing it in Berlin also creates an interesting connection with one of the most meaningful symbols in Berlin - the Brandenburg Gate. The Israeli army jeep and the white wings, like the composition of the frame itself, strongly remind the viewer of the coach with winged horses galloping over the reconstructed gate, and it is unclear where they are headed.

Dreams and disappointments

Two stories from Berlin that are related in one way or another to the exhibition "The New Hebrews," serve as a metaphor for the status of the Israeli artist, whose creativity and talent are the basis for the entire art scene, but who is invariably left far behind the pack.

Two weeks before the opening of the exhibition, a select group of figures in the Israeli art world received invitations to an exclusive party on board a boat that would cruise the waters of the Spree River in Berlin. The party was scheduled to begin on the night of the exhibition opening. The event was organized by Irit Sommer of the Sommer Gallery, which represents some of the artists taking part in the exhibition. She knows many people in the European art world in general, and in its Berlin branch in particular.

Those people who were very much wanted on board were given a yellow bracelet by Sommer at the opening. The bracelet served as a permit to board the boat. When Sommer was told that many of the artists had not received invitations and were wary about going, she said the party was meant first and foremost for the artists, and that all the participants were invited. At 10 P.M., the ship left its first stop. On deck were mainly collectors, gallery owners, donors and dignitaries (who had left the museum early). At 11:30 P.M., one hour late, the ship weighed anchor at a second stop, where it picked up a large group of freezing artists.

Regretfully, at the same stop where the artists got on, most of the potential buyers and important public figures with whom the artists wanted to mingle left. It isn't every day that artists have an opportunity to spend an intimate two hours chatting with that niche of the art world that determines their artistic and economic fates.

All that remained for the artists was to eat the leftovers of the VIP crowd and to try to see Berlin by night. The voyage ended at 2 A.M., at which time the boat anchored in a far-off and relatively isolated mooring. Fortunately, a few respected representatives of the Association of Friends of the Israel Museum were still there. They themselves were waiting for a plush bus that was supposed to drive them to the Adlon, the most expensive hotel in Berlin. They kindly offered the artists a lift.

Van Gogh posters

Another incident involved one of the artists showing at the exhibition. The owner of a gallery for contemporary art in Berlin was enthusiastic about her work and invited her and her gallery representative to his gallery. He glanced at the artist's portfolio and told the two women that he knows a collector named Johannes who was at the exhibition and might want to buy several works. He even set up an appointment between them a few minutes later at a nearby cafe. This is how the fantasy of every Israeli artist exhibiting abroad for the first time usually begins: Someone there discovers him, rescues him from the small impoverished Israeli art world and paves his way into the international scene.

After meeting and shaking hands, the three went up to the apartment of Johannes, on the top floor of an impressive building with a wood and steel facade - one of the dozens of enchanting architectural structures build in recent years in the resurgent East Berlin.

Johannes, who introduced himself as the owner of a firm that renovates apartments for diplomats and ambassadors (or in other words, a contractor), told them that once every two months he presents an exhibition by an artist in one of these apartments, and holds a private party, in the presence of the artist, to which the Berlin power and moneyed elite are invited. He and many others like him represent a nouveau riche in Berlin that engages in real estate and treats art like a business to invest in. "These are paintings that are still here from the party that I threw here last weekend," he said, proudly pointing out three colorful, gaudy, very unimpressive paintings hanging on the apartment walls. The paintings were done in a pop art style that sells well in Berlin.

At this, the artist engaged the would-be middleman in conversation, asking his opinion of the new exhibition. "It has too many texts, and besides which, I can't understand how they allowed one curator to do whatever she wanted in a national exhibition that marks 40 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany," replied Johannes. "And what did you think of the contemporary art in the exhibition? asked the artist. "I didn't see anything there that I found interesting," he said.

At this point, the Israeli gallery owner took the portfolio from the artist's hands, opened it, and tried to interest the collector in its contents; after all, that was the object of the meeting. The collector seemed surprised. "Did you see my work in the exhibition?" asked the artist. The collector said he had not, and asked if they would like to go up to the roof, to see the amazing view. The gallery owner went to use the bathroom one floor down. There, on the walls of the corridor, between the rooms, she found framed posters of Van Gogh. She realized there would be no sale.