Home Is Where the Art Is

The residences of foreign ambassadors reflect both the culture of their own countries, and of the place they are at the present time - Israel in this case.

Dana Gilerman
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Dana Gilerman

A visit to the residences of the scores of foreign ambassadors in Israel reveals a variety of cultures and tastes, as well as political statements. The works of art that adorn the ambassadors' homes - be they paintings and sculptures or handicrafts, glass objects and designed furniture - display and represent the culture from which they came.

The works of art in the residences of the ambassadors from large, wealthy countries are usually state property. They belong to the state and were chosen by government committees in accordance with foreign policy considerations. In the smaller embassies it is usually a matter of the ambassador's personal possessions that move with him from place to place.

This Haaretz project reveals the cultural statements that can be found in the residences, but as well it locates in the private space, which is also public, the individual taste of those who reside there.

Noemy Baruch, the ambassador of Costa Rica The Costa Rican Embassy is one of only two foreign embassies located in Jerusalem. The second is the Embassy of El Salvador. "Of course the location has political significance," says ambassador Noemy Baruch. "We recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel." But the location of her current residence in Jerusalem - a rented apartment in one of the tall buildings on Diskin Street - also makes a statement.

"From the 1980s until I took up the post, the Costa Rican ambassadors lived in a rented Arab house on Bustanai Street in the city," she says. "I was the first to decide not to live there. I did not want to live in Jerusalem in an Arab house. This too is a statement. It is possible to live in Jerusalem without stepping on the other side."

From the window of her apartment there is a sweeping view of Jerusalem's Sacher Park and the Israel Museum. These views are documented in a painting that hangs near the window, in which the ambassador herself is also depicted. The painting is by Shlomit Nir, a graduate of Israel Hirschberg's painting workshop. "She painted me twice a week over a period of three months," says Baruch. "The collector Gil Brandes also owns two of her paintings."

As Costa Rica is not a wealthy country to say the least - this is also manifested in the fact that Baruch lives in a relatively modest apartment - the works of art that adorn the place were purchased with her own money and are her personal property. "Many of the ambassadors live a life of luxury," she says. "A house, a chauffeur, a maid. If we want this we have to pay for it."

Apart from a work by Dudu Gerstein that she purchased at a gallery in Jerusalem, and two drawings of women dancing by an artist called Liora Rosenman "To whose studio I was taken by a friend," the works in her apartment are by Costa Rican artists. On the large wall in the living room hangs a work of large dimensions by the artist Parros Guillermo, a colorful painting that depicts a cockfight in Latin America.

"But it also looks like the tarnegol kapparot (atonement chicken) on Yom Kippur," she says. "That's what I loved about it and also the use of colors. The figure's hands are black, but the main color in the painting is white and in the background it is like the sun, like sunrise, life itself." Beside the painting stands one of the ambassador's favorite sculptures - a carved wooden cat climbing a sort of pole. She paid a high price for this work, "Wild Cat" by Jose Sangho. "I love it because of the movement and because it's the first work of art I ever bought, in 1978."

Pietro Sambi, the Papal Nuncio The disappointment with the official residence of the Papal Nuncio - the ambassador from the Vatican, one of the countries with the greatest art treasures in Europe - is great. The house looks impressive from the outside, the garden is beautiful and so is the view from the Mount of Olives.

But inside the residence the appearance is almost ascetic. It is gray, lacking in color and cultural richness. In the corridor hang pictures of the various Popes and a few framed landscape photographs of old Jerusalem, which look as though they have been photocopied from a book. On the walls of the living room there are reliefs of saints, some of them made of wood. Throughout the residence there are a number of silver and glass objects and also one item from Israel - an embroidery of the seven biblical species of plants.

"We, the Vatican, expect that there will be beautiful things here," says Nuncio Pietro Sambi, "but we don't intend to bring things to a temporary residence." As the building has been serving the Vatican since 1948, one can conclude that the term "temporary" has political significance. The temporariness will end the moment Israel and the Palestinians arrive at an agreement concerning the future of Jerusalem.

This decision - to use the aesthetics of the place as a political statement - also exacts a price. "At normal embassies there is a place to host people and here I cannot entertain large groups," he says. But he did have the privilege of hosting Pope John Paul II when he visited here about five years ago. "We converted the entry way to the residence into a kind of covered tunnel through which his car drove straight through the door, in order to maintain his security," recalls Sambi. That historic visit is also noted in Latin letters on the facade of the building on a stone that looks like a tombstone.

Theoretically, the objects in the residence belong to the Papal state, but nearly all the objects there - the glass and silver objects, the portraits of the saints and the stained glass in the small church - were made in Czechoslovakia. "The place used to belong to a group of devout people from Czechoslovakia who lived here until 1948. We have left everything the way it was," he stresses again. "After the conflict is resolved, we will move into a building that belongs to the Vatican near President Katsav's residence."

Chen Yonglong, the ambassador of China At the entrance to the Chinese ambassador's residence in Herzliya stands a large and impressive iron sculpture of a chariot hitched to four upright horses. The horses greet those who enter the house and not by chance. "The statue indicates that China has an ancient culture," says Ambassador Chen Yonglong. The color of the statue is a bit faded and the back of the chariot is peeling but the ambassador reassures us that this is not indicative of neglect. "This is ancient, and it has to look ancient or else no one will believe that it had been buried in the earth for thousands of years."

The sculpture is a copy of an original, one of thousands of objects made of pottery and other materials that were found in the tomb of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihnang. The emperor, who believed in life after death, planned for his tomb a model of the world outside that includes, among other things, 8,000 clay soldiers. The ambassador purchased the statue in China with the aim of bringing it to Israel. The message, he says, was also intended to indicate what Israel and China have in common.

"Jewish culture, like Chinese culture," says the ambassador, "has a splendid history that goes back very many years." Another historical symbol is in the living room. Between the Israeli flag and the Chinese flag hangs a large, colorful carpet depicting the Great Wall of China - one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The comparison between this ancient wall and the one that is currently being built in Israel is inevitable.

"We built our wall inside China, in the mountains, in order to defend ourselves and not as an invasion of others," says the ambassador in explanation of the difference. "You are building on the other side and inside neighborhoods where people live." However, he also manages to sound optimistic. "The Chinese have learned over the years how to live in peace with one another." Today the Great Wall of China with all its gates and guard towers serves as an architectural marvel, a tourist site and nothing more.

These are the two most significant works at the residence, as far as the ambassador is concerned. But in addition to them, it is possible to be impressed by the vast, almost empty space, from the large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling (which were chosen by the ambassador's wife, Liu Shuqin), decorative vases adorned with landscape paintings - mountains and waterfalls - and the many artificial orchids that decorate the rooms. "I told you that I lead a very simple life," he apologizes.

Simon McDonald, the ambassador of Great Britain In the entry hall of the impressive residence of the British ambassador on one of the hidden, village-like streets of Ramat Gan hangs a huge photograph by Ori Gersht, "White Mountain." The picture, which was taken in the Judean Desert was exhibited in its day at Gersht's show at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv and the previous ambassador liked it and selected it. This photograph along with the collection of charming ceramic objects made by his children that is displayed on the table beneath it are almost the only exceptions to the rules of display in the official residence.

Nearly all of the works of art in the representative parts of the residence - the dining room, the corridor and the living room - belong to the art collection of the United Kingdom. They have been selected by a special committee at the Ministry of Culture that chooses the works of art for government institutions. The collection at the residence in Israel is permanent and does not change.

"This is because it includes good works that relate properly to the place," he explains. The collection is documented in a catalog that in its appearance resembles the professional catalogs of the large auction houses, entitled "Works of Art in the British Embassy, Tel Aviv."

On the walls hang many works of art, among them still lives, historical and recent landscape paintings of Jerusalem, lithographs of Bible stories, one contemporary work entitled "Pipe with Smoke" by Patrick Caulfield from 1990 ("This is a house in a very traditional style and therefore there isn't contemporary art in it," says the ambassador) and also a painting of an English landscape by Pissarro - "Not by Camille, but by Lucien," he hastens to note.

The ambassador's favorite work, "Women at the Wall" by Anthony Eyton is displayed prominently in the living room above the fireplace. This painting was done in the framework of a tour by 10 British landscape painters in Israel in 1997, during which they were asked to paint their impressions. Another painting that the ambassador likes, "Interior of the Armenian Church" by the well-known artist David Bomberg from 1925 also appears on the cover of the catalog.

McDonald, who has studied the collection well and can talk about each of the works, notes that the most famous painting at the residence is David Robert's "View of Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives" from 1888. "There is a story that when he came to the Old City of Jerusalem he did not like what he saw and decided that he preferred to paint it from outside. This is one of four nearly identical paintings. The other three are in Britain."

But the really precious items in the ambassador's residence, hints McDonald, are not hanging on the walls, nor do they appear in the catalog. These are the carpets that cover the parquet floor.

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