Tel Aviv Museum Hits the Target as Kids and Adults Connect With Masterpieces

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'The Kiss.'
'The Kiss.'Credit: Elad Sarig

If there is one problem with the heartwarming exhibit “Modern Times,” which is now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, it is the addition to the ticket price, about 20 percent more than the price of an ordinary ticket. It’s a shame that it’s not included in the price of the entry ticket or entirely subsidized by the municipality for the benefit of the public.

Shaul Setter, the art critic of the Haaretz Gallery supplement, thinks that the exhibition, from the collection of masterpieces belonging to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is being overly publicized, but even he doesn’t really think that there’s anything wrong with the fact that children here in Tel Aviv will see “The Kiss,” for example, one of the most beautiful, moving and educational sculptures in the world of art.

The quasi-primitive “The Kiss,” which was carved in limestone by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in 1916 (and includes the male and female forms) is strong and moving evidence of human artistic expression, which is not inferior to the cave drawings in France and Spain. Anyone who can go to the museum now and see it with his own eyes should do so immediately.

After all, what is a couple today? Humanity is moving over to different embraces. Brancusi, incidentally, thought that the sculpture should be placed among authentic tribal objects, and here it is illuminated in the center of the gallery, for the public’s convenience. That’s fine. Like “Nimrod” in Jerusalem. An experience for the heart, the head, knowledge. Thrilling.

The reservations about the popularity of the exhibition misses the most important aspect in the relationship between man and art: attachment. It enables everyone to learn firsthand, in a few understandable and culturally accepted works, from Picasso’s first Cubism to Dali’s image of the tiny watch on the teaspoon. Is this display of wonders and treasures – which also demonstrates the limits of understanding in their time – worthy of the attention of the critics because they, for example, reflect the dominance of men in the art of the period? Of course. But does it deserve condemnation for being a crowd pleaser. Of course not.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Meged Gozani

And in a way that in a sense pulls the rug out from under any disapproving complaint, in the lower and architecturally beautiful gallery in the new building, there is a solo exhibition by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto that the critics love. On the wavy walls hang the huge silvery photographs that were photographed digitally. When Sugimoto photographs the horizon, the horizon spits back carpets of black and white. When he photographs buildings, the exposure makes them look as though they are drowning in the mists of memory and with them the Twin Towers, which have been rebuilt since he photographed them.

But the focus of the exhibition is two large series – photographs of stuffed animals placed behind glass walls in the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and a series of photographs of the frighteningly realistic wax figures of Henry VIII and his wives, as well as Yasser Arafat, Pope John Paul VI and Lenin.

I will take a chance and venture a theory that turns the criticism on its head: The “respectable” exhibition of masterpieces provides an experience that is powerful and alive and amusing and fun and relevant, while the dark “quality” exhibition downstairs is outdated, petrified and frozen. A taxidermic treatment (the act of photography) of taxidermy. Sugimoto is of course a great photographer and an artist, but after we have caught our breath in light of the beauty and minimalist aesthetic of his work, we have here a discussion of formalism, and an ontological discussion that presents a question of representation.

And while the sight of the stuffed animals in the Museum of Natural History immerses the viewer in sadness, the series of photographs of the wax figures are an intellectual exercise. And only the photograph of Yasser Arafat, who is familiar and hated here, arouses some palpitation. Is he, like every leader in the photographed series, a passing waxwork? Is the reaction to the image dependent on a nationalist connection? How “great” is he and for whom? Discomfort is an interesting and important reaction to art, but the exhibition as a whole is beautiful and outdated. When the photograph is a freeze, and the objects are representatives of life, the temperature of the work plummets.

And at the same time, at the exhibit upstairs – what fun! Children and adults run around, talk, approach. And everything is about painting. Paint on canvas! It’s not only the cultural status of Van Gogh, who is also on display, but the experience of encountering works that justify their reputation. Aside from Brancusi’s exemplary sculpture, which was in effect a “collectors’ item” and was acquired as such from the moment it was created, the exhibition is Eurocentric and masculine, and ostensibly not at all contemporary or multinational.

It’s even conservative – and in spite of all that – full of the joy of creativity and a colorful and interesting outburst. And with the exception of a print curtain that is designed to cover a door – it is also designed in a manner that is beautiful and correct, spacious and mind-expanding.

It should be said loud and clear: In the exhibition curated by director and chief curator Suzanne Landau on the eve of her retirement, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art totally fulfills its public role and its cultural mission. It meets its target. And if they didn’t charge a special entry fee for the exhibition, or even waived the fee entirely, it would be a perfect celebration. And in any case, Sugimato’s exhibition, beloved by the critics, is included in the price. Can we complain about a museum that displays both? Of course not. That’s what a museum is supposed to do. That’s its purpose.

And last but not least: Shaul Setter is right in his article that pointed out the chattering nature of the project of French wunderkind Loris Greaud. Truly an example of pretentious commercial art. But on this issue as well the museum has adopted a good policy. And for proof there is the moment, which can’t be recreated, when Charlotte Rampling fixed the steely blue eyes of Charlotte Rampling on my surprised eyes – and ran through the corridor on opening night – dressed like Grumpy Bear in a blue fur outfit.

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