Can the World's Most Famous Anti-war Painting Help Inspire Coexistence in Israel?

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Tal R.'s "The Night," a "Guernica"-sized painting on exhibit at Magasin III Jaffa.
Tal R.'s "The Night," a "Guernica"-sized painting on exhibit at Magasin III Jaffa. Credit: Noam Preisman
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard

On an early October evening, passersby walking along a dark thoroughfare in the Arab-majority ancient city of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv, were greeted by a commotion. A large crowd of art aficionados, dressed in their best, had gathered by a brightly illuminated window looking into a small building.

They were queuing to get a closer look at one of the most ambitious artworks to have been commissioned in the contemporary art world in recent years. The work, created by Israeli-born, Danish artist Tal R., is a painting made in the same measurements of Pablo Picasso’s iconic “Guernica.”

R.’s gargantuan painting, which is the only artwork on display in his solo exhibition “Men Who Can’t Sit on Horses,” was unveiled that evening in a ceremonious opening event by the space hosting it: Magasin III.

The exhibition space, which quietly opened its doors in Israel in January 2018, has managed to create the same stir with three previous installations it presented — all by art world heavyweights such as American-Israeli artist Haim Steinbach and U.S. textile artist Sheila Hicks. Located in a residential neighborhood whose denizens are being edged out by a raging steep in real estate prices, Magasin III presents itself as an establishment that seeks to promote a dialogue with the local Arab population. To that end, the art space publishes all of the content accompanying the exhibitions in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

But while Israeli art lovers have embraced this new exhibition space with excitement, few have heard of the space outside the creative scene. This doesn’t really concern the man behind the nonprofit. Swedish curator, entrepreneur and art professor David Neuman is very confident that his project is bound to leave a mark on the Middle East.

Magasin III. "We didn’t encounter resistance, but locals are often surprised" by the Jaffa gallery, says curator Karmit Galili.Credit: Noam Preisman

‘Locals are often surprised’

Neuman co-founded Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art as an offshoot of an esteemed cultural foundation and exhibition space of the same name,which he founded in Stockholm 30 years ago and has been leading ever since.

In conversation with Haaretz, Neuman says that the idea to launch a satellite space for his foundation in Israel was born out of “a combination of passion and madness.”

“The cultural landscape in Israel is totally engaging, which I like,” he explains. “My passion is to be able to add something to a scene where cultural expression isn’t taken for granted, as opposed to places [where it’s easier to open a space] such as Berlin, London or New York.”

The draw to esoteric locales such as Israel, Neuman adds, is linked to his own background: “I come from an area in Europe — Scandinavia — which is also part of the peripheral discourse.”

People viewing Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, 2006.Credit: AP

The Stockholm space was founded in 1987 with the aim of offering an experimental alternative to the traditional institutions in Sweden. Neuman recalls that “differently from many other places, we didn’t start with a collection. We started as an exhibition space where the choices in terms of both artists and the writers were carefully thought through.”

The Swedish foundation has since garnered a name for itself as a respected entity in the global art community. Recently, Neuman and foundation chairman Robert Weil decided to freeze Magasin III’s operations for two years in order to carry out an overhaul in its strategy and vision. During the break, Neuman directed his focus to a project he has been working on for over a decade: “The Accelerator.”

This institution, which is operated in collaboration with Stockholm University, was inaugurated in September 2019 and is designated to serve as an exhibition space. Neuman says that the space’s goal is “to find a bridge between art and science, and pioneer the idea that visual arts can have a profound importance for every subject matter you study at university. The individuals participating are both art and science students.”

“The Night” by Tal R.Credit: Noam Preisman

Neuman has also been putting a lot of effort into his overseas endeavor in Jaffa. When he first set out to open it, he remembers that he had braced for backlash. The curator says he witnessed negative reactions from critics of the country who tried to stop international artists and organizations from performing or working in Israel, and expected to face the same reaction. “I am surprised that we have yet to hear stronger criticism,” he says. “The BDS [boycott, sanctions and divestment movement] did reach us, via an article in a Norwegian paper that had an agenda. But we got a low amount of that kind of criticism.”

David Neuman. Confident that Magasin III will leave a mark on the Middle East. Credit: Mathias Johansson

He insists that he is not turning a blind eye to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, “but I think that the country, the people and the government are separate things. Not to engage yourself because you want to isolate [a government] is not part of my narrative.”

Karmit Galili, the Israeli curator of the Jaffa space, says that she also didn’t face negative feedback so far. “We didn’t encounter resistance, but locals are often surprised. They wonder what we are, what it is that we’re doing and why it’s free. Now that we’ve been here for almost two years, people understand that we’re here to stay.”

Jaffa residents can’t help but notice the space, she says, due to its architecture: The building boasts an enormous window that looks out into the street, and is intentionally well-lit almost at all hours of the day.

An important objective for the Israeli team is to carry out outreach activities with both the Jewish and Arab communities in Jaffa, via coordinated visits and tours. “We invest our time in bringing groups. We get in touch with schools in Jaffa and bring children and youth here.”

Despite their intention to connect between the art world and the local Arab community in Jaffa, Galili admits that so far her team’s efforts have not borne fruit. Local Arab schools have yet to visit the exhibition space, “and we have a long way to go.”

Karmit Galili, curator of Magasin III in Jaffa.Credit: Youval Hai

Galili says that Magasin III has been raising eyebrows because of their decision to keep the space open to the public for only 10 hours a week. The motivation behind this, she notes, is that the exhibition space is “special compared to the local scene. It’s not a museum, and that allows us to have a different kind of exhibition. For example, the duration of each exhibition is longer — we only have two exhibitions a year. We put a lot of effort into them, and they are often site-specific.”

No mention of war

One such site-specific work is Tal R.’s painting, titled “The Night.” Neuman came up with the idea to create an artwork in the same measurements of “Guernica” last year — a daunting 3.49 meters by 7.77 meters. He decided to ask the 52-year-old R., a painter and sculptor based in Copenhagen, if he would be up for the task.

He chose R., who is known for his whimsical style and controversial subject matter (such as a series of paintings depicting the facade of a sex shop), because “I love how he approaches painting. He has a style that doesn’t conform [to norms], and many times he deals with his subject matters in a playful way.”

R., who was born in Tel Aviv to a Jewish father who had immigrated here from the Czech Republic, recounts that he was initially hesitant before deciding to accept the commission.

“You would think that what we talked about over the next week [would be] content, but the only thing we talked about was the size. Because this is not a painting anymore. It’s the size of a two-room apartment or a small ship,” says R.

A detail of Tal R.'s "The Night."Credit: Noam Preisman

“You know the expression ‘there is an elephant in the room?’ I thought the painting should be an elephant in the room. It should be the elephant in the discussion as well.”

R. toiled on the painting, which depicts uniformed man riding horses across a dark river and falling off, for eight months.

“Guernica” is perhaps the most famous artwork in modern history about war and the toll it takes on mankind. Crafted by Picasso in 1937, it was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a town in northern Spain, by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the behest of the Spanish Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War.

But R. insists that “The Night” does not correspond with the Spanish master’s artwork. “It actually has nothing to do with ‘Guernica’ besides the size and the horses. For the rest of society, you need to know [a concept]. In art, you need to imagine. If you start knowing too much, your impulse is lost. So I just thought about ‘Guernica’ and I remembered the horses crying to the sky. I didn’t really sit down and look at the painting, I just remembered the horses. And that’s the only parallel thing.”

When confronted with the notion that there is a disconnect in showing a painting linked to conflict in a tension-fraught country and refusing to admit he is discussing war, R. is adamant that his painting is “100 percent meant for the Israeli context.”

Danish artist Tal R.Credit: Casper Sejersen

“The painting is tragic and comic at the same time. It’s actually sad — they fall off a horse. And when you fall off a horse, you hurt yourself badly. Some of them may break their necks, some of them may drown in this dark river,” he says.

“You will notice that the men are riding their horses from right to left, in the same direction as you read Hebrew. But I would never destroy it for you or for any viewer or reader by starting to pull them through the painting, showing them how they should walk.”

Curator Galili doesn’t agree that the artwork ignores the context of the complex reality in Israel. “I think that the name he gives the painting offers a statement about a human failure,” she suggests.

“Perhaps it doesn’t relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather to a certain situation humanity is in right now. You know, we’re in Israel and not so far from us in Syria and in Turkey there is a different conflict that is just as devastating. Tal [R] doesn’t live here, and David [Neuman] doesn’t live here either. I think that their context is more related to humanity, human behavior and human rights than it is about our story here in Israel.”

Asked whether Magasin III intends to bring its vision to life by showcasing more political artwork, Galili says that her team “definitely wants to showcase works of local artists. We are also thinking of presenting works of Arab Israeli artists and Palestinian artists, but it has to be the right thing for the space and not to do it just for appearances’ sake.”

Neuman, too, asserts that his hope is for Magasin III to eventually form “a close relationship with the national scene. Otherwise it will become just a place for things that come from abroad.”

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