The large-scale exhibition of the New Barbizon group at the Mishkan Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod, in the Jezreel Valley, is like an idol in the temple. The elegant museum, established in 1948 and extended several times afterward, was designed by the architect Shmuel Bickels (1909-1975) so that the entire structure is bathed in natural light that enters the halls from unseen upper windows. Just a few months ago, when its spaces were filled with an exhibition of works by the artists of the 1950s New Horizons group and their possible successors in contemporary Israeli art, it seemed as though the museum had been created especially for lyrical abstraction.
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Yet now we find the complete opposite: figurative paintings in gleaming primary colors, many of them rife with social content, the works of five female artists from the former Soviet Union who have immigrated to Israel. The modernist venue has yielded to a festival of pagan representations.
The New Barbizon group was established about six years ago (by Zoya Cherkassy-Nnadi, Natalia Zourabova, Asya Lukin, Olga Kundina and Anna Lukashevsky, all in their forties except for Kundina, who is 10 years older), and has been gathering momentum ever since. By now it has consolidated itself as the sitra ahra, ascribed in Jewish mysticism to the devil – the “other side” of Israeli art. Despite this, the group is not spurned by local art spaces. On the contrary, its works are exhibited at every opportunity, both at popular venues (the “Fresh Paint” fairs) and serious, dignified ones (such as in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s current “Regarding Africa” exhibition). The group posits an artistic, political and sociological challenge – in the style of painting and the form of socialization, in the artistic language and in the language of talking about art. At times it shows constraint, on occasion it fails, but it’s always acute and generates debate and interest.
The group’s collective gathering is the hub of the show. The dozens of paintings – oil on canvas, felt pen on canvas, large or small format, series and standalone works – are divided not according to the artist in each case but thematically, generally by the places depicted (the Bedouin market in Be’er Sheva, the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, cities, kibbutzim); or by subject (women, migrants). This division underscores both the similar style of the artists and their joint activity of going out into the field together and painting side by side – often identical scenes.
The exhibition’s best moments lie in its juxtaposition of these scenes, resulting in a reverse series, in which the subject is one and the painters many. Observing the series offers a lesson in stylistic differentiation. What at first seems to be a collection of more of the same later begins to individualize. Thus the paintings of Asya Lukin stand out for their somber colors, thick brush and formalism that is not only referential. They exist on the stylistic boundary of the group, whose declared unity actually disintegrates when the works are shown together.
Contrariwise, the exhibition’s worst moments reside in the quasi-touristic panorama it summons up, like scenic postcards from a tour of the country – in city and village, in ethnicity and gender. These are well-known, well-worn places that allow for quick recognition and brow-wrinkling pondering of the “Israeli condition.”
What’s intriguing is the artists’ gaze at the place they live in. Seemingly they are engaged in open-air work – “observational painting,” as the curator, Yaniv Shapira, emphasizes – as they revivify the spirit of the original mid-19th century Barbizon School. That group consisted of French painters who left the city for the countryside, abandoned the studio and went into the expanses of nature to paint segments of life and contours of landscapes. That was a prelude to realistic painting that seeks unmediated proximity to the reality that will be transposed to the canvas.
A distant gaze
However, the New Barbizon group makes no effort to produce realism that is faithful to reality. On the contrary: These artists process the revealed world in a heightened manner. Their brash colors evoke pop art, the lines and shapes are crude and caricature-like, the figures seem to be copied from sketches. The artists pay explicit homage to various artistic traditions – Fauvism, Henri Matisse, even the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich – in the sense that their paintings go through them and their style, and do not fantasize about a direct approach to reality. In effect, they are the anti-Barbizon. And it’s precisely in this that they turn their back on pre-Israeli and Israeli painting, with its missions and its hassles. They are not looking for the local light, for the Mediterranean palette, for the rhythm of the brush that’s analogous to the pace of life in the Levant.
They observe with wonder and alienation what is around them everywhere they go. Their gaze is distant and objectifying, not only at sites of backwardness and marginality – the Bedouin village of Hura in the Negev, asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv – but also in the heart of the Israeli center: in Kibbutz Baram or in Rabin Square. Under their hands, everything becomes “nature,” which is painted in a style that does not derive from its materials and does not seek to emulate it.
As such, their works try to posit a new center. It’s not that their non-hegemonic status as latecomers to the Israeli project – that is, as immigrants – drives them to seek out the peripheral because of a psychic or spiritual affinity. The peripheral materials they exhibit are long since familiar, in art and elsewhere, and their paintings do not respond to them, are not touched by them and do not change in their wake, but only cast them in a foreign language.
In fact, they observe all of Israel as a peripheral place, somewhat obscure and backward, from the vantage point of a solid, remote cultural center: from Russian and Ukrainian culture, from the extensive painting traditions of the academies in Kiev, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Even when they come to Ein Harod and paint the kibbutz in the kibbutz, and now exhibit their paintings there, they do so as pilgrims from a great, far-off empire.
Ein Harod is painted like a village in the south of France, created consciously from the dynasty of paintings of the village. The men around the table in the Central Bus Station of Tel Aviv are also Cezanne’s card players. The New Barbizon painters are not taking part in the attempt to become natives. They are engaged in the opposite movement to that of the iconic Israeli artist Joseph Zaritsky: from Kiev they will not arrive at kibbutzim he painted, like Yehiam or Tsuba. Their Ein Harod is revealed as the “Hura” of Kiev.
The question is what the Kiev they are bringing to the Middle East contains artistically: whether they can maintain it as a living center in which they abide and that they can develop, or whether all that’s feasible is to cling to the apprentice academicism that they experienced there in the past. It may be necessary to wait another few years; possibly different painters from the group will have different answers.
But one thing is certain: the notion of “back to life,” which is part of the exhibition’s title – encompassing joie de vivre and the joy of creation it entails – is not the coming back to life of Israeli painting. First, because Israeli painting has never been more alive; and second, because the painting by the group does not in the least wish to be Israeli.
“The New Barbizon: Back to Life,” Mishkan Museum of Art, Kibbutz Ein Harod, (04) 648-6038 or (04) 648-5701; Fri 09.00-13.30; Sat 10.00-16.30; Sun-Thurs 09.00-16.30; until May 3