Exorcising a Dybbuk: Israeli Art's Ongoing Fascination With Ariel Sharon

Do these works express loathing or an unspoken admiration for power?

Israeli art is surprisingly rich with representations of its leaders – nearly as much as one finds in nondemocratic regimes where the leader’s portrait is ubiquitous. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Moshe Katsav, even ministers Tzipi Livni and Limor Livnat – all have had their portrait subjected to artistic interpretation.

Numerous exhibitions have been devoted to the theme of leadership, with an emphasis on the government figures themselves.

But the treatment of Ariel Sharon stands out in this regard. In addition to the ongoing artistic treatment of the Yom Kippur War (in which the motif of the Sacrifice of Isaac made its way into Israeli art), and the continuing treatment of the first Lebanon war, with its emphasis on the Sabra and Chatila massacre, Israeli art has often focused on Sharon himself.

Over and over again he appears, to an extent that indicates an unusual obsession with the man – as if the artists just can’t stop playing with a scab that won’t heal. He is the only politician to have two entire exhibitions (not a memorial exhibition) named for him and devoted to him exclusively.

But has Sharon garnered such dominance because his image – that of an ideologically unfettered pragmatist at heart and a well-fed hedonist – symbolized all that does not fit under the official ethos of the lean Israeli art that still recalls its socialist youth?

Or did he function as more of the terrible calamity of Israeli art – as the pathetic villain, the embodiment of rash impulse, of disaster, dread and apocalypse, of all that is ravenous and uninhibited, possessed of a voluptuous destructive power, as a representation of passion itself?

Do all these works express a profound hatred that attests to the autonomy of an art that is unhindered by, and scornful of, the official national agenda? Or do they instead derive from genuine adulation of the master, as if from an indentured servant? Whatever the case, Israeli art has used Sharon as part of an exorcism ritual, as a recurrent form of therapy for exorcising a dybbuk.

In his life and image, Sharon embodied large visual archetypes that easily lend themselves to artistic representation – some biblical, some seemingly destined from the outset to serve as artistic motifs: the shepherd, hunter, general, wounded warrior (with Van Gogh-style bandage), devouring lion, shark, zombie.

Sharon's image enabled artists to treat him in a symbolic manner, as representative of the man-animal, the present-absent, the living-dead; to undergo a form of purifying therapy by means of his demonization.

In 1973, even before the publication of the Agranat commission reports investigating the failures of the Yom Kippur War, Gabi Klasmer and Sharon Keren created their sarcastic and pacifist art installation entitled “Medal of Boldness and Bravery Ceremony” at the Jerusalem Theater, just as a major public taboo was breaking down. The treatment of the famous bandage wound around Sharon’s head was radical, an imitation of the wounded commander and aimed to subvert the ethos of heroism that was a standard part of the local militaristic discourse.

During the Yom Kippur War, Yigal Tumarkin was assigned to Sharon’s division as a “journalist,” and he kept a personal journal and took photographs during the battles. In February 1974, he had an exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art comprised of the war paintings he made based on his experience.

One of these works was a double portrait of Sharon, “Fata Morgana,” a silk-screen print based on the photo with the bandage. The dual images of Sharon – one in white and one in green – are both smiling, above a drawn allusion to Paolo Uccello’s “The Battle of San Romano.” In the background, excerpts from Tumarkin’s war diary were printed: “Permits himself to commit the sin of disloyalty, appoints himself minister and judge over his commanders ... I fear that the division’s units were dispatched on an offensive without a plan or a defined mission…”

“Irony and adulation are blended,” wrote art critic Gideon Ofrat, “with the bandage around the forehead functioning like a saintly halo in a Renaissance painting, but the letters etched in red on the bandage on the left hint at the political manipulation of the active and ambitious general.”

Replaced by Castro

In 1979, Moshe Gershuni created the series “Arik Sharon and the Indians,” treated black-and-white photographs in which a shadowy figure is seen posed in a military jeep, taking aim with a rifle at “Indians” – a derogatory term used at the time to refer to Arabs, who are not visible here, hidden somewhere deep in the landscape.

Alongside this hunting picture, there was another work in which “the commander” is confronting “the natives” – in this instance, the architect of the settlements is speaking to some female settlers. “Stubbornness pays off, Arik Sharon told the women of Hadassah,” the work says, quoting his remarks to the women of the Beit Hadassah settlement – the first in the center of Hebron – set up by a group of mothers from Kiryat Arba and their 40 children.

The text is superimposed upon a photograph of an Indian mother breast-feeding. Both images related to Sharon’s public appearances at that time, climbing hilltops and encouraging settlements.

In 2001, Uri Lifshitz – who served in the elite Unit 101 commando platoon in the 1950s and remained friendly with the unit’s commander, Sharon – presented a show entitled “School for Prime Ministers,” comprising portraits of Israel’s 11 prime ministers to that point. Sharon came to the opening.

Lifshitz, who did many portraits of politicians, had devoted seven portraits to Sharon. In one, Sharon is being attacked by birds, Hitchcock-style; in another, he is surrounded by doves and hawks.

Later, in 2007, Lifshitz also painted a portrait of Sharon’s son Omri – when he was the subject of several legal investigations – showing his back perforated by gunshots, like one betrayed.

“The total exposure that prime ministers have to grapple with teaches them to hide things. It gives rise to a false face, knowing that they are continuously exposed,” Lifshitz explained. “Catching them in a moment of release from the pressure gives away the truth.”

While Lifshitz’s portraits present an ambivalent view that could possibly be interpreted as sympathetic, David Reeb’s painting “Arik Eats Children” caused an uproar.

His painting shows big fish swallowing little bomb-like fish with a colorful caption and childlike rhetoric: The bad man from the children’s fairy tales is a lion who insatiably devours little ones. Sharon’s animalism, his cannibalism, were depicted by Reeb in the form of an intimidation poster illustrating relations between sharks and small-fry.

The painting was supposed to be displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as part of the “Armory” exhibition concerning representations of weapons and war in Israeli art. But the late Moti Omer, the museum director at the time, would not permit the works to be shown, and instead Reeb presented a series of portraits of Fidel Castro.

In 2004, Joshua Simon curated the “Sharon” exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. The anticapitalist show dealt with the code word “Sharon” as a term linking Israeli militarism with the country’s wealthiest region, and Simon also connected these with Israel’s commercial television culture and the matchmaking TV program, “Take Me, Sharon.” Real estate, trash TV, targeted assassinations, the Temple Mount, the north Tel Aviv and IKEA mentality, the Caesarea (economic) Conference, Operation Defensive Shield – all were mixed together.

Two of the projects in that exhibition dealt directly with Sharon. Zvi Elhayani presented an installation about Sharon the prime minister and Sharon the architect – for whom the 1949 “Sharon Plan” for population dispersal was named, a plan that served as a basis for Israel’s planning policy, culminating in the settlement enterprise – and thus linked the two as commanders-architects concerned with conquering space and grabbing territory.

In her work “On the Road to Sycamore Ranch,” Carmit Gil showed a model of a country house with a red roof, surrounded by a patchwork of land and, a few roads away from it, a modernist housing project-type complex – alluding to the geographical proximity and economic disparity between Sharon’s ranch and the city of Sderot.

Anger without politics

Even after several decades of incisive critical and satirical representations, the most morbid project had trouble finding acceptance. In 2010, Noam Braslavsky had a solo show at the Kishon Gallery, curated by Joshua Simon, that included a hyperrealistic installation of a life-size Sharon figure, in bed and connected to various medical devices, eyes open, and breathing with the aid of a mechanical ventilator. This exhibition, which had no political aspect to it, was the one that caused the biggest fury and created a media sensation.

The depiction of Sharon as a lifeless puppet on a ventilator, like a figure in a wax museum, as nonfunctioning and weak, was perceived as a poor taste provocation.

It was said that the portrayal of Sharon in his tragic and helpless state was just a cheap shot, providing nothing beyond titillation to the viewer. It was also said that, for the viewer, the experience was akin to making a pilgrimage to Sharon’s grave while the man was still alive.

“Usually, when a leader vanishes from the scene, there is some sort of farewell process, but this didn’t happen with Sharon,” explained the artist, who argued that ever since Sharon became comatose, he became taboo as a subject, and the attitude toward him became irrational.

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