The Man Who Designed Israel’s Independence

A new exhibit of the works of illustrator Otte Wallish provide a colorful visual lesson in Zionist history.

Elad Sarig

May 13, 1948, was a dramatic day in the life of illustrator, graphic artist and advertising agent Otte Wallish. Sometime in the afternoon, when he got back to his office on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv, he found a note on his desk saying, “Come immediately to Scharf at the Jewish Agency.”

Wallish was tired; over the previous week he had been working feverishly on preparing a series of historic stamps bearing the slogan “Hebrew mail.” These were to be the first stamps issued by the newborn state, which bore the likenesses of ancient Jewish coins from the Hasmonean period until the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

But the note didn’t leave him much of a choice. When he entered the Jewish Agency building he was greeted by Ze’ev Scharf, later to be cabinet secretary, who offered him the chance of a lifetime. “Within 24 hours, you have to prepare the large auditorium at the Tel Aviv Museum at 16, Rothschild Blvd. for the ceremony at which the state will be declared,” Scharf ordered, asking him to be discreet about it.

Wallish at the time was 42. In his younger days in Austria-Hungary he was a successful graphic artist and advertising executive, who harnessed his talents to build the visual models for the public relations and marketing of the Zionist narrative and its institutions. “He designed cultural and propaganda products, including symbols and consumer items like stamps, coins and banknotes, official exhibitions and more,” says Emanuela Calo, the curator of the new exhibit “Otte Wallish: The Face of Land and Nation,” which opened at the Tel Aviv Museum late last month and runs through September 19.

From the 1954 national stamp exhibition. (Credit: Elad Sarig)

The exhibition includes a large selection of the posters that Wallish designed, both as a commercial advertising agent who worked for companies like Tnuva and Osem, and as a propagandist for the Zionist movement. “He served the Zionist ideological apparatus and was one of the creators and inculcators of the models used to structure the Zionist narrative; he also participated in creating the visual language of the Zionist enterprise,” Calo says.

“Keren Hayesod plants seeds – the Jewish people reap” reads the text of this Otte Wallish poster. (Credit: Elad Sarig)

The Tel Aviv Museum's exhibition of Otte Wallish's work continues until Sept. 19. (Credit: Elad Sarig)

In the beginning, Wallish published fliers and other printed matter for the Blue and White youth movement in Czechoslovakia. Later he did graphic design for the Jewish National Fund in Berlin. After immigrating to pre-state Israel in 1934, he was responsible for the artistic and technical arrangements – including the setting up and decoration of the venues – for the Zionist Congresses. It was Wallish who designed the logos of the Israel Police and the Israel Defense Forces; he also submitted designs for the national symbol and the national flag that were not chosen in the end.

The assignment he was given in 1948 was the most important one of all. His knowledge, experience and the reputation he had acquired as a designer and producer of exhibitions, posters and events had made him the most appropriate candidate to prepare and arrange Independence Hall for the declaration ceremony. A short time before, he had prepared the hall in the JNF building in Tel Aviv for a session of the People’s Assembly. “He had a reputation as a superb re-arranger of halls,” according to the book “The Friday That Changed Destiny,” written and edited by Dr. Mordechai Naor, (Yehuda Dekel Library, The Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites and Independence Hall, 2014).

Wallish wasted no time. Within a few hours he turned the museum hall into a workshop in which his workers raced against the clock to fulfill their historic mission. Wallish purchased strong lights and borrowed a large carpet from a nearby store. In the hall he erected a dais with a portrait of Herzl behind it, and two long flags hanging down over pleated drapes – according to a model that was used for the Zionist Congresses. “The design of the declaration ceremony was pretty much the prototype for official state ceremonies for years afterwards,” says Calo. He also designed the walls, carpets, flags and seating in the hall.

But this wasn’t the end of the assignment. Wallish was also asked to design the Declaration of Independence itself. The short period he’d been given didn’t allow him to finish the job before the ceremony, which is why the signatories to the declaration signed a blank parchment at first. The Declaration of Independence was read by David Ben-Gurion from a typed draft. It was only later that Wallish and his assistant wrote out the declaration and appended the signatures.

Despite its national importance, this drama occupied only 24 hours of Wallish’s life and is not the focus of the new exhibition. The Tel Aviv Museum preferred to display works from the various periods and styles of his rich career that had spent decades in museum storerooms or were lent to the exhibition by Wallish’s family.

Otte Wallish at work. (Credit: Elad Sarig)

The selection is enlightening and delivers a particularly colorful visual lesson in Zionist history. One can see posters about pioneering, illegal immigration, Holocaust and renewal, building the land and the mobilization of the population for the war effort during World War II. Some of the posters bear the logos of such organizations as the JNF, Keren Hayesod (“Keren Hayesod plants seeds – the Jewish people reap”), and the Histadrut Labor Federation (“A Jewish people that labors – the lever of the Jewish state and its goals”).

Posters of food products will bring a nostalgic smile to the faces of older visitors, or elicit ridicule from the younger, digital generation, who may nonetheless view with amazement the works of a designer who worked long before there was Photoshop.

A poster designed in the 1950s for the Zim shipping company stands out for its promotion of Zionist ideology. The ship in the center is on the open seas. In back one sees a huge menorah – the state symbol – floating above the water. The menorah chosen by Wallish is the one that appears on the famous relief on Titus’ Arch in Rome, which depicts a Roman victory march and the bringing of the spoils from Jerusalem. Looking at the poster is seems as if the menorah is being carried by the ship in a victory journey of its own.

“The combination of the menorah symbol and the Zim ship loads the national shipping company’s fleet with a cargo of Zionist ideology, which the company markets to the world,” Calo wrote in the exhibit’s catalogue designed by Magen Halutz. “The sailing is marketed as a voyage of triumph over the young state’s historic difficulties.”

Wallish has a reserved seat in the hall of fame of Israel’s great graphic artists, argues graphic artist, typographer and illustrator Rani Radzeli, in an essay that appears in the catalogue entitled, “A Reserved Seat: On the Importance of Otte Wallish in the history of Israeli graphic design.” Like many other designers of Wallish’s time, who began working in the 1930s, he won the opportunity to enter the history books by designing government products.

An early ad by Otte Wallish promoting Israeli-grown “Hebrew watermelons.” (Provided by Elad Sarig)

Was this conscripted art or enlisted art? A look at his posters might leave a viewer confused, given the fascist and Bolshevik-looking designs.

In another article in the catalogue entitled, “An illustrator Builds a Nation: The case of Otte Wallish,” Prof. Dana Arieli writes that the distinction between conscripted or enlisted art is “critical.”

“While the content of conscripted art is dictated from above, by the government, and is of course monitored by it, the choice of artists to enlist is totally voluntary, certainly when we’re talking about democratic regimes. Conscripted art exists in dictatorships. Enlisted art can exist in any type of regime, democratic or totalitarian,” she writes.

Arieli believes that the enlistment of artists like Wallish, who was operating in a country that was building itself, “has nothing to do with art conscripted by dictatorships,” she writes. “The fact that Wallish chose to imitate major European styles that prevailed between the two world wars doesn’t make him a fascist or Bolshevik artist. But he sharpens the dilemma that faces a contemporary creator who is very familiar with the major styles of his time and seeks to incorporate them into his work.”

Wallish himself reinforced this argument in his memoirs, which he started to draft into a book in the 1970s but failed to finish before he died in 1977. Addressing the ancient Jewish coins feature on the “Hebrew mail,” stamps that he created in 1948, he wrote, “Our nation did not have visual national symbols during its past independence. Independence was expressed by coins that were minted during that time.

“I chose, therefore, the symbols that appeared on Jewish coins 2,000 years ago. I am convinced that the day the stamps appear we will be in a state of war with the neighboring Arab countries. For this reason I chose for our stamps coins from the period of the wars of the Jews and the Bar Kokhba revolt.”

A Otte Wallish poster for the Histadrut Jewish labor union. (Credit: Elad Sarig)