The Unspoken Femininity of Igael Tumarkin

When Jewish art violates the prohibition, you shall not make for yourself an image, it encounters the image of Jesus.

Works by Igael Tumarkin.
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

1.

Whenever I pass by Igael Tumarkin’s sculpture of the dead, mouth-gaping, gutted soldier, his metal innards exposed, which is on permanent display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, I look at his perfect organ. And I think: How real! And I appreciate Tumarkin anew.

Now I’m opening the clear, Jesuit-modest catalog of Dr. Amitai Mendelsohn, which accompanies the exhibition he’s curated at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art.” I look at Tumarkin’s work “Rex,” which was created in 1964, three years before the bronze soldier he named after a well-known and heroic Israeli novel “He Walked in the Fields.” It displays a broken, bleeding, gaping opening in its middle. I look at the cut. Even though I know that this is the wound in Jesus’ rib, into which Doubting Thomas stuck his finger to ascertain its corporeality – a breach in the symbolism through which the trauma of the corporeal can be known and touched – I see in the Tumarkin what I hadn’t seen until today. For me, he was only a man. The masculinity of Tumarkin’s body of work was self-evident. Now, looking at the cut, I finally see it: femininity.

“The work merges Jewish, Christian and autobiographical elements, and it, too, is fashioned in the Rauschenberg spirit of pop and assemblage,” the catalog notes. “The work combines parts of a damascene chair, half-burnt trees and a bull’s horn into a complex sequence, whose composition is divided by a board The form of the cross is hinted at in the work by the composition: Its horizontal part is a large board that traverses the composition and its vertical part is the bleeding slit below it. The palm of a hand on the left suggests a crucified body that is absent. The word ‘rex’ above the backrest connects with the sign ‘INRI,’ which was placed atop Jesus’ cross: Its third letter denotes the Latin word ‘rex.’ If we accept the resemblance between the backrest and a hanukkiyah, a Hanukkah menorah, it becomes possible to connect the work to the crucifixion paintings by Chagall, which symbolize the Jewish victim in the pogroms and the Holocaust.”

2.

On the blue sofa, on which hardly any imprint remains of the Shabbat guest’s weight, I read in Mendelsohn about the well-known life story of Tumarkin. A man who, like the man of Nazareth, had two fathers – human and mysteriously divine. A man whose “real” father, an unnamed entity, did not reveal his face to him until Tumurkin went on a quest – both physical and mental – searching for him.

“Tumarkin was born in Dresden in 1933,” Mendelsohn writes, “to a German Christian father, Martin Hellberg, and a Jewish mother, Berta Gurevitch, who immigrated to Palestine with him in 1935. Here she married Herzl Tumarkin, who gave the child his family name. The dual approach to European culture in his works – admiration alongside hatred – is bound up with his complex relationship with his parents. First, anger at his mother for taking him away from his biological father and hiding the fact of his existence from him, until he learned of it by chance as an adolescent. Afterward, anger at his biological father and at his attitude toward him when he went to Berlin to meet him in 1955.”

Tumarkin’s splashes of paint, his use of recognizable objects and of army paraphernalia, mesh deep anger with intellectual expression. I know he was recognized and valued, and that his artistic shine dimmed for a while. Now, with this exhibition, I note, his particular genius rises again. I sit up and read: “The feeling of cultural divide and his conflicted personal identity were given salient expression in a text he wrote in 1982: ‘I do not feel a Jew, and yet I am from here. Not from there. I feel no bond with Germany – the country, the landscape, the people. Yet my culture is mostly from there, not from here. Where have I come from? My Jewish mother? And where shall I go in exile? To my German father? And I am from the shores of the Mediterranean.’”

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #87
The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

3.

On the blue sofa, in the living room, I read that the Metropolitan Museum has declared that its database of artworks is now available for public use. Immediately, I search for Cindy Sherman. Yes, here. An orange blanket held in a slanted fold, gaping like a sexual organ in its own right along the catatonic body of Sherman, who’s wearing a black wig and jeans, lying on a wooden floor, in a 1981 photograph. This is one image from a well-known series of women in a prone position – the critics claimed she was taking pleasure in a male gaze at a (silent, subdued) woman. In my opinion, it’s a crucifixion.

I look again at the slit in Tumarkin’s “Rex.” I see the connection. Tumarkin’s raging drama, rife with materials – wood, steel, cloth, paint – and saturated with art from Rauschenberg to Beuys, is complemented by Sherman’s delicate, masochistic restraint.

Mendelsohn devotes page after page to female artists – Michal Na’aman and her crucifixes and her use of words, influenced by her deep interest in Fraud’s writings; Efrat Natan and her shroud-like, typical kibbutz-style undershirts, which she used in her installations (and which, as Mendelsohn notes, are a reference to Saint Veronica’s veil); Sigalit Landau and her act of standing on floating watermelons in spectacular nudity, seen in her fantastic video-art installation “DeadSee” (2005) – as is only right. But the feminine, the opening, already exists in the slit into which Doubting Thomas stuck his finger. It works in Tumarkin, it works in Sherman and it works in me, too. I didn’t surprise myself when I chose a Christian father, non-religious, for my family.

The thesis of the catalog is clear and self-evident: When Jewish art violates the prohibition, you shall not make for yourself an image, it encounters the image of Jesus. I tear myself away from the sofa on which I lay on Shabbat – like Cindy’s costumed woman, like the tear in the cloth. A ghost visited me. And didn’t feel a thing.