Astride the entrance to “Blue-and-White Delftware,” an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, stands a large showcase containing a variety of decorated pottery and porcelain works: dishes, bowls, vases and other items. A text on the wall urges visitors to try and imagine an historic incident in which pirates take over a merchant ship in the South China Sea. After the merchant ship’s gold bars are taken and its crew sold into slavery, the vessel, now a ghost ship, drifts across the waters for months, eventually running aground on a shoal and sinking beneath the waves. Think of the showcase, visitors are told, as containing the treasures that sank with the ship and were recovered years later: A highly eclectic selection of pottery and porcelain, created in different countries and in different periods. Such a discovery is the dream of many collectors.
The same can be said about the entire exhibition. It’s packed with treasures, discoveries and dreams, and not only those of collectors. There are more than 600 gorgeous pieces of painted pottery here, mostly from 17th- and 18th-century Holland. The exhibition takes its title from the technique for white-glazed pottery painted in blue, for which the Dutch city of Delft was famed in the 17th century. The works display typical themes such as animals, flowers, children’s games, infantry and cavalry, maritime subjects and biblical scenes. Also on display are ancient Chinese pitchers, white porcelain dishes decorated in blue from China (some from the Ming dynasty in the 17th century) and a 19th-century blue and white Japanese porcelain plate.
Curator Dr. Doron Lurie has further enlivened the exhibition by interspersing works by Israeli artists within it. A number of Israeli artists had engaged in a dialogue with the Delft style long before this exhibition was conceived, beginning with Yair Garbuz and Raffi Lavie in the early 1970s. Another 11 contemporary local artists were invited to enter into a similar dialogue with the Delft tiles today.
The local works draw on the Delftware color aesthetic, and the exhibition’s title is fraught with additional significance in its allusion to the Israeli national flag. These works accord the exhibition its justification over and above the impressive historical collection. There are moments when the local items intersect with the traditional Delft works, with the unprofessional eye only able to distinguish the source of the work when Hebrew letters or a saliently local element suddenly appears.
Ultimately, the exhibition offers no definitive answer to the question of when the choice to paint works in Delft blue is something of a gimmick, and when it is more substantive. Is it enough to paint the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza blue in order to create a meaningful contemporary statement about issues of artworks, heritage and culture?
Artist Ilan Baruch, for example, has painted an olive tree – a typical local symbol – on one tile, and the Dome of the Rock on another, adding pomegranates in each corner of the tile. “Like Europe,” a work by Elie Shamir, shows two objects – a memorial sculpture and a water tower – which are integral elements in a typical Israeli rural community (in this case, Kfar Yehoshua, in the Galilee).
“The Giants,” a work by Yitzhak de Lange (a descendent from a Dutch family), consists of nine pigment paintings on ceramic tiles depicting Brutalism in Israeli architecture, including the Holyland residential towers in Jerusalem and the Defense Ministry’s phallic control tower in Tel Aviv.
Nurit Gur-Lavy has painted plants and birds on 15 white ceramic plates. The plants – local wildflowers and decorative flora – were inspired by the botanical illustrations of the 18th-century French encyclopedists. For the exhibition, Gur-Lavy also painted a new work, on plexiglass, based on an aerial photograph of the Jabalya refugee camp, north of Gaza City. Esther Cohen uses a ballpoint pen to draw the Tel Aviv skyline, encircled by a garland of wildflowers, on paper doilies, all in Delft blue. Another work by Cohen – an oil painting entitled “Lentil Plate” – depicts a Delft-inspired English porcelain plate, which evokes a memory of her mother sifting lentils before family meals.
The color photograph “Dreaming of Delft,” by Yachin Hirsch, from the “Sleeping Beauty” series in which the artist photographed his wife – the well-known artist Ziona Shimshi – during a trip the couple made to the Netherlands, is an anomaly in terms of the medium. Shimshi is seen sleeping in a hotel bed in Amsterdam and, as the title suggests, she is dreaming about Delft. The blanket, the headboard of the bed and the wallpaper are covered with blue-and-white paintings in the 18th-century rococo style, which engage in dialogue with Chinese paintings of the “Delft tradition.”
One of the most surprising and humblest of works on display is by Liora Ze’evi, who harks back to the original role of the tiles as panels. Ze’evi uses nine ceramic tiles to depict domestic chores performed by women. In the catalog, curator Dr. Lurie notes that the women in paintings by Johannes Vermeer – a contemporary of the Delft artists – are divided into two types: the “woman of the house,” who is depicted writing or reading a letter, doing lacework, playing an instrument, trying on a pearl necklace, and so on; and the servant woman, whose job was to deliver the letter, pour milk, bake cakes and sometimes also to fall asleep at the dining room table after a meal.
In Ze’evi’s painted tiles, the woman of the house does the housework, too. Ze’evi, who made the ceramic tiles herself and used original Delft pigment on them, thus underscores the cultural difference that the images evoke, and forges an intriguing tension between Delft and blue-and-white.