Ever since a graying volume of “The World of Plants” – authored in 1954 by Prof. Michael Zohary – was plucked from beneath a street bench and added to my bookshelves a decade ago, it has received a thorough dusting and browsing ahead of each Passover holiday. One flips through the pages in another attempt to navigate the cumbersome scientific explanations, though handsome compensation for the textual intricacies is provided by the charming black-and-white illustrations.
Zohary (1898-1983), winner of the Israel Prize for Life Sciences in 1954, was a preeminent figure in the sphere of Israeli botany, and he compiled dozens of field guides on flora. He was known for the pioneering classification system he developed for local flora, based on Darwin’s theory of evolution.
This time around, his book revealed a surprising evolutionary kinship between figs and the Indian hemp plant, which produces cannabis. Both are from the same order, only from different families.
The seasonal leafing through Zohary’s book also coincided with an exhibition in Be’er Sheva, which examines the tradition of the classic Israeli flora and fauna guidebooks as reflected in contemporary art.
The exhibition was the initiative of Prof. Haim Maor, from the arts department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. During his visits to art galleries, Maor noticed a return to nature paintings – not necessarily the direct observation of nature itself, but through its representation in handbooks.
Students from the university’s Art and Curatorship Department chose the works to be displayed and were full partners to the curatorial process. In addition to the 200 works by 26 artists (including Tsibi Geva, Eliezer Sonnenschein, Larry Abramson and Liat Livni), historic flora and fauna guidebooks – including Zohary’s – are on display. They may no longer be used much in this age of smartphone apps, but they gain new life as museum exhibits and sources of inspiration.
Anxiety and longing
The nightmares of my generation will always be haunted by formaldehyde bottles in which the embryos of various animals – and possibly also humans – were preserved, and which we were forced to observe up-close on school trips. The current generation of artists paints nature from a sense of anxiety and longing, Maor believes. The reasons go beyond art, and generate a “slightly apocalyptic” atmosphere that pervades the nature paintings, evoking the “commemorative corners” of flora and fauna in nature museums of the past.
“Artists perceive processes of disappearance and respond to them in nature paintings with a critical interpretative gaze,” Maor notes. “To paint an animal or a flower today is in itself to perpetuate a vanishing world.” The exhibition is being presented in the spring – the season of renewal, flowering and fragrances. Nevertheless, Maor cautions, this is an “elegiac” show. Sounds promising for melancholics like me.
The catalog is a journey through the history and evolution of pre-state and Israeli flora and fauna field guides, and also examines the central role they played in Zionist history and the Jewish national revival.
There are no innocent field guides or paintings. The first such handbook for the flora of Palestine was coauthored by Zohary and the botanists Alexander Eig and Naomi Feinbrun-Dothan, and was illustrated by the artist Ruth Koppel. The choice of the German-born Koppel, an accomplished botanical illustrator, went beyond the bounds of scientific documentation; the intention was to assist in the promotion of a Hebrew identity and to make a connection between the study of nature and the biblical myth as testimony to Jewish ownership of the Land of Israel.
Upon Israel’s establishment, Galit Eva Charash writes in the catalog to the show, local plants served as symbols of love of the land. Later, they were recruited to represent soldiers who had fallen in battle. The flower known in Hebrew as “dam hamakabbim” (“blood of the Maccabees”) – Red Everlasting (Helichrysum sanguineum) – is now synonymous with Memorial Day and has effectively been expropriated from the world of flora.
The artists represented recruit nature to capture their critical view on the world, and the result is far from an innocent spring hike in a lush nature reserve. Geva shows motionless birds with a hollow gaze – hanging between civilization and nature, between a scientific description and graffiti on an old wall in south Tel Aviv or in a Palestinian refugee camp.
The flowers that Abramson paints have their origin in a field guide published in Germany in 1933; here they are stripped of their colors and rendered as threatening black silhouettes. Livni’s flowers, which are made of colored sand, are actually iconic architectural structures in Tel Aviv, and suggest a double withering: of both the flower and the building. Sonnenschein has created a personal field guide that combines visual documentation of nature with local stories about flowers and insects. He compiled it as an homage to the world of flora and fauna that is becoming extinct where he lives in the north. Elegy and melancholy, indeed.
Magdir, the Hebrew word for “guide” in this context, is critically loaded these days, as it connotes gader (fence), hagdara (definition) and migdar (gender). The field guides define, classify and identify items based on scientific criteria. But in the same breath, they exclude and distance, mark and label. And not just “bad” animals or “wild” weeds, either. Consciously or unconsciously, with an ideology of one kind or another, the field guide is the clear space of both the general and the exceptional, of members of the family and anomalies that are placed outside the fence, the pale, the definition, Maor writes in the catalog.
Field guides are no longer taken only as reservoirs of objective knowledge, but also as manipulative archives. It’s from that place that many artists find inspiration for parodies and things gone awry, but also for a dialogue with personal memories and nostalgia for a supposedly innocent past and a world in which good and bad were seemingly neutral values.
Maor encapsulates the spirit of what he wants to capture with a real-life story. In the 1960s, during agriculture studies in elementary school, his class did some practical fieldwork, uprooting wild weeds in vegetable patches. He went about the task carelessly. The agriculture teacher came over and, giving him a look laced with compassion and contempt, said, “Chaimke, don’t make light of the important work we are doing here. Maybe you don’t understand. Our war is not against innocent, idle plants; we are fighting crabgrass – the sliest, most stubborn and most dangerous enemy of Zionism!!!” She then showed him how to uproot the crabgrass and threw it onto the pile of wild weeds that had been expelled from the patch of paradise to exile. “Zionism was saved!” Really?
“Guides: Field Guides in the Mirror of Contemporary Israeli Art” is at Ben-Gurion University’s Senate Art Gallery on campus, and the Trumpeldor Gallery, 19 Trumpeldor Street, Be’er Sheva (08-624-7706). Senate Art Gallery Sun.-Thur. 8 A.M.-6 P.M., Fri. 8 A.M.-12:30 P.M.; Trumpeldor Gallery, Wed.-Thur. 10 A.M.-5 P.M., Fri. 10 A.M.-2 P.M., until June 9.