The Artist Who Represented Violent Israeli Masculinity

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'Directors,' 2004.
'Directors,' 2004, by Uri Lifshitz.Credit: Elad Sarig
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

Comprehensive exhibitions of controversial artists are far from commonplace in Israel. I can’t recall even one example of an artist who is considered a “bad boy,” or whose art lies at the heart of a contentious issue, without the curator engineering a simplistic decision one way or the other – even when his work was exhibited as a complicated, hard-to-digestartistic case. There are such cases in local literature and cinema, but in the visual arts this approach is apparently too great a challenge. It requires research distance, narrative ability, subtle theoretical distinctions and an emotional thrust. In these parts, either we love artists to the point of suffocating them, or we reject them outright.

Thus, for years the Israeli artistic milieu did not touch the “Uri Lifshitz case,” which poses challenges to those engaged in art. Certainly there was nothing comparable to the exhibition currently on view at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, marking the fifth anniversary of the artist’s death.

Lifshitz’s work is an uneasy blend of virtuosity and mannerism, self-love and chronic victimization. He enchanted the broad public and worse, was a success with collectors. His self was formed through media reports, he had a total misunderstanding of the notion that “the bastards changed the rules,” in the words of the journalist and cultural columnist Nissan Shor, whose article appears in the exhibition catalog. Shor terms him “one of the last of the Mohicans of the straight-shooting culture.” Lifshitz was a salient representative of Israeli masculinity – chauvinistic and violent.

'Yaakov Haelyon,' 2003, by Uri Lifshitz.Credit: Elad Sarig

To this one can add the stylistic disparity between him and the conceptual bon ton, between his volcanic, experiential painting and the intellectualism that seized Israeli art from the 1960s onward. His ability as a painter was not mobilized to further the abstract art that ruled the local artistic roost – and was therefore perceived as a problem. Lifshitz’s politics also diverged widely from the views of the taste-setters. And whereas the latter were effusive toward works that constituted visual philosophical essays on the “human condition,” Lifshitz’s paintings were often based on concrete current events, as though he had a journalistic agenda. He painted portraits of both the powerful and those on the margins of deceit (Ariel Sharon and his son Omri, Shin Bet security service director Jacob Perry, and Margalit Har-Shefi, girlfriend of Yigal Amir, assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) from the same stance of moral ambiguity. Israeli art developed a narcissistic passive-aggressive myth of the sacrifice – in which the artist is the victim – but Lifshitz was occupied with the suicidal ethos of the aggressor. Like a hairless Samson trying time and again to externalize the innate violence, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another.

All of the above is intended to emphasize the very high quality of the Herzliya Museum exhibition. It’s been years since we saw such power and intensity, broken and solitary, in Israeli art. There is a large number of excellent works among the 150 on display, together with quite a few surprising choices. The curators, Aya Lurie and Ori Drumer, do not try to defend Lifshitz’s conflicted image, nor do they diplomatically deny hurtful issues. “Lifshitz’s complex behavior throughout his life reveals him to be a charismatic, talented, dominant, egocentric artist who was also a rejected anti-hero, an unbridled provocateur, a tongue-lashing and belligerent chauvinistic drunk, uncouth and full of charm,” the curators write. He was “the sabra, the kibbutznik, the army parachutist He was part of Tel Aviv’s bohemian society, was often mentioned in society columns, and was connected to members of the military and business elite,” as well as being a giving father and a total lover.

The body as disaster zone

Far from evading conflict, the curators, in a show of artistic integrity, have made it the theme of the exhibition. Not only have they not blunted his sting or transformed his crassness into politesse, they have posited those qualities as central features in the discussion of the artist. The exhibition’s dominant tone is one of non-addictive curiosity and a mental distance tempered with recognition of the artist’s worth (amid the impossible task of selection and choice from 60 years of remarkably productive work). This tone is conveyed vividly to the spectator. The curators’ focus, as they write, is on “a figure tormented body and soul, filled with a sense of self-sacrifice and fear of death, always situated in an arena of violence, struggle and defiance against figures of authority and bureaucratic or state apparatuses.”

The theme around which Lurie and Drumer have organizedthe exhibition is the body, the existential outcry that emanates from it, the distresses, the megalomania and the fall, the pain and the rage, the relentless desperate desire to transcend the body’s bounds. The body is presented as a disaster zone. The exhibition abounds with representations of gaping mouths and vomiting of various kinds (the effort to stutter, like the success in prattling, are attempts to be rid of language), alongside distorted figures and grotesque grappling and wallowing.

'At the dentist,' 1980, by Uri Lifshitz.Credit: Elad Sarig

The show starts from the end. On the concrete wall of the foyer are Lifshitz’s last two paintings, created about two weeks before his death, made from Tipp-Ex on a black background, like chalk on a blackboard. There is a tragic dimension in the childlike faltering of the line on the part of an artist who is identified with a charismatic eruption of expressive layers of paint smeared without restraint, in melodramatic colorations that accord the works the quality of a blaze.

From there we return to the start of Lifshitz’s artistic career, with the paintings (from the early 1960s) depicting the Kafr Kassem massacre by the Border Police in 1956. Alongside are works from the “Anonymous” and “Schizophrenics” series of the late 1960s, self-portraits and “Prosthetics” paintings from the 1990s, in which Lifshitz enhanced his layering technique, with its bursts of smears as a base, moderated the influence of Francis Bacon and developed a salient drawing line. There are a few “Intifada” paintings (2002), along with “Directors,” namely the masters of the world, the officials and the managers (2004).

The “Dybbuk” series from 2000, which followed the widespread public estrangement from Lifshitz – in the wake of what the curators call “disparaging, discriminatory, inflammatory statements” he made in an interview with Haaretz in 1998 – is rife with a prevalent theme: a figure going wild or in a trance, held by its limbs from the sides and thus being bound. This is also seen in the two tremendous portraits of Jonathan Pollak from Anarchists Against the Fence as he is arrested in demonstrations (2008) and even in the painting “Family” (1980), in which a mother hits her infant son, is inspired by the well-known painting by Max Ernst.

Even though the exhibition includes portraits of Adolf Eichmann surrounded by ravens, based on the photograph by John Milli taken in the detention facility in Jerusalem, and of Margalit Har-Shefi (1995), Meir Kahane (1988) and Saddam Hussein (2006), the most repellent portrait and the most difficult to justify artistically is that of the journalist Yaakov Haelyon from 2003. (Haelyon was convicted of sexually assaulting a teenaged girl and her sister.) It would have been easy to pass it over, as we would not have felt its absence. It is experienced with aversion, but is necessary as a gauge of the honesty with which the curators dialogue with us.

'Jonathan Pollak,' 2008, by Uri Lifshitz.Credit: Elad Sarig

This is an exhibition about titanic, cruel, riven masculinity that is self-tormented in part because it is so excoriating; an exhibition about talent as a blessing intertwined with personality as a curse, and vice versa. According to Drumer, Lifshitz was a “painter of crises.” The artist himself said in an interview in the mid-1980s, “I am constantly making war against my personality; personality is disability.”

“Uri Lifshitz: Flesh and Blood” is an in-depth exhibition without an iota of flattery. The scale of the artist’s sensuality and charisma and his unapologetic testosterone quotient come through powerfully, and he is placed within his period. The young generation, which knows Lifshitz, if at all, only via the cover of an album by the singer Shmulik Kraus, gets an opportunity to incorporate him into the history of local art, with the aid of able guidance. For the not-so-young, the exhibition offers the proper depth in the consideration of art and artists, acknowledges an impossible complexity and allows us a non-schematic gaze at local history. A comprehensive catalog, in association with the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv, will be published in September.

Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, 4 Habanim St., (09) 955-1011; Fri, Sat, Mon, Wed, 10.00-1400; Tues, Thurs, 16.00-20.00; until Sept. 1

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