Prof. Schatz's Wayward Children

The founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design struck a revolutionary chord in Israel's art world, albeit a bit earlier than the country could take it.

"To my teachers and assistants at Bezalel I give my final thanks for their hard work in the name of the Bezalel ideal," wrote Prof. Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, in the will that is now being publicized for the first time. "Moreover, I beg forgiveness from you for the great precision that I sometimes demanded of you, and that perhaps caused some resentment ... The trouble was that Bezalel was founded before its time, and the Zionists were not yet capable of understanding it."

"He undoubtedly knew his vision would be realized," says Yigal Zalmona, curator of the exhibition "Boris Schatz: Father of Israeli Art," which opened yesterday at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as part of festivities marking the centennial of the founding of the Bezalel school. Schatz did not live to see the renaissance of the institution, which he founded in 1906 and directed until it was closed in 1929. He died three years later in Denver, Colorado, during the course of a fund-raising campaign to reopen it.

It is interesting what Schatz would have thought of Bezalel today - a vibrant school of contemporary art, in contrast to the artistic viewpoint of its founder, who rejected modernism. In his book "On Art, Artists and their Critics" (Hebrew 1924), Schatz defined modern art as "art for neurotics, men with feminine souls and women without souls. A collection of words that don't express anything - the art of women."

Not only did the institution he founded turn its back on Schatz's artistic policy, which favored Romantic Classicism, but so did his two children - Bezalel and Zahara Schatz. The two children grew up in the house on 3, Bezalel Street, which shared a wall and a corridor with the school their father headed at 1, Bezalel St. Both of them were involved in art from an early age but whereas their father wanted to revive the Hebraic style and to integrate Jewish and Zionist symbols into the classical Romantic style, the younger generation favored abstract modern art that was the leading style in Europe and the United States, and was busy formulating characteristics of local Israeli art.

That "rebellion" is especially blatant after one reads Schatz's will, in which he dictated to his children - who were 18 and 14 years old at the time - how to behave. "All the easy modern ways only deceive the nation, they ostensibly cover themselves in theories, but it is self-deception, and afterwards they have to cry bitter tears of regret," writes Schatz to his son. "Come back home, help Mother and Zahara to manage and then travel to Paris to study. Stay there as long as you feel you are making progress at drawing and painting, but no more than two years. If they offer you a teaching job at Bezalel - accept it, but don't devote more than three to four hours a day of your time to teaching. You must devote five hours every day to your art. Seek neither monetary wealth nor honor in art."

The rebellion

Bezalel did not act on his father's instructions. He turned to abstract art, settled in California with his sister, his mother Olga and his wife Louise, and was very successful. "Bezalel was a child prodigy. When he was 14 years old, his father had already arranged a solo exhibition for him, with invitations," says curator and historian Prof. Gideon Ofrat, who this year is curating three retrospective exhibitions for Bezalel, Zahara and Louise at the Jerusalem Artists House. Abroad he was very successful. He works were displayed in large museums and were acquired for important collections, and he received fantastic reviews."

Zahara was also successful abroad. When one reads Schatz's words about women's art, one can assume his daughter rebelled not only against her father's artistic path but also against his repressive views of women. "The weakness of women in art comes from their desire to imitate men. On the stage they excel, because they fill only the roles of women," writes Schatz. In his will he instructs his daughter how to become a good woman: "You are a good and talented girl, but lately you have begun to be very excitable," he writes. "You should be aware that just as exercise slowly but surely develops strength and muscles, frequent displays of overexcitement and anger develop sentimentality, the inability to control yourself. There is nothing more contemptible and more pathetic than a nervous woman. The woman who cannot control herself tortures all the people around her, and she herself believes everyone is torturing her. But you are still young, with goodwill you will be able to practice and to be quiet, patient, to take care of the people surrounding you. It pains me that I did not have the privilege of getting you settled, but that is fate."

Like her brother, Zahara turned to modern art after her father's death. "She was successful, particularly with innovative perspex works, and she exhibited in important galleries and museums abroad," says Ofrat. "Even their mother, who was a critic and an art historian, was freed of him and in 1947 in California published a book about American modernism."

Mediterranean-Eretz Israel style

But along with the artistic rebellion, his children followed in his footsteps by combining fine art and functional art, as in the famous workshops he established at Bezalel. After their return to Israel in 1951, the mother and her two children founded a family business called Ya'ad; they created chairs, lampshades, jewelry, hamsas and also decorated the ships "Shalom" and "Theodor Herzl." Zahara even designed the six-branched menorah at Yad Vashem and Bezalel built the gate of the President's House in Jerusalem.

"The father sought a Jewish-Eretz Israel style, whereas they created a Mediterranean-Eretz Israel style, for example, by means of the Oriental forms they introduced into the copper plates designed by Bezalel, or in the beads Zahara used in the hamsas," says Ofrat. They both won gold and silver medals at the Trienniale for functional art in Milan in 1954, and Zahara also won first prize from MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) for designing a modernistic metal table lamp in the early 1950s, which later became a hit in Manhattan. In 1955 she won the Israel Prize for Art, "for the Schatz Family, accepted by Zahara Schatz." Although the prize was granted as a gesture to the work of the entire family, the judges remarked on her innovative use of perspex.

But in Israel there was not much of an echo of the major artistic success abroad. "When they returned, New Horizons [a group of Israeli painters founded in 1948] was already here. There was probably no chemistry between Bezalel and [leading Israeli artist] Yosef Zaritsky," says Ofrat. "In 1935, they also linked up with the artists of Ein Hod, who were not connected to the center of activity in Tel Aviv. On the one hand, they were very connected to Tel Aviv's bohemia and were known as bon vivants (Dahn Ben Amotz spent a lot of time in their home), but on the other hand, all that was outside of the `right' artistic circles."

Didn't their family connections pave the way for them?

Ofrat: "It wasn't such a big honor. Until 1982, when they held the major exhibition in the Israel Museum, Boris Schatz was an object of disdain and mockery. Up until about three years ago, with the Ze'ev Raban exhibit, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art had not had a single Bezalel school exhibition. Israeli art began with Tel Aviv modernism."

Did they suffer an injustice?

"In my opinion, Bezalel [Schatz] should have earned more respect. I think his abstracts are in no way inferior to the abstracts of the circle that surrounded Zaritsky and New Horizons, artists like [Moshe] Castel and [Aharon] Kahana. When it comes to Zahara, I'm very ambivalent. Let's say that on the level of innovation, materials and importing styles - she was definitely at the cutting edge."

Zalmona, who admits he is not very familiar with their works, also has no unequivocal answer. "I know they were of great importance in the area of design. The products of the company they founded made a local, Eretz-Israel statement, which was unique for that period."

But apparently this debate did not really disturb the Schatz family. "They kept to themselves," says Ofrat. In effect, they hardly every separated - they shared the same Jerusalem childhood home, Louise and Bezalel on the first floor and Zahara on the second. They created in the same studio and worked in the same business, and neither Bezalel nor Zahara had children. "They maintained a kind of covenant between them," says Ofrat. "The medieval concept of a family of artists - they saw themselves as something of that nature."

The lost child

Ruth Zedaka, the director of the Jerusalem Artists House, says, "Once, when I dared ask Zahara why she had no children, she replied that there was a period when painters and artists wanted to devote themselves to their art - children were not part of the agenda." Schatz's only grandson, Daniel, was the son of his daughter Angelica. She was born in Sofia, during his short marriage to his first wife, Genya. Genya ran off with a young student of Schatz's, and took their young daughter with her. He never saw her again - and in his letters, as well as in his will, he expresses his longing for her.

"Bad luck separated us, when you were still a small child," he writes in the will. "I decided in sorrow to uproot you from my heart, to start to live anew, and after many years, when you grew up and understood and threw yourself into my arms on your own - I loved you with all my heart, but I could no longer fill the place of my little daughter who was stolen from me by bad people." Angelica immigrated to Israel after her father's death. She was a member of the Israel Painters and Sculptor Association in Tel Aviv, and died in 1964. Her son Daniel, the only scion of the Schatz family, who was schizophrenic, died in Paris.

A short time before her death in 1999, and after all the members of the family had died, Zahara turned to her relative Jimmy Levinson and asked him to handle the family legacy. Two years ago, together with Eli Shapiro, who was a student at Bezalel at the time, and a tenant in the family home, he turned the display window at the entrance to the house into an exhibition space for temporary exhibits.

Recently they finished cataloguing, photographing and mapping all the 4,500 works of the four family members, and soon, when the renovations are completed, Bezalel Street will become a pedestrian mall. In it there will be a display of works by the family members, a presentation about Schatz's life, and video works by Israeli artists. In the future they plan to add two floors to the house, which will serve as guest accommodations for artists and a cultural center, and to initiate additional exhibits of the family's work, in Israel and abroad.

"During the initial stages, Zahara though of transferring the collection and the house to one of the museums, to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, or to the Jerusalem municipality," says Levinson. "In the end, she was advised to rely on the family rather than on the institutions. That's why Zahara decided to leave everything in family hands. She had one request - to commemorate the activity of the entire family, and not of her father alone. I consider it a mission."