Tourist Tip #219 / Insanely Mesmerizing? Outsider Art in Haifa

The first-ever show in Israel to focus on Art Brut is a vibrant display of international and Israeli works.

Outsider art: images created by the insane? Or perhaps starkly sane vignettes painted by people, sometimes not even self-acknowledged as artists, who are beyond the confines of conventional culture?

You have the chance to decide for yourself what outsider art is, until mid-June, at the Haifa Museum of Art. The museum is offering visitors an inside look at some of the finest Outsider art to be found. This exhibition, the first ever in Israel to showcase the genre also referred to as Art Brut, features works by nearly 30 international and Israeli artists.

Curators Ruti Direktor and Natalie Smith point out that many of the artists were self-taught and may not have even considered themselves to be artists. Instead, they were propelled by an inner drive to create, and the results are intricate, colorful, often mesmerizing works. Some of these artists led (or still do) "normal" lives, while others lived (or still do) on the fringes of society, as recluses, or in psychiatric institutions.

Among the more renowned artists featured are Henry Darger, whose elaborate works featuring little girls illustrating the battle between good and evil, were discovered posthumously by his landlord; Bill Traylor, who was born into slavery on an Alabama plantation and started to draw hundreds of works after his emancipation; Swiss artist Adolf Wolfli, who spent the majority of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital; and the schizophrenic Italian Carlo Zinelli, whose vibrant, crowded works reflect a restless creative mind, and others.

In some cases, the artists drew on cardboard, corrugated tin or other uncommon surfaces using whatever supplies they could find or improvise.

For visitors already familiar with the more celebrated artists on display, the second floor of the show – featuring works by Israeli and Arab artists – will be especially refreshing. There are dozens of works by autodidactic artists, including Gabriel Cohen, Shalom of Safed (a.k.a., the Watchmaker of Safed), Moshe Elnatan, Nathan Haber, Menachem Messinger and others. Their works, also bursting with color and texture, regularly incorporate Jewish themes and characters from biblical stories or folkloric tales.

Don't miss the video and photos (on the first floor) that introduce visitors to Nissim Kahalon, who has been painstakingly digging and chiseling his home out of a cliff near Herzliya – Sidne Ali – for some 40 years. It's an amazing labor of love that has resulted in a labyrinth of tunnels, vases, mosaics and, well, plain old junk. But it's got a great view of the sea.

The show runs until June 15.

Haifa Museum of Art, 26 Shabtai Levi Street
Tel. (04) 911-5991; http://www.hma.org.il/

Admission fee: NIS 30 for adults; NIS 20 for children ages 5 to 18; NIS 15 for seniors

Shahar Amit