Sculptor Igael Tumarkin, a Leading, Controverisal Voice in Israel's Art World, Dies at 87

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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Igael Tumarkin
Igael Tumarkin Credit: Alex Levac
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The artist Igael Tumarkin, a 2004 Israel Prize laureate, died on Thursday at age 87. Tumarkin was a multifaceted artist whose works, in addition to monuments and sculptures found all over Israel, also included paintings, drawings, graphics and set design.

Among his most famous works are “He Walked in the Fields” (1967), the Arad Observatory sculpture (1968) and the “Happenings” sculpture at Tel Aviv University (1972), but his most well-known piece is the “Monument to the Holocaust and Revival” in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, created in 1975.

The judging panel for the Israel Prize explained why they chose the artist: “Tumarkin’s artistic vocabulary is diverse, he is a master of an abundance of artistic techniques and is one of the most innovative pioneers in Israeli art.” The decision to grant him the prize provoked controversy, however, and some called for it to be revoked. Then-Shas party chairman Eli Yishai said that “Someone who wrapped a pig in tefillin, and said that when you see Haredim you understand why the Holocaust happened, deserves an eternal mark of shame, not a prize.”

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Tumarkin was born in 1933 in Dresden, Germany as Peter Martin Gregor Heinrich Hellberg. His mother, Berta Gurevitch, was Jewish. His father, actor and director Martin Hellberg, was Christian. When he was two years old, Tumarkin and his mother immigrated to Palestine, and he was adopted by his stepfather Herzl Tumarkin. In 1952, he was drafted into the navy, and he spent a year working with sculptor Rudi Lehmann in Ein Hod after his military service. In 1955, he met his biological father in East Berlin and worked as a set designer for the Berliner Ensemble, the East German theater founded by Bertolt Brecht.

“Monument to the Holocaust and Revival” in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.Credit: Moti Milrod

According to the text he wrote for his 1992 retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, he returned to Israel in 1956 and was enthralled by the metal sculptures of Julio Gonzalez and the young Cesar Baldaccini. “I love junk, the remnants of technology from the first mechanical age, which tell stories about society and history,” he wrote. At the end of that summer, inspired by sculptor Yitzhak Danziger, he built his first iron sculpture.

In the 1960s, Tumarkin represented Israel at three art biennales – in Venice, Sao Paolo and Tokyo. His works are included in private and museum collections and displayed in public spaces in Berlin and Hakone, Japan, among other places.

During that decade, he became a protest artist, and began incorporating weapons into his sculptures. “It’s a marvelous material,” he wrote. “The material loses its original function, the machine gun doesn’t fire. A new reality is created.” The art historian and curator Gideon Ofrat wrote that Tumarkin was exceptional in the Israeli art scene from the outset. “In his work, victimization, destruction and death dominated, and this belied a furious, violent, agnostic – i.e., avant garde – artist.”

"He Walked in the Fields" by Igael Tumarkin. Credit: Aviad Bar-Ness

Tumarkin’s work over the years was influenced by the land of his birth. In the mid-1980s, he walked the length of the Berlin wall and wrote about the visit: “I think about divided and hateful cities – Berlin, Beirut, Belfast and Jerusalem. In my mind, sculptures form out of two parts. One is suspended above and opposite it, on the floor, is the other, and a chain connects them.”

His works often caused an uproar. His Holocaust monument was criticized before it was installed; a 1973 editorial in Haaretz complained that Tumarkin changes his style every few years, so the process of selecting the monument’s design should be more democratic. The controversy continued after the sculpture was installed. MK Yosef Tamir said, “The monument sits in the square like an orphaned object. It has no spark of identification with the subject for which it was erected. It excels in tastelessness.”

The sculpture at Tel Aviv University also elicited anger. Students and faculty came out against it and complained that a piece of lawn was stolen from them. In response, Tumarkin derided them as “grocers.” The sculpture was subsequently vandalized. Tumarkin received praise, though, from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. In 1972, Dayan wrote to that the monument “has great momentum without being vulgar, and the white parts lend a festive tranquil air to it.”

After the Yom Kippur War, in which he served as a military reporter and photographer, Tumarkin presented an exhibition based on the battles at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion in Tel Aviv. The show included works like “Pink Tanks and Green Horses” and “Arik [Ariel Sharon] King of Israel.” He said he wanted to present the war as a horrifying absurdity, as a disease. “At the same time, this is not a protest. I don’t believe in education through art.”

In 1984, he sent a letter to Yesha Council of settlements chairman Elyakim Haetzni, and on the envelope he wrote: “To: Attorney Elyakim Haetzni, KZ Kiryat Arba next to Hebron, the West Bank,” with the “KZ” meant to stand for “concentration camp.” Tumarkin was sued over this and initially convicted, but ultimately exonerated in 1989 by the Supreme Court.

Igael Tumarkin mural at Tel Aviv's Ironi Heh high school.Credit: Shai Farkash/Studio Tchelet

In a 2003 interview with Globes, Tumarkin said that he opposes settlements. “If the choice is between compromising on a place or living by the sword, I am for compromise. There is no one who is really strong here. We are degenerating culturally, industrially and militarily while the Arabs are catching up to us. I think that as soon as we get rid of messianism and religion, everything will work out.”

His most recent shows included a variety of powerful works, such as the hard-hitting and bleak 1986 assemblage “The Armenian Problem No Longer Exists” or 1983’s “Field of Blood”; relatively early sculptures like “Unnatural Birth” from 1959 and “Astro-Mannequin” from 1968.

He is survived by a daughter and two sons.

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