Critical Master

"Eugen Kolb - Buildings Culture in Eretz Yisrael," research, editing and introduction by Galia Bar Or, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 408 pages, NIS 94.40.

In the art pyramid of the modern world, the artist is generally at the pinnacle and beneath him, as if there to serve him, are the various elements of the art world like collectors, art dealers, museum directors and historians.

The place of the art critics is far less clear. A common tendency is to see art critics as failed artists, frustrated individuals who have exchanged the "real" work of art for providing explanatory services to artists or to the audience. There are those who believe that critics have no real influence - as was stated in a recent Haaretz article about the powerful figures in the world of Israeli art. There is no doubt that critics are partner to the formation of the status of artists and artistic trends, but apart from a few exceptional cases, like Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century or Clement Greenberg 100 years later, their influence does not extend beyond the local circumstances of the moment.

There are few critics who win the privilege of having their works collected in books and of thus having interest in them continue. The book devoted to the writings of Eugen Kolb (1898-1959) is, therefore, an exceptional event, not only by Israeli criteria. However, it is clear that the publication of the book by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has to do with the fact that Kolb, apart from being an important critic and theoretician, was also the director of that museum from 1952 to 1959. His activity in acquiring important works for the collection (Jackson Pollock, Alexander Archipenko) and in organizing Israeli and international exhibitions, is briefly reviewed in the introduction.

The bulk of the book is devoted to a selection of articles that Kolb published beginning in 1946, a short time after he came to Palestine from Hungary (via Switzerland, where he went with his family during the war), and ending in 1952 when, for ethical reasons - upon his appointment as director of the museum - he ceased writing regular critiques. It should be noted that as early as 1949, Kolb was appointed as an art advisor to the museum, which did not prevent him from continuing his work as a critic. Thus he could write an introduction to the second "New Horizons" exhibition held in October 1949, and a short time later publish in the now-defunct daily newspaper Al Hamishmar a critique of that same exhibition. Articles and critiques from his time as director of the museum are also included in the book.

What interest do we take today in old art reviews? Ostensibly, very little. Times have changed, art has changed and in these articles there is mainly material that interests historians in pursuit of the history of Israeli art. The number of such historians is still quite small, but for them, for others who will come after them and for those engaged in the study of Israeli culture in general, this is a most important source book, which has been assembled by Shoshana Hasson, Kolb's daughter, and edited by Galia Bar Or, the director of the Museum of Art at Ein Harod.

Leftist connections

Bar Or's introductory article presents the context of Kolb's work within the intellectual climate of the early days of the state. She places special emphasis on Kolb's close connections with the leftist circles of the Center for Progressive Culture in Tel Aviv and the influence they - especially poet Avraham Shlonsky, who headed the center - had on the field of art and especially on the New Horizons group, which is considered the standard-bearer of international Modernism in Israeli art. The connection between the center and the appearance in 1948 of New Horizons is quite well-known. However, Bar Or stresses Kolb's significant contribution to forging this connection, which engendered not only theoretical discussions of the group at the center, but also the support of poets and writers for the activity of the artists.

Kolb's importance went beyond mediating and organizing. Bar Or notes his role in connection with the establishment of New Horizons and does this not only in her introductory article, but also in the way she has edited the articles according to topics. The second chapter, "Modern Art in the Land of Israel," begins with Kolb's favorable review of a group show by eight modern painters from 1946 and ends with the introduction to the "New Horizons" exhibition at the museum in 1959, which was in fact the last exhibition by the group as a stable, self-organized entity. From the articles emerges Kolb's contribution to encouraging and even pushing the artists toward establishing a group that would break away from the framework of the Artists' Association and present a particular, artistic position.

The "affair" of the Venice Biennale in 1948 - in which decidedly undemocratic conduct by the head of the Artists' Association, Yosef Zaritsky, in selecting the participants in the prestigious international exhibition led to his expulsion from the organization, the resignation of his supporters and, in the wake of this, to the establishment of New Horizons - was only an excuse. Indeed Bar On finds information about the background and preparation for this move in Kolb's writings a good two years before this resignation. The new look at the old intrigues allows an interpretation that is different from that received previously with respect to power relations in the Israeli art world. According to this, Eugen Kolb had considerable weight in the establishment of New Horizons, no less than that attributed to Zaritsky, the uncontested ruler of Israeli art for decades. Moving the fulcrum in the shaping of historical processes from the artist at the pinnacle to other figures, like the critic, the theoretician and the curator is perhaps the most significant innovation suggested by Bar Or's reading of Kolb's theoretical work.

Kolb, it must be said, had no hesitations about criticizing Zaritsky. Of his painting "Safed," which was shown in the second New Horizons exhibition, Kolb wrote: "Because of its large size and because of its prominent place," most of the critics erred in seeing it as a kind of "motto" for the entire exhibition, but "in this painting we find only a piling up of all the aesthetic means Zaritsky has at his disposal," and "behind this wealth of colorful phenomena, no depth is revealed, but rather a vacuum, and ... this painting is nothing more than an inspired improvisation." Without a doubt, these are sharp words, and it is difficult to find critics, even today, who would dare to say such things about Zaritsky, "who is a far greater artist than is revealed by `Safed' this time."

Presumably Zaritsky did not like Kolb's criticism, and perhaps other ideas of this Central European intellectual, who was more knowledgeable about the history and theory of art than most of the artists and critics of his day in this country. In any case, with or without a connection to this, Zaritsky refused to participate in the exhibition "Modern Israeli Art in Its Beginnings, 1920-1930," which Kolb curated at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1957. This was an exhibition of tremendous importance in the historiography of Israeli art because it defined and established in historical consciousness the place of the artistic activity in Tel Aviv of the 1920s, and especially the exhibitions on the Ohel Theater's premises, "as a kind of turning point in the history of Israeli painting, and its participants deserve the honorary title of the pioneers of Modernism in Israeli painting." It is possible that at the time the exhibition was held, when Zaritsky saw himself as the pioneer of the international abstract avant-garde, he had no interest in sharing this title with other artists, and especially not with artists like Rubin, Gutman or Tagger, who then belonged to a different camp. Following Kolb's exhibition came the exhibitions "The 1920s in Israeli Art" (Tel Aviv Museum, 1982) and "Sixty Years Later" (Rubin Museum, 1986), stressing the formative importance of this decade.

Immigrant artists

It must be admitted that reading some of the articles in this book is exhausting, especially those that deal with specific works by artists, but there are some that are also likely to be of interest today - such as a conversation with Nathan Rapoport, the creator of the well-known memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, interviews with photographer Robert Capa and French painter Georges Braque, a factual article about the history of photography and a comprehensive piece about Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb. And there are also articles whose topics remain relevant, like articles on the psychological and cultural absorption of immigrant artists and on the question of the role of the artist in light of current events.

Kolb wrestled quite a bit with the question of the identity of Israeli art, and in any case rejected as absurd the desire to chase after pagan Canaanite roots or even ancient Jewish sources (such as ancient synagogues), and saw these as no more than a fashion of primitivism that was becoming a barren formalism: "The use of ancient forms, without a social and psychological context, without a parallel in the contents ... in any case leads to the valorization of forms alone, and there is no sign of special `Israeliness.'"

An interesting article that could still be of use to teachers and others in the field of art deals with the problems of explaining works of art to an audience, and stresses the need for familiarity with Christianity in this context. The question of Jewish art also wins a theoretical discussion that includes a review of the main writers on this subject until Kolb's time, both Jewish and non- Jewish.

Also interesting is the report on the debate that was going on in the French press about the question of "whether there exists a Marxist norm whereby it is possible to approve or condemn directions in literature and art." What interested French communist theoreticians and artists after World War II could also be relevant today, when neo-Marxist critique on questions of art and culture, especially from French sources, is once again on the intellectual agenda.

It must be said that Kolb himself pondered these questions, as is evident in his fairly convoluted review of an exhibition of Soviet graphics in 1950. In principle he saw nothing wrong with the model of Soviet art: "And indeed new socialist realism, which is very powerful, could have reflected the most wonderful side of the infinitely multifaceted nature of the huge Soviet state."

The attempt to establish a bridge between opposing ideologies is revealed throughout the book, and especially in the articles that deal with Israeli art. Alongside his support for the Modernist avant-garde and for the aspiration toward international standards for high art, Kolb repeatedly stresses the possibility of national (local) uniqueness for painting in Israel. It must be noted that he gives different answers in different contexts. Initially he argued that art in the Land of Israel does not have local cultural roots, whereas a few months later, he wrote that it is already "possible to talk about a contemporary art of the Land of Israel, and not only about artists."

Elsewhere, he asked: "Is there any point in aspiring, especially in art, to national uniqueness? He replies later on that "the search for the nature of Israeli art cannot be detached from a more comprehensive vision: a vision of the image of the new Israeli person in his new society." Eight years later he had already declared proudly that "Israeli painting is an expression of the Israeli person" and that "our serious artists ... despite their differing origins, have shaped their artistic personality here, through their life in this country, under the influence of the nature here and our cultural climate, and by force of that spiritual inspiration with which our country is so rich."

Kolb comes across as someone for whom the national-cultural identity of Israeli art was an important aim, and he repeatedly pondered its definition. The emphasis that the New Horizons artists, and in fact Zaritsky more than the others, had on the universal aspect of art led Kolb to posit that "artistic universalism and national artistic uniqueness need not be contradictory."

Kolb's sincere efforts cannot disguise the fact that the Modernist ideology in art, which depicted itself as universal (in the sense that Paris is the universe) and autonomous did not sit easily with national or cultural ideologies. Bar Or explains that Kolb's perception of the blending of the universal and the local has its source in the influence of the Viennese school of art history, which he absorbed during his studies with renowned scholars like Heinrich Wllflin and Max Dvorak. It seems very strange to me that she does not try to link Kolb's attitudes to his years of work as an editor and writer who focused on artists in Hungary, a new nation-state that was certainly dealing with similar questions of unique cultural identity after its split from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It is quite possible that Kolb was aware of the complexity of the construction of a cultural identity in modern art even before he came to this country, and therefore his answers in light of the Israeli reality are not unequivocal. If Kolb could at one and the same time be a Zionist and a proud Jew, a believing socialist and a fervent supporter of high, elitist and universal art, without feeling any real contradictions between the various ideologies, it is possible that the implicit problem lies elsewhere - in the politics of identity that characterizes the intellectual and academic discourse of recent decades, as in Israel; the discourse that takes a position of "either-or" and "exposes" the weak points or the loci of strength and control of those who hold one ideology or another.

The multifaceted nature of Eugen Kolb's ideas exemplifies the difficulty of reconciling differing and even contradictory aspirations with respect to the creation of a modern national culture, a difficulty that at the beginning of the 20th century was already faced by many artists and critics in the pre-state Jewish community, as well as in other countries, of course. In this sense, the book contributes not only to art research, but also to the study of the history of ideas in Israeli society and culture.

Dalia Manor is an art historian.