State of the Art: One Hundred Years of Creativity, Served on Your Coffee Table

Yigal Zalmona's survey of Israeli art's first 100 years offers an insightful look at the changing values of Israeli society itself.

“A Century of Israeli Art,” by Yigal Zalmona ‏(English translation edited by Anna Barber‏), Lund Humphries, in association with the Israel Museum, 512 pages, NIS 249.

Though one may enjoy simply leafing through the high-quality reproductions in “A Century of Israeli Art,” by Yigal Zalmona, it is worth the challenge of reading the text, which offers an incisive look at Israel’s visual arts and how they reflect a changing society. The original Hebrew version accompanied the 2010 opening of the first permanent exhibition of Israeli art at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where Zalmona, who is also an art critic and historian, served for decades in various senior curatorial positions.

Both the exhibition and the book are players in a larger ongoing cultural enterprise involving the mapping of what may be called the canon of local art. The past five years have been good ones for this effort, as can be seen - in addition to the Israel Museum’s new Israeli art galleries - in a series of shows and catalogs in six different museums, on the occasion of Israel’s 60th year of independence ‏(with each museum responsible for a decade‏); the recent opening of the Israeli art wing at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and now the excellent English translation of Zalmona’s book.

Heavy both in literary and figurative terms, the text describes local art through the lens of the discourse of identity - or more accurately, identities - in an attempt to follow the development of complex and often contradictory trends that combine to form a distinct Israeli culture. Thus, art, society and historic events are viewed here as intertwined. In the opening words of the author, “Our story will be told with particular attention to the ways in which art derives and receives meaning from its socio-political context. The world, therefore, makes frequent appearances, even if art is our main protagonist.”

It is interesting to discover that the thinking behind this assertion is revealed as having been a source of dispute among Israeli artists ? over the New Horizons movement ‏(in 1950‏), which supported the autonomous nature of local art, after decades of ideologically charged work in the service of Zionist nation-building ? although such a declaration, too, also reflects an aspect of Israeli reality that strives toward normalcy.

The conflict between personal expression and the demand for socially involved art can also be an inner one, as touchingly described in the sections on Marcel Janco ‏(1895-1984‏), whose artistic personality somehow managed to incorporate disparate images and styles deriving from the avant-garde European Dada movement, heroic Zionism, tragic views of war and displacement and pure abstraction.

Attitude toward the East

A core theme that runs through Zalmona’s book is the changing attitude of Israeli artists toward the East, and in particular toward the image of the Arab, versus their relationship with the West. Discussing this issue in relation to the earlier works in the book, Zalmona writes: “In some respects, the Zionist view of the East is a specific example of Orientalist ideology, that is, of a Western perception of the East. At the same time, however, the East is the ancient source of the Jews’ history and ultimate destination as they return to that source ... And to complicate the question of who identifies with whom even further, the Jew knew that in Europe, he himself was the Semitic Other. In other words: For Christian Europeans, the East was just ‘there’; for the Jews, it was simultaneously ‘there’ and ‘here.’”

The descriptions and analysis of numerous artworks in the book refer to this tension. For example, in “The Four Matriarchs,” by Abel Pann ‏(1935‏). This European-born painter imagined the biblical foremothers as a group of Bedouin women, natives of the East, yet portrayed them using Western realistic painting techniques.

Reuven Rubin celebrated the birth of the Zionist pioneer as the “new Jew” in “First Fruits” ‏(1923‏), using the Christian format of the triptych to lend sanctity to the scene, yet eschewing Western perspective in favor of a simpler and more innocent Eastern ‏(including Eastern Christian‏) view of the landscape and its inhabitants. The latter include the muscular and partially undressed pioneering man and woman, bearing the fruits of their labor. To their left is a modestly dressed Yemenite Jewish couple with a naked baby, who are also presented as part of the middle panel, reflecting the central theme of Jewish re-connection with the land. Their Easternness renders them “authentic representatives of the pre-exilic Israelite nation,” contrary to many images of Diaspora Jews of European origin, often depicted in the period’s works as sickly and frail, such as is in Rubin’s own self-portrait from before his immigration to Palestine. The two side panels of the triptych portray the Arab inhabitants of the land; they are extolled for their perceived physicality and harmony with nature, yet, in contrast to the Jewish pioneers, they are passive and unproductive, either herding sheep or merely sleeping.

In the sculpture named after the biblical hunter Nimrod ‏(1939) Itzhak Danziger turned to pagan and mythical figures of the ancient Near East, circumventing the image of the Arab through what Zalmona calls a “cultural bypass,” to create a new Hebrew icon that severs its connections to the Jewish past.

Many pages and decades later, Tsibi Geva’s handling of the keffiyeh pattern in the traditional Arab headdress ‏(“Keffiyeh: Homage to Asim Abu Shakra,” 1992‏) is described by Zalmona as evoking a myriad of diverse political, cultural and artistic identities: for Palestinians, a symbol of resistance to Israel; for Israelis, both a threatening signifier of violence, yet also a reminder of a not-so-distant past when it was worn by sabra farmers and fighters as a sign of belonging to the land and region. The dialogue with the keffiyeh is further deepened when analyzed through an art historical perspective: On the one hand, it is a flat, Eastern decorative pattern that comes from “low” folk art; on the other, a grid, which is the basic template of American modernist abstract art in its search for the sublime. In Zalmona’s reading, though Geva realized that he could not escape his Western artistic consciousness, he could comment about himself and his attitude to the East through expropriating motifs such as the keffiyeh and using them in a Western artistic discourse, enabling viewers “to experience the chronic Israeli vacillation between identities.”

The above small taste from this extensive volume reveals how Zalmona chooses to tell the story of Israeli art and some of the premises on which the book is founded. The time frame in its title asserts that a distinct body of work called Israeli art came into being with the modern Zionist movement. Since this movement was led mainly by male European Jews with a secular outlook, seeking to build a new identity in the Land of Israel, their ideological and aesthetic preferences dictated the works deemed central to the new culture-in-the-making, and these are the works most highlighted in these sections of the book.

Though local women artists are featured relatively prominently, other outlooks and works - pre-Zionist, Eastern, and both local religious Jewish and non-Jewish ones - are given marginal, perhaps token, attention throughout most of the book. When they are included, they fulfill the role of “others” in relation to the main drama.

Overturning the narrative

It is in the latter part of “A Century of Israeli Art,” describing contemporary art, when certain divergent viewpoints and identities receive in-depth consideration. These are specifically the ones presented as overturning the hegemonic Israeli narrative - a change in emphasis that says a lot about the ideological transformation that the Israeli cultural elite, of which the author is a member, has undergone, while also reflecting worldwide post-modern tendencies. Works that are read by Zalmona as representing post-Zionist approaches are now granted center stage, and even regarded as representing the mainstream mindset among today’s young Israeli artists. In this context, he presents Adi Ness’ photographs of male soldiers as “critiques of the mythology of the Israel Defense Forces,” in their subversive stance toward the ethic of self-sacrifice, as well as through their hints of homoeroticism.

It is intriguing to contemplate who the current unfashionable-yet-serious others are, whose work is now being marginalized - certainly not those who forgo complexity and questioning, but perhaps those who reject such a sweeping definition as “the paralyzing ideological charisma of rootedness” ‏(which Zalmona deems one of the causes of today’s artists’ attraction to previously taboo themes‏), and who seek new forms of community and belonging. A search for connection may then become visible from within works previously interpreted as primarily deconstructing an existing ethos, such as many of Ness’ photographs.

Sigalit Landau’s “DeadSee,” the penultimate image in the book, offers a potent metaphor for re-framing the linear passage from wholeness to disintegration that is traced in Zalmona’s account, into a cyclical and unending one, as the circle of floating watermelons and body unravels but is then recreated ‏(and unraveled again‏).

The above discussion of meaningful voices from past and present that are absent from “A Century of Israeli Art” does not discredit its content but rather opens the door to different ones. Documenting a relatively new canon of art should be done via the acknowledged artists and movements within it. It is then the role of those unseen and unheard to question that canon and tell their alternative stories.

In terms of structure, “A Century of Israeli Art” progresses chronologically, divided in large part into chapters devoted to individual decades. Thankfully, this structure is not adhered to strictly, and cross-cutting themes, short biographies of individual artists, and in the case of the statue “Nimrod,” a definitive work of art, are allowed to deviate from the form. Though at times this reader felt that an obligation to include all “famous” Israeli artists threatened to weigh down the book, for the most part it manages to transmit an enormous amount of information while relating a deep art-historical saga. This feat is accomplished by maintaining a close connection with the visual experience throughout, giving great respect to the artworks themselves, and drawing insights from their detailed study. Indeed, there are moments in the book that remind us that alongside awareness of the socio-political context of art there remains the basic and personal experience of a viewer being moved by a single work, such as the two loving and poetic pages devoted to Yehezkel Streichman’s 1951 “Portrait of

Tsila” - a study of the makings of home, family and painting itself, all in an intimate Tel Aviv interior.

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov is a painter living in the Galilee. Her website is at

“The Four Matriarchs,” by Abel Pann (1926). Collection of Itiel Pann © Estate of the artist.Credit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avshalom Avital

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