Unknown Art Collector Reveals Treasure Trove of Israeli Paintings

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Aviva Lori

Last month, Hillela Tal visited the Negev Museum of Art in the Old City of Be’er Sheva. The museum is housed in a building more than a century old, dating from the Ottoman period. She looked around, examining the art works. Stopping next to a sculpture by Igael Tumarkin, she said, “Wow, it’s so beautiful I would buy it.” She was not trying to be funny. It was as though she had momentarily forgotten she already owned it, along with the entire dazzling array of works on display in an exhibition entitled “Local Color.” The works are from her private collection, which is being made accessible to the public for the first time.

Hillela Tal, 85, is an art collector almost no one knows. She is a very rigorous, unusual collector, a woman in a male-dominated field. She lives far from the Tel Aviv art scene in Carmei Yossef, a community between Jerusalem and Ramle, in a functional, unostentatious house. She owns several hundred masterworks by the leading artists of the second generation of Israeli art − mainly, but not only, from the 1960s and 1970s. She continues to acquire works by young artists in whose creations she finds that special something that makes her tingle inside, without regard to price, investment value, market value or the buzz that exists − or not − around the artist.

Her collection includes works by a veritable who’s who of Israeli art: Aviva Uri, Raffi Lavie, Yair Garbuz, Igael Tumarkin, Uri Lifshitz, Ido Bar-El, Aika Brown, Michal Na’aman, Lea Nikel, Moshe Kupferman, Buky Schwartz, Yaacov Agam, Moshe Gershuni, Philip Rantzer, Arie Aroch, Pinchas Cohen Gan, David Reeb, Sigalit Landau, Menashe Kadishman, Yossef Zaritsky and others.

And no, she doesn’t have a storeroom or a secret safe to store the works. Most of them hang on the walls of her home, taking up every available centimeter. Sixty of the works are on display in Be’er Sheva.

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Michael Argov, untitled, 1981.Credit: Reproductions by Ran Erde
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Michael Drucks, untitled, 1969.Credit: Reproductions by Ran Erde
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Igael Tumarkin. Message on a bottle.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz

Tal was not easily coaxed out of her anonymity as a collector. “I was afraid of exposure,” she says. “I don’t go to openings and I don’t play the Israeli game. I don’t need money from anyone, including the banks, so why should I stand out? I know who I am even without that.”

An encounter with Tal is a small miracle that instantaneously does away with the concept of old age. She comes to the door like a red Amazon, exuding both charm and strength. She likes to wear red. She has just bought a new red Renault. “I drive to Tel Aviv every week, to make the rounds of galleries and museums,” she says, explaining why she needs a car. “When I went to buy the car, the salesman looked at me and asked, ‘Who are you buying it for?’ I told him it was for me, and he was amazed. ‘You’re buying a car? You drive?’ When I came to pick up the car, he asked again, ‘So who will come to pick up the car?’ I said, ‘I have come to take it, now.’ He couldn’t take in the fact that I am 85 but drive like a young woman.”

Showing a visitor around the rooms of her home, she flits from painting to painting like a fairy. She stops by each work, excitedly relating the details of its acquisition, gazing at them with the loving eyes of a pampering mother. She has a deep emotional bond with all of them, but says that Raffi Lavie and Moshe Gershuni are the two she would take to a desert island.

Besides being a collector, Tal is also engaged in agriculture. More precisely, she is a vintner. She owns a large farm on which she grows fruits, sells grape saplings from her vineyards and produces a boutique wine called Red Poetry. The farm is now managed by her son Dovi. Tal lovingly blends wine with the same passion she feels for art.

Tumarkin on a wine bottle

Hillela Tal was born in Rehovot to a family of Jewish landowners. Her parents came here during the First Aliyah, the influx of Jewish immigration to Palestine beginning in the early 1880s. She had an older sister named Menuha, and she was intended to be a son to be named Hillel, after her grandfather, who would continue the tradition of the farming aristocracy. That wish was fulfilled in one aspect of her life. Her paternal grandfather, Hillel Aharonovich, had vineyards and a winery in Ukraine and manufactured alcoholic beverages. Her mother, Shlomit Feinstein, came from Brest Litovsk, Menachem Begin’s hometown, which was then in Poland and now in Belarus. Her father’s family, one of the 10 families that founded Rehovot, purchased land at the site even before they arrived in Palestine. When her parents married they had a small dowry of 220 dunams of land ‏(55 acres‏).

“Every family in Rehovot had land back then,” Tal says. “Capital played no part,” she notes, “because everyone knew how much everyone had.” At the beginning of the 20th century, 12 Rehovot families, including that of her father, Yaakov, established a winery they named Gat. In 1925, it was sold to the wineries of Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Rishon Letzion. “And what did I do with my share after inheriting it?” Tal asks, a mischievous glint in her eye. “I bought Lea Nikel and Moshe Kupferman.”

She grew up in a home suffused with European art and culture. Painting and music. Her father had studied botany in Berlin, where he was exposed to European culture and modern architecture. Upon returning to Palestine, at the beginning of the First World War, he brought a European ambience.

“It’s hard to believe that in 1932 a house in the Bauhaus style was built in Rehovot,” Tal says. “It was designed by the architect Erich Mendelsohn and had two bathrooms and two toilets. The furniture was also Bauhaus. It was made by the carpenters in Kibbutz Givat Brenner. And we had all kinds of nannies and cooks.”

Her uncle, Shalom Aharoni, attended the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem, where his classmates included the acclaimed artists Nachum Gutman, Avigdor Stematsky and Reuven Rubin. “I was infected by that same bug,” Tal says. “I studied painting in the Gymnasia and I started to paint.” Her mother’s family, the Feinsteins, also produced no few artists and intellectuals, most of them pioneers in his or her field. Her grandfather’s sister, Nehamah Pukhachewsky, is considered the first female writer in the Jewish community of Palestine.

“She was allowed to attend university. She was a special woman, opinionated, a suffragette, but she was ahead of her time and found life difficult in her society. People didn’t understand her. Her husband was Baron Rothschild’s first vintner.”

Tal’s grandmother, Haike Raizel Feinstein, made a yearly trip from Rehovot to Carlsbad ‏(Karlovy Vary‏) to take the waters, and to see and be seen. “She brought back objects we hadn’t ever seen before, such as glasses of colored crystal and fine tablecloths, and everyone came to see and fondle them. She saw painters there who made portraits of princes and princesses, and that got into her head. She played cards and ran a club for card players in her house in Rehovot. People came from all over the country to play. Boris Schatz [the founder of the Bezalel art school] played cards there and suggested that one of his students at Bezalel paint her portrait. Suddenly there was a painter in the house, Lazar Krestin, and she sat for him an hour or two every day.”

At the age of 15, Tal was sent to the Alice Selisberg Vocational School in Jerusalem. The institution was a Boston-style girls’ school that offered a range of subjects, including painting ‏(“I had the finest teachers, four years with [Mordecai] Ardon and also Dr. Fritz Schiff”‏), fashion, cooking, home economics, weaving and embroidery. A room was rented for her in the city and she was left on her own.

A girl alone in a rented room?

“Ah, that was a pleasure. Many people didn’t understand it, but I was happy. It built my personality. Even though Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city then − all the armies in the world were there, I went to plays and concerts, and I saw Josephine Baker, who appeared there − it was also a disgusting place. Like today. Everyone is kissing the ass of some minister or deputy minister.”

After completing her studies, she worked for a fashion house. But then she was mobilized by the Haganah, the official defense force of the prestate Jewish community in Palestine, and sent to a course for paramedics. “At the end of 1947 I saw action as a medic with the Givati Brigade around Rehovot, Rishon Letzion and Nes Tziona, and I escorted the wounded to Tel Aviv. Afterward I took part in all the conquests in the south. We entered Tel Nof base after the British left and set up a hospital, but there was no equipment. I had to finagle equipment from my uncle, who was a retired doctor.”

After the war, Tal attended nursing school and worked at Assaf Harofeh Hospital until she gave birth to her son, in 1953. She met her husband, Alex Goldental ‏(Tal‏), in a kibbutz to which she had been sent for combat training by the Haganah. It was love at first sight, even though “he was from a Polish home. He had come to the kibbutz to visit his girlfriend. But she was working in the kitchen that night, and that was that. I was with him for five years and didn’t want to get married, because the idea was that I would go to school abroad. I had received a scholarship to study in America, but my father said that maybe this wasn’t the time to go, when we were getting ready for a war with the Arabs. So I made a deal with Alex that if I married him he would give me a free hand to go to university. He said there was no problem, and we were married. I was already an old woman of 24.”

Despite her advanced years, Tal was called up twice for reserve duty, even after she was married and a mother. “The system got my birth date wrong, and nothing helped. I took part in two wars. In the Sinai War [1956] I was in Kaplan Hospital, in Rehovot, and in the Yom Kippur War [1973] I was called up for three and a half months and served at Shmuel Harofeh Hospital in Be’er Yaakov, where wounded soldiers from all the armies that fought against us were treated.”

Her husband, Alex, was a career naval officer, served in the naval commando unit and was loaned to the fledgling Defense Ministry for its overseas procurement department. “The Old Man [David Ben-Gurion] wouldn’t let him leave the country until he Hebraized his name,” Tal recalls. “Afterward, we moved to Tel Aviv, which was wonderful, because Rehovot wasn’t really the place for me anymore.”

In Tel Aviv she felt the vibrations of the big city, hung out in the bohemian cafes and restaurants of the time, downed plenty of alcohol and mingled with young artists. Alex left the army in the early 1960s and established a winery with friends at Mikveh Yisrael, outside Tel Aviv. “The grapes came from our vineyard,” Tal says, “and I worked in distribution, which was very difficult. I was in the streets all the time, going from store to store. Then I had the idea of putting labels of Israeli artists on the wine bottles. One day I was walking in Tel Aviv and I saw Igael Tumarkin coming toward me with a dog. I remember it as though it were today. Suddenly the idea flashed through my mind: ‘Igael, listen, we are putting out a new wine and I need a label, what do you say?’ ‘Great idea,’ he replied. ‘What’s the wine called?’ ‘Vin Fou − crazy wine,’ I said. He showed up with the drawing the next day and I printed the label. It created a buzz, and I think that is how we penetrated the consciousness of Israelis, who until then didn’t know anything about drinking wine.”

‘In-depth collector’

Tal had bought art books as a teenager. She bought her first painting during the War of Independence. “I was in a terrible psychological state,” she recalls. “Many of my friends had been killed. I decided to go to Tel Aviv and see a movie. On the way I passed a bookstore on Allenby Road, which was displaying paintings by yekke [German-speaking Jews] artists. I saw a watercolor by someone named Peretz Hasse that I liked and I bought it. He later left the country and no one ever heard of him. I then bought two paintings by Shmuel Harubi and one by Yossi Stern. By the time I was married, I already had four paintings.”

For Tal, Tel Aviv was a vast fairground of wishes to be fulfilled. “All the stores used to shut down between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, for the schlafstunde [siesta], and I would go to the corner of Dizengoff and Gordon streets, to Cafe Pinati, where [renowned artist Yitzhak] Danziger hung out with all the young artists I became acquainted with later and who became my friends. They spent the morning in Kasit, then moved to Pinati and after lunch went to Abie Nathan’s California Restaurant. Adam Baruch [an art critic] came there after the army, listened and never said a word. That group was very dominant in my decisions about what good taste is and who is considered a painter and who is not. For example, they decided that I was worthless as a painter, and that is why I stopped painting. They told Aviva Uri that she was not good in oils and persuaded her to switch to black and white drawings. She happened to have an exhibition at Gordon Gallery at the time, and I bought two of her oils. I told them and they said, ‘You don’t understand anything, give them back.’ And I, like an idiot, gave one back and kept one. Nowadays people fight for every Aviva Uri oil painting.”

Despite her friendship with the artists, Tal only bought in galleries and from exhibitions. Her primary sources were Shaya Yariv (the founder of Gordon Gallery) and the Givon Gallery. “She has a personal taste in art, and that is what is fascinating in a collector,” says Naomi Givon. “Few people I know have a greater empathy for artists and an ability to understand them and their work. She is not influenced by trends; she knows exactly what she wants and collects in real time. She is an in-depth collector who is not out to become a celeb. She is as far from nouveau riche as you can get in Israel. She is a true aristocrat, and can talk about types of grapes as easily as she can about art. She had a special relationship with my father, Shmuel Givon, who was manager of the company that developed sultana grapes. When she came to the gallery, I knew they would talk about grapes and wine.”

Tal developed a special bond with Raffi Lavie ‏(1937-2007‏). “I remember I bought three works by Raffi from Shaya for 400 Israel pounds,” she says. “I loved his use of color. I felt he belonged to me, to my generation, that he spoke my language. I had the same feeling about Pinchas Cohen Gan. The Katz Gallery wanted to sell me works by him for pennies. ‘Give me 50 pounds and take it,’ Katz said to me, but I was a bit scared of the avant-garde. In the end I bought a work that was a kind of installation. Then I went to a meeting and ran into Adam Baruch and [the painter] Benni Efrat, and I told them to go to the Katz Gallery to see a young man named Pinchas Cohen Gan, whose work I had bought. They went and bought, too.”

Which artists did you not buy?

“I didn’t buy Nachum Gutman, Ardon and Rubin, because they were from the first generation of art here and were still European in their use of color. I bought Zaritsky later, when he started to paint in the colors of his students. I bought Stematsky, because he was my teacher in primary school. My consideration in buying art was not money but the connection I had with paintings that spoke my language: sharp contour lines with the yellow of the glaring sun and not the cold of European painting.

“Let me tell you a story about Raffi,” she says and bursts into laughter. “In 1971, when the Tel Aviv Museum of Art opened, [director] Haim Gamzu decided to show a few young painters, among them Tumarkin, Raffi, Garbuz and Schutz. He asked Shaya Yariv to let him choose works by Raffi Lavie. He had no understanding of Lavie and chose two works, one academic, called ‘Mao Tse Tung,’ which in my view reflects all the influences of painting that passed from the first generation to the second.

“The next day, I went gallery hopping, as usual. In Gordon Gallery I saw a painting by Raffi similar to the one I had seen the day before in the museum, lying on the floor. I said to Shaya that I didn’t know Raffi had painted two almost identical works. ‘Do you want it?’ he asked me. He then told me that Raffi had been in the museum that morning, had seen the painting, taken it off the wall and walked out with it. The guards chased him and he ran to Gordon Gallery and said to Shaya, ‘Sell it to whoever wants it, the price doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t get back to the museum.’ I bought it for half price − 750 Israel pounds instead of 1,500. I later became good friends with Raffi and he started to come here for lunch. He said he wanted the painting back. I asked him why and he said, ‘I have to destroy it. I destroyed all my academic works − this is the only one that’s left.’ I told him there was no chance, that I liked it. He would go crazy if he knew it was being shown in the Be’er Sheva exhibition.”

Garbuz at 21

After her husband died, in 1982, Tal went back to her land and started to rehabilitate it. Her son had just completed his army service and joined her in establishing the farm. She became a highly knowledgeable vintner. And a consumer of the product. “I drink a glass of red wine every day,” she says, “and you should, too.” She continues to put in at least four hours a day in her office on the farm. “In addition to occupying myself in the office, I pack grapes and teach the workers how to do it right. Packing is an art in itself,” she explains. “And I am also still buying art all the time. I’m a bit schizophrenic: painting on the one hand, agriculture on the other.”

Why has it taken you so long to show the collection?

“I was afraid people would start to talk and vilify me. There is no one who isn’t slandered; I see what goes on here. But one day the husband of Dr. Dalia Manor [the curator and director of the Negev Museum of Art] visited me − his sister is my neighbor − and saw the collection. A week later, Dalia called.”

“I knew she had a wonderful collection, but she evaded me for a long time,” says Dr. Manor. “She would ask me to visit and then rebuff me gently and say, ‘when the occasion arises.’ After my husband visited her and saw that there might be a chance to persuade her to show the collection, I called her, and then for the first time I saw it and was stunned by its professional standard; by her choice of unusual works, both as a woman and in a period when very few people bought art. It was important for me to allow the public to see the collection and for it to be shown precisely in Be’er Sheva. This is an opportunity for the public to see works that no one has ever seen before. It’s important for art that people see the exhibition, the more so because the 1960s is a period that has barely been researched.”

Tal was persuaded. She thought maybe the time had come. And Be’er Sheva, as a starting point, did not frighten her in the way Tel Aviv did. “When I started the collection of the second generation of Israeli painting, no one was buying them, but today they are in demand and fetching insane prices. So why not let people in Be’er Sheva enjoy this art, to which they were not exposed?

“My friends from Tel Aviv were put out and said, ‘Why Be’er Sheva, of all places? When you were offered an exhibition in the center of the country you refused, and now you are going to Be’er Sheva?’ That’s true. All the major curators in Israel offered me the opportunity to exhibit the collection, but I refused.”

According to Yair Garbuz, Tal is a collector of the kind that artists like very much. They don’t have the feeling that someone made a killing on the stock market and is filling up warehouses and safes, but that she truly fell in love personally with the works she bought. “She doesn’t hurry and doesn’t jump in but sits and looks, studies the work and gets used to it. For many artists, she has the right of first refusal. When she bought them they were unknown and their work was not a sure thing economically. I was a kid of 21 when she bought a work of mine, and it’s not like today, when someone buys the work of a 22-year-old youngster in order not to buy his work when he is an old man of 23.

“Some museum directors are most irritated by the painters, but she had a very good relationship with us. I still drink her excellent wines, and who needs more than that? She is − in the best sense of the word − a dinosaur, who carries within her a connection between art and agriculture. When you’re in Tel Aviv it’s easy, but when you live in Rehovot or in Carmei Yossef and manage to divide your life between two entities that do not naturally connect, that is very beautiful.”

Amon Yariv, the son of Shaya Yariv and also a gallerist, is thrilled anew at every meeting with Tal. “She was one of my father’s first and most highly regarded clients,” he says. “She is a very original, young person − I have to keep reminding myself of her real age. There is something about her that is very powerful, alive, strong and decisive, and that is also how she buys works of art. She sees art of the 1960s and 1970s, and also by contemporary young artists, through the eyes of someone who never stops renewing herself. She has amazing taste. The exhibition is a true gem. It’s a collection that was not acquired to be shown or to impress people, but it’s good that it’s on display, because it contains the best of the best.

“For many young collectors,” he continues, “this collection is a lesson. Although she is a tempestuous woman, the collection was made with moderation and with meticulousness, and that is why it is so successful. Her motivation for acquiring art is not money, but to observe an object. And for her, art is a kind of self-test. She is as thrilled and excited at her acquisitions as a young girl. She comes to the gallery for an hour or two, and we sit and talk and she gives me the advice of an older person with a young outlook, and that is marvelous.”

Hillela Tal at home. Credit: Nir Kafri