Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Art in Israel, 1948-2008: A Partial Panorama

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Art in Israel, 1948-2008: A Partial Panorama

Article excerpt

The conjunctional term "Israeli art" indicates a theoretical dependence among art, the state, and the nation. In fact, Israel's May 1948 declaration of independence took place in the building that housed the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The neutral space of art thus became the legal space of the official birth of the Israeli nation.

The foundation of the Bezalel School in Jerusalem in 1906 is considered by Israeli art historians as the beginning of Israeli art.1 The purpose of the Bezalel institution was to combine arts and crafts and to serve the community and the newly emerging society. This was achieved not only by training professional workers and artists but by creating objects and images that would ensure the grip of the new nation's place in the Holy Land. The birth of Israeli art then, whether dated as 1906 or 1948, occurred in conjunction with the Zionist project of creating images of place and attempting to materialize its utopia.2 Thus, from the outset, there were two major difficulties: the dependence of the term "Israeli art" on the nation, and the question of its nativity. In addition, historians have had difficulty framing conflicting and varied practices since 1948 in a single picture.3

This article offers a selective, partial panorama of art in Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948. Yet this art is not simply a function of the state or at least does not merely serve what the state may identify as its interests. On the contrary, at times the art is radically critical of national matters. This article presents a sequence of synchronic historical pictures defined by the specific context of each decade. Most of the works discussed have achieved major recognition in the field. They each represent an idea or artistic concept in local artistic discourse; nevertheless many outstanding works are inevitably neglected in this selective panorama.

THE 1950S

Avigdor Stematsky's landscape painting from the 1950s is covered with colored stains and lines of different densities.4 It looks like a scrap of paper, a note that a poet might write to himself in an intimate moment, whose purpose is to recall an event that would later become an important element in the artistic puzzle he is creating. The colorful writing in the painting is not readily legible; it is foreign to any code or object known in the real world. This painting documents the sounds playing in the artist's consciousness as he observes nature. It is difficult to discuss this painting with respect to the natural landscape to which it refers. The concepts of origin and copy, or mimesis, lose their validity in paintings of this sort. On the other hand, one can try to experience the musicality translated here into signs consisting of colored tones and half tones, i.e., to read the painting as painted sheet music. The architectonic elements and green vegetation are transposed into musical signs to present a poetic picture that can be appreciated only when subjected to the magical power of painting. The stains and lines turn into a plastic cobweb that attempts to capture the topography of the land by expressing the sensations of the artist observing it.

Stematsky's work exemplifies what came to be known in the historiography of Israeli art as "lyrical abstract," as Ran Shechori puts it:

His painting can serve as a perfect model of the approach known to us as "lyrical abstract", the main source of inspiration of which is French painting of the 1950s. This approach posits color values over and above any other component, and measures the quality of the work by the degree of sensibility and refinement that the artist displays in applying the paint in choosing the tone, and in the touch of his brush on the canvas. Stematsky is one of the most important colorists in his country, and this style, which liberates him from the limitation of a given object and a formal composition, enables him to prove his phenomenal mastery of brushwork. …

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