Israeli Visual Arts: Where East Meets West

Visual arts in Israel predate the country's independence yet play a defining role in the country's identity as a nation.

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At the outset, Bezalel's artistic orientation, which aimed at creating an "original Jewish art" by fusing European techniques with Middle Eastern influences, resulted in paintings of biblical scenes depicting romanticized perceptions of the past linked to utopian visions of the future, with images drawn from the ancient Jewish Eastern communities as well as from the local Bedouin. Artists of this period include Shmuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908), Ephraim Lilien (1874-1925), and Abel Pann (1883-1963).

'Hebrew' vs. 'Jewish' Art

The first major art exhibition (1921), held at David's Citadel in Jerusalem's Old City, was dominated by painters from Bezalel. Soon afterward, however, Bezalel's anachronistic, national-oriental narrative style was challenged both by young rebels within the Bezalel establishment and newly-arrived artists, who began searching for an idiom appropriate to what they termed "Hebrew'"--as opposed to "Jewish"--art.

In an attempt to define their new cultural identity and express their view of the country as a source of national renewal, they depicted the daily reality of the Middle Eastern environment, with emphasis on the bright light and glowing colors of the landscape, and stressed exotic subject matter, such as the simple Arab lifestyle through a predominantly primitive technique, as seen in the works of painters including Israel Paldi, Tziona Tagger, Pinhas Litvinovsky, Nahum Gutman, and Reuven Rubin. By the middle of the decade, most of the leading artists were established in the new, dynamic city of Tel Aviv (est. 1909), which has remained the center of the country's artistic activity.

The art of the 1930s was strongly influenced by early 20th century Western innovations, the most powerful of which was the expressionism emanating from the ateliers of Paris. Works of painters such as Moshe Castel, Menachem Shemi, and Arie Aroch tended to portray an emotionally charged, often mystical reality through their use of distortion and, although themes still dealt with local landscapes and images, the narrative components of 10 years earlier gradually disappeared and the oriental-Muslim world vanished entirely.

German expressionism was introduced in the middle of the decade with the arrival of immigrant artists fleeing the terror of rising Nazism. Joining German-born artists Anna Ticho and Leopold Krakauer, who had come to Jerusalem some 20 years earlier, this group--which included Hermann Struck, Mordechai Ardon and Jakob Steinhardt--devoted itself largely to subjective interpretations of the landscape of Jerusalem and the surrounding hills. These artists made a significant contribution to the development of local art, notably through the leadership given to the Bezalel Academy of Art by its directors, Ardon and Steinhardt, under whose guidance a new generation of artists grew to maturity.

The Impact of the Holocaust

The break with Paris during World War II and the trauma of the Holocaust caused several artists, including Moshe Castel, Yitzhak Danziger, and Aharon Kahana, to adopt the emerging "Canaanite" ideology, which sought to identify with the original inhabitants of the land and create a "new Hebrew people" by reviving ancient myths and pagan motifs.

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