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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The 1948 War of Independence led other artists, including Naftali Bezem and Avraham Ofek, to adopt a militant style with a clear social message. But the most significant group formed in this period was "New Horizons," which aimed to free Israeli painting from its local character and literary associations and bring it into the sphere of contemporary European art.

Two major trends developed: Yosef Zaritzky, the group's dominant figure, tended toward an atmospheric lyricism, characterized by the presence of identifiable fragments of local landscape and cool color tones. His style was adopted by others, notably Avigdor Stematsky and Yehezkel Streichman. The second trend--a stylized abstractionism ranging from geometricism to a formalism frequently based on symbols--was strongly evident in the works of the Romanian-born artist Marcel Janco, who studied in Paris and was one of the founders of Dadaism. The New Horizons group not only legitimized abstract art in Israel but was also its dominant force up to the early 1960s.

Artists of the 1960s provided the connecting link between the activities of the New Horizons group and the search for individuality in the next decade. Streichman and Stematsky, both teachers at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv, strongly influenced a second generation of artists, including Raffi Lavi, Aviva Uri, Uri Lifschitz and Lea Nikel who, in their search for a personal imagery, challenged the refined brushwork of lyrical abstractionism with pluralistic works, encompassing various expressive and figurative abstract styles derived from sources abroad.

At Bezalel, Ardon's influence, especially with regard to themes and techniques, evidenced itself in the works of Avigdor Arikha, who developed a world of forms filled with intense spiritual meaning, and in the return to figurative themes evocative of the Holocaust and traditional Jewish subjects, as seen in the surrealistic paintings of Yossl Bergner and Samuel Bak. Jacob Agam is a pioneer in optic and kinetic art, and his work is exhibited in many countries.

While the minimalism characteristic of art in the 1970s almost always included amorphic, transparent forms reminiscent of local abstract painting, the exposition of ideas rather than aesthetics dominated the works of artists such as Larry Abramson and Moshe Gershuni. The artists of the 1980s and 1990s, working in an atmosphere of individual experimentation, appear to be searching for content and a sense of Israel's spirit by integrating a wide range of materials and techniques, as well as images based on local and universal elements as diverse as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the human emotions of stress and fear.

Current trends, as in the work of Pinhas Cohen-Gan, Deganit Beresht, Gabi Klasmer, Tsibi Geva, Tzvi Goldstein, David Reeb and others, continue to strive toward broadening the definition of Israeli art beyond its traditional concepts and materials, both as the unique expression of an indigenous culture and as a dynamic component of contemporary Western art.

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