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Essay on Jewish and Israeli Art

June 25, 2003

Before the nineteenth century painting was not recognised as a popular pastime amongst the Jewish people. This was due to the Jewish religion’s opposition to creating and painting any forms of imagery. In the nineteenth century there was an improvement in the standard of living across broad sections of many Jewish communities in Western and Central Europe, and this led to a cultural development and to imitation of their gentile neighbors.

First in Germany, and later in Holland, England, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, there was a demand for personal and family portraiture amongst Jewish communities, and many Jews turned to painting not only portraiture but also genre paintings, landscapes and Jewish folk subjects.

In Central and Eastern Europe there was a lot of anti-Semitism and it was very difficult for artists to gain recognition amongst non-Jews. There were artists like Edward Bendemann in Germany who solved the problem by abandoning Judaism. Others carried on working in their communities and sometimes reached national success like: Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1799-1882) in Germany; Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879) in Poland; Solomon Alexander Hart (1806-1881) in England.

The development of impressionism and neo-impressionism from c.1870 attracted a new generation of Jewish artists. Paris became the world’s main art centre and many artists left their homes in Central and Eastern Europe in order to study there. From this group there were many international successes: Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Jozef Israels (1824-1911) in Holland, Max Liebermann (1848-1935) and Lesser Ury (1861-1931) in Germany, Leon Bakst (1868-1924) and Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) in Russia.

The modern art development of the early twentieth century brought fame to many Jewish artists since, by that time, they were taking an active part in the formation of the new schools of art: Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Amadeo Modigliani and Jules Pascin are only a few of the Jewish artists who came from all over Europe (mainly from Eastern Europe) to work in Paris.

While in the nineteenth century in Europe many Jewish artists were enjoying successful careers, there were very few artists working in Palestine. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the Zionist Movement had captured the imagination of large sections of the Jewish community. The idea of Jews returning and building their homes in the Holy-Land fascinated many of them. Books and articles were written on how this should be done and amongst the conclusions was the idea that, side-by-side with the building of the country, there must develop a national and folkloristic Jewish art. This led to the establishment of the “Bezalel” School of Art in Jerusalem in 1906 by Professor Boris Schatz.

The school attracted Jewish artists to come and study in Palestine but it had difficulty in attracting good teachers, and those who came represented the European academic traditions. They disagreed with the modern art developments and encouraged Academic History painting and the Orientalist style. This discouraged many young artists who came to Palestine to join the school. These artists were fascinated by the new country’s people and landscape and wanted to express their feelings by developing a new style of art. They were very interested in the contemporary art developments in Paris, which is what had attracted (in the 1920’s) many artists to travel and study there.

The style of painting that these artists developed was influenced by Orientalism, Cubism and, most of all, by their fascination of the new country with it’s strong Mediterranean light and its primitive eastern features. Their paintings reflected a strong love for the land; a feature that is very rare in the history of art.

In the first few years Jerusalem was the main art center but from around 1920, Tel Aviv, a sunny city on the shores of the Mediterranean, became the main attraction for artists. Tel Aviv had an ambience that was quite different to that of Jerusalem with it’s dark alleys and religious nature. Tel Aviv was still a young and growing city with a pioneering atmosphere that inspired artists. With its exhibitions and “cafes”, it became the cultural center of the country, as it still is today.

Only two of the new generation of artists were born in Palestine; Ziona Tager and Moshe Castel. Nachum Gutman arrived as a child from Russia. The majority of the artists arrived around 1920 from Eastern Europe: Josef Zaritsky, born 1891 in Russia; Moshe Mokadi, born 1902 in Poland; Anna Ticho, born 1894 in Czechoslovakia; Israel Paldi, born 1893 in Russia; Aharon Avni, born 1906 in Russia; Mordechai Levanon, born 1901 in Hungary; Ariyeh Lubin, born 1897 in Germany; Yitzhak Frenkel, born 1900 in Russia; and finally Reuven Rubin, born 1893 in Romania. These are only a few artists from a very long list who were working in Palestine in the 1920’s.

As Jews continued to settle the Holy Land, the population grew and there were many new artists amongst the new immigrants. Israeli art developed from the pioneering years of the 1920’s into the 1930’s and 1940,s where one sees strong influences from the French Impressionist and Modern schools and also German Expressionism.

After 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, Israeli art began to mature and fit in with the international art scene. This could be seen with the formation of a group called New Horizon which concentrated on abstract work. In Israeli art of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s many influences of the international art scene are apparent but with the difference that many of the artists manage to give their work somewhat of an ‘Israeli’ feeling. Today there are literally thousands of artists working in Israel, supported by a nation who loves art.

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