Special to the JTA 80 Years of Sculpture in Israel

The visitor to the Israel Museum in May and June found unusual objects — painted metal shutters that do not open, an iron gutter spout, miniature tents, a stone shrine with a bundle of twigs, giant garden rakes — all along the promenade leading to the museum itself.

These new works were but a small part of the exhibition, “80 Years of Sculpture in Israel.” The rest of the show, some 100 works, have been installed within and without the museum, and around Jerusalem in frequently visited locations, in the Valley of Hinnom below the Cinemateque, Liberty Bell Garden, downtown at the Ticho House and Gerard Behar Center and at the Jerusalem Theater.

The exhibit was an accompaniment to the Israel Festival-Jerusalem, a month-long cultural invasion of musicians, dancers and actors from the world over.

On the Sobbath before the exhibit opened, the weekly portion of the Torah read in the synagogues enjoined: “You shall make no idols (the Hebrew term “peael” means sculpture as well), neither shall you set up a graven image, or a pillar, neither sahll you place any figured stone in your land and bow down to it” (Leviticus 26:1).

SCULPTURES AVOIDED TILL RECENT TIMES

Over the centuries, when Jews participated in the other arts, such as mosaic making, the fashioning of ritual objects in silver and painting as both patrons and artists, sculpture was avoided, until modern times.

Even though it was no longer believed that sculptures were idols, there was a hesitancy on the part of Jewish artists to take up the medium and on the part of Jewish museums to exhibit it, and there were fewer Jewish art historians who studied it, as if the biblical taboo remained in the Jewish collective unconscious. Therefore, it is not surprising that this year’s event was the first large-scale retrospective and contemporary exhibition of Israeli sculpture.

Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in 1906, was himself a sculptor, and his small painted plaster Moses (1911) opens the exhibition in the Goldmuntz Pavillion of Israeli Art. Schatz’s heroes of the Bible were romantic symbols of the heroic pioneers of Eretz Israel.

WORKS OF THE EARLY SCULPTORS IN ISRAEL

The works of the early sculptors in Israel were executed in the traditional materials of stone, wood and bronze. They are intimate in scale, pleasing and conventional, and show the stylistic influence of European sculpture, first the French Rodin and Maillol, then the German expressionists.

Cubism, Constructivism, and other world art movements, more recently minimalism, conceptual and environmental art were and still are being absorbed by Israeli artists. But local sculptors from the 1930′s known as the Canaonites sought their roots and inspiration in the ancient land of Israel and its pagan mythology.

Even the animals who inhabited the land in biblical times and provided the Bible with symbolism once more served in modern times: the monumental stone lion to the heroes of Tel-Hai by Mordecai Melnikov (1926), or the head of a ram by Mordecai Gumpel (1948-49), the sandstone Nimrud (1939) and the bronze desert sheep of the 1950′s by Itzhak Danziger. These indoor sculptures are now the classics of Israel’s near past.

While the land of Israel was the inspiration for the subject matter in earlier days, to contemporary sculptors it has provided the medium: its earth, its rocks and its trees, few that there are. Beersheva sculptor Hava Mehutan, whose early works were figurative, in addition to turning to the land for her materials, now expresses in obstract form the geological layers of Israel and their revelation. On the walkway to the museum she exhibits stripped wooden logs wrapped with canvas and lead.

EXHIBITION IMPLEMENTED IN RECORD TIME

The exhibition was planned and implemented in record time for a museum show; it was in January of this year that curators Tamar Goldschmidt, Dr. Michael Levin and Ygal Zalmona knew that they would be opening a major exhibit in mid-May. Only then were artists from all over the country commissioned.

The identifying labels were still being affixed five minutes before the official opening of the Israel Festival on the plaza at the museum’s entrance, on what seemed to be the hottest day of the year. Some sculptors already had monumental works in progress; for others it was a new challenge; some loaned completed works.

What do residents of Jerusalem and visitors think of the show? Some think it’s great, that the works were well placed and that they make the public aware of their surroundings. A bus does not pass by the Israel Museum without someone commenting on the whispy looking 15-meter high Pershing missile by Dov Or-Nir, made, ironically, from olive branches.

Others look upon the exhibit as a joke and wonder how contemporary sculptors can call themselves artists. Others wax philosophical on the meaning of sculpture. There is no doubt that many of the sculptors intended to delight. A blue lycra two-meter Man with a book under his arm by Raya Redlich in the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden seems to be about to tell you something important. Shaul (Tuli) Bauman developed and painted photographs of his friends on the rocks bordering part the garden around the Jerusalem Theater.

And during intermission at the theater, crowds gather around Philip Rantzer’s kinetic sculpture, The Wondering Jew. On one and of a long, low wrought iron frame a hat sits atop an amplifier, while at the other end there is a violin. Press a button and the bow is activated to emit a scatchy note. If this is art, then art is fun, just as the whole israel Festival has been fun.

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