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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Painting

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).

The first major art exhibition (1921), held at David's Citadel in Jerusalem's Old City, was dominated by painters from Bezalel. Soon afterwards, 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 Near 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 ten years earlier gradually disappeared and the oriental-Moslem 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 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. 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 towards 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 towards 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.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry