Special Online Project
90 works, 90 weeks, 90 years
In 2022, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will turn 90.
The Square marks this milestone with a serial tribute to the Museum’s collection — both its familiar, iconic works and the ones that are usually unseen.
Every week, over ninety weeks, one work from the collection will be displayed on the Square page for each of the Museum’s ninety years, in ascending chronological order from 1932, the year the Museum opened, through 2022.
Over time, the pages of the Square will form a kind of an episodic exhibition of ninety installments. The story that will gradually unfold is one of a museum as seen through the history of its collection, which indirectly is also that of art from the early twentieth century to the present day.
The Live Square
There is also a Live Square, its boundaries outlined on the marble floor of the entrance hall to the Museum’s Main Building, measuring 8.40×8.40 meters. It is surrounded by a wide, open, high, and mostly square space, intersected by three diagonals, that has long since been referred to as iconic. Within this square outline, surrounded by a sound box of Brutalist architecture, various performances, presentations, meetings, and conversations will be held.
Sometimes one needs nothing more than a Square — preferably in a good location.
Announcements about the Live Square activities will be posted here.
The year is 1932. A new museum is being opened in Tel Aviv, in Paris they are celebrating what Hemingway would later call “A Moveable Feast.” There are two people sitting in the wagon on Blvd. Saint-Jacques: a fortune teller, perhaps a gypsy, and in front of her an elegant woman, her hat worn slightly at an angle, in the rakish fashion of the time. The walls of the wagon are adorned with Japanese paintings, and from the particular angle at which Brassaï photographed this intimate moment — of a woman seeking to know what the future holds in store for her — a painted Japanese warrior appears to be emerging from the woman’s hat; it seems like a second, prosthetic head, exotic but also foreboding. On the tablecloth, next to various Far Eastern paraphernalia, is a deck of cards, for the fortune teller’s use when forecasting the future for her customers. In the meantime, she holds the woman’s palm, and is examining it with a magnifying glass. What does she see? Love? Money? Happiness? Does she see war on the horizon? Occupation? Does she see even a hint of everything we already know about the future of 1932? Brassaï’s Paris is still far from all of that. It is reveling in the freedom proclaimed by Surrealism, drawn to mysticism and exoticism, and celebrating being the center of the art world. In the frozen moment of this photograph, the Japanese warriors painted on the walls of the wagon are the only harbingers of what is about to happen — which we recognize only in hindsight. The future of the twentieth century is imminent, and the journey to the Square is also beginning, with a fortune teller reading a woman’s palm.
Nothing in the casual title — Woman in an Armchair — or in the formal exploration that spurred its creation reveals the dramatic circumstances of the work’s arrival at the Tel Aviv Museum. Circumstances that are already emphatically present here, which Brassaï’s gypsy fortune teller did not probably see in the cards (see “The Square” 1932). On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed German Chancellor, in March that year the first concentration camp was established in Dachau, followed immediately by harsh legislation against the Jews — and in November 1933, some five hundred works of art were dispatched, furtively, from Berlin to Tel Aviv, like refugees. Among them were thirty sculptures, reliefs, paintings, and drawings by Alexander Archipenko, a Ukrainian artist who had lived in Paris between 1908 and 1923, where he developed his artistic style: Cubist, colorful, on the cusp between figurative and abstract. Erich Goeritz, a Jewish art collector and textile manufacturer from Berlin, was the owner of the hundreds of works that arrived here in late 1933. He was one of the first collectors to respond to the call of Dr. Karl Schwartz, who arrived in Tel Aviv in June and was appointed director of the Tel Aviv Museum. Schwartz’s arrival marked the beginning of the Berlin–Tel Aviv route on which the Museum’s collection was based: he recommended to Jewish collectors to send their art collections for safekeeping at the Museum to save them from what might happen — and ultimately did. Fortunately — for the Museum, for Goeritz, and for Archipenko — the works arrived in Tel Aviv in time, and safely. Goeritz himself moved with his family to London, where he died in 1955. Archipenko had already left Europe for the United States in 1923, leaving behind most of his works. The corpus of his work that Goeritz had purchased and became part of the Museum’s collection is a rare encapsulation of his early, groundbreaking work, whose history is part of the tragic events of the first half of the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, in Paris. Still Paris. In the summer of 1934, the motif of “The Mysterious Baths” first appeared in Giorgio De Chirico’s work, in ten lithographs that he published in Paris for a collection of Jean Cocteau’s poems titled Mythologie. The Museum’s collection contains three prints of this series — which is mythical, magical, and shrouded in mystery. Even when de Chirico’s images seem to be readily recognizable — people bathing in the sea, for example — there is something enigmatic about them. The image of the baths originated in de Chirico’s childhood memories from his hometown of Volos in Greece, on the Aegean coast, where huts on wooden stilts were ranged along the seaside, serving as changing stalls for bathers, accessed by wooden ladders. But that’s just a literal description. In years to come, de Chirico described the wonder that he felt at the sight of these changing huts planted in the water, into which smartly dressed people entered, fully attired, and completely other people emerged, with bare and vulnerable bodies. As they entered the water, they seemed to him to assume the dimensions of mythological figures — semi-gods, semi-aquatic creatures. The water itself is drawn with zig-zag lines, like a parquet floor. Subsequently this baths motif appeared repeatedly in his drawings and paintings. In 1973, five years before his death, it also featured in an outdoor sculpture, titled The Mysterious Baths Fountain, in a park in Milan. Within the fountain (which lay neglected for years, until it was recently renovated) one can see the images that first appeared in de Chirico’s lithographs of 1934: a hut on stilts, bathing men, and water that is a floor, with zig-zag lines. A private mystery, that confronts the observer in the most profound, and not necessarily conscious, places of collective myths.
The bronze sculpture from 1935 brings together two prominent female figures in the cultural life of pre-independence Israel: Hanna Rovina, often referred to as the “First Lady of the Hebrew Theater,” and the sculptor Chana Orloff. Both were born in 1888 — Rovina in Minsk, and Orloff in the Ukraine. Orloff emigrated from Tel Aviv to Paris in 1910, but maintained continuous contact with Palestine. Her Parisian home became a meeting place for Jewish and Israeli artists who made a pilgrimage to Paris in the first decades of the century (even after it lost its status as the preeminent capital of the art world). In 1935, the year in which she sculpted Rovina’s portrait, Orloff held her first exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, at its first abode at Dizengoff House. In the following years, she held several more shows at the Museum, including in 1949, when Dr. Haim Gamzu, the Museum’s director at the time, wrote about her: “In the portrait, she penetrates the innermost recesses of the model’s soul, revealing attributes of which we had no inkling, enhancing all that is characteristic of it through accentuation, with a hint of prankish playfulness, domestic affection, and a desire to highlight that which might be blurred by the customary compromises made by portrait artists.”
Gamzu’s writing style, it seems, has dated more than Orloff’s sculptural language. Her Rovina is graceful and alert, the restrained pathos befitting her character, which was well aware of her public persona. In 1958, on the tenth anniversary of Israel’s independence, a reenactment of the state’s founding ceremony took place at the Tel Aviv Museum, and Rovina was the obvious choice for reading the Declaration of Independence. One can easily imagine her on that occasion: erect, calm and collected, conscious of the solemnity of the moment and her own status — exactly as she is depicted in Orloff’s sculpted portrait. Rovina lived till the age of 91, and as the old saying goes, stayed on stage almost until her dying day. Orloff died at the age of eighty, on a visit to Israel on the occasion of yet another exhibition of hers at the Tel Aviv Museum. Eighteen of her sculptures are in the Museum’s collections.
The story of this lithograph is an unbelievable example of the convoluted journey that some images take. It began at the instigation of the Tourist Development Association of Palestine, which hired the services of Franz Kraus — a Viennese graphic designer who arrived in Israel in 1934, after fleeing Berlin and waiting two years in Barcelona for an entry visa. The lithograph was meant to be a poster, and it does indeed employ all possible visual devices to entice prospective tourists to visit Palestine. Kraus’s Palestine is revealed through the branches of an olive tree, dipped in golden light, in a seductive encapsulation of the Holy Land: the Old City walls, the Dome of the Rock, the Judean Mountains. It is a holy, idyllic landscape empty of people, belying the reality of 1936 — which, in fact, was fraught with the greatest possible tensions: the great Arab Uprising, which had just broken out; the British Mandatory regime; and the situation in Europe. The tourist slogan “Visit Palestine” (rather than, for example, “Run for your lives!”) lies below the idyllic landscape as if all was peace and harmony.
Nearly fifty years later, in 1981, David Tartakover curated a solo exhibition of Kraus’s works at the Tel Aviv Museum, which cemented his status as one of the pioneers of local graphic design. In 1995, Tartakover reproduced the Visit Palestine poster, in a thousand copies, with the blessing of ninety-year-old Kraus. In the meantime, the depicted landscape had become the heart of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; in the meantime, the Oslo Accords had been signed, followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and in the 2000s copies of the poster began being distributed in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. The original intended recipients of the poster — the Jews of the Diaspora of the 1930s — were now replaced by other recipients, and its title can no longer be read without a full dose of irony, through the bitter screens of history.
Even when she produced a self-portrait, Käthe Kollwitz used her art as a call to action. One of the most political artists of the twentieth century, Kollwitz made deliberate and consistent use of images in order to highlight the suffering and injustices of the world. Women and children, the soft underbelly of humanity, appear repeatedly in her work: mothers mourning with their dead child in their arms, starving children clinging to their desperate mother. Her self-portrait of 1919 was painted five years after the death of her son in World War I, reflecting the power of art that is at once utterly personal and utterly political. A grieving mother — and a universal symbol of bereavement.
Kollwitz repeatedly created her tormented self-portrait, in drawings, sculptures, and various types of print, each re-embodying the personal tragedy she experienced and the general suffering she was aware of. Five of these self-portraits are in the Museum’s collection. The lithograph displayed here conveys not only the despair and suffering of 1919, but also heralds the tragedy of the future World War II, as it was donated to the Museum in 1937 by Berlin collector Max Matheus, along with about sixty other works by various artists, including Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Oskar Kokoschka. Matheus and his wife perished in the Holocaust, and works from his collection were confiscated by the Nazis. Some of them apparently ended up in the collection of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who traded in Jewish art during the war. Käthe Kollwitz’s tormented profile encapsulates all these injustices.
A canvas painted on both sides holds the promise of some sort of behind-the-scenes information, a duality, question marks. There is the front, official and visible side — and an obverse side, unseen, maybe even concealed. This two-sided painting by Yohanan Simon fulfills the promise of an enigma: its recto is a portrait of Elizabeth Schwarz, wife of Karl Schwarz, the first director of the Tel Aviv Museum; the identity of the nude woman depicted on the verso remains in dispute.
What we do know is this: Dr. Karl Schwarz, a Jewish art historian living in Berlin, married Elizabeth (a nude model for painters, according to one account), and they had two sons. The four of them arrived in Tel Aviv in the course of 1933, following Schwarz’s appointment as the Museum’s director. Yohanan Simon and Karl Schwarz met in Berlin, became friends and held each other in great esteem. At Schwarz’s recommendation, Simon received a training scholarship in Paris, and when he arrived in Palestine in 1936, Schwarz hosted him at his home. Simon painted Mrs. Schwarz’s portrait in 1938. In it, she is gazing directly at the viewer, meticulously elegant and self-assured, possibly accustomed to sitting for a painter. The verso of the canvas, however, tells a different, more intimate, uncertain story: a fragmented nude body, a downcast gaze. Is this also Mrs. Schwarz? When was she painted? Well, it depends whom you ask.
Dr. Doron Lurie, the Museum’s chief conservator for 33 years, recounts that he found the picture with its back side covered in plaster. In 2001 the plaster was removed in preparation for the exhibition Yohanan Simon: Dual Portrait at the Museum, curated by Tali Tamir. In any event, both sides of the painting are a far cry from both the Marxist Socialism of Simon’s kibbutz period and the Abstract Surrealism of the ensuing years. Or, as claimed by Tamir, Mrs. Schwarz’s portrait represents the Post-Impressionist Simon, who sought to carve out a career as a contemporary painter in the capital of modernist art at the time, Paris. When the circumstances of European history forced him to change course and settle in a kibbutz in Israel, he was able, with his accomplished skills, to develop a local socialist style, as befitting the figure of an ideological artist. Presumably, he brought the canvas with the female nude with him from Europe, and used its reverse side as the canvas for Elizabeth Schwarz’s portrait. In this case, it seems that the front side is actually the “other side.”
This is Maurycy Gottlieb’s most famous painting, and one of the major pre-twentieth century works in the Museum’s collection. Gottlieb was only 22 years old when he painted this complex scene, which features some twenty figures. Much has been written about it: the composition that winds its way upwards, the ceremonial nature of the Yom Kippur prayer, the location of the event — the synagogue in Drohobych, Gottlieb’s hometown — and the autobiographical aspect of the painting. Among the identifiable figures are Gottlieb’s parents; his ex-fiancée, Laura; and he himself, in three stages of his life: as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man.
Karl Schwartz, the first director of the Museum, first saw the painting in a gallery in Berlin around 1913. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, he was thrilled to see it again at a private residence in Amsterdam. He was in the midst of a journey across Europe, visiting Jewish collectors in an attempt to persuade them to donate their collections to the Museum, not always successfully, but the case of Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur was one of his great successes. Sidney Lamon, the painting’s owner, a Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, was persuaded that it would be best for the work to be kept at the new museum in Tel Aviv. Accordingly, in July 1939 the painting arrived in Tel Aviv, and was ceremoniously hung on the first floor of the Museum. In many ways, it symbolizes the first stage in the history of the Museum: an academic painting, by a Jewish painter, about Jewish life in the Diaspora. In the ensuing phase of the Museum’s evolution, which focused on contemporary — particularly Israeli — art, Gottlieb’s painting represented for most local artists what they wanted to repress and get away from. How relevant has the painting been to generations of artists who have seen it on the Museum walls since 1939? Is the Jewish chapter of nineteenth-century art part of the story of art in Israel? Today, with the benefit of hindsight, long after the stormy conflict between Israeli and Jewish art, it behooves us first and foremost to admire the qualities of this monumental painting — and perhaps to consider its retrospective adoption as a venerable ancestor.
Summer in America, 1940. In Europe a war is raging, but on Coney Island Beach, Brooklyn, New York, an enormous Ferris wheel is turning round and crowds of vacationers in swimsuits, their heads turned in unison and their hands shielding their eyes from the scorching sun (the 4 p.m. sun, to be precise, as the title indicates), are gazing. At what, exactly? At whom? Apparently at the photographer, who is standing at the top of a tall structure, drawing their attention, taking pictures and immortalizing with his camera this moment of compressed humanity. For eyes that have lived through COVID-19, this congestion seems utterly inconceivable.
In 1980, Micha Bar-Am curated a solo exhibition of Weegee’s work at the Tel Aviv Museum. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Dr. Michael Levin, the Museum’s director at the time, described the swarm of people crowded on Coney Island as a “human tin of sardines.” Something in that crude expression is indeed fitting for Weegee’s harsh gaze. As a press photographer, who specialized in crime and murder scenes, Coney Island was one of the few non-crime scenes that he returned to repeatedly. But even when he directs his camera at the popular resort, the resulting image is more hellish than pleasing. A beachless beach scene, a mass of people with no access to the sea, and sunlight as fierce as the flashes that characterized his nighttime shots.
This photograph is one of Weegee’s best-known images even though, as previously noted, he is best known as a photographer of nocturnal, dark, unsettling scenes. The iconic nature of the image springs from the fact that it is a fascinating group portrait of a particular generation, of a particular class, at a particular moment, but also because it is a metaphor of the very act of gazing: thousands of people looking at the camera, and the photographer looking back — and presenting them to us, the viewers, as they are held in thrall to the camera, walk-on extras in a scene that is all about gazes. One moment, the gazing people merge into an anonymous mass; the next, this mass dissolves into its constituents (a Chinese guy standing on his friend’s shoulders, teenage girls being carried on the shoulders of teenage boys, children, women in all models of swimwear); and in the next zoom out, it is once again the collective gaze of thousands of people.
The year is 1939. An automobile stops in front of 22 Archimedes Street in Brussels. A couple is hiding in the attic: the German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, and the Polish painter Felka Platek. She manages to escape, but he is captured and sent to the Saint-Cyprien internment camp in the south of France. From there he is sent on a transport to the east, jumps off the train, and manages to return to Brussels and reunite with his beloved.
The year is 1941, once again at 22 Archimedes Street. Nussbaum is painting his self-portrait as an inmate at the Saint-Cyprien camp, alongside another inmate. A barbed wire fence, a key, and an expression of rage are new features in his work, courtesy of Saint-Cyprien. On the flip side of the same piece of plywood he paints a distant memory from Rome, where he stayed in 1932 with Platek at Villa Massimo, the local branch of the Weimar Republic Academy of Arts. Depicting a boat in a river, an open landscape, and an atmosphere of leisure and freedom, the verso of the painting is like an apparition from another era.
The year is 1944. Once again, a limousine stops in front of 22 Archimedes Street in Brussels. This time, no one escapes: Nussbaum and Platek are both taken to the last train that leaves Belgium for Auschwitz, where they are murdered a few months later — Platek on the 2nd of August, Nussbaum a week later.
The year is 1991. The assistant curator in the Department of Modern Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art leaves a note to the head of the department, with these words: “A man named Maurice called. He is staying at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. He has a painting by an artist by the name of Felix Nussbaum, that he’s interested in donating. Have you heard of that painter? Interested in meeting him?” The curator meets with him — and the painting is donated to the Museum, with the credit line: “In memory of all the victims of fascism.”
This painting was made in 1942, a year after Marcel Janco arrived in Palestine. His arrival sparked much excitement within the local art community, for he was an internationally renowned artist, whose name preceded him as one of the founders of Dada. Since Chagall’s visit, no artist of such stature had ever set foot in the Holy Land. Moreover, while Chagall had shown up and immediately returned to Paris, Janco had come to stay. “This is a new country,” he declared shortly after his arrival, “and here a new world will be forged — a new society and, of course, new art. Let’s see what I can contribute to creating this new art”! Landscape of Eretz Israel was one of the paintings on display at his solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum that same year, and Janco subsequently donated it to the Museum’s collection.
As is evident from the painting, Janco the new immigrant was captivated by the local scenery and its people, and threw himself into painting it with gusto — much like Delacroix in Morocco and Algeria, Van Gogh in Arles, or Gauguin in Tahiti. Palm trees and an arched gate, colorful houses immersed in greenery, a donkey and its rider, a line of women walking bearing pottery jars on their heads — Janco’s new painterly world was exotic and exciting, and in hindsight highly Orientalist, of course. Although the painting’s official title is the somewhat generic Landscape of Eretz Israel, the reverse side of the canvas bears the inscription “Landscape of Herzliya.” In fact, its rustic portrayal proved to be very similar to Janco’s future paintings — those of Ein Hod, which he produced a decade or more later, and which have since become the ones that he is best known for.
The Ein Hod chapter of Janco’s life was another in which the epithet “founder” became appended to his name. In 1953, he first arrived at the abandoned Arab village of Ein Hawd, at the foot of Mount Carmel, as part of his work at the Planning Department of the Prime Minister’s Office. His job was to identify areas that could be converted into national parks, but he designated Ein Hawd to be an artist colony. His romantic-Orientalist landscape painting of Herzliya — colorful, sensual, and full of enchantment — is a harbinger, already in his second year in the country, of a complexity that would culminate a decade later, with the founding of Ein Hod: The application of a utopian idea from nineteenth-century Europe (an artist colony) within the political reality of Israel; the local landscape and its native people as an artistic source of inspiration; and the beauty of painting as a repression of the political.
In 1943, the Tel Aviv Museum held an exhibition on behalf of Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) — the economic arm of the World Zionist Organization. It was well and truly a propaganda exhibition, as befits the period, one that naturally (also in the spirit of the times) incorporated works of art. Besides tables, diagrams, and statistics that documented the Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel, praised the war effort of the Jewish community, and sang the praises of the agriculture and industry in the country, there were also photographs and sculptures by some artists. The design and construction of the exhibition was entrusted to Studio Machner-Wallish, which specialized in producing conferences and exhibitions of this sort. Otte Wallish was the moving spirit behind the studio, and Dr. Ernst Machner was his business partner at the time.
The drawing shown here is one of ten sketches made for the exhibition Fight and Work: The Face of Land and Nation, which Wallish drew in pencil on paper. These tell us something about the works of art on display at the exhibition (photographs by Zoltan Kluger, sculptures by Jacob Epstein, urban planning drawings by Richard Kauffmann) and their layout (with all due pathos, of course). They also give an idea of the drawing capabilities of Wallish himself, who is best known today as one of the country’s top poster artists at the time and as being responsible for the design and production of Israel’s declaration of independence event in 1948. Most impressive of all is the drawing shown here, which depicts the large photographs of Helmar Lerski, portraying the faces of Jewish soldiers who had volunteered for the Jewish Brigade in the British Army. The installation depicted in the drawing is not from the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum but from the Knesset Hall at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, where the exhibition subsequently traveled to. From there, it traveled on to Jerusalem, Johannesburg, and New York, and was even presented at the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel. The drawing itself was put on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2015, as part of a comprehensive exhibition of Otte Wallish’s works curated by Emanuela Calò. After the exhibition, Wallish’s son donated the series of drawings to the Museum.
The small red rectangle in the center of the painting is a bus that is traveling on a road, as well as a form. As a form, it would gradually develop a special status in the history of Israeli painting, for red rectangles in Arie Aroch’s work are landmarks in the mythology of the local art scene. The Red Bus was the first in a series of six paintings of buses in mountains that Aroch produced in the 1940s and 1950s. Over the years, they became so characteristic of his work, that the very notion of “a bus in the mountains” came to embody the hallmarks of Aroch’s oeuvre: conceptual, sophisticated, enigmatic formality.
The most famous in the series are the later buses in the mountains, which are more abstract and scribbled. In them, the red rectangle becomes more distant from the original shape of the bus, to the point that, were it not for the title, it is doubtful we would have identified it as such. Precisely in light of these more radical sequels, it is interesting to examine the first bus that began it all: mountain scenery in the Galilee, rocks and houses, and a red bus with dark windows on the road — right in the middle of the road, and right in the middle of the painting. Attached to the red rectangle of the bus is an extension, with etching-like marks made by the tip of the brush. The painting still adheres to its origin in the real world, its vocabulary bears traces of Cubism and Expressionism, and it is still far from the typical Aroch painting. Nonetheless, some of the elements that would later be associated with him are already discernible: the adjacency of red and blue, the etching-like marks in the paint — and, as previously noted, the red rectangle, which would reappear in various guises in future, in paintings such as How Are Things at Home (1960), The Red Table (1960), A Russian Hat and Boot (1965), and even Agrippas Street (1964).
The Red Bus was first exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1947, and then again in 1949, as part of an exhibition of the “New Horizons” group of artists. Gabriel Talpir, who wrote about it in the art monthly Gazit, saw it as something futuristic. Years later, art scholar Gideon Ofrat argued that the painting was actually static, and reflected the alienation between people and nature. Either way, The Red Bus was an important starting point in the establishment of a local master.
The role of the artist’s wife is often thankless. She is there by his side as a model and a muse, and usually also as a personal assistant or manager, while he reaps all the glory. History rewards her, however, by immortalizing her. Tzila Streichman is one of the quintessential instances of an artist’s wife in Israeli art: a model and muse to her husband, Yehezkel Streichman, over decades, her image crops up repeatedly in countless paintings, on paper and on canvas. But even though she is the inspiration for so many paintings, there is no knowing what she really looked like — which is not surprising, with a painter like Streichman, who gradually strives for abstraction. In fact, he uses Tzila’s image as the starting point for exploring formal issues and questions of painting; he begins a painting with her — in oil, watercolor, or pencil — and takes it from there. Her presence in the painting is much like that of a landscape or a still-life: he needs an anchor in reality only to depart from it.
Portrait of Tzila was first exhibited in 1945, the year it was painted, at Streichman’s solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum. In 2006, in honor of the centenary of the artist’s birth, an exhibition dedicated to his portraits of Tzila was put on at the Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery in Tel Aviv. From these dozens of paintings, none of which was a realistic portrait, her image — or at least hints of it, certainly the aura that enveloped her — nonetheless emerges: brunette, thin, and collected.
The Family of Man, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, is still considered the most popular photography exhibition ever held, and one that changed the status of photography. A decade after the end of World War II, Edward Steichen, the museum’s curator of photography, sought to show, through hundreds of photographs from around the world, that we are all, still and in spite of everything, one big family. He concluded the exhibition with Eugene Smith’s The Walk to Paradise Garden, taken in 1946: two small children, Smith’s son and daughter, holding hands, walking out of the darkness toward the light. The circumstances of the photograph contributed to its symbolic status and its turning into an iconic image: Eugene Smith, a well-known press photographer, had served as a wartime photographer in the Pacific during World War II, and in 1944 was seriously wounded by a mortar shell. He returned home to the United States, where he underwent a series of surgeries to remove the shrapnel that had penetrated his skull and left hand. Then, one spring day in 1946, still wracked with pain and feeling professionally lost, he spotted his children, Pat and Juanita, hurrying to a clearing at the edge of the family garden. With great difficulty, he managed to load his camera and captured the moment on film, and experienced an epiphany: “I suddenly realized that at this moment, in spite of everything, in spite of all the wars…I wanted to sing a sonnet to life, and to find the courage to go on living it.”
Smith was known as a photographer who did not spare his viewers harsh views, nor tried to soften in his photographs the suffering and injustices he saw around him. The optimistic Walk to Paradise Garden, full of tenderness and faith in life, departs from the general timbre of his photographs and manages — even to this day, decades later — to instill a sense that everything may be alright, after all.
The Museum has more than two hundred of Smith’s photographs in its holdings.
In 1947 Karl Schwarz retired from his position as director of the Tel Aviv Museum after fourteen years. He left behind a museum that had become Tel Aviv’s leading cultural institution. This portrait of him was made in Berlin, in 1920. In a few quick strokes, a Czech Jewish painter produced a portrait of a German Jewish curator of about the same age: Friedrich (Feigl) Bedřich was 36 at the time, Schwarz was 35. Seven years later, in 1927, Schwarz was appointed art curator of the Jewish community in Berlin, and in the following years worked to found the Jewish Museum in the city. When the museum finally opened, on January 24, 1933, it was at an inauspicious moment in history: a week later, Hitler would be appointed Chancellor of Germany. The Jewish Museum in Berlin continued to operate until 1938, when the Nazis shut it down and confiscated its collections. Schwarz was already, fortunately, in Tel Aviv at the time, as the first director of the Tel Aviv Museum.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s collection has seventy works by Bedřich, including six more portraits of Schwarz. Schwarz donated them all to the museum, along with other works from his private collection. The paths of the painter and the curator had crossed on one other occasion, in 1928, in a book published by Schwarz, titled The Jews in Art, where Bedřich is noted as one of a long list of Jewish artists.
Bedřich remained in Europe until 1939, when he managed to escape to London with his wife. From then on, until his death, he lived in London, and regularly exhibited at the Ben-Uri Gallery in the city, which specialized in Jewish art. The portrait of Schwarz — painted at the start of the careers of both men, when they saw their future as an integral part of Berlin — commemorates the man who had no inkling at the time that one day he would become part of the story of a remote city in the Middle East. His departure from the Museum’s management in 1947 marks the end of the first chapter in the Museum’s history.
Lesser Ury painted this pastoral landscape in 1908, in an area in northern Germany that earned its Swiss appellation due to its resemblance to the postcard landscapes of Switzerland: hills, lakes, and forests. Switzerland as a metaphor. The painting arrived at the Tel Aviv Museum in the 1930s, and was one of the pieces in the Museum’s collection on permanent view in its first abode, at Meir Dizengoff House. Ury’s pictorial style is rooted in the German Impressionist tradition, in the quiet and pastoral atmosphere of the turn of the twentieth century. Forty years after its making, Ury’s European landscape painting gained an unexpected moment of glory when, on Friday, May 14, 1948, the Tel Aviv Museum served as the venue for the proclamation of Israel’s independence, and the paintings that hung on the Museum walls bore silent witness to the historic event. Some twenty of these works were from the Museum’s collection, including Tashlikh by Samuel Hirszenberg (1907); After the Pogrom (1905) and Despair (1916) by Maurycy Minkowski; and Jew with a Torah Scroll (1925) by Marc Chagall, which had been donated to the Museum as early as 1931, a year before its inauguration. Almost all the artists whose works were present at the ceremony were Jews — most of them no longer alive — and most of the works that served as a silent backdrop to Israel’s Declaration of Independence depicted gloomy representations of the Jewish diaspora’s rituals. But in the historical black-and-white photographs documenting the event, it is Ury’s landscape that takes pride of place — quintessentially European, with not a hint of Jewish life, nor any signs of trauma that might be read in retrospect. Location, location, location, as they say. Lesser Ury’s painting hung to the right of David Ben-Gurion — and so, in every photograph of the proclamation of the founding of Israel taken a little further back from the stage and capturing the table with a picture of Herzl and the state flags above it, one also sees the Swiss-looking German lake.
Jamus is the Arabic name of this heavy-set animal, which is also known by Hebrew speakers by its English name, water buffalo, and less so by its Hebrew name, te’o-mayim. When Yitzhak Danziger sketched the front half of a jamus in 1949, in fine pencil lines, he was creating a kind of monument for an animal that was on its way to becoming an endangered species. Prior to Israel’s declaration of independence, water buffalo had been part of the local landscape and closely identified with it — in particular, with Lake Hula in the northern Jordan Valley, but also with the Yarkon River north of Tel Aviv, where they left behind traces in neighborhood names, such as Jamusin. When the Lake Hula and surrounding swampland was drained in the 1950s, the water buffalo almost entirely disappeared along with an entire ecosystem.
In Danziger’s repository of images, the jamus stands next to several other local fauna: sheep, deer, snakes, birds, and jackals. The horned animals among these appeared in his works as an extension of representations of sacrifice, with clear associations with the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac and sacrificial altars. Since the jamus also has horns, and is also a farm animal (albeit not a very fertile one), it too joins the depictions of ritual sacrifice, but takes them further: because of its strong association with the Muslim inhabitants of the land, it symbolizes not only human takeover of nature, but also the consequences of the Zionist enterprise for the land and for its indigenous inhabitants — human and otherwise. This one-eyed pitiful jamus from 1949, its head cast down and its body only partly drawn, might be seen as a commemorative drawing.
Looking at this painting by Milton Avery — with its papercut-like forms and flat color surfaces — one can understand why he was called “the American Matisse.” It is easy to see the French aspects of his painting, with its legacy of Fauvism and Cubism, but it is also interesting to see how he incorporates into it the completely different hallmarks of popular American art, namely, papercuts and naïve art. All American artists who worked in the first half of the twentieth century were nourished by European art and took it further, usually in the direction that would ultimately become Abstract Expressionism. Avery’s painting is more low-key — intimate, quiet and delicate, and American in its own way. His professional training consisted of only one semester of charcoal-drawing studies in Hartford, Connecticut — the city where he grew up.
The figure reading the book is Avery’s daughter March, who, like his wife, modeled for many of his paintings. Although she is depicted with no facial features and with minimum detail, he manages nonetheless to convey character, atmosphere, and mood. This painting of March was produced at an artists’ colony in Woodstock, where the family spent the summer of 1950. It is medium in size, and yet there is something monumental about the purplish-light-blue figure, with its long gathered legs, merging with a brown-and-purple background that comes across both as landscape and interior. The oil paints are diluted with turpentine, so that they appear on the canvas as though they were water colors, which adds to the delicacy of the painting. Coupled with its classic and harmonious qualities, Summer Reader becomes, like other Avery paintings, a moving, charming, American version of the French Impressionist leisure paintings of the late nineteenth century.
Jacques Lipchitz’s reputation is based on Cubist sculpture, typically heavy and voluminous, that he developed following his encounter with African sculpture and Picasso’s sculpture. This dancer belongs to a period when his work became more rounded and softer than his earlier, more angular sculptures. The image of a contorted dancer with a hood gave rise to a whole series of sculptures in which Lipchitz sought to express motion: of body organs, of a floating scarf, and of long, braided hair. To gain a full appreciation of the sculpture, viewers are expected to move around it and thereby take part in the motion.
This sculpture entered the museum’s collection in 1951, four years after its creation. It was donated by Alma Morgenthau, a philanthropist and art collector who, like quite a few of her ilk, was a unique woman, with a penchant for the avant-garde culture of her time. Her friends included the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Alexander Calder, and Isadora Duncan, and she met Lipchitz in New York, after he had fled from France to the United States in 1941. In her youth, she acquired a musical education and spent most of her energy and time promoting American avant-garde music. She supported struggling composers in the early days of their career, such as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and others. The pinnacle of her work in the field of modern music was the founding of the Cos Cob Press. In its nine years of operation, it published 34 volumes of sheet music by young American composers, which no other commercial publisher was willing to do.
Apart from the sculpture by Lipchitz, Morgenthau donated 23 other works to the Tel Aviv Museum, all classics of twentieth-century art. As the daughter of an esteemed family in American history, most of whose famous scions were men, she was able to make her mark as a woman with her own tastes and with a passion for and commitment to contemporary art.
In 1952, the museum’s collection was enriched with 36 works by the best artists of the period, donated by Peggy Guggenheim. Among them was Roberto Matta’s Deep Stones, a painting that beautifully conveys the Surrealist spirit: unidentified forms floating around in a fantasy landscape and various entities rising up from below the surface, as though they were a reflection of the movement between the conscious and the subconscious. One could say that Surrealism was Roberto Matta’s vocation: he began his professional career as an architect, but after meeting members of the Surrealist group in Paris in 1937 turned to painting and became a quintessential exponent of that school.
He spent the years of World War II in New York, where he met Peggy Guggenheim, a key figure in the New York art world of those years. In 1942, Guggenheim opened the Art of This Century gallery — a bastion of avant-garde art of the period — and in the opening show she exhibited Deep Stones alongside other Surrealist works. Her gallery played a pivotal role in exposing American artists to the new trends of Abstract art, Cubism, and Surrealism. In time, these artists — including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Arshile Gorky — went on to become leading figures of the New York School.
After the war, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice, along with her art collection. There, in 1950, she met Eugene Kolb, the then director of the Tel Aviv Museum and the curator of the Israeli Pavilion at that year’s Biennale. They became friends, and thanks to the warm bond between them, two years later Guggenheim donated to the museum various works by her gallery artists (Pollock, Yves Tanguy, Ben Nicholson, Man Ray, André Masson, and others). This extraordinary collection, including the painting by Matta, was put on display at the Museum in the 1955 exhibition Abstract and Surrealist Paintings, attracting huge crowds.
In 1953, the painter Moïse Kisling, a Polish-born Jew who was part of the Paris School, passed away. Kisling had moved to Paris in 1910, as part of a wave of artists who flocked to the city because they wanted to study art, create art, or immerse themselves in an artistic environment. He was granted French citizenship in 1915, after serving in the Foreign Legion of the French military and fighting in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bitterest battles of World War I. From then on, he lived in France, with the exception of the six years of World War II, which he spent in the United States. In his early years in Paris, he painted the streets of the city, especially those of Montmartre, and subsequently the landscapes of the south of France, but his main painting subjects were women. Girl on Red Background from 1928 is a typical example: a delicate young lady, somewhat melancholic, her big eyes meticulously drawn, and a silk neckerchief tied around her neck. The blush on her cheeks looks like an extension of the blurry red background, and her red mouth appears to have been plucked from one of the red spots on the neckerchief. It is delightful to encounter this delicate female portrait, and not only because of the current renewed relevance of figurative portrait paintings. In the history of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art it has a unique place, as it is the first painting that was actually purchased for the Museum’s collection — rather than donated — directly from the artist, by Meir Dizengoff, in 1931. Thirteen works preceded it in the Museum’s collection that same year (all donated by collectors and artists), which was the year preceding the Museum’s inauguration. The identity of the young woman remains unknown.
In 1954, works by Avraham Walkowitz, an American-Jewish artist who played an important role in bringing the gospel of modern art to the United States in the early twentieth century, were added to the Tel Aviv Museum’s collection. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, when America was still at the periphery of the art world, Walkowitz stood at the major confluences of the avant-garde trends of the period. He was born in Siberia, and moved with his mother and sisters to Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century. After studying art in New York, he traveled to Paris to further his studies, where he witnessed the movements at the forefront of European art. On returning to New York, he began exhibiting at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291, a gallery that was the bastion of cutting-edge art in those days. He was also involved in organizing the 1913 Armory Show exhibition, which provided the American public with its first view of contemporary European art.
Walkowitz was an excellent draftsman, with a nimble hand, and among his many drawings are figures from the Jewish community, workers, beggars, and blind people, in addition to landscapes and abstract drawings. But the image most identified with him is that of Isadora Duncan, the American dancer who was one of the mothers of modern dance. Walkowitz had met her in Paris, in 1906, at Rodin’s studio. He had seen her perform and, like many others who saw her dancing, was captivated — by her presence, by her dance that broke all conventions of classical ballet, and by the new language of movement that she offered. He attended additional performances of hers in Paris, and subsequently in New York, and painted her over and over again. In fact, he left behind over five thousand drawings of the dancing Isadora Duncan, which he continued to produce from memory, even long after her tragic death in 1927. The drawing here is one of them: Duncan in an airy orange garment, with loose movements, barefoot.
The Museum’s collection contains almost two hundred drawings by Walkowitz, encompassing his entire range of images. Through them, one can see how Isadora Duncan’s dancing figure served him as a starting point for the abstraction of the body and for a transition to abstract drawing consisting only of lines.
First there is the title — enigmatic, puzzling, even alarming at first glance, and only then, in parentheses, somewhat soothing: This Terrible Kitchen Contains All Sorts of Things (The Lovers). That is to say, a characteristic Surrealist title: incomprehensible as a matter of principle, poetic, and laid like an additional component alongside the image, without explicating it. If there is no clear logic, one may start from the end: the lovers. Max Ernst illustrated Leonora Carrington's book La Dame Ovale (The Oval Woman) when the two were a couple. He was a well-established Surrealist artist, she was younger, and a fan. They met in London in 1937, moved to Paris together, and collaborated in producing works, as was the custom among the Surrealist group. The book, written by Carrington in 1939, comprises six stories whose plots are as bizarre and convoluted as surrealist texts are expected to be, accompanied by seven collages by Ernst.
Since Ernst was a German citizen, his status in France at the outbreak of World War II was problematic, and he was imprisoned several times. This is where Peggy Guggenheim, who was close to the Surrealist group, came into the picture. Thanks to Guggenheim, Ernst managed to escape to the United States, where the two married (and later separated). A large group of works she donated to the Tel Aviv Museum (see The Square 1952) included two of Ernst’s illustrations to Carrington's book, which entered the museum's collection in 1955.
This Terrible Kitchen looks like a still-life run amok. Identifiable are at least four horned animals, a sort of octopus hanging in the air, a dead bird, skull parts, mice, and a leopard skin in the background. Between animal hybrids and anthropomorphic creatures, between morbid fantasy and black humor, stretches the field in which Ernst and Carrington operated in the heyday of Surrealism, just before the world itself turned into an inhuman, inconceivable reality.
In 1956, this small postcard by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, featuring red, juicy tomatoes on a blue surface, entered the Tel Aviv Museum collection. It was part of a gift by Dr. Rosa Schapire, an art scholar who specialized in German Expressionism, and who authored the catalogue raisonné of Schmidt-Rottluff’s graphic work until 1923. She spent most of her career as an art scholar in Hamburg, but after the Nazis’ rise to power, when Expressionist art was denounced as “degenerate art,” she was no longer able to do so. In August 1939, at the age of 63, she arrived in England, with ten deutschmarks in her pocket and a large collection of works by Schmidt-Rottluff that she managed to save. In England, at an advanced age and in a foreign language, she still managed to pave her way professionally and continued to promote the art that she believed in.
The postcard with the painting of tomatoes had been mailed to her by Schmidt-Rotluff, and belongs to a rare genre of hand-painted postcards that members of the Die Brücke (The Bridge) group used to send to each other. Between 1909 and 1924, Dr. Schapire was also one of the recipients of such postcards. These were usually sent from resort towns in northern Germany, where the artists used to stay during the summer months. They would paint on one side, and on the other side, next to the address, they would add handwritten inscriptions. In this postcard, for example, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff writes about the tomatoes that the artists had grown and about the design of Schapire’s apartment in Hamburg, which he had been entrusted with.
Dr. Schapire passed away in London in 1954. Shortly before her death she selected forty works from her Expressionist art collection as a donation to the Tel Aviv Museum. Among them are fifteen spectacular, uniformly-sized postcards that provide fascinating documentation of the relationships between artists, gallery owners, collectors, and art patrons. Some of them feature preparatory sketches for large works, and some contain texts that serve as a kind of critique of works among the artists. Today, these postcards might be seen as forerunners of the Mail Art that developed in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Conceptual Art movement, using mail as a platform that sidesteps conventional exhibition methods.
There are forty-five works by Raffi Lavie in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's collection. Two small paper works from 1957 are the earliest, and one of them is featured here. Seemingly child-like, with crisscrossed lines in the background, apparently cheerful but in fact quite monstrous, it is a quintessential Raffi Lavie work. Lavie was born in 1937, but in many ways 1957 marks his birth as an artist. At the age of twenty, after several years of taking painting lessons and studying art on his own, he reinvented himself as a child-like artist, leaving behind all conventions of beauty and correctness, and began painting as though for the very first time. This 1957 work in colored crayons depicts a girl, a flower, and a sun — images that were to be staples of Lavie’s repertoire throughout his career. A complementary drawing from that same year in the Museum collection also portrays a girl standing on a low ground line, raising her hands — a small figure with a distant, yellow, many-rayed sun in the sky.
The sun in the drawing on view here has only four rays, which are drawn in similar fashion to the girl’s fingers. Child-like drawing is only one aspect of this work: there is something monumental about it, almost frightening, probably because of the flower depicted at the same height as the girl, the sun that hangs over her head, and the scale that is so out of proportion. In the background are the scribbled lines that would go on to become Lavie's hallmark, and at the bottom right-hand corner of the page is the artist’s signature: Raffi — first name only. And another trademark feature: this early work on paper has no title. Lavie’s works do not even bear the noncommittal title Untitled. They are only dated.
The connection between Lavie and the Tel Aviv Museum went deep. In 1980, he presented a solo exhibition at the Museum — to mixed reception — which rendered him a “red flag” for opponents of contemporary art ("My child can paint like this," "What is this nonsense?," etc.). In contrast, the 1986 exhibition The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art — also curated by Sarah Breitberg-Semel, then the Museum’s Curator of Israeli Art — established him as a central figure in the local art scene, a key representative of a contemporary aesthetics that is secular, Tel Avivian, and challenging.
“For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” — With these six words, according to an urban legend of the literary world, Ernest Hemingway is said to have won a bet that had been wagered between writers and playwrights that no tragic narrative unit could be written in less than seven words. With it, a new writing genre was born, dubbed flash fiction.
Here is another such flash story: “Bequest of Wilhelm Weinberg (Amsterdam—Scarsdale, 1958) in memory of his wife and children.”
In 1958, a painting by Renoir entered the Museum’s collection. A year earlier, German-born banker Wilhelm Weinberg had died in New York, leaving one of the most spectacular private collections of Impressionist art in the world. In July that year, the collection was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in London, which is still considered one of the iconic auctions of the twentieth century. A total of 52 works were sold, and two were donated to museums (a Toulouse-Lautrec painting to the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands, and the Renoir presented here to the Tel Aviv Museum) — both with the identical credit in memory of Weinberg’s wife and three children, who were murdered in Auschwitz in March 1944.
Why did Wilhelm Weinberg choose to donate Renoir’s painting, in particular — an erotic, voyeuristic depiction of female nudity — to the Tel Aviv Museum, with the dedication to his murdered family? After all, his large collection also included Impressionist paintings of landscapes or of domestic scenes of families in drawing rooms, which might be more fitting for commemorating a murdered family. We do not know. For us today, it is a tragic flash story — sparing in words and full of gaps. Perhaps it is precisely the sheer incongruity between the tranquil nature of the nineteenth-century painting and the horrendous circumstances that led to its dedication and donation to the Museum that imbues Renoir’s bathing figure simultaneously with the mythological powers of Eros and Thanatos, and turns her into a latter-day Lot’s wife, frozen forever for us viewers. We will never see her face, which, by virtue of the dedication, shall forever gaze at the catastrophe of destruction.
The year 1959 was a celebratory one for the Tel Aviv Museum: after 27 years in the old building on Rothschild Boulevard, it was finally moved into its own building — one that was purposely designed as a museum. The new pavilion, on Tarsat Boulevard, was named after Helena Rubinstein, whose donation made its construction possible. That same year, she also donated seventeen miniature period rooms from her collection to the Museum. The Old Curiosity Shop is one of them.
Apart from being the founder of a cosmetics empire and a visionary woman in business and marketing, Helena Rubinstein (1872—1965) was also an avid collector. Besides African artworks and works of the greatest Western artists of the twentieth century, she also possessed dozens of miniature rooms, which she first displayed in the living room of her home in Manhattan in 1935.
These miniature rooms, specially commissioned by her, were designed by artists and expert craftsmen, who went to great lengths to satisfy the fondness of “Madame” (as she was commonly known to all) for a surfeit of details, great precision, emphasis on materiality, and the desire to “amaze and amuse” (much like Cabinets of Curiosities of old). Among the miniature rooms that she donated to the Museum were a Victorian dining room, an Austrian kitchen, a Louis XV-style parlor, a studio in Montmartre, and a mid-nineteenth century London curiosity shop — the only set that depicted not a private room, but a shop. Named after Dickens’ book The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), it contains some five-hundred items, including countless tableware, a globe, a birdcage, a statue of a dwarf, paintings, a treasure chest, and one white mouse.
Helena Rubinstein died in 1965, at the age of 92. In all likelihood, she had no idea how central a role the pavilion named after her would eventually hold in the Israeli art world. Over the years, it has become one of the primary exhibition spaces in the country for contemporary art. In 2001, three young artists held an exhibition at the pavilion, titled simply Helena — as the pavilion is commonly referred to in the Israeli art world. The miniature rooms themselves were on display at the pavilion from 1968 to 2006, when they became part of the permanent exhibition at the Museum’s main building on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, after they had undergone three years of renovation and restoration.
In early 2019, the Museum received a generous donation from the Eyal & Marilyn Ofer Family Foundation for a comprehensive and thorough renovation of the pavilion, to elevate it to current museum requirements. When the renovation is completed, the building will be called The Eyal Ofer Building for the Arts.