When Bilha first met artist Moshe Castel in 1948, she and her future husband didn’t exactly hit it off. Yes, they danced and yes, he asked her out on a date, but instead of meeting him at the designated spot, she stood him up. She felt that the type of date he suggested was uncouth, and it bothered her.
“[In the 1940s] men and women didn’t sit together at coffee houses,” she explains. “That just wasn’t done.” Needless to say, the next time she saw him – on the street, while walking with her parents – he didn’t even acknowledge her.
However, the cold demeanor immediately thawed when, at a party they both attended in Safed one night, she started to sing. He was awestruck. His eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped and he instantly realized that there was something special about this girl. He fell in love, they married and they stayed together for the rest of his life.
The conception of the Moshe Castel Museum in Ma’aleh Adumim, which after decades of planning opens to the public on March 21, shares a similar tale of spontaneity, love and devotion. While the architecture of the structure seems a perfect match for the man whose works it was built to exhibit, and while the location – perched at the edge of the city and overlooking the hills of Jerusalem – succeeds in capturing and transmitting his love of the land, the moment of inspiration that sparked the project was nothing more than an impulsive reaction.
“My husband and I were going to the Dead Sea, and in the middle of the [drive], Moshe said, ‘What is this place here?’” Bilha recalls. “I told him it was Ma’aleh Adumim. He looked around – [at the time] it was all empty there – and he said, ‘Wow, I would like my museum to be here.’”
Moshe Castel had never been to Ma’aleh Adumim before that day; in fact, he never lived in the city, as he died before his wife sold their house and relocated next to where the future museum would be built. But for the Jerusalem-born artist, absolute certainty in and devotion to the sources of his inspiration was not uncharacteristic.
Raised in a Sephardi family that had lived near Jerusalem since fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, Castel was practically bred to appreciate Judaism and the land of Israel. His father, a renowned musician, calligrapher and embroiderer of Torah scroll covers, helped nurture that appreciation by endowing his son with his artistic ability and his strong sense of identity.
This artistic ability soon took on a life of its own and in a short time made a strong impression on the budding artist community of then-Palestine. At 13, Castel was admitted into the Bezalel School of Art and Design in Jerusalem where, after four years, his teachers recognized his potential and encouraged him to take his talent to the next level by enrolling in a prestigious art school in France.
While Paris afforded Castel, who died at 82 in 1991, an opportunity to learn from the best and enjoy the company of other great contemporary artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Soutine and Chagall, as well as inspired him to produce one of his greatest works, The Woman with Fox Fur (1928), it was only after his return to Palestine with the onset of World War II that he really began to make his mark. He initially settled in Safed, where his painting continued to draw admiration from his peers. In 1948, he helped lead a split from the Israeli Artists Union to form a new movement – later termed the “New Horizon” – which aimed to revolutionize Israeli art by modernizing it.
During the years that followed, Castel underwent a revolution of his own, whereby he transitioned from just painting Israeli landscapes to physically using those landscapes in the creation of his paintings. What became known as his “basalt artwork” involved collecting stones from the Galilee, crushing them, mixing them with a bonding agent and “painting” them onto the canvas as a background.
PROGRESSIVELY, THE circle of those in Israel who recognized Castel as a leading art figure in the country widened, and with that recognition came more prestigious commissions. By the time of his death, his paintings could be found in the Knesset and Beit Hanassi, as well as dozens of museums and buildings in Israel and abroad.
But despite the success and the accolades, one thing was missing: A museum all to himself. Not many artists in Israel have museums that are devoted solely to their work. “In Israel, there are very few museums of this kind,” says Israel Goldenshtain, chairman of the museum. “There is one in Haifa, two in Tel Aviv, and a few other minor ones elsewhere in Israel. What makes this one special, however, is that it is not built out of the house of the artist.”
Indeed the museum, designed by renowned architect David Reznik, achieves that goal. Spacious and modern, it is no less impressive than some of the best museums in the country, albeit on a much smaller scale – and with the work of only one artist. Goldenshtain maintains, however, that such a limitation is not a disadvantage.
“There are museums that are eclectic with art from multiple different sources, and then there are museums that are more concentrated,” he says. “This is one that is concentrated. Thankfully, Castel was interesting enough and had such diverse painting styles that there is [everything here].”
Visitors to the museum will be able see Moshe Castel paintings, reliefs and drawings from every period of his life. Some are on loan from art collectors around the world who – when they heard about the new museum – decided to temporarily lend their purchases. Others were either loaned or donated by Bilha Castel from her private collection. And others have a more colorful story.
“This one used to hang in Beit Hanassi,” says Bilha, pointing to The Olive Harvest (1940). “But the former president, [Moshe Katsav] did some bad things, so I went there and took it back.”
Ironically, such use of Castel’s art was entirely out of character. In his lifetime, Castel never used his medium or his position as a successful artist to take a stand against a public figure, either political or otherwise. And although the museum was built in Ma’aleh Adumim – which officially falls outside the Green Line – the location is far from a political statement.
“He was an artist of Israel,” says Goldenshtain. “If there is a
political change, it doesn’t change that [fact]. He didn’t do anything
political; he did something that was for the land of Israel and that
was appropriate in the Golan, appropriate here and appropriate
regardless of wherever the future border is.” The Moshe Castel Museum of Art opens
to the public on March 21 in Ma’aleh Adumim. For information on hours
of operation and ticket prices, visit www.castelmuseum.co.il, or call