Impressions of a policy

The finest work of art in the entire museum, Vincent van Gogh's 1888 oil of a wheatfield harvest in Provence, has been consigned to the far corner (yes, a corner!) of the pavilion, where only a few people at a time can enjoy it.

By MEIR RONNEN
May 11, 2006 08:42
van gogh 88 298

van gogh 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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The Israel Museum has rehung its Impressionist Pavilion and simultaneously published a new book (Hebrew only), Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the Collection of the Israel Museum. Edited by Stephanie Rahum, the Senior Curator Emeritus of Impressionism and Modern Art, the notes to the illustrations are also by her and several other hands. The 178-page volume costs NIS 148 at the museum's bookshop. There are notes and names in English at the back of the book. The book is obviously directed at young Israelis who have little or no acquaintance with the artists. But the name of the artist at the top of the text facing each color reproduction is given in Hebrew only, according to the French pronunciation of the artist's name. The result is a conundrum from which the tyro may never recover. It raises again a key issue about the role of a museum, which, to my mind, is to teach. As for the pavilion itself, director James Snyder is enthusiastic about the rehanging. Snyder loves drama and new ideas, and he is keen about the general view as you enter the Floersheimer Pavilion. He is equally happy with the addition of a contemporary wall installation placed near a pointillist oil-on-paper study from 1906 by Henri-Edmond Cross. The comparison between the two is gimmicky and superficial, but it reflects Snyder's enthusiasm for mixing periods and cultures, as he did in last year's shows marking the museum's 40th anniversary, when sculptures from wildly different times and places were arrayed in a single gallery, disconnected from their real context. A large wall text, a precis of the contents of this new book, would have served our young public better than this unfortunate piece of comparative pointillism. Many, if not most, Israelis making their first visit to this museum have to depend on guides, if any, for instruction. There isn't any real guidance to the many very fine gems in this pavilion. Even the excellent written introduction to Camille Pissarro's great 1895 oil of one of his brilliant series of the Boulevard Montmartre has been removed. As for the hanging, it has been crowded further by the inclusion of a few restitution works to which there are no known heirs, rescued from German pillage. Incredibly enough, the finest work of art in the entire museum, Vincent van Gogh's 1888 oil of a wheatfield harvest in Provence, has been consigned to the far corner (yes, a corner!) of the pavilion, where only a few people at a time can enjoy it. This brilliant little canvas, a gift (decades ago) of the French Rothschilds, deserves to be highlighted as the gem of the collection. It could very well replace a competent but fairly pedestrian portrait of a woman by Emil Bernard, chosen for its large size to get a mid-gallery panel all to itself. For some reason I cannot fathom, this Van Gogh is listed by the museum as a cornfield harvest, when it is clearly the depiction of sheaves of wheat (all the other drawings and paintings Van Gogh made of this valley are of wheat harvests and haystacks). While the above masterpiece languishes in a corner, an alleged Van Gogh, a frightful daub, its provenance, according to Snyder, traced to an early catalogue, hangs prominently next to the pavilion's entrance door. It reveals nothing of Van Gogh's hand or mind and, needless to say, does not appear in Prof. Jan Hulsker's monumental catalogue raisonne (published in English by Abrams). In a way, the new book might have been better termed 19th Century Art at the Israel Museum. Van Gogh is lumped with the post-impressionists, as are the huge bronzes by Rodin, Maillol and others standing outside in the sculpture garden. There are many fine pictures in the pavilion, notably by Gauguin, Pissarro, Cezanne, Boudin, Monet, Sisley and Vuillard, to name a few. They each deserve a text that would help visitors discern something about their intentions, composition and beauty. Trouble is, our museum designers hate texts and even labels, which they render as small as possible. The curators, who should be keeping them in line, nearly all go along with this approach, confining themselves to writing esoteric essays in catalogs that most visitors will never see. A recent exception to this trend is the show devoted to Buddhism now in the Cummings Pavilion corridor, to which the curator, Etty Glass-Gissis, supplied easily legible texts to accompany the various parts of the exhibit. The museum has now produced a catalog to this show in both Hebrew and English. I don't like the proportions of its vertical, bookish format, nor its minuscule English typeface (some notes are in 4 point!), but the content fills the bill. The museum's interesting new plan to revamp the movement of visitors will provide a golden opportunity to revamp its aims, and to bring to the fore its eminent status as a national educational institution. The redesign of the pavilions (and out-of-date lighting) must take this vital need into account. For the last three decades, New York's major museums have been stimulating interest in their permanent and temporary displays by providing orientation rooms for the mass of visitors unable to fork out $50 for a catalog but who want to know more about what they are going to see. Pre-visit orientation rooms with rows of benches are routinely crowded with avid readers. The Israel Museum runs excellent, well-attended classes for both adults and children, but its pavilions have to rise above providing just an agreeable ambience. There is a story behind every picture, classic, modern or contemporary, in its collections. And if by teaching something about each picture the museum manages to attract just five percent of young Israelis to return for subsequent visits, it will become even more of an outstanding success. THE ISRAEL Museum has released the names of the international and Israeli donors to the $50m. fund to revamp the museum from the inside, details of which we reported on April 28. Some $10m. has been granted by Judy and Michael Steinhardt of New York, and another $10m. will come from the estate of Dorothea Gould of Zurich. Gifts of $5m. have been granted by Herta and Paul Amir, Los Angeles; the Nash Family Foundation, New York; the Marc Rich Foundation, Lucerne; the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Bella and Harry Wexner Philanthropies of The Legacy Heritage Fund, New York and Jerusalem. The Schusterman Family Foundation awarded its support as a challenge grant, subject to matching funds in Israel. This condition was met through an unprecedented joint initiative of five families, including the Federmann family, Tel Aviv; Dina, Michael and Oudi Recanati, Tel Aviv; Debbie and Erel Margalit, Jerusalem; Rivka Saker and Uzi Zucker, New York and Tel Aviv; and Judith and Israel Yovel, Herzliya. These individual $500,000 gifts are being matched by Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild Foundation in Israel. The State of Israel is providing an additional $7m. in matching support. A further $11.5m. is being provided by Charles Bronfman and family to renovate and redesign the Bronfman archaeological wing. The museum also plans to announce another campaign to continue to build its endowment.

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