On Yom Ha’atzmaut in 1958, as the story goes, a man of small stature with unmistakable puffs of stark white hair planted on each side of his otherwise bald head ordered the establishment of the very first national exhibition. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of Israel’s independence and the pieces exhibited were meant to display the most notable accomplishments in the country’s short history.
The man with the order was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and he insisted that he see all of the works before the exhibition opened to the public.
Yosef Zaritsky, the most important artist of that time, created a piece just for the exhibit entitled Otzma (Power). Despite the artist’s talent and fame, however, Ben-Gurion wasn’t pleased with the work. He looked at his assistant and asked, “What is it?” The assistant responded, “It deals with power.” The little man then raised his hand and flapped it in the air, shoving off the work as if swatting an irritating insect. “It was the biggest war between the king of art and the leader of the country,” said painter, professor and curator Haim Maor, “and Zaritsky backed down.”
One thing Ben-Gurion was not, stressed Maor, was an artist. In fact, “He didn’t understand art at all.”
Maor is curator of the first art exhibition featuring works solely representing Ben-Gurion entitled “The Old Man.” The exhibition, which runs through June 8 at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, contains 140 works that reflect the artists’ links to the leader, whether through his iconicity or from childhood stories or through personal relationships with him.
“Each and every one of the artists here has his or her own biographical details that influence the way they see Ben-Gurion,” Maor said as he traversed the exhibition, offering historical anecdotes about the artists and their works. Some pieces flatter and others criticize Ben-Gurion, but all reveal, said Maor, “his human parts.”
Hanging in the exhibition is an intriguing work painted by Eliahu Eric Boucobza, Cultural Icon as Self-Portrait, which presents three side-by-side portraits – the first depicting Ben-Gurion holding a sheep, the second of Groucho Marx with a cat and the third of Albert Einstein cradling a rocket. What the three figures have most in common are their almost identical hairstyles.
As Boucobza explained, “David Ben-Gurion is an icon. He’s like Marilyn Monroe... And no one can say that he didn’t have the humor of Marx or the genius of Einstein.” Boucobza revealed the reason for the likeness in hairdo: “You take a round shape and put two bunches of hair on each side and everyone recognizes that that’s Ben-Gurion.” The three men, said Boucobza, “are all hair-challenged, which allowed me to bring in some of the more fun part of my perception of Ben-Gurion.”
Most, it seems, are wary of poking fun at the notoriously tough Ben-Gurion, but as Maor said, “no man is holy… every human being is going to the bathroom and doing things that human beings just do. It’s the biggest honor to give a man, to see him at eye level and not to represent him as a superior being.”
It may be true that Ben-Gurion would not be flattered by several of the pieces that depict him in less-than-complimentary shades, such as Noam Nadav’s Depletion of the Spirit in the Holy Land, a cartoon showing him as a pharaoh chasing several haredim through a desert landscape. But what the exhibit reaffirms is the power of Ben-Gurion as a man who changed Israel’s history in major ways. So whether he is praised or harshly criticized, as Boucobza remarked, he is always “deeply encrusted in memory.”
MANY OF the pieces portray Ben-Gurion as a larger-than-life figure, chin raised, eyes determined, back stiff and upright. And though the first prime minister may not have understood anything about art, he definitely knew how to use his small stature in ways that would maximize the power of his national image. According to Sigal Drori-Pazy, one of Maor’s students in the art department of BGU, Ben-Gurion “had an awareness of how he was being portrayed. He knew how to market himself.” Maor added, “He studied rhetoric and trained himself in body language. He knew he was short, so he used a lot of techniques to make himself look taller.”
He also employed the media very consciously, according to Maor; in fact, Ben-Gurion’s photographers “would always shoot from below, which made him look bigger. Like Mussolini – who of course has nothing to do with Ben-Gurion – you won’t see any photo of Mussolini where he looks short. He’s always pictured from the bottom up.”
The exhibition’s photographs for the most part seem to fall into the B-G-as-hero category, but there are several images that depict an individual completely unlike the powerful Zionist superstar of our collective memory. Well-known photographer David Rubinger, for instance, who spent much time with Ben-Gurion, caught major moments that went unpublished in newspapers. One exposes a head-wounded Ben-Gurion on a hospital gurney following a terror attack. Beside the picture hangs a photograph of the man in his hospital bed, sleeping like a child. These snapshots instantly transform a superhero into an injured everyman, a person whose power of body language has been disrupted.
Other works can be examined as reflective of the ways in which older generations have glorified Ben-Gurion, regardless of the historical setbacks that resulted from his actions. These works, such as photographer Paul Goldman’s famous A Leader Standing on His Head or painter Pinchas Litvinovsky’s stunning Matisse-reminiscent portrait, David Ben-Gurion, may represent a yearning for the days of inspirational leaders.
The exhibition is also saturated with works that almost deify the leader, some quite literally, such as Neta Elkayam’s Baba Gurion, which depicts Ben-Gurion pensively studying Kabbala like the famous Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali, who is said to have performed miracles.
Maor stressed the reflective quality of the exhibition, remarking that it can be viewed affectionately as “a portrait of Israeli society. It’s how we see him – with yearning and nostalgia – because we have the feeling that with all of the things that weren’t so good, still he was a man who was a leader and a man of the people... Ben-Gurion, no matter what he did, he took responsibility, and today there’s the feeling that our leaders – in every field – they don’t take responsibility. We expect them to make decisions and they don’t. And so we use him as a general example of someone who can assert himself... Today you see that this is missing, someone with these horizons.”
And Shlomo Suriano, one of the country’s first filmmakers and a harsh critic of the downward path of politics since Ben-Gurion’s era, expressed a similar outlook. He spent a week with Ben-Gurion on his kibbutz in 1966 to film him in his most “natural” environment. Suriano’s memories are vivid, even at 93. During the kibbutz visit, he said, “I tried to bring him to the flock of sheep to shoot the film. The idea was to show the film to the public to bring some money to the kibbutzim. So I asked him to go to the sheep. And Ben-Gurion asked me naively, but very sincerely, ‘So you think that sheep will bring money to the kibbutz?’ And this was his humor.”
Suriano shared another tale in which he went into Ben-Gurion’s room in the small shack where he lived during filming. “I was in his room,” he said, “and [Ben-Gurion] said there was a problem with the rubber band around the faucet. So he said, ‘You know the problem in the world is that there’s not enough water in the desert.’ So I said okay, and he gave me some plans for resolving the desert’s water problems. Then I repeated, ‘So what about the rubber band?’ And Ben-Gurion looked at me and said, ‘This is a complicated problem. I have had enough.’”
The admiration Suriano feels for Ben-Gurion is unshakable. He illustrates through his work these stories as well as the vestiges of his intimate relationship with the country’s first prime minister. The work is highly valuable to the collection as it strengthens the viewer’s ties to Ben-Gurion in a personal – and likely for many, nostalgic – way.
AS MAOR wandered in and out of the puzzle-like spaces of the collection during the interview, sharing small anecdotes about the artists and their work, he explained the exhibition’s conception. “We received a request to make an exhibition about Ben-Gurion from Ben-Gurion University president Professor Rivka Carmi for the 40th anniversary of the university’s existence.” Maor was at first surprised to find that “there was a huge amount of material” to exhibit. Artists began to say things like, “You have no idea what Ben-Gurion was to me when I was a kid.” This is when he realized that “everyone has a personal story that’s connected to [Ben-Gurion] or to his family.”
Drori-Pazy added, “Everyone can find himself here and ask himself, ‘Who
is my David Ben-Gurion?’”
In the end, “The Old Man” looks something like an elaborately detailed
diary full of pages written by artists who knew him, who knew about him,
and those, like Boucobza, who knew only that he represented something
huge. Through the exhibition Ben-Gurion can now be fully recognized as a
reflective staple of past events, both major and minor, a mirror image
of the country’s present political underbelly in the broad public
sphere, and an illustration of the stuff of childhood stories, in the
private sphere. Ongoing through June 8.
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