A remarkable community of artists from across the United States is rallying around a Jerusalem art school, demonstrating this small school’s outsized importance in the world of figurative painting and art education. Top American artists donated nearly three dozen paintings for a February 21 auction at New York’s Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects to help the Jerusalem Studio School (JSS), an art school founded in 1998 that ran a deficit for the first time ever last year due to an incompetent, spendthrift CEO. The outpouring affirms the important artistic and educational vision of the art school’s founder, Israel Hershberg. The broad embrace – like the school itself – demonstrates another platform for supporting Israel, Art Zionism.
“You know, I usually fall for the siege mentality,” says Hershberg, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria to two Holocaust survivor parents in 1948 before ending up in Brooklyn. “But this really restores my faith in humanity. You have all these artists, many non-Jewish, coming to help. And non-Jewish buyers, who have started buying in the pre-auction (at www.jerusalemstudioschool.wordpress.com), saying ‘I am so happy to support a school in Jerusalem.’”
The generosity represents a tremendous, intercontinental vote of confidence in Hershberg himself, a leading figurative painter whose works can be found worldwide, be it in the Israel Museum, the Marlborough Gallery in New York which represents him, the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa or the Imagawa Contemporary Art Collection in Osaka Japan. Raised in Israel until he was nine, but trained as an artist in the dazzling New York scene of the 1970s, Hershberg and his artist wife Yael Scalia moved to Israel in 1984, where they raised six sons.
In addition to his world-class paintings, which bring a colorful clarity to everything from a cow’s tongue to a chameleon, and an absolute poetry to his landscapes, Hershberg has a strong, countercultural vision of what a good art education entails. Appalled by the sloppy indulgence in much of the art world valuing trendiness over inner need, tradition, or refinement, Hershberg is delightfully old-fashioned. He believes art students should learn by being in conversation with the great masters, with the great artists who preceded them. He teaches his Master Class students by having them draw from the human form and transcribe masterworks, trusting that once they master the skills and a full command of pictorial language, they can soar ahead on their own. And they have. Over fourteen years, the school has taught hundreds in its master class and evening classes. Today, those students carry on the great tradition of figurative painting, teaching others, working with top galleries, even displaying their own work in museums.
“We have sown the seeds of an actual visual culture that never existed here before,” Hershberg explains. “There was no painting that was perceptual or observational or representational that was engaged in a serious dialogue with the masters of the past. Originally, Israeli art was a way out of doing that, stifled by the ethos of ‘Want of Matter’” – the stark, naive, once-dominant Israeli art movement – “and all a reflection of that chasm.” When Hershberg established the JSS, he explains, for the “first time Israel had a school that was steeped in visual culture – with a pedagogical culture of teaching. No one had that kind of training before, it was practically taboo here.”
This bold approach and quality results have generated enthusiastic endorsements worldwide. Artists praise it as “one of the best schools for art, anywhere,” and “the real deal.” The realist painter and blogger Larry Groff, from San Diego, said that learning from Hershberg “was a profound experience and opened up whole new directions for my work.”
The word “Jerusalem” is an essential part of this Studio School’s identity. It is a national institution, suited to the nation’s capital, drawing Israeli students from across the country, from Mattat in the Upper Galilee to Beersheba in the south, many supported with generous scholarships. It is an important part of the century-long story of Zionist rebirth, which included an artistic and aesthetic renewal, with an annual landscape marathon that every year draws a leading artist from abroad to coach the students as they paint on-site in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of today and the Jerusalem of old. And it is a typically Israeli symphony of clashing symbols somehow harmonizing with each other in this old-new land, this special-normal place, including the school’s majestic Hall of Casts, 32 plaster replicas of classical sculptural masterpieces situated in its humble home in industrial Talpiot across from the dreary Hadar mall. “We want to acknowledge Jerusalem as a world class cultural center, not Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has the rich past, the associations,” Hershberg says. “New York is always ‘go’; Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, these classical cities are ‘on pause,’” allowing people to absorb, to experience, to remember.
In supporting the school, where my wife Linda is a student and a new board member since the recent administrative reforms, she and I appreciate the opportunity to practice what she calls “Art Zionism.” Too much of today’s conversation about Israel obsesses about conflict, crisis, challenges. In doing its thing, in expressing Israel Hershberg’s vision, in teaching young Israelis how to be great artists, in putting Jerusalem on the map in the conversation about what great art is and what quality art education should be, the JSS offers a safe, non-political, thoroughly normal and yet exceptional platform for supporting Israel – and beautifying the world. Zionism dances between the past and the present, the old and the new, the cutting-edge and the traditional, the mundane and the profound. The Jerusalem Studio School helps point the way to a new conversation and appreciation about what Zionism is -- and can be.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. Follow Gil on Twitter: @Gil_Troy