It’s the only Japanese museum in the Middle East, and the turbulent history of
the collection is as inspiring as the museum itself.
An unlikely and
little-known treasure trove in Israel’s north is the Tikotin Museum of Japanese
Art. It houses thousands of pieces. Located on Mount Carmel in Haifa, it has
recently attracted the attention of NHK World, a Japanese TV channel which plans
to film a program dedicated to the collection.
The museum is currently
celebrating its jubilee year, an occasion it is marking with a special
“Highlights” exhibit. Spotlighting remarkable pieces from the spectrum of
Japanese history, according to chief curator Dr. Ilana Singer, it contains “a
little bit of everything” – ceramics, swords, paintings and prints.
second exhibit displays new acquisitions, while a third offers a glimpse into
the life of museum founder Felix Tikotin, a German Jew who collected, lost and
then refound, most of the treasures in the museum.
Tikotin, an architect,
began building a collection of Japanese art before World War I.
he became an art dealer in Germany, specializing in Japanese art and continuing
to build his own collection.
When the Nazis came to power, Tikotin went
into hiding, and his collection was lost. In 1950, however, Dutch police called
Tikotin in as an expert after they discovered art thieves trying to smuggle a
collection of Japanese art out of the country. Tikotin discovered the collection
was his own. Four years later, he decided to give the pieces to
Aside from housing Tikotin’s collection, the museum also serves
as a cultural center, catering to an increasing Israeli fascination with Japan.
A two-week summer program for children introduces elements of Japanese art and
culture, but the majority of the programming caters to adults. In addition to
academic lectures and screenings of Japanese films, they can choose from classes
in Japanese language, writing, ink drawing, origami and even flower
“I think the museum serves as a place where people have a
chance to meet this culture through its art,” Singer tells
Singer, who creates her own prints, has a passion for all
things Japanese. “My fascination with Japanese art started with a fascination
with Japanese people,” she explains.
When she was a child, a Japanese
family lived on her kibbutz, Heftziba, and she would visit them from time to
time. Many Japanese young people also came to the kibbutz to study
“Later on when I was a teenager, I had an amazing art teacher who
introduced me to Japanese woodblock prints. So I have had this ‘virus’ ever
since, and it does not go away,” says Singer. “I am attracted to the aesthetic
and philosophy of Japanese art, and I relate strongly to the art of the
different periods. For example, I can relate to the Zen painting of one period,
while responding just as strongly to the netsuke – small figurines – of the
later Edo period. Each period of Japanese art has something different, something
special, but in all Japanese art, the artist is aiming for
That, Singer says, is what makes Japanese art unique. “I
think it’s their ability to make anything, big or small, absolutely
In its 50th year, the Tikotin is still the only museum in the
Middle East dedicated to Japanese art and culture. Its collection of more than
7,000 items ranges from drawings, paintings, woodblock prints, ancient
illustrated books, ceramics, miniature netsuke sculptures, metal and lacquer
works, antique Samurai swords and knives, to household objects such as fans and
While the collection spans the 17th to 19th centuries and
includes contemporary Japanese art, there is a particular concentration of art
from the Edo period (1600-1868).
Singer explains that those centuries
signified a revolutionary period in Japanese society, and consequently for its
art. The middle class gained ascendancy through newfound wealth, she explains,
and new artistic forms such as Kabuki theater began to flourish.
subjects of Kabuki were better suited for the lower classes – it was more
colorful, with a lot of activity,” Singer says. Then the popularity of Kabuki
spilled into the visual arts of Japan. “Woodblock prints depicted Kabuki actors,
who were the celebrities of the time,” she explains.
between historic and contemporary Japanese art, Singer says, “traditional
Japanese art uses specific subjects that were familiar at the time, like Kabuki
actors, scenes of Japan, or beautiful ladies who wandered the streets of Tokyo,
or Edo. In contrast, in contemporary art there isn’t a common subject – like
artists all over the world, they look for their own impressions.”
through all the centuries and still today, says Singer, “one thing about
Japanese artists has remained the same: Their ability to create something which
is perfect and complete and very clean. Their techniques and composition have a
sense of purity – a sense you can find both in traditional art and in
contemporary art. When you see it, you know it’s Japanese.”
is in contact with museums in Japan, and receives support from the Japanese
Embassy in Israel and the Japan Foundation.
Now the museum has been
chosen to feature in a special program for Japanese TV.
“We are really
looking forward to this,” enthuses Singer. “People from NHK visited us with
specialists from Japan who were very impressed with the collection of treasures
here. They really want to make the program, and we will most likely do it next