A man with a land

A very painterly show of early gouaches and watercolors by Avraham Ofek now at the Israel Museum is a pleasant reminder of the days when galleries were filled with lively paintings rather than tedious conceptual installations

gerome art 88 298 (photo credit: Israel Museum)
gerome art 88 298
(photo credit: Israel Museum)
A very painterly show of early gouaches and watercolors by Bulgarian-born Avraham Ofek (1935-90) now at the Israel Museum is a pleasant reminder of the days when galleries were filled with lively paintings rather than tedious conceptual installations. Not that Ofek's early landscapes were not suffused with tongue-in-cheek comments on the anti-aesthetics of the milieu of newcomers. But these lively paintings are first and foremost about composition, color and expanding one's vision. Many of them are dominated by a rich variety of blues. Ofek, later a prominent teacher in Haifa and Israel's leading painter of murals that celebrated the return to the land, would soon resort to sets of symbols that presaged the late metal cutouts of sculptor Menashe Kadishman. There is only one painting in this show, a later one, that has a human figure in it, that of a silhouette of a plowman, and in this context it looks propagandistic and out of place. But it has a powerfully Zionist title: A man without a land is not a man. Assembled by curator Amitai Mendelson with the aid of Ofek's family, Ofek's early works on paper are all lively in treatment, perhaps because the artist thought of them as sketches and ideas for larger works. Just look at the effective treatment of the two abandoned tractor tires that dominate a view of two moshav homes in the middle distance. Ofek constantly changed the observation point of view in these works on paper. While the Temple Stood, a hilltop structure seen from below, is a nod to Soutine. His mixed-media View of Jaffa, 1957, is a bird's-eye view. Another mountaintop village is backed by plant-like streams in the sky that are used in several works to add compositional depth. The tall, almost windowless buildings that rise out of a rock-strewn field are perhaps a fusion of Bulgarian and Israeli housing, but their drama is gripping. It is tempting to read into a few late works in the show, made when Ofek knew that his cancer was terminal, a certain sadness. But in many ways they resemble the early landscapes, lending this exhibition an unusual unity. Well worth a visit, for peering into these highly accomplished works again and again is a riveting experience. ON THE top floors of the museum are two new shows linked by their Jewish content and origins in the second half of the 19th century. In the cleverly redesigned Spertus Pavilion is Out of North Africa, a fascinating collection of both street and studio photography of Jews and others in Algeria and Tunisia, all taken between 1880 and 1910. This unique 300-piece group of vintage ethnography was donated to the museum by Gerard Levy. As a document of a vanished society, this collection is invaluable. In it one sees Jews relaxing in an oriental milieu, dressed much like their Muslim neighbors. The clothing of the better-off women and girls in the studio poses is quite sumptuous. And there are many postcard-like shots of dancers with their belly-buttons in view above dancing pantaloons as low-cut as the jeans of girls in today's Tel Aviv. There is no suggestion that these entertainers were Jewish, but it is not unlikely that some were. One extraordinary photo is not from North Africa at all. It shows three Jews in a street in Smyrna (later Izmir), each in a white burnoose thrown over a sharply pointed crown. Of the trio, I think the one at right is a man. This nicely grouped (by theme) exhibition is splendidly parsed by a number of little rooms containing ethnographic gems of various types of North African Jewish costume, all from the museum's collection. These are backed, in each case, by a single ethnographic detail that suggests a room, like a wooden window grille or a piece of textile. A FEW steps down from the Spertus one enters the huge Ayala Zacks Abramov gallery, this time choc-a-bloc with paintings, drawings, photographs, carpets, souvenir crockery and even ritual furniture, a rich mix of documentary evidence showing the extent of Western and Jewish fascination with the Holy Land. Like the Out of North Africa prelude, it is far from a jumble, having been cleverly sorted out by the same hands that designed the show in the Spertus. This show is called Eden - East and West in the 19th Century. It's a theme that has been worked to death at this museum but this show is still genuinely entertaining. While the geography was then all Turkish property, the holy sites were quickly considered fair game. French, British and German artists led the way. French painters were chiefly orientalists in search of sellable subjects; see Gerome's satirical but masterly oil of a lone scarecrow model with a top hat (the Wandering Jew) "praying" at what was then called the Wailing Wall. A line of film stills from an early version of The Sheikh (later made famous by Rudolph Valentino) shows the naked sheikh cavorting with a naked actress who appears to be wearing a merkin, or pubic wig (I have this term on the authority of Italian author Curzio Malaparte). The British were led by military surveyors from the Royal Engineers, a few of whom left their names on Jerusalem. Some, like Col. Charles Wilson, conducted valuable archeological digs. NCOs took documentary photographs and officers like Charles Conder made topographic sketches. A few of these sketches served as the basis of Turner's "Jerusalem" watercolors on view here: Turner never made it to Palestine. One Brit who did almost before all the others was the sometime nonsense poet Edward Lear, whose oils of Jerusalem and its desert environs are incredibly skilled; it's worthwhile coming to see this show just to get a good look at them. Lear was evidently blessed with eyesight as keen as his sense of humor. There are photographs of British explorers who traveled in comfort; one group, some in bespoke leather boots, is seen at an alfresco picnic. Then there are shots of early train travel between Jerusalem and Syria. The trio of Jewish beggars in Jerusalem photographed by Bonfils were part of a gaggle of characters who made a good living modeling for tourists. The early Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts is again well represented, chiefly by its early teachers like Ephraim Moses Lilien, Zeev Raban and Abel Pann; the latter's several fine pastels of his biblical nymphets are among his best. A large unfinished oil sketch Jesus appearing before the Sanhedrin was painted by the young European Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-79). His thin, pale and very young Jesus is dressed as a rabbi and nearly all the Sanhedrin members are depicted with kindly faces. All these entertaining shows will be on view till end June. Don't try to take them in all at once.