Israeli art in perspective

The Jerusalem Post interviews Israel Museum director James Snyder and Israeli art curator Amitai Mendelsohn.

James Snyder 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
James Snyder 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Putting the last decade into the framework of the history of Israeli art, The Jerusalem Post interviews Israel Museum director James Snyder and Israeli art curator Amitai Mendelsohn. What is Israeli art? JS: Recognizing the founding of the Bezalel School [1906] as the official starting point for what could be called Israeli art, I would say that Israeli art is the body of visual, cultural material which has been created here in the last 100 years. It is characterized, from its earliest moments, by the impulse to merge sources and symbols from Jewish and regional cultures with the Western visual art traditions that came to this region beginning at the turn of the last century with European artists who were part of the modern Zionist movement. Local artists were also responding simultaneously to these European influences. Are you saying that Ashkenazi Zionists brought art here and that the local Arabs and Mizrahim did not? AM: You can argue about that. The local communities were making crafts for religious ceremonies. They were not painting. They were not making art for art's sake, which is a Western tradition. I think European Jews brought to Palestine at the time the concept that art can be made for its own sake and not to be functional or a religious ceremonial item. How did Mizrahim influence artists in the early state? AM: In the early days of its existence, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts tried to connect Western trends and artistic styles with visual traditions from the region like Yemenite jewelry making, Persian carpets and ornaments. There were a few Mizrahi students in Bezalel and some of them became artists in the early years of the Jewish settlement. After the inauguration of the state and the large immigration wave of Jews from Arab states, Mizrahi artists became more active in the art scene and as years went by became an integral part of the art world in Israel. How have the influences of Israeli art changed? JS: What is interesting about art here is how it seems always to want to merge Western cultural traditions in visual art with the visual, social and - more recently - political heritage of the region. Have there been any unique materials or methods for creating on the Israeli scene? JS: In the last decade technology, which has blossomed in Israel in this period, has also come to play a significant role in some of the most effective visual art produced here in this time - photography, digital photography, video, etc. A number of prominent Israeli artists live abroad. What kind of effect does this have on Israeli art? JS: We live now in a global universe. Artists live and work worldwide and have access from anywhere in the world to images generated all over the world. What matters is where the sources, experiences and images that inform artists' works come from. What is powerful about the generation of artists in our exhibition is that there is a strong sense that they are dealing with the heritage, history, ideology, sociology and imagery of Israel and are assessing it from many perspectives and working with mediums, often newer and less traditional, which allow them to communicate something from their history, but in terms that can be meaningful in the larger world setting. What kind of influence did you hope to have on the Israeli art viewing public when you left your director post at the Museum of Modern Art to be director of the Israel Museum? JS: As a modernist at MoMA in New York City, I came to the Israel Museum for two main professional reasons. I saw and still see the Israel Museum as the most powerful visual cultural venue that I have ever experienced - merging art and archeology, landscape and architecture in a setting which speaks about the power of culture to illuminate and influence people's lives in a positive way. I also saw the encyclopedic breadth of the museum's collections as an opportunity to consider all of the sources that have informed modern art in our time. I felt that there was something unique about a museum that looked at the time line of material culture in its own region from prehistoric to contemporary, within the broader context of contemporaneous world culture.