Off-the-wall painting

Artists bring to light the life of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel in mural and canvas artwork.

painting 88 (photo credit: )
painting 88
(photo credit: )
It would be easy to take the dining room of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel for an art gallery if it were not for the members moving around with trays full of food and background chatter stemming from the packed tables. Food for thought is provided by the works of art adorning the walls of the veteran kibbutz's dining room - renowned artist Yohanan Simon's snatches of in-house kibbutz scenes from years long gone. In recent months, a massive wall painting that Simon created depicting Gan Shmuel in all its 1940/1950s glory was painstakingly taken apart, renovated and erected in the dining room. No mean feat, considering that the wall painting came from the interior wall of a Jewish school in Brazil! A dominant artist among the creative kibbutzniks of the Forties and early Fifties when he lived in Gan Shmuel, Simon portrayed the kibbutz as it was. The sense of togetherness and community, emphasis on physical work, robust kinder and the cultural lifestyle the community offered those idealistic individuals were vividly transferred to canvas or plaster. In the early 1950s, Simon parted from his wife and two daughters in Gan Shmuel and moved in with, and later married, the designer Finy Leitersdorf. During a sojourn in South America with Leitersdorf, he painted many pictures on the walls of buildings in the countries they visited - but the rescued Brazilian wall painting in Hatehiya School in Sao Paulo remained the only survivor of his art on brick and mortar on that continent. A few years ago a teacher at the school called a one-time curator of a Simon exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to tell her that the building had been acquired by an ultra-Orthodox group that was planning to demolish the wall with Simon's painting, which was already in a sad state of disrepair. The once colorful painting had faded drastically, and there were deep scratches in the paintwork. When members of Gan Shmuel were informed of the situation, a few took it upon themselves to make sure that the painting and the wall would not fall under the demolition ball. Kibbutz contacts in Argentina were brought into the picture. They photographed the Simon work and approached the building's new buyers on behalf of the kibbutz. Hearing how important the painting was to the kibbutz community, the ultra-Orthodox buyers of the property promised to dismantle the wall in a way that would allow it to be transferred to Israel. In a delicate and complex operation, the wall was broken up into many layered sections, crated and shipped to Israel. It took more than a year for the packed painting to actually begin the journey, as Brazilian authorities procrastinated as to whether the "cultural treasure" could be exported from their country. Eventually permission was granted and the work, which weighs more than a ton, was reassembled, and serious restoration work was carried out under a professional restorer. The kibbutz had originally approached the restoration department of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, as it had restored other paintings by the artist in the past. This time around, the Israel Museum passed on the offer to bring the work back to life but suggested a restorer from Sao Paulo, who gladly took on the challenge. A festive rededication of the enormous, colorful and lively work depicting the kibbutz in its heyday was held recently. Gan Shmuel members now proudly pass by their heritage-in-art at mealtimes. Apart from the mural, there are two other large paintings by Simon, one showing young people wearing khaki shorts and shirts bringing in a fruit harvest and another depicting the kibbutz members celebrating the gathering of fruits at a Shavuot celebration. The majority of the well-to-do kibbutz's profits nowadays stem from Gan Shmuel Foods Ltd., a leading Israeli plant in modern citrus processing technology and packaging systems that processes up to 100,000 tons of oranges and other citrus fruits, and 60,000 tons of tomatoes annually. Situated off the Caesarea-Afula highway, Gan Shmuel was one of the first kibbutzim to turn over land for a shopping mall, which has developed into one of the busiest roadside shopping areas in the country and includes a supermarket belonging to the kibbutz, selling many of their own products. Over the length of the outer wall of Gan Shmuel Foods' main building, another kibbutz artist, Shaul Knaz, tells the story of the beginnings of the kibbutz, which has remained a kibbutz in modern times not having privatized like many others. The story depicted on the long outside wall mural begins in l895 with religious folks from nearby Hadera planting a grove of etrogs on the site that later became a pioneer kibbutz of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in l923. Knaz's artwork also lines the walls and tiles of the supermarket. Entering the kibbutz, one takes a stroll through history as Knaz's open-to-the-elements history book develops along the way, beginning with the black-and-white portrait of the etrog planters right through to the successful collective of today. Where the painting ends, examples of agricultural machinery from tractors to ploughs, carefully restored and painted by locals, begin at the roadside. One senses the feeling of pride the members have in their community.