Schatz the Younger

This exhibition devoted to Schatz the Younger is yet another Ofrat show that could have graced the Israel Museum, but there is perhaps something touching about an artist's memorial retrospective being held in the building in which he was born.

boris art 88 298 (photo credit: )
boris art 88 298
(photo credit: )
The centennial of the establishment of the Old Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, founded a century ago in Jerusalem by a Paris-trained East European Jewish sculptor working in Bulgaria, is being marked in a number of ways. A show of portraits, mostly reliefs, by founder Boris Schatz is at the Israel Museum, together with a marvelous array of meticulous watercolors of local flora by an early Bezalel student, Shmuel Charuvi, made in the mid-'20s. Now the Jerusalem Artists House is also hosting a series of exhibitions mounted by historian Gideon Ofrat devoted to the work of Schatz's children of his second marriage, Bezalel and Zohara; and to the watercolors of Bezalel's Canadian-born wife, Louise. This exhibition devoted to Schatz the Younger is yet another Ofrat show that could have graced the Israel Museum, but there is perhaps something touching about an artist's memorial retrospective being held in the building in which he was born. Bezalel Schatz (1912-78) - always known as Lilik - and his sister Zohara were beautiful children who soon became talented students at the Bezalel. Lilik was barely two when the school opened and he began classes there aged only eight, graduating at age 14. After his recklessly over-ambitious father bankrupted the school, it closed in 1929. In the early '30s Boris took his children with him on a fundraising trip to the US, employing Lilik to help sell Bezalel ware from a trailer towed behind his car. Boris died in a Jewish hospital in Denver in 1932. His body lay in the hospital morgue for six months because his family lacked the money to bury him. Lilik, tall, dark and handsome, next turns up at a Schatz memorial exhibition in Sofia just two years later, where he was photographed with Bulgaria's national sculptor, Andrei Nikolov, a student of Schatz's at the Sofia Academy who had decamped with Boris's first wife Genia and her daughter Angelika. Nikolov was thus the inadvertent father of Boris Schatz's Zionism and, if you like, of the Bezalel School. Lilik and Zohara spent much of the next two decades in the United States. Lilik and Louise were married in California in 1948; late in 1951 they settled in Baka in Jerusalem. Zohara followed later. Thanks to the historic Bezalel connection, the Schatz's were a famous clan and apart from Louise, a quietly dignified Gentile who never mastered Hebrew, were fluent in Hebrew and English at a time when many Israelis were not. They quickly formed a company headed by their mother Olga and produced murals, furniture and decorative arts for Israeli institutions, ships and hotels. The bosom pal of Itcher Mambush, Dahn Ben Amotz and Jean David, Lilik was soon part of the scene in Jerusalem and Ein Hod. Though grey and balding, he was handsome and still a fine figure of a man, a genial host with the flashing smile of a used-car salesman. He regularly entertained Israeli officials and bohemian writers like his good friend Henry Miller, a sometime neighbor in Big Sur and a sometime lover of Louise's sister. After Olga's death, Lilik and Louise moved into her apartment at the back of the Bezalel School where Lilik had lived as a child. This show fills nearly all of the Jerusalem Artists House. Ofrat has handily mounted it by periods. The mezzanine is filled with Lilik's early academic works from 1923-29, made in Palestine while Boris was still alive. Best of the early works is a brooding post-impressionist portrait of a defeated Boris, dated 1930. Some sketchy paintings of the Tel Aviv and Jaffa foreshore from the 1920s by Lilik aren't really modern either; they betray no link with the Tel Aviv pioneer modernists. Boris was an ultra-conservative realist who hated modernism with a passion. But Lilik did not follow in his father's footsteps. After his trite oils from the '30s (shades of Soutine, Monet), some of which are on view here, he began exhibiting lively abstractions in America. Many of these are overworked but Lilik had a cunning way of overpainting a messy composition with a new background of a single neutral hue, thus creating order while cutting out shapes in the manner of a collage. Lilik's best abstractions were painted after his arrival in Israel. I was particularly struck by the brilliant untitled oil from 1958 which serves as the poster for this show. Clever, too, are his large, painted wooden reliefs much influenced by Bart van der Leck and the De Stijl movement. Lilik did not attempt to publicly establish himself as a painter in Israel. Yet he nevertheless challenged the New Horizons low-key palette with his bold, colorful abstractions of a loosely geometric bent. Curator Ofrat, who also wrote the handsome and informative catalogue to this show, accurately describes Lilik the man as "affable." Well, his murals and paintings were also essentially affable and as such his commissions were always successful. Since the mid-'40s, his two chief influences were Miro and the abstract watercolors of his wife Louise. One can also detect poster-like affinities with the work of Jean David. Lilik designed gates and screens, furniture, coins, medals, copperware and anything that brought in a little ready money. He did the gates for the residence of Israel's president in Jerusalem and a fine screen of Hebrew lettering for the Israeli luxury liner Shalom (which Harry Golden once suggested should be called SS Mein Kind). He even did the parochet for the ship's synagogue, but all these works disappeared when the ship was sold. As Ofrat himself admits, Lilik Schatz was not a great artist. Lilik, in fact, never promoted himself as one. Instead, he helped his rather shy wife emerge as a Cinderella turned princess, the princess of Israeli watercolor. He also tried to get his father's portrait reliefs exhibited, without success. In a way, Lilik became the epitome of his father's original concept of turning students into artists who could support themselves as craftsmen or designers. And many of his gestural abstractions are still genuinely pleasurable, filled with knowledgeable painterly flourishes and warming harmonies. Ofrat has accompanied this large show with a number of historic photographs of Lilik and Louise and their friends. Altogether a fine effort. DOWN IN the little entrance gallery of this venue are works on wood panels by Luis Yeshurun and Assia Leshem, all related, albeit in different ways, to the lore of the early pioneers. Both are meticulous illustrators rather than painters, though Yeshurun as an imaginative portraitist evidences a fine hand. Leshem combines snapshots of chalutzim with scenes from the period evocative of Bezalel-type souvenirs; and also paints depictions of the snapshots. (Jerusalem Artists House) All shows till March 18.