Stern’s fun line

An exhibition of caricaturist Friedel Stern’s work provides incisive insights into Israeli society.

Friedel Stern 390 (photo credit: Marcus Bohm)
Friedel Stern 390
(photo credit: Marcus Bohm)
Friedel Stern was one of a kind. When the caricaturist died five and a half years ago, just shy of her 90th birthday, the kudos came in thick and fast from all quarters. Although it was a while coming, the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon has put together an exhibition of Stern’s works. The exhibition “I Was a Tourist in Israel” opened on February 16 and will run until June 23.
The show offers a wonderful opportunity to get a handle on one of the most creative visual media minds this country has produced. Her singularly crafted caricatures added stirring and incisive illustrative epexegesis, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek seasoning.
Stern arrived in Palestine from Leipzig, Germany, in 1938 when she was 21. During World War II she volunteered for the British army and, given her creative skills, was soon assigned to map drawing. However, she quickly became bored with producing dry scaled representations of various parts of the country and decided to spice her work up.
“She asked the British officer in charge if she could add drawings to the maps,” says Cartoon Museum director Galit Gaon. “That was typical of her.
Today, it is perfectly natural to see little characters and symbols on maps, but no one did it before Friedel.”
Stern not only took an impish view of life, but she was also a consummate professional and endeavored to work from the ground up. She had thespian aspirations and, although she never became a professional actress, she utilized her natural acting talent in her work, to get down to the nuts and bolts of the subjects she wanted to portray.
On one occasion, she disguised herself as a bus conductor, and another time she dressed up as a Moroccan housewife – no mean feat considering her yekke origins and strong German accent. Once she hit the streets as a man.
The protracted hiatus between Stern’s death and the exhibition was not due to any lack of willingness on the part of Gaon or anyone else connected to the museum. There were all sorts of legal aspects to sort out before the museum could gain access to her work.
“It was very frustrating to have to wait until things ran their course through the courts,” says Gaon. “I think Friedel believed that her works would be on display at the museum very quickly.”
When the crates of caricatures finally arrived at the museum, Gaon says that she and her colleagues were surprised by what they found and says there will probably be more exciting discoveries in the future.
“My feeling is that we haven’t really started getting close to what is waiting for us in her work,” she notes, adding that the current show strays from the beaten Stern path.
“Yirmi Pincus, the exhibition curator, did not opt for the regular Friedel stuff – caricatures about women or relationships or general humor. He chose the illustrative work she did for large-scale and national commercial projects, and it takes a look at her contribution to how we are today.”
Humor generally insinuated itself into Stern’s work, regardless of the topic in question.
“The very first El Al safety instruction booklet was illustrated by Friedel in 1956.
Instead of doing something dry and unappealing, she made it into a sensitive and delightful piece of work. For example, she drew a husband and wife jumping out of a plane and kissing when they landed in the sea,” says Gaon.
Stern had quite a few opportunities to benefit from her work for El Al and traveled extensively abroad. That, believes Gaon, also informed her creative product.
“She became very cosmopolitan, and I think she brought that multicultural element to all her work.”
Considering that in the 1950s and ’60s very few Israeli traveled abroad and Israel was largely shut off from the rest of the world, that must have been a breath of fresh air for people here at the time.
The media and Israeli society in general were very different half a century or so ago, and one wonders how Stern would have managed in the postmodern, highly competitive market of today.
“I think she would have gotten on very well,” says Gaon.
“She was tough, but I think she had an advantage in being a woman. As a woman, she could be flexible and less gungho than some of her male colleagues.”
Over her six-plus decade career, Stern worked for many of the country’s leading publications, such as daily newspaper Davar, IDF publication Bamahane and glossy women’s magazine At. She also spent over 30 years teaching in the Visual Communications Department of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and was known to be a demanding taskmaster.
“That’s true,” says Gaon, “but all her former students remember her with love and admiration.
I don’t think Stern’s contribution to this country has ever been fully appreciated.”
It is hoped that “I Was a Tourist in Israel” will go some way toward remedying that.
For more information about the Friedel Stern exhibition: (03) 652- 1849 and