The mythic founding father

Artist, Boris Schatz, a rather tragic figure with an exaggerated view of himself as a utopian pioneer, was a lifelong anti-modernist. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The Israel Museum is marking the centennial of the founding of the original Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts with an exhibition devoted to the life and work of its founder, Boris Schatz (1867-1932). The show and its catalogue is headlined The Father of Israel Art, which Schatz certainly wasn't; and the museum elsewhere credits Schatz as being the founder of the Bezalel Academy, which he was not. In a fit of enthusiasm, it even labels the Bezalel Museum as the forerunner of the Israel Museum. Luckily, this was not the case. Schatz, a rather tragic figure with an exaggerated view of himself as a utopian pioneer, was a lifelong anti-modernist. A highly competent but nevertheless mediocre narrative sculptor, he never got beyond the influence of his Lithuanian-born teacher, Mark Antokolsky. The forgotten Antokolsky is now recalled only as Schatz's mentor and inspiration. Born in Latvia, Schatz moved to Vilna and Warsaw before studying under Antokolsky in Paris. Short but stocky with the powerful arms of his trade, he even tried to make money as a boxer and wrestler. An invitation to Sofia opened up new vistas to Schatz and his young wife. It was only after six years in Sofia, part of the time as head of Sofia's first academy school and mostly as a court sculptor of goyish monuments and folklore in newly independent Bulgaria, that Schatz suddenly became a Zionist. After having failed to make his mark in Paris or to feel at home in Sofia, where critics condemned his realist sentimentality and his foreign roots, he was devastated when his first wife decamped with Andrei Nikolov, one of his young Bulgarian students, taking their little Sofia-born daughter Angelika with her. To make matters worse, Schatz's subsequent proposal of marriage to a teenage cousin was turned down (she later became a famous Bulgarian poet). In 1903, Schatz went to Berlin to drum up support among Zionist leaders for the establishment of a school of arts and crafts in Turkish Jerusalem. In his autobiography he has left us a sentimental account of his meeting in Vienna with Theodor Herzl. By 1906 Schatz had arrived in the pestilential little town of Jerusalem to set up the Middle East's first school of arts and crafts. As he had told Herzl, he decided to name it after the biblical Bezalel ben Uri, the designer and maker of the Ark of the Covenant. The name survived in the subsequent reincarnations of the school and eventually of the present academy. It is the academy's only link with Schatz. Schatz wasn't sure if he could find enough students in Turkish Palestine; he brought a group of students with him from Sofia but soon found others in Tel Aviv. After a modest start in premises in The Street of the Ethiopians, the JNF acquired for him the twin structure surrounded by crenelated walls that still stands at the corner of Shmuel Hanagid and Rehov Bezalel and is now known as the Old Bezalel; part of it, now the Jerusalem Artists' House, was once the Bezalel Museum opened by Schatz in 1925, complete with stuffed fauna to provide local subject matter for his students. Schatz, and later his second wife Olga - and their children Bezalel and Zohara - lived in spacious rooms at the rear of the school building. Olga Pevzner, a professional art critic later estranged from her husband, hung on to the apartment after her husband's death. Schatz anticipated the Bauhaus ethos by turning the school into a series of co-dependent studios and workshops for making frames, carpets, Judaica and jewelry. Yemenites old and young (some very young) provided much of the cheap labor; the designers were teachers like Zeev Raban. But the sophisticated Berlin Board which provided funding abhorred Schatz's taste; worse, his products did not sell. In 1913 the board removed Schatz as head of the craft studios. Nevertheless, he remained head of the art school and a prominent addition to Jerusalem society, invariably clad in a white galabieh and solar topee. My father, a Jerusalem yeshiva bocher with artistic ambitions, worshiped him. As General Allenby advanced on Jerusalem in 1917, the Turks exiled prominent Palestinian Jews to Damascus. Among them was Schatz. The school closed and Schatz did not return until late 1918; he had been working on Jerusalem Rebuilt, his utopian novel of the future. Schatz's children were now among his students. Another student was the pleasant young Mordecai Narkiss, who in 1925 became the first director of the Bezalel Museum, a post he held for over a quarter of a century (like Schatz, he named his son Bezalel). A noted addition to the teaching staff was biblical illustrator Abel Pann, who brought to Jerusalem its first litho press (now in the care of the Jerusalem Print Workshop). In the '20s, the real fathers of art in this country were all in Tel Aviv. Painters like Reuven Rubin, Israel Paldi, Moshe Mokady, Ziona Tager and Nahum Gutman thought, like nearly everyone else, that the Bezalel's devotion to 19th-century art nouveau was anachronistic and its biblical sentimentality a tasteless joke. When the Tel Avivians exhibited at The Tower of David exhibitions, Schatz built his own pavilion outside Jaffa Gate. Schatz again took charge of the school's workshops but found it increasingly hard to sell what was scornfully known as "Bezalel ware." Bereft of money, the school began to die. In 1929 the Bezalel finally closed, and an ailing Schatz took his children on a fundraising trip to the United States. He arrived in Colorado selling Bezalel ware from a trailer towed behind his car and died in a Denver Jewish hospital in 1932. His body lay in the hospital morgue for six months as his family did not have the money to pay for his burial. His children returned here only in the early '50s. The New Bezalel, as it was called, opened in the historic premises in 1935 and bore no resemblance to Schatz's school. Headed by Joseph Budko, all of its refugee staff were born or trained in Germany, some at the Bauhaus. The crafts studios never reopened but the school soon had a commercial graphics department and a weaving studio and taught painting, illustration, woodcut, printing and photography. Teachers like Bauhaus-trained Mordecai Ardon, later the school's director, introduced abstraction and modernist approaches to painting. Schatz was not only forgotten - it was as though he had never existed. Then in 1952, Bezalel and Zohara Schatz returned to Jerusalem (and Ein Hod), together with Bezalel's wife Louise, who was not Jewish but a wonderful painter of abstract watercolors. Ironically, Louise was the only Schatz to be accorded wide respect as an Israeli artist. The Schatz clan all lived in the school's apartments, which had been kept up by their mother Olga. They formed a company headed by Olga and produced decorative arts for Israeli ships and hotels. The bosom pal of Itcher Mambush, Dahn Ben Amotz and Jean David, Bezalel (Lilic) was soon part of the local scene and a reminder of the heyday of his father. Angelika, also a painter, settled in Tel Aviv and died there. Her son, Schatz's only grandson, was a schizophrenic who died childless in Paris. After the death of Olga in 1961 and later of their husbands, Zohara and Louise, both gentle souls, looked after each other. Both were childless. With the death of Zohara in 1999 the saga of the Schatz clan was ended. In the '60s Bezalel director Felix Darnell outlined a series of reforms, but his tenure lasted only one year. His successor, Dan Hoffner, was determined to have the New Bezalel, officially a technical high school supported by Wizo, recognized as an academy and an institution of higher learning, something which would boost its budget and free it from interfering patronage. Hoffner got education minister Zalman Aranne to form a ministerial committee to present a report. This writer, the only non-academic on this generally hostile committee of professors, independently visited art academies in Germany and Britain to gather evidence. Later, thanks to Prof. David Samuel, the recommendation was pushed through that several departments be accorded academic status, with others to follow as the students studied a new curriculum. In the '70s, Bezalel became an academy. The little Bezalel Museum had survived until 1965, when it was absorbed into the Israel Museum, lending its name to the art wing, a gesture now pretty much forgotten. Its modest collection was ruthlessly weeded out by adviser Willem Sandberg. Instead of handing the Bezalel Museum's space over to the school, Mayor Mordecai Ish-Shalom gave it to the Jerusalem Artists Association, which had long lobbied for a kunsthalle for its members. By then the nascent Bezalel Academy was scattered in different locations around the city; its school of design, for instance, was in Musrara. A site was procured for a new campus on Mount Scopus. At the time I wrote that the move would sever the academy from the city, damaging both; and so it turned out. The Bezalel Academy is at last planning the exchange of its Scopus campus for a new one near the Russian cathedral, and is also readying its historic premises for reoccupation. It badly needs the neighboring space occupied by the Jerusalem Artists' House, but is not likely to get it. CURATOR YIGAL Zalmona's Schatz exhibition is a model of its kind, sensibly sorted out, nicely lit and with accurate, easily readable texts. His Hebrew/English catalogue, despite its title and claim that Schatz was a founding father of Israeli art, is a mine of information (much of it derived from an Israel Museum show devoted to the Bezalel School, mounted decades ago by Nurit Shilo-Cohen). Schatz's work, mostly plaster and bronze reliefs of heads and also several pedestrian self-portraits in oils, is helpfully grouped by theme. The show opens with several works by Antokolsky, including his head of John the Baptist on a plate. Then there is a whole shelf of maquettes by Schatz of the Turkish and Bulgarian peasant types he produced to promote Bulgarian culture. The many portrait reliefs by Schatz are all excellent likenesses. There is a group of Zionist notables, including Jabotinsky, Bialik, Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, etc., mostly made from photographs. Another group comprises famous Jewish donors like Otto Warburg, suitably ennobled. Less successful is the series of biblical heroes. One depicts Schatz as Samson and his unfaithful first wife Genia as Delilah. It was an unsubtle gift to his daughter Angelika. Oddly enough, the catalogue contains a little photo (all the historic photos are too small) of a photo-op at a Schatz memorial exhibition in Sofia in 1934. It shows Bezalel Schatz standing behind the seated Bulgarian national sculptor Andrei Nikolov, his hands affectionately grasping the shoulders of the man who had run off with his father's first wife. Many of the frames were made at the school; most date from the late '20s. Touchingly, there is also Schatz's little sculpture of Bezalel ben Uri resting from his labors on the Ark of Law, which looks remarkably like the one rescued by Indiana Jones. On view are some examples of silver Judaica made at Schatz's Bezalel, all of it a cut above the greenish-blue knickknacks he usually sold; and the famous Chair of Eliahu, a one-off throne designed by and made under the eye of Zeev Raban. Next to Harry Sacher's draft suggestion for the Balfour Declaration, recently purchased at auction, is one of the most touching exhibits in the show: Schatz's last letter to his son Bezalel ("Lilic"), written in Hebrew from his hospital bed in Denver, urging him to write to his mother and to drum up sympathy with the aid of journalists. A show of works by Bezalel Schatz will open at the Jerusalem Artists' House on January 28, to be followed by others devoted to Zohara and Louise. Zalmona's show will run till June 15.