We see ourselves in their eyes

One man's art collection of Israel's 12 prime ministers offers a unique look at the people who rose to lead the country.

Portraits of political leaders have always had an impact on public opinion. Alexander the Great was the first to gain distinction by imprinting his divine-like profile on a coin - a practice that became universal. Caesar Augustus succeeded in promoting himself as an understanding, forbearing statesman (an image far from the truth) by erecting many colossal statues throughout the empire. George Washington's portrait was displayed in civic buildings and public meeting halls, inspiring confidence in the newly elected president's ability to unify the nation. Indeed, in 2006 a full-length portrait of Washington, painted by Charles Willson Peale, sold at Christie's for $21.3 million, a record price for the sale of an American portrait. While Washington himself, elected the US's first president in 1789, eschewed grand titles in favor of the democratic "Mr. President," a form of address still used today, the country's founding fathers understood the need to establish respect for the office of the presidency. They stipulated that all American presidents have their portraits painted. Today, the collection of presidential portraits is displayed with great pomp and reverence in the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery in the Hall of Presidents. Israel might not have a constitution, a national portrait gallery, or - some might say - much reverence for its national leaders, but it does boast a glorious, one-of-a-kind, collection of portraits of all the country's prime ministers to date. This national heritage treasure is the private collection of Amos Aharoni of Herzliya. A graduate in economics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, successful entrepreneur and international businessman, Aharoni began the collection in 2001 when he saw an exhibition of prime minister portraits by Uri Lipshitz at the Avni Institute of Art in Jaffa. The collection of 80 original oil paintings of Israel's 12 prime ministers reveals a wealth of artistic talent from the state of Israel's 60-year history. Each canvas presents a prime minister posed in a different setting. It is interesting to observe each prime minister's personality shining through these portraits. "I wanted people to understand that the men and women who take public office are some of the best people we have in this nation," Aharoni tells Metro. "These are the men and women who helped build this country. Whether it's Golda [Meir], [Menachem] Begin or Ehud Olmert, all these men and women got involved in politics because they wanted the best for this country." "I love politics," Aharoni explains. "In politics, you see all that is great, and not so great, as men and women try to make an imperfect world better. Of course, they are going to get caught up in all the craziness that is part of life. That's the beauty of it. When I saw these paintings of the prime ministers," he continues, "I understood what the artist was trying to say. I understood for the first time in my life both the beauty of art, and its power to impact life, politics and history." Since then, Aharoni has set out to collect as many portraits as he can find. The private curator believes that a collection of prime ministerial portraits should be an integral part of Israel's national heritage. "Artistic expression can help us see the universal truths that we often miss in our day-to-day lives. Art can broaden our horizons and give us greater insights and more understanding of the realities… we all live in," Aharoni says. Aharoni has maintained close friendships with a number of former prime ministers, as well as its current one. He believes that Israelis are often too cynical and pessimistic about their leaders. "I know some of these men personally," he says. "The reason they got involved in politics was to help make Israel a success. Sure, there is a lot of corruption," Aharoni admits, "and of course, [prime ministers] make mistakes, just like anybody else. They are only human beings just like you and me. That's what I love about these paintings," he confides. "They show the courage and honor of our prime ministers, but also their humanity. I mean, look at this picture of Golda," he says, pointing to the painting by Lipshitz. "She could be any typical lady walking down the street going shopping. I love it." "I'm making this collection because I want to salute the prime ministers of Israel," Aharoni says. "This is what I love about politics and the art of politics. It's a combination of all that is great and yet inadequate about people." According to Aharoni, by looking at the portraits a viewer can see everything that makes up the subjects' lives. "On the one hand, you see their integrity, intelligence and determination to make history. Then on the other hand, you see their arrogance, [their] anything goes, cut-throat pragmatism." Some might feel that David Ben-Gurion, more than most of Israel's leaders, has retained the prestige due to a prime minister. All the standard portraits and busts of Ben-Gurion that many have come to love seem to convey that special aura of greatness reserved for only a select few. The Aharoni collection includes a rare, original 1927 portrait of the young Ben-Gurion painted by Batia Leshinsky. The delight in gazing at many of these paintings is in the details. Look at the portrait of Yitzhak Shamir by Amnon Ar: Where else in the world would you find a prime minister addressing his cabinet with a Wissotzky tea bag hanging over the edge of his glass? Only in Israel. Aharoni's collection captures one of the things that is unique and wonderful about Israel; her leaders are a reflection of her people. Who could not be moved by the dashing portrayal of Yitzhak Rabin? The steely cool of his self-confident gaze is skillfully portrayed in a graphic rendition, also by Ar. How about Ariel Sharon, shown as a dashing buccaneer, swaggering along with his pear-shaped belly out of control, by Ori Hofmekler? Igal Tumarkin painted Ehud Barak with a rooster strutting about on his head. Noticing the smirk on Barak's face might make the viewer laugh, and confirm any suspicions anyone might hold that Barak gets a kick out of being the ultimate shvizter (show-off). It's an image that won't be forgotten easily the next time it's time to show up at a local high school to vote. An exquisite portrayal of Golda Meir (on cover), appropriately given priority of position in Aharoni's living room, sets this portrait apart from the others. Gazing at this image of the down-to-earth lady who became prime minister, one feels as if Israel's tempestuous history is etched in the deep caverns of her face, while - through it all - she tries to crack a smile. All in all, this collection is thoroughly enjoyable. It is Aharoni's intention to inspire others to look deeper, beyond the television and newspaper images of Israel's prime ministers, and see who they really are. This is the beauty of art - telling the story of who we are by looking at how we see ourselves. Aharoni's collection may be the only collective memory that we have to understand how Israel's leaders were seen by their public. Through the artists' perspective of our prime ministers, the collection preserves for future generations a historical narrative of the country's history. To encourage artists, both young and old, to contribute to the creation of a national heritage of portraits of prime ministers, Aharoni has established the Amos Aharoni Fund for Art and Leadership. His new Internet site is due to go on-line next month, and Aharoni wants to use it as a tool to open his entire collection to public discussion on the issues of art and politics. As an incentive for artists to paint Israel's prime ministers, he is prepared to purchase any portrait of an Israeli prime minister worthy of this fine collection. Be sure to look for his treasures online at www.politicart.co.il