When Budko met Bialik

Hands up anyone who remembers the name Josef Budko. What, nobody? Sixty years ago a show of hands in Jerusalem would have been universal.

budko new art 88 298 (photo credit: )
budko new art 88 298
(photo credit: )
Hands up anyone who remembers the name Josef Budko. What, nobody? Sixty years ago a show of hands in Jerusalem would have been universal. A Jerusalem Artists House show of prints by the sometime Berlin book illustrator Josef Budko (1888-1940) is a reminder of a man whose chief claim to posterity is his reopening of the Bezalel School in 1935. In 1929 the original Bezalel School, underwritten by a board of Jews in Berlin, was closed down as a result of financial difficulties that had begun during WWI. The ever-optimistic Bezalel founder Boris Schatz left Jerusalem to raise funds in the United States, but died penniless there in 1932. It was not until the rise of Hitler that the Bezalel's harassed Berlin board again raised funds for the institution and selected Budko, who had fled Germany in 1933, to reopen the school as its director. Budko had no difficulty in finding teachers for the "New Bezalel School for Arts and Crafts" for a large number of German-trained painters and art teachers were fleeing to Palestine. Among them were Jakob Steinhardt and Mordecai Bronstein-Ardon, who were both to succeed him as directors of the school. Steinhardt, a pupil of Lovis Corinth, had been a charter member of Germany's Pathetiker group; Ardon had studied at the Bauhaus. Until the Sixties, every teacher at the Bezalel spoke fluent German. The school became an academy in 1969, thanks to the efforts of its German-speaking director Dan Hoffner. Budko was born in Plonsk, Poland, and in 1902 entered an art school in Vilna. In 1910 he went to Berlin and studied at its School of Arts and Crafts. In Berlin he met Hermann Struck, who taught him etching. The pair later had a decisive influence on the development of the work of Marc Chagall. When a disillusioned Chagall left Russia in 1922 he went to Berlin to try and trace lost works that were on show there before the war. He spent nearly two years in Berlin before returning to Paris. It was with both Struck and Budko that he studied lithography, etching and woodcut, techniques that opened decisive new vistas for Chagall the painter; it was in Berlin that he made his series of etchings "Mein Leben" (My Life) under the patronage of Paul Cassirer. Budko was no Chagall and just an anecdotal painter, but he made a great reputation as an illustrator of Jewish books, among them a Haggada and the volumes of Bialik. He fled Germany for Palestine in 1933 and was appointed to re-open the New Bezalel in 1935. At the Bezalel, Budko placed an emphasis on graphics and the ornamental use of the Hebrew alphabet. Back in 1921, the "Hebrew Poet Laureate" Chaim Nachman Bialik left Odessa and settled in Berlin, where a publisher named Krupnik began to plan a festive edition of Bialik's poetry and prose to mark the 50th anniversary of the poet's work. He introduced Bialik to Budko and the result was a three-volume collector's edition published in 1923, illustrated and designed by Budko. Some of the woodcuts, many of them miniatures measuring only a few centimeters, have been collected by curator Alik Mishori in the little exhibition that opened last weekend in the mezzanine gallery of the Jerusalem Artists House. Budko was said to be influenced by Kathe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach but he was not in the same street as these two powerful German artists, lacking their originality and marvelous sense of composition. His woodcuts here are merely sentimental. A theme that crops up is that of the link between father and son, the old Jew and the new Jew. The latter may be of a different generation but remains faithfully at his father's side. Budko was a contemporary of Jacob Steinhardt, who, I think, eventually surpassed him in developing the woodcut and who gave more substance to his traditional images. Budko was raised in a traditional home in Plonsk and his memories of Jewish life in the town served him when illustrating Bialik's poem At the Entrance to the Beit Hamidrash when he depicted the study hall of Plonsk and also its interior. Budko's love of the Hebrew letter led him into collaboration with the brilliant typographer/calligrapher Franczesca Baruch, whom Jerusalem old-timers will remember as a tall willowy figure of much dignity and charm. There is a lithographic self-portrait of Budko in this show dating from 1915 that bears no relation to his Pathetiker style. Beautifully drawn, it depicts a good-looking little man in a natty civilian suit, rather than the uniform of a soldier. Budko died at the age of only 52, following an operation. But while his successor, Mordecai Ardon, opened up the Bezalel School to contemporary influences and eventually abstract painting, Budko's graphic influence remained strong and persisted right up to the time the school became an academy. EIGHT NEW members of the Jerusalem Artists Association now showing works at the Artists House stem from art schools as far apart as Russia and Argentina, but none are newcomers or very young. But it is the work of a sabra, sometime Bezalel MFA Shai Azoulay (b. 1971), that catches the eye. Azoulay does large primitive portraits of wide-eyed young men that are crudely off-putting, but the best of his small beach scenes, painted on plywood and rendered in a low-key palette of great charm, weld abstract composition with a sort of minimalist impressionism. One larger seaside canvas also works very well. The remarkable monochrome desert photographs of sometime Hadassah College graduate and teacher Roni David (b. 1949) appear to have been taken with the dramatic aid of yellow or red filters and are very well composed. Haim Sokol (b. Russia 1973, here since 1991), shows found objects with sculptural forms and wild textures, like rotting planks and rusted sheet metal; he shares a room here with Marcelo Lauber (b. Argentina 1964, here since 1987) who makes photomontage of wide-angle urban landscapes in a manner done to death decades ago by David Hockney. Julia Rabsky (b. Russia 1974, here since 1999) draws thorns and trees and then paints them over with semi-transparent layers of white but the results are slight. Veteran Ruthy Tal (b. Israel, 1953) paints road scenes with cars and trucks that are often a little out of perspective but produces several good pictures. Nadia Adina Rose (b. Russia, 1967, here since 1990) paints on shaped pieces of wood with compositional intentions; and Sara Ronit Eiger (b. Israel 1955) trained both at Herzliya and the New York School of Visual Art, does quiet, over-careful landscapes. DOWN IN the entrance gallery Eldad Menuchin returns to the vacation stamping ground of his childhood, a playground in Arad, and photographs today's children there. Expressionless, they stare into his lens with a resignation one might assign to youngsters in Novosibirsk. Among them are photos taken by his father decades earlier. Arad was once the dream and hope of the Negev. The photographer, with the simplest of means, tells us that the dream (like others we had), never came true. (Jerusalem Artists House, 12 Shmuel Hanagid). All shows till October 15.