Hokusai and Hiroshige find a home in Haifa

The story of how the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art came to be in Israel has elements of both ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon.’

netsuke horse 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
netsuke horse 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Felix Tikotin lived a life that today seems almost larger than life. Born 1893 in Glogau, Germany, to a comfortable Jewish family whose ancestors are said to have followed Napoleon’s army to Germany from a town in eastern Poland called Tikocyn, the young man grew up in Dresden. There, he became friendly with a group of artists, found himself fascinated by art, and decided to become an artist himself.
Tikotin’s family, however, did not share the young man’s enthusiasm for art as a lifestyle and got him to agree to study architecture for a career. Tikotin thus duly studied architecture in Munich and began to work as an architect.
The heart wants what the heart wants, however, and on a trip to Paris, Tikotin saw some noted collections of Japanese art and was virtually swept away. As the story goes, he began, from that moment, to collect every piece of Japanese art he could get his hands on.
World War I intervened, and Tikotin, at the age of 21, became an officer in the Kaiser’s army. He fought first on the Western front in Belgium, and later in the East, in Galicia. After the war, he was able to fulfill his long-cherished dream of traveling to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railway. This became the first of many trips to Japan, and he returned from it with loads upon loads of Japanese art works.
Having abandoned any hope – or, indeed, desire – to work as an architect, Tikotin realized that he had somehow to make a living, and began to import Japanese art to Germany for sale. As his success as an art dealer grew, so did his reputation as an expert on Japanese art and culture.
In the midst of the cultural maelstrom of pre-Nazi, Weimar Republic Berlin, Tikotin opened a gallery of Japanese art in April, 1927 with an exhibition called “Demons and Ghosts.” Exhibition followed exhibition, and Tikotin and his gallery gained an international reputation. So great did that reputation become that in 1932, Tikotin was approached by Dr. Otto Kümmel, a member of Berlin’s city council, director of the municipal museum, avowed Nazi and close associate of Dr. Josef Goebbels. Kümmel asked Tikotin to organize a collection of Japanese art to represent Berlin at a major exhibition in Copenhagen. Tikotin packed up most of his private collection and in February 1933 brought the artworks to Copenhagen.
The Reichstag fire occurred on February 27, and Berlin’s streets erupted in violence, with mass arrests of Communists and other perceived enemies of the state. Tikotin was advised by friends not to return to Germany. One friend went so far as to pack Tikotin’s art collection and send it – not back to Germany as Tikotin expected, but to the Netherlands. The few pieces that had remained behind in Germany were sent for and then dispatched to join the rest of the art work in Holland.
Thus Tikotin and his Japanese art collection settled in Amsterdam, where Tikotin met
his future wife, Eva Licht. The two traveled to Japan together and were married en route to the United States. The couple returned to the Netherlands – heavily laden with Japanese art works – took up residence in the Hague, opened a gallery and produced two daughters, Ilana in 1938 and Hannah the following year.
The next chapter of the story has elements of both The Diary of Anne Frank and The Maltese Falcon. The Germans invaded, Jews were endangered, and the Tikotin family was scattered among different hiding places provided by the Dutch resistance. Separated from them and forced to move frequently, Tikotin and his daughters are said not to have seen each other during the occupation.
Nor did Tikotin see his beloved art collection, which was hidden away by neighbors and eventually stolen during the war.
The family survived the German occupation and Tikotin once again took up his calling as a collector and dealer of Japanese art. It was no easy job to be passionate about “things Japanese” in postwar Holland, however, as memories of the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, were still raw and painful. Anti-Japanese feeling ran high, interest in Japanese art seemed irreparably low.
But, as Tikotin’s daughter Ilana Drukker-Tikotin has written, “Tikotin managed to convince clients and friends that art is more powerful than animosity.” Once again, he became a well-known dealer and expert in the arts of Japan, invited to conduct exhibitions throughout Europe.
In 1950, the Dutch police turned to Tikotin for help. A group of art thieves had been caught trying to smuggle a load of Japanese art across the border into Belgium. Tikotin was asked to examine the haul and provide his expert opinion. As he stood gazing at the recovered art work, he realized with shock that he was looking at his own collection, lost during the war.
Tikotin made his first visit to Israel in 1956. He fell in love with the dynamic young country and decided that his magnificent collection of Japanese art – miraculously recovered not once, but twice – belonged here in Israel. The result of that decision was the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa, which opened its doors to the public in 1960.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Tikotin remains the only museum in the Middle East dedicated to Japanese art and culture. Its collection of over 7,000 items ranges from drawings, paintings, woodblock prints, ancient illustrated books, ceramics, miniature netsuke sculptures, metal and lacquer works, antique Samurai swords and knives, to household objects such as fans and tea sets. While the collection spans the 17th-19th centuries to contemporary Japanese art, it is particularly strong in works from the Edo period, 1603-1868.
Not content to be merely a repository and showcase of Japanese art, the Tikotin Museum remains faithful to Felix Tikotin’s vision of a place to learn and experience all aspects of Japanese culture. Cultural activities and educational programs are offered throughout the year. Programs for this summer, in celebration of the museum’s 50th anniversary, will include origami workshops, martial arts lessons for children, workshops in traditional Japanese make-up and dress, a Kimono painting workshop, classes in traditional dance, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese taiko drumming, Japanese cooking, and screenings of Japanese animated films for children. A Japanese film festival will be presented in cooperation with the Tel Aviv and Haifa Cinematheques.
Presiding over this remarkable little island of Japanese culture on top of Mt. Carmel is Dr. Ilana Singer, 48, a smiling, soft-spoken woman blessed with what may be one of the nicest jobs in Israel: chief curator of the Tikotin Museum. Singer smiles broadly at this characterization, saying, “Well, I have to do a lot of things that sometimes have nothing to do with Japanese art, like planning budgets, administrative things, thinking about the concepts behind the Museum’s activities, such as exhibitions. I have to think of that often years ahead. And also planning the exhibitions and programs.”
Unconvinced, we ask how often she gets to go to Japan.
“That happens very rarely. We are a museum, and like all other museums we suffer from a lack of budget. We receive grants and donations, but most of our funds come from the Haifa municipality and from the Ministry of Education. I wish I could go to Japan more often. Sometimes I meet curators from other museums who go to Japan often to purchase art, and I get jealous,” she says, laughing.
A minute or two of serious conversation, however, is enough to assay Singer’s love for the museum, and her pride in it.
“This museum is a jewel that should be very well kept. It’s unique here in Israel,” she says. “You know, there are many Israelis who have very good collections of Japanese art. But most of their collections are for their eyes only. Felix Tikotin had a vision, and I’m just sorry he’s not here with us today to see how the museum has grown, and how his collection is displayed.”
Sadly, Singer never had the opportunity to meet Tikotin, who died in 1986, two years before she came to work at the museum.
So who comes to the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art? Virtually everyone, according to Singer.
“People of all ages and cultural backgrounds come to visit. Tourists and locals. All sectors of Israeli society come, but of course some more than others, and sometimes, people come to see a particular exhibit.
“For example, when we display Samurai swords and knives, we tend to see more men around. In general, though, I think that more women than men go to visit museums. I don’t know why. But that’s how it is. And when we have special exhibitions, like Japanese kites, we see a lot of families, parents together with their children.
“It’s no easy thing to fly a Japanese kite, by the way,” Singer notes. “They’re not toys, and flying them is a serious business. I know, because I tried once – and almost flew away with the kite.”
Singer’s doctorate degree, earned at Haifa University, is in what she describes as “Japanese esthetics.
“My fascination with Japanese art started with a fascination with Japanese people,” she recalls. “When I was a small child, we used to have a Japanese family living on our Kibbutz Heftziba, whom we used to visit from time to time. And there were many Japanese young people at that time who came to study Hebrew. I was fascinated by them.
“And then, later on when I was a teenager, I had an amazing art teacher who introduced me to Japanese woodblock prints. So I have had this virus ever since, and it does not go away,” she laughs.
“I am attracted to the esthetic and philosophy of Japanese art, and I relate strongly to the art of the different periods. For example, I can relate to the Zen painting of one period, while responding just as strongly to the netsuke – small figurines – of the later Edo period. Each period of Japanese art has something different, something special, but in all Japanese art, the artist is aiming for perfectionism.”
That, Singer says, is what makes Japanese art unique. “I think it’s their ability to make anything, big or small, absolutely perfect.”
That sense of perfectionism runs like a leitmotif throughout the three exhibitions the museum has mounted in celebration of its 50th year jubilee.
The first, “Treasures of the Tikotin Museum,” rolls out most of the museum’s “big guns” – popular ukiyo-e woodblock prints of courtesans and kabuki actors; exquisite, intricately carved netsuke figurines, magnificent lacquer work, precious ceramics and, yes, a number of Samurai swords and knives.
There is Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print “Great Wave at Kanagawa,” Hiroshige’s equally famous “Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge,” as well as several very rare pieces never before displayed in Israel.
The second exhibit is “New Acquisitions,” displaying an array of artworks donated to or purchased by the museum in the last five years. These include prints – including etchings by Hamanishi Katsunori, today considered to be the leading Japanese print artist in the world – modern and ancient calligraphic works, paper dolls, ceramics and items of dress.
The third exhibition, “Felix Tikotin: His Life and Work,” is curated byTikotin’s grandson, Jaron Borensztajn, and features some of the museumfounder’s personal items, photographs, catalogues and art objects.
All three exhibitions are expected to run through October.
Singer says: “We like to change the exhibitions at least three times ayear, both for the sake of conservation, and to keep the museum alive.What we are trying to do with each new exhibition is expose a differentpart of our collections.
“I think you need to exhibit as much of your collections as you can.Many museums don’t do that. The collections are just kept hiddensomewhere, and they choose to do only small shows. What we have, wewant people to see.”
In addition to private contributions and financial assistance from theHaifa municipality and the Ministry of Education, Singer gratefullyacknowledges the help the museum receives from a perhaps not surprisingsource.
“The Japanese Embassy in Israel helps us very much. They support us,and when they can help us financially, they do. They help us get fundsfrom the Japan Foundation. For this 50-year anniversary, we got a lotof help from them. We could not have done it without them.”