Down to earth- At the Castel Museum

In this biennale event, contemporary works feed off the artistic spirit of Israel’s ‘grounded’ artist.

‘I Can Fly,’ Nira Ben-David Peled, the Castel Museum (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I Can Fly,’ Nira Ben-David Peled, the Castel Museum
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you have a propensity for taking flights of fancy, it is generally a good idea to have a solid launching pad from which to go where no creative person has gone before. Moshe Castel was the most rooted of artists, in a very literal and physical sense. In this country, the eclectic oeuvre of the internationally renowned Israeli artist – who died in 1991 at the age of 82 – is primarily celebrated at the museum that is named after him, located in Ma’aleh Adumim.
Two years ago, Yisrael Goldenstein initiated what has become a thematic biennale event at the museum. It provides a good opportunity for shedding some more light on Castel’s works, as well as proffering the creations of a bunch of contemporary artists, across a wide spectrum of age groups and disciplines – which partly feed off the spirit, if not the actual styles, of Castel.
This year’s biennale is appropriately entitled Adama (Earth), and is curated by Rachel Ziv. It opened September 29, with the grand ceremony attended by local Mayor Benny Kashriel, and deputy mayor and head of the municipal culture department Guy Yifrach, with veteran media personality Dan Kaner serving as MC. The exhibition closes February 2, 2016.
Goldenstein says the museum was something of a homecoming for Castel. “He was born in the Bukharim neighborhood of Jerusalem and, as a kid, he used to come out to this area to play and walk. Moshe himself chose the location for the museum.”
The story goes that in 1981 Castel, who spent much of his early life abroad – studying and working in Paris, and later working in New York – was passing through the Judean Desert on his way to the Dead Sea when he noticed some bulldozers at work on a hilltop to the right of the highway.
He asked the driver, his nephew, to stop the car and he climbed up the hill to the spot that eventually became part of the evolving Ma’aleh Adumim, and promptly decided he wanted to make his home there and to work there. And so it came to pass.
“For Castel that was a sort of closure, and he initiated the move,” Goldenstein notes.
“For him it was wonderful that a town was being built in a region where he had hiked and played as a child.”
The name of this year’s biennale show comes from the decision to name the first four biennales after the elements, but it is also an indication of how rooted Castel was in the terra firma that makes up this part of the world. After returning to Israel from his European and North American sojourns, Castel noted: “Art is not symbolic but rather material, the material is the main thing, the way the paint is placed, the way the layers are placed on the picture. This is the most essential thing.”
Castel’s tenacious bond with the ground is evident in many of his works at the museum, and particularly his connection with lava-produced basalt. “Castel was not an easy person to deal with, but he was a strong character and he had a strong awareness of the past and the present, and he also looked to the future,” says Goldenstein who, in his former capacity as director-general of the Ma’aleh Adumim Municipality, was very much involved in facilitating the establishment of the museum, which was designed and built by Israel Prize laureate architect David Resnick. “Moshe gained much of his inspiration from the region of the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea,” continues Goldenstein. “This area is a very powerful motif in his work.”
Castel’s “grounded” approach comes through in tangible form in his use of finely grounded basalt mixed with colorful stone and paint. This can be seen at the museum in such works as Stele Verte, from 1963, which has a metallic feel to it.
Also highly evident in that particular work is Castel’s fondness for calligraphy, and many of his paintings incorporate Hebrew lettering, of various styles and dating from different eras. “The whole world of basalt became the thing that most moved and excited Moshe,” says Goldenstein. “He filtered his artistic vision through that.”
The inclusion of basalt, and an earthy feel to his work, brought Castel much success abroad. “The Europeans greatly appreciated that,” continues Goldenstein.
“They related to him as a sort of Middle Eastern artist.”
As far as the domestic take on Castel is concerned, Goldenstein feels the artist is very much an Israeli icon. “There is no national painter as such. But I think there is no other artist, albeit unpremeditated, whose work is the backdrop for so many national occasions in this country.”
Indeed. Castel’s stately works include his 1966 wall painting A Song of Praise to Jerusalem, which adorns the Knesset building, and his Wall of Praise at the President’s Residence gets plenty of media coverage whenever there is a televised ceremony or some other major event there.
It seems Castel also had a penchant for music, and his path crossed that of some of the most celebrated classical players in the world. With at least one of them, legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin, it was a matter of a mutual appreciation relationship, and one that helped Castel keep the wolves at bay and also finance an artistically fruitful trip to France. It seems that, in the 1950s, Castel wanted to return to France to work there, but did not have the wherewithal to make it happen.
His wife, Bilha, had a connection with the leading Tel Aviv art house the Katz Gallery, and she suggested packing off a few of Castel’s works, in the hope that one or two them might be sold and thereby generate some funds for the Paris trip. In the event, all the works were sold and provided Castel with enough revenue to spend an entire year in Paris.
When the gallery owner informed Castel of the exhibition’s success, he added that one of the buyers, who had acquired no fewer than six of the paintings, made the purchase contingent on meeting the artist.
The mystery buyer was holed up at the nearby Dan Hotel, and when Castel duly went over to meet his benefactor, he discovered it was none other than Menuhin.
The contemporary works on display in the biennale also make for intriguing and sometimes moving viewing. Tamar Beit- On’s triad of cubist-like sculptures – Triangles, Craving Man and Aching Woman – for example, have a dark, almost ebony, hue to them, reminiscent of the natural color of basalt, the geological substance so beloved of Castel. Then there is Niva Dotan’s fetching threesome of tin-based dresses, which conveys the feel of fabric while not hiding the properties of metal raw material. Hannah Hirshman Cohen was clearly looking for a logistical, as well as an artistic, challenge when she took on the task of producing dynamic sculpted figures from wire mesh. She managed that with aplomb, as can be seen from her trio of works in the biennale that give off a sense of a fusion of fragility and robustness, and being light and airy but without comprising on solidity.
One of the most attractive items in the biennale is a ready-made hybrid of a cement-encrusted wheelbarrow base with its carriage covered with hundreds of camera film cartridges, made by Oranit Shirazi. Shirazi also has one of the tallest works in the show, a pair of 2.80-meterhigh “totems” of colorful thread spools.
Gila Elyashar-Stocklisky’s brightly colored, and intricately detailed, ceramic sculptures also catch the eye and may even raise a smile. And there are more polychromic splashes on offer in Nira Ben-David Peled’s brightly hued, mosaic- covered canine figure I Can Fly.
There is a generous helping of photography too, with Lika Ramati’s expertly computer manipulated digital works feeding off a range of textures and shades.
Meanwhile, veteran photographer Yoel Levy began his artistic life way back in the analogue age of camera film and, despite eventually making the transition to the digital format, Levy’s monochrome prints give off an air of yesteryear and display a highly developed grasp of composition and a healthy balance between light and shadow.
With the permanent display of Castel’s works, spread across over half a century of endeavor, and the multidisciplinary selection of contemporary creations, there is plenty of reason to get yourself over to the Moshe Castel Museum of Art in the Judean Desert.
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