New exhibition 'Treasures of the Mishkan Museum of Art' debuts in Ein Harod

This is but the first chapter of what is planned to be a gradual exploration of roughly 20,000 rescued artworks

RED COW, 1954, by Ori Reisman. (photo credit: MISHKAN MUSEUM OF ART EIN HAROD)
RED COW, 1954, by Ori Reisman.

The Mishkan Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod unveiled a new permanent exhibition on Tuesday titled Treasures of the Mishkan Museum of Art. This is but the first chapter of what is planned to be a gradual exploration of the roughly 20,000 artworks rescued by the museum’s founder, Chaim Atar.

The remarkable decision by the pioneers who founded Kibbutz Ein Harod, to fund an art museum during the painful and hectic years of pre-state Israel with its Jewish society facing an Arab revolt and the shocking news of the Nazi war machine progressing in Europe, led to the Mishkan amassing an unrivaled Jewish art collection. They are housed in a historic building designed by Shmuel Bickels, with the exhibit being curated by Yaniv Shapira and Judith Bejerano.

Bejerano explained the value of the collection to the audience using the example of the 1925 painting The Blind Beggar by Polish-Jewish painter Eugeniusz Zak.

Thanks to personal efforts by Polish researcher Yagna Yass-Alston, who visited Mishkan in early 2015 and noticed the painting, it was turned around and its wooden frame examined. Careful scrutiny revealed hitherto unknown digits. The painting was marked by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce in occupied France and shipped from Nice. Its original owner, Zak’s widow, Jadwiga Kohn, was sent to the Drancy internment camp and then to Auschwitz, where she was killed.

 Thanks to Tass-Alston, a completely unknown chapter in art history was uncovered, demonstating the importance of provenance research in any future efforts to reclaim Nazi-stolen Jewish art.   

As Bejerano pointed out to the guests, which included dignitaries from the French, Polish, and German cultural institutes, the Nazis looted artworks under Alfred Rosenberg not because they wanted such allegedly decadent art for themselves. They meant to sell it on the market to finance a global war. Without Atar’s dedication to find a new home to as many works by Jewish artists as possible, and the current interest by Polish scholars in the contribution of these same artists to pre-war Polish culture, nobody would know how the painting ended up here. A lovely Polish-language study of Zak, written by Artur Tanikowski, was published in 2013.

Zak is not the only artist brought back to daylight in this exhibition. Others include Roman Kramsztyk, represented by a 1920s landscape depicting a lamb lying down at its center. An iconic choice that fuses the Christian artistic tradition of depicting the Lamb of God and the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew nation being the kid, which must endure hardships in the Passover song “Chad Gadya;” and Henoch Barczynski, who depicted the Shabbat in a 1923 painting. In it, a smaller painting placed above the men discussing Torah shows Adam and Eve standing next to the Tree of Life with a Yiddish note offering further details about the people and the location.

 THE BLIND BEGGAR, 1925, oil on canvas, by Eugene Zak. (credit: MISHKAN MUSEUM OF ART EIN HAROD) THE BLIND BEGGAR, 1925, oil on canvas, by Eugene Zak. (credit: MISHKAN MUSEUM OF ART EIN HAROD)

This part of the exhibition, which offers the eye a taste of Jewish art in the European diaspora, is crucial for a healthy understanding of Jewish cultural strength.

True, almost everyone has heard the name Marc Chagall, and Atar collected works by him too. Yet to fully understand how this painter, in the words of Sidney Alexander, turned mud to rainbows in the crucible of his imagination, one must also see works by his first teacher – Yehuda Pen – and his second, Nicholas Roerich, and, if possible, other masters who helped his hand.

Israel is blessed with some of the finest collections on Earth. The Russian Art Museum in Ramat Gan, to name but one, is similar to the Mishkan Museum in the sense it has amazing works by such unrivaled masters like Valentin Serov, and (to name but a few others) Mikhail Larionov and his life-long partner Natalia Goncharova.

In 2014 the Israeli art world was shocked to learn the museum sold Serov’s Portrait of Maria Zetlin via Christie’s for $12.5 million. A 1984 Maariv report revealed how this important collection is stored in terrible conditions and is in disarray.

In the case of the Mishkan Museum, a generous donation by the Beracha Foundation paid for a renovation of the roofs the priceless artworks are kept under. Without this support, water damage might have undone the efforts made by the Ein Harod pioneers all these years ago as they rushed across war-torn Europe to save the cultural legacy of the Jewish nation.

“We have heard lofty words from important persons here today,” former art critic and curator Amnon Barzel told The Jerusalem Post. “Yet these words are not backed by anything.”

Noting he had been engaged with the art world since 1969, Barzel explained the recent closing down of the Ramat Gan Art Museum this year and that of the Tefen Open Museum last year are, for him, unprecedented.

“Never before did a museum close because of political censorship,” he said in reference to the work Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of S*** by David Reeb, which led to the decision by the staff of the Ramat Gan Art Museum to shut it down last month rather than yield to pressures from city hall. This after a four-year renovation of the museum paid for by the aforementioned sale of the Serov painting, Dar Moussafir reported last year for Ynet.

“Artists were told to come and pick up their own works [from Tefen],” he said. “This is unbelievable.”

He spoke with pain on how the grandson of great painter Pinchas Litvinovsky is reduced to destroying paintings en masse after no museum agreed to accept them, for free.

His actions, Meirav Moran reported in Haaretz, are motivated by the hope that a smaller collection would be easier to take in. No future scholar would make similar discoveries to those of researcher Yass-Alston in reference to Litvinovsky because no paintings would be left to turn over and examine.

“There is a lack of interest in arts,” he stressed. “Nobody cares. We must cry out against this trend.”

It is against this bleak reality the current exhibition shines bright as the eye wanders to Jewish abstract works such as the 1972 Painting with Orange Stain by Joseph Zaritsky and what we now recognize as great Israeli art like the 1954 painting Red Cow by Ori Reisman.

Working in Kibbutz Kabri, Reisman did not enjoy similar social acceptance to that of Atar.

While Atar was largely appreciated and given the job of a baker so that he might paint during the day time, Reisman was allocated only a few days to paint and his paintings sold poorly.

Now regarded as one of the finest painters this country produced, Reisman never enjoyed the success he deserved during his lifetime. His painting, depicting the sacred red heifer needed to ritually purify the living from the impurity of the dead (while the Temple was functioning) being milked – can be seen as a sly twist on the grand hopes of Jewish utopianism when they meet real life.

The exhibit’s opening on Tuesday was attended by President Isaac Herzog’s wife, Michal, museum director Orit Lev-Segev, director of the Beracha Foundation Tali Yariv-Mashal and deputy chair of the World Zionist Organization Tova Dorfman.

In her speech, Yariv-Mashal spoke of the civilizational crisis endured by humanity due to climate change and warned that either “we all prosper, or we will no longer exist.”

She referred to Ein Harod writer David Malets, who argued in 1937 that “Great is the role of art in our lives, our days necessitate art.”

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The writer works at the culture department of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, which was one of the partners of the Mishkan Museum in the production of this exhibition.