Get real

A new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, celebrates a decade of the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art.

MATAN BEN CNAAN, Jeremiah, 2018 (photo credit: Courtesy)
MATAN BEN CNAAN, Jeremiah, 2018
(photo credit: Courtesy)

In a virtual world with infinite ways to avoid reality – and, given the media-obsessed world, that might be a good way to preserve one’s sanity – there is a growing tendency to swim upstream, against the powerful lure of escapism.

Ten years ago the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art was established in order to examine “the translation of realism into the unique creativity of contemporary artists.” A decade later, the new exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which is scheduled to open on March 12 and run until October, provides irrefutable evidence that we have plenty to show on the verisimilitudinous front.

The exhibition, curated by Doron Lurie, features works by the 11 laureates to date, with the 2018 winner Samah Shihadi due to have her work shown in the near future. The roll call includes Amnon David Ar, who took the inaugural prize back in 2008, through Eran Reshef (2010), David Nipo (2013), Leonid Balaklav (2014) and Fatma Shanan (2016). Incidentally, 2017 winner Matan Ben Cnaan was the first Israeli artist to gain the prestigious BP Portrait Award of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Altogether, there are 120 paintings to be viewed, which as the exhibition catalogue moots “present the various, varied and at times surprising expressions of Israeli realist painting through artists hailing from different worlds, and together present an updated contemporary situational report of this artistic style.”

Lurie is delighted with the award’s milestone, which he believes has seen off any doubting Thomas out there. “When this started, not everyone believed there were enough good painters to keep it going for years,” he observes. “The idea was not to start off a prize which would be awarded for ten years. The aim was to inaugurate a prize, some sort of tradition, and there were all sorts of question marks about how long it would last – for two or three years, maybe even five years. People wondered when we would run out of figurative-realist painters, because most artists work in other areas.”

Judging by the exhibits which will be unveiled on Tuesday, it looks like there is plenty of quality to go along with quantity, an offer in the Israeli realist-leaning artistic community. “Now we’re talking about the next decade,” Lurie cheerfully noted.

So, what does Lurie think is so special about Israeli figurative-realistic art? “I’ll start with a wicked sentence. These guys know how to paint. That’s a bit offensive because it sort of infers that other artists who chose other approaches, like abstract or conceptualism or minimalism, don’t know how to paint. That’s not true. Not everyone who chose something else did so as a default option.”

Lurie says there are pitfalls to harking back to styles of previous years. “You get all sorts of snide comments from art critics like ‘don’t they know that [Dutch Baroque Period artist Johannes] Vermeer is already dead? Why are they trying to paint like Vermeer?’ But it doesn’t help that our painters refute that. And there are artists who argue that figurative-realist art is inferior, and they don’t stoop so low. We don’t think like that. And it’s wonderful that we are not alone in that way of thinking.”

Lurie is aware that realism sometimes gets bad press, and that the unfamiliar may not appreciate realist works of art, at least not to begin with. “Some people think the best compliment they can give is that the works look like photography,” Lurie continues. “For us that’s not a compliment, but that’s what people say.”

Then again, when people actually get up close to the works, a light bulb goes off. “They fill with admiration for the artists. If it’s a photograph they think it’s not art, because the camera did the work. But when they see it has been painted, they are impressed.”

Alert to that epiphany, Lurie thought he might call the exhibition “Not Exactly,” but the proposal did not gain the desired approval from the museum and the show ended up with the self-explanatory title of “A Decade of the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art.”


ANY ART FORM, by definition, feeds off of the creator’s personal backdrops. This is where the aforementioned “unique creativity” comes into play. Israel is a multifaceted cultural melting pot, and that among other nuances, clearly comes across in the retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. “The main difference between the male and female artists, is that some paint more openly. They allow more air in between the brush strokes, which today is considered as more spiritual. It is a matter of sometimes being more precise, and where you allow yourself to open up.”

There is more in the way of thematic diversity. Reshef, for example, gets down and dirty with detritus of urban life, painting rusting gas canisters, an old bathtub, and a fridge dripping with accrued quotidian filth. Then there’s 2011 laureate Orit Akta Hildesheim who portrays Yemenite women’s ornamentation in a way that is close to hyperrealism, with detailed minutiae but also a tongue-in-cheek picture of a distended bag with protruding nails.

Lurie’s consideration of the art history continuum pops up in the exhibition here and there. For example, it comes into play in Nipo’s humoristic leap back in time with his Double Portrait of Shay and Anat, which the artist openly cites as a 15th century diptych by the Early Renaissance Italian painter Piero della Francesca. Balaklav also puts in his worth in Self-Portrait in Impasto on Palette, which refers the observer to his working process.

Meanwhile, identity is also a major component of some of the works in the exhibition, particularly in the paintings of Shanan who addresses both her Druze background and her gender. Lurie feels that is central to the creative process and is a factor in the “Israeliness” of the 120 works of art in the exhibition. “There is an artist called Eli Shamir, who lives in the Jezreel Valley. By chance, I curated a large scale exhibition of his works about eight years ago. He is also a teacher and he took on all the women painters from the Galilee, and taught them to open up to their own roots and work with that. We sort of jokingly call it ‘The Valley School’.”

Shamir evidently did a good job. “All of the last three winners [of the Haim Shiff Prize] were his students. There is a pioneering venture here, of one man, who helped join the dots of these artists who were looking for a means of self-expression.”

It will be interesting to see how things pan out on the local figurative-realist front, in the decade to come and beyond.

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