Lockdown lifted: Israel Museum reopens featuring Dutch art exhibit

After a long string of lockdowns, the beloved cultural institution has reopened. What's on show?

THE SALT of the Earth exhibition features fascinating portrayals of the Dutch working class by leading Jewish artists  of the mid-late 19th century. (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
THE SALT of the Earth exhibition features fascinating portrayals of the Dutch working class by leading Jewish artists of the mid-late 19th century.
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
 Heard the one about the Jewish Rembrandt? No, this isn’t a scoop about some recent discovery that the iconic 17th-century Leiden-born painter turned out to be “of the faith.” However, that is the splendidly complimentary epithet attached to Jozef Israëls, who has also been described as “the most respected Dutch artist of the second half of the 19th century.”
Israëls is one of a triad of Jewish painters whose works comprise the lion’s share of the “Salt of the Earth” exhibition. The showing was originally unveiled at the Israel Museum back in early October, but with one pandemic thing and another, had to wait until last week to get up a decent head of public feedback steam as visitor traffic gradually began to resume at the prestigious Jerusalem repository of art and historical artifacts.
For cultural consumers, last week’s reopening of museums up and down the country was a breath of sorely needed fresh air. After an age of passing by arts facilities, gazing longingly at the seemingly impenetrable exterior, when one had to make do – at best – with yet another virtual tour of deftly arranged spreads, we can once again saunter through the turnstiles and observe the exhibits at close quarters.
“Salt of the Earth,” curated by Shlomit Steinberg, is a prime example of what we have been missing all these dark lockdown and purple badge-constrained months.
There are those who believe that art, and culture in general, pertain to the loftier strata of life. Then again, it is an incontrovertible fact that art must necessarily feed off our quotidian existence. Artists bring their technical expertise to their creative table but also introduce their personal baggage, and their individual experiences and observations, to their professional fray.
THE LATTER is central to “Salt of the Earth,” which, in addition to Israëls, showcases some delightful paintings, engraving and etchings by coreligionists Berlin-born artist Max Liebermann, and Prussian-born Impressionist painter and printmaker Lesser Ury. “Salt of the Earth” is tellingly subtitled “Farmers and Fishermen in 19th-Century Holland,” and imparts a perspicacious and incisive take on aspects of the life of the common man and woman in the Netherlands around a century and a half ago.
The biographical backdrop to the contributors’ work also makes for fascinating reading. Both Israëls and Liebermann started life in the cloistered milieu of the extremely well-heeled, far from the hustle and bustle, and existential demands of the proletariat they were later to depict so well and so sensitively. Intriguingly, Ury – who came from far more humble origins and thus, one would have thought, might have had a better handle on the working class – opted for a less emotive and more technical and texturally oriented mode of expression. All of which makes for a diverse and somewhat oxymoronic viewing experience.
The trio roster of leading Jewish artists of the time is complemented in the exhibition by a number of referential works, principally by Jean-François Millet, a mid-19th century French artist and one of the founders of the Barbizon school of thought in rural France. Millet is best known for his depictions of peasant farmers and pertained to the Realism art movement. Mid-19th century Dutch painter Anton Mauve, who also tutored Vincent Van Gogh, and compatriot late 19th-early 20th century artist Jan Toorop are also in the “Salt of the Earth” lineup.
But, true to her historian training and experience, Steinberg was eager to dig into some of the more personal and interpersonal nuances behind the art. 
“For a while now I have been fascinated by the relationship between two artists – one of whom, in fact, is a pivotal figure,” she explains. “Max Liebermann was the most important Jewish artist of the late 19th century and the early 20th century in Berlin. He was a close friend of the no-less celebrated Jewish artist Jozef Israëls in the Netherlands.”
It was a long and artistically fruitful relationship. 
“Every summer, from 1881 through to around 1903, when Israëls was very elderly, they went off to paint together, in the summer, in the villages of the Dutch fishermen and farmers.” 
This was at a time when Impressionists and Realists were drawn to the south of France, to capture the brighter and more dynamic light of the region. 
“They went there, but they wanted to establish their own Barbizon,” she adds with a chuckle. “Their own Barbizon was Scheveningen [area of The Hague, and which had a relatively large Jewish population between the two World Wars], Laren [in northern Holland], Katwijk and those kinds of places.”
It might seem a little strange, if not downright quirky, for a couple of wealthy Jews to mingle with “the great unwashed,” to try to capture and portray their mundane industrious activities and basic lifestyle. Perhaps this is partly down to the emerging socialist-leaning zeitgeist of the day.
STEINBERG SET about digging into the items stored in the museum’s Israeli Art and Modern Art departments, to which Israëls and Liebermann respectively belong. The research work led to a prominent third party, and pointed to a topsy-turvy liaison. 
“I wanted to find things that represented the work they produced in Holland, and Israëls and Liebermann’s relationship,” she continues. “I also knew there was a special connection, for the better and later for the worse, between Liebermann in Berlin and Lesser Ury. Ury was younger but he was also a Berliner, and a wonderful painter. They never painted together, but Liebermann had a strong influence on the themes Lesser Ury chose, and on his personality. They were very close friends until 1891, and Liebermann was a sort of patron of Ury. Sadly, in 1891 they had a fierce disagreement over a work of art which we unfortunately could not bring from Berlin.”
Fracas notwithstanding, Steinberg was keen to show the connections between the three Jewish painters who produced such sterling, picturesquely documental, canvases in the Netherlands. They were, she says, charmed by the simplicity of rural life there. 
“They painted there every summer. The aim was to portray the simple religious country folk who believed in the purity of manual labor in a particular region which they turned into their own Barbizon.”
There are fetching scenes in there, and it is intriguing to peruse the varied styles of the featured artists. This, naturally, is partly down to the diverse personalities involved. 
“Israëls was a warm character and was a very important member of the Jewish community of Groningen,” Steinberg explains. “He knew Hebrew, considered becoming a rabbi, and Herzl visited him in his later years.”
The elder of the two Berliners in the show belonged to a similar societal stratum. 
“Liebermann came from a stupendously wealthy family. His parents were textile manufacturers who supplied 80% of the consumption in Europe,” says the curator. 
The self-portrait from 1920 when Liebermann was well into his 70s certainly exudes an air of confidence in his station in life and, presumably, his artistic acumen. 
“He looks authoritative and relaxed, with his hand in his pocket, probably jingling his coins,” Steinberg laughs. “He was definitely a man with an impressive appearance.”
Not so the last, junior, member of the “Salt of the Earth” threesome. There was, apparently, also another oblique link between the two Germans. 
“Ury was born in a place called Birnbaum and moved to Berlin, with his widowed mother when he was 11. His mother opened a store that sold what was called ‘whitewear’ – underwear. The funny thing is that the suppliers of his mother’s stock were, of course, the Liebermanns.”
THE INDIVIDUAL artist bio substratum features in the exhibition wall texts and enhances the viewing experience, which, it must be said, also benefits greatly from the subtle illumination fashioned by designer Oz Biri.
One of the most striking elements is that of the exquisitely crafted light that appears in several of the Israëls exhibits. That, perhaps, is most effectively and charmingly conveyed in Grace Before Meals, in which a working class mother and son express their gratitude for their meager repast – a bowl of piping hot potatoes. The artist clearly addresses the subject matter benevolently and he takes pains to detail the inhabitants’ efforts to make the most of their modest abode by including a bunch of framed pictures and some pretty Delftware items. 
“The light here is wonderful,” Steinberg notes. “That’s why he was called the Jewish Rembrandt.”
And if the aesthetics, light and shadow equilibrium, and composition strike the observer as a mite familiar, it is highly likely that he or she will recall Van Gogh’s famed Potato Eaters, which apparently was inspired by the Israëls work created seven years earlier. The undated Peasant Girl with Missal, and The Fisherwomen of Zandvoort oil paintings patently demonstrate the artist’s empathy for his rustic subjects, as does The Struggle to Survive engraving. It is not difficult to tie that into the sentiments and sensibilities imparted in a couple of Millet’s works in the show, Peasants Going to Work and The Gleaners.
Israëls was highly adept at capturing the spirit of his subjects, which comes across loud and clear in The Convalescent oil painting, once again with a marked delineation between the illuminated and darker areas of the scene. The Fisher’s Child watercolor is also an emotive sensitive work in which Israëls palpably fed off the love displayed between father and daughter.
The two may have been fast friends but Israëls and Liebermann followed diverging routes to artistic expression, as demonstrated by the latter’s Nets and Sails Spread over a Meadow, which pays little attention to the real-life aerated texture of fishing nets. Color is Liebermann’s principal target here. The vibrant Man on the Dunes is probably his most impressive exhibit in “Salt of the Earth” and it is the product of a rare, until that point, al fresco venture for Liebermann.
Polychromic spreads are certainly a major point of interest for Ury, and his works convey less empathy for the weather beaten folk, with a greater focus on the dynamics of color and expression. There appears to be something a little feral, and even unpolished, about Ury’s pictures, although that rawness has its appeal too, particularly in Village Child, which invokes a sense of something akin to a selfie. 
If you still have some energy left there is, of course, much more to entice the eye, grey matter and heart across the museum’s sprawling mesh of exhibitions spaces. “Mostly Pink,” a fascinating showing of abstract works by 86-year-old Tel Aviv-born Tamara Rikman, makes for a very different cerebral experience, and you can feast your eyes on some treasures from the Far East in “In the Maharaja’s Court.” Meanwhile, “A Gallery of Her Own,” a rare slot devoted to a non-artist, will proffer some idea of groundbreaking British-born art collector and gallery owner Bertha Urdang’s contribution to the Israeli art scene, both here and in New York, from the mid-1950s through to the end of the 20th century.
And there’s plenty more to enjoy at the Israel Museum where that lot comes from. It’s great to be back.
For more information: www.imj.org.il