Painting politics

Veteran Israeli artist Elie Shamir showcases the breadth of his early work in a new exhibit

Self-portrait of Elie Shamir and his father (photo credit: THE ISRAELI ART MUSEUM)
Self-portrait of Elie Shamir and his father
(photo credit: THE ISRAELI ART MUSEUM)
Elie Shamir discovered a long time ago that art and politics go together like falafel and hummus. In his long artistic career, the 62-year-old has often blurred the lines between painter and outspoken observer.
Born in Kfar Yehoshua and a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Shamir has experienced many dimensions of Israel throughout his life. Artwork from his earlier years is now on display at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan until May 5.
When did you first realize that you were an artist?
In kindergarten, I thought I would be a painter. A friend of mine taught me how to paint a pony’s tail and I never forgot that lesson; it was my first lesson and I’ve gone on studying since then. In this new exhibition, I will show paintings from when I was 16.
Can you describe your creative process?
First, I get an image in my head. Then, I make a sketch of this image, and elaborate and go deeper on it. Then it gets to be connected to different things. This image is of course is reliant on my personal experience, life experience, and relevant history. I take things from the Torah, once even from the New Testament, from Greek Mythology.
Usually, it has something to do with Israel; either the land, my personal life, or what’s going on here politically or socially.
How did politics first find its way into your art?
It’s not politics in the way that I can mention a certain party. It’s not that kind of politics. For example, I made a painting called Going to the Sacrifice. It’s related to the generation of my father that had to sacrifice in order to receive. They were called the generation of the silver platter in the famous poem by Nathan Alterman. They were the platter on which the State of Israel was served. So in this painting, I depicted my father and his parents. Then at some point in the mid-1980s, I made my first Masada painting, which has to do with the politics that happened there. When you go to extremism or radicalism and you bring things to the point of it’s either death or ideology, usually death would come. For me, there is a big difference between the sacrifice of the pioneers in the Jezreel Valley and the Masada people. The pioneers had to sacrifice a lot, but it was in order to create life, and they succeeded. In Masada, they had suicidal politics. It was a terrible story that I hope will never happen again.
What is the relationship between art and politics?
Everything should be put into proportion; art is much more important than politics. Just to give you an example, no one would have remembered Pope Julius II if he didn’t order Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So I think art is much more important; it captures the human spirit. Art always has to do with values and ideas. The language of art is one of humanism. Everything in art has to do with ideology, which is related to politics of course. If you think that the human being is in the center, then you’ll probably be a Democrat. For example, during the rebellion against the Romans, the radicals conquered the moderates with the help of the Edomites, and they fought until the Temple was destroyed. There was one very moderate Jew there called Yochanan Ben-Zakai. He ran away from Jerusalem and negotiated with the Romans, with respect, and they allowed him to be in the new center in Yavne. Today, he wouldn’t be able to get to the parliament because a moderate religious person wouldn’t get enough votes. But he is the one who saved Judaism after the Temple was destroyed, and I think this should be remembered.
His pupil was Rabbi Akiva, who thought that Bar Kochba was the Messiah, and it resulted in the end of Jewish life in Israel. History is really alive today. After Bar Kochba’s death, and Jews being expelled from here, that’s when Caesar changed the name of Judea to Palestina.
The rest is history.
What was it like for you to put this exhibition together?
I’m going to show paintings from the ’60s until the present. I have charcoal drawings from when I was in my teens, as well as paintings from when I was a student at Bezalel. Some pieces are being shown for the first time. In the ’80s, I wasn’t a successful artist. I made very large paintings that nobody wanted to show. Now that I’m more successful with my newer work, I was very happy to be able to show those paintings. I stand behind them 100 percent. I think they are very relevant in both style and subject matter.
How have you evolved as an artist over the years?
I started painting when I was young, and whenever I showed my paintings, I would get very good reactions. But when I went to Bezalel from 1977-1981, I was told that painting is dead. They said I shouldn’t paint, especially not figurative or anything having to do with complicated subjects. Everything was about conceptual art, which means dealing with the language of art itself. I have one painting from my time there in this show, it’s called Man and a Cucumber. It shows a man, which is a portrait of me, and a cucumber the same size. For me, it was showing that everything is meaningless. This was my idea at that time. Of course, it is something ridiculous.
During my time at Bezalel, I had a very big crisis with art. The solution to this crisis was to go back to painting things that I love. So I began to paint again, and I was accepted very badly; my work got critiqued terribly. I have one painting in this show from that time and it is very large with content and mythology. It’s like the paintings in Europe during the ’80s, but nobody here knew about it. It’s interesting because I started painting that way naturally at the same time, not knowing that the same thing was happening in Europe. But here, it was not accepted yet. The paintings are very dense with earthy colors. I painted this way until about 1995. So this current exhibit shows my work until then.