Liav Mizrahi wanted to offer a gift to the public. His search after the lost mothers of Israeli art led him to unearth 110 names. He took many graveyard walks. “I discovered their professions were often engraved in stone below their names,” he told the audience during an early July public discussion with curator Elad Yaron. Titled Charity Saves from Death, Mizrahi’s soft felt tombstones and memorial candles are shown alongside original works by the no-longer forgotten artists as part of Lamenting the Canon. A new group exhibition with works by Shira Gepstein, Eyal Assulin, Nitzan Satt and I. S. Kalter is now shown at Ein Harod.
“I began buying their works with my own money,” Mizrahi said, “they were not shown for the past sixty years.” Often the family relatives who obtained the works sold them for “the price of a new pair of shoes” and were glad to even find a buyer, their other option being putting the works in a dumpster.
Mizrahi discovered painter Annie Neumann and sculptor Batia Lishansky, successful LGBT artists who lived together in pre-state Israel, are buried side by side. He also introduced Hebrew speakers to the works of Palestinian painters Sophie Halaby and Zulfa Al-Saidi. The first painted Jerusalem landscapes and the second portraits of Arab leaders shown at the National Arab Fair (1933). Halaby and Al-Saidi are included among the names he embroidered on the wall creating the word zochrot [we (fem.) remember].
“Every artist is scared to end up on this wall,” Mizrahi said, “it means nobody remembered me. All artists live in dread,” he added, “we wonder: ‘What will happen to my works after I am gone?’”
Greek sculptor Polykleitos argued his art can measure ideal distances between body parts to capture fleeting beauty in bronze. He even wrote a book about it. Lost to us, it was titled Polykleitos’s Canon. A word which means measuring rod or standard. Marble copies of Polykleitos’s Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) Discophoros (Disc Bearer) and Diadumenos (Diadem bearer) are still around. They reveal how the ancient Greeks understood beauty.
With time, the word canon gained more layers. Most view it as a mixture of truths so long accepted they became canonical law, or the so-called facts that build a universe.
“An art historian we met with was adamant Israeli art began in 1906,” the year Bezalel was founded, curator Elad Yaron shared about the working process he and the artists went through as they worked with Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod Chief Curator Yaniv Shapira. Yaron pointed to how another date would also make sense, Alliance Israélite Universelle, for example, opened schools in the land of Israel from 1870 onwards. These schools also offered a degree of artistic education.
“An art historian we met with was adamant Israeli art began in 1906.”Curator Elad Yaron
“It is the canon which decides what history includes,” Yaron said. “In that sense, it is determined by winners, is influenced by Jewish-Zionist donors and is impacted by politics.”
“It was a surprise to realize the final works the artists created all came from a place of hurt,” Yaron added. “There are, after all, many ways to view the canon. One can wish to join it, for example, or take a stand that it is important to install it in the minds of others. In our case, trauma became the most meaningful thing.”
“As a discipline,” Yaron offers, “most of art history deals with how Christian churches were built. This is an odd thing. I have no problem with the claim Western Civilization had a disproportional impact on the whole world, including Jews. My issue is with two tacit claims few say openly. That this state of affairs will continue forever, and that no non-Western influences worth discussing happened before the West emerged.”
In his large paintings, Eyal Assulin refers to Ancient Egypt in golden faux-hieroglyphs. Going so far as to place Joseph Constant’s Black Panther on top of a broken column in a work titled Protector.
This is a brilliant work as a column that is broken does not fulfill its function, it does not carry the weight of the structure. This can be understood as a sign of grief, like the broken columns depicted on Jewish tombstones, used in a possible reference to the discrimination Mizrahi Jews allegedly experienced when they arrived here.
The Black Panther becomes both a reference to activists, inspired in 1972 by the US Black Panthers movement to steal milk from wealthy Jerusalem neighborhoods and offer it to the poor, and to the 2018 super-hero film about the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda.
Using a work by Constant, who is nearly forgotten now after the Ramat Gan gallery named after him closed in 2017, is a powerful nod towards the original goal of the Ein Harod collection – saving Jewish art from oblivion.
“I want to be in the canon,” Gepstein said, “but I want that included part to really be me, not a mask.”
Her lush paintings reverse traditional art conventions, the good shepherd who carries the lamb is a woman rather than a man. “I am the first to paint the burden of the lamb as a woman’s burden,” she told the audience.
“It is a tough, uncaring world,” she rapidly told listeners, “so are my paintings. I do not offer fields of paint for the eye to rest on. I want the gaze to always work, to move from one detail to another.”
Her works are rich with direct quotes from art history. “The landscape here is lifted from Benni Efrat,” she offered, “who was excommunicated from the [Israeli] art scene for doing ecological works.” Her painted donkey honors Asad Azi. In Gepstein’s large paintings, it is a woman who paints a naked man. A dog she had often stood along the canvas in a silent, white memento mori.
“After I gave birth 14 years ago I looked for successful female artists and found just one – Marina Abramovic – and she has no children,” Gepstein said.
“I also read something Abramovic said, that making art is a totality and motherhood is a totality and two totalities cannot function together.”
“Me and other female artists of my generation are in a fight against time to prove such a thing is indeed possible,” she added.
In a triptych depicting a feast of “all the women artists I love” to be shown at Zuzu Gallery on Friday (July 15) Gepstein painted Abramovic at her side, referencing the famous supper where Jesus stood next to his disciples. She then removed her “because of this idea she said,” Gepstein explained with a smile.
She also has sponge sculptures that lovingly refer to Kosso Eloul and Chava Mehutan, which are included at the Ein Harod show.
Polykleitos believed the sublime can be found in perfect relations between the limbs of one body. If Israeli culture is indeed alive, it is made poorer by the diminished interest in even maintaining a canon. Let alone discussing its pros and cons.
In 1986 there were 11 working art critics who offered public art reviews in print, over radio waves and even on TV. The current exhibition is a powerful attempt to present a highly erudite exploration of this loaded issue – do we feel maintaining a standard is legitimate? It deserves to be seen.
Lamenting the Canon (curated by Yaniv Shapira and Dr. Elad Yaron) is shown at Ein Harod until October 22, 2022. It is part of an exhibition cluster titled ‘Bat Kol: Looking at Israeli Art' (under curator Yaniv Shapira) which includes the 2010 film ‘Assembly’ by David Wakstein. The film contains interviews with 53 artists. ‘Bertha Urdang’s Choices’, which honors the London-born Jerusalem gallery owner for her remarkable contribution to Israeli art, is another valuable exhibition Bat Kol includes.