German Expressions in Galilee

Art of German immigrants, which had its own distinct style and took cues from the Expressionists back home, is now on display in the Galilee.

‘Upon this Bank & Shoal of Time’ 311 (photo credit: ORIT HOFSHI)
‘Upon this Bank & Shoal of Time’ 311
(photo credit: ORIT HOFSHI)
AT FIRST SIGHT, FRANZ Bernheimer’s horizontal drawings look like strange, floating landscapes. But his exhibition is entitled “A Man’s Table,” which makes the viewer look again. What look like hills, rivers and waterfalls turn out to be the drapery of a tablecloth; and the flat plain that vanishes into a distant horizon is the tabletop. A mental shift is needed: what seem to be scattered buildings are piles of plates and a row of bottles. And the set of columns rising up to support an imposing monument are the legs of a table shown from below.
Although Bernheimer’s focus is on an intimate scale and his subject is the domestic dining- room table, the center of ordinary family life, lurking in the work is the suggestion of something larger and more forbidding than meets the eye. And the visual language of his drawings – which are mostly pencil or ink, and without much color – is distinctly German Expressionist. Discovering that he was a Holocaust survivor makes Bernheimer’s work easier to understand. These table scenes, which seem so exposed and vulnerable, often with a sense of the wind sweeping through them, tell of the disruption of domesticity. The fact that so many of them are drawn from underneath the table suggests a hiding place laid bare. But there is another dimension to Bernheimer’s subject matter: the connection between the table and the altar, and the suggestion of sacrifice.
In the catalogue of a past exhibition, Bernheimer says that the table was “conceived as a family center or an altar for sacrifice,” and in the current catalogue, the Israeli art historian Gidon Ofrat, who is known for his sense of drama, goes further and describes the table/landscapes as “incarnations of a human sacrificial rite.” Another layer of meaning could lie in Bernheimer’s unhappy home life. Whatever the reason, the drawings have feeling and a sense of purpose.
Bernheimer escaped from Germany in 1934 and spent years in Italy, Switzerland and America before coming to Israel in 1961. He studied art in Munich in his youth and later graduated from Yale University, but the influence of the culture that he left remains as strong in his work as if he had never left it. He died in Israel in 1997.
Bernheimer’s work is on display is at the Open Museum at Tefen Industrial Park in the Western Galilee, two hours’ drive from Tel Aviv, east of Nahariya, and continues until mid-July. Although far from any town center, Tefen draws crowds of visitors, especially for exhibition openings: 600 people came to the opening of this show and were greeted with a ceremony that included lectures and music.
Tefen is one of several museums built by the visionary industrialist Stef Wertheimer in various parts of the country – each of them created as a special environment to view art, and to promote and celebrate the connection between art and industry. Wertheimer, too, was born in Germany and was forced to leave in 1937.
Ruthi Ofek, meticulous and imaginative curator for the past 21 years of all the Open Museums, was born in Austria in 1950, and is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In an interview with The Report, Ofek says that in 1958, when she arrived in Israel, the anti-German feeling was such that she was told by her parents not to speak German loudly in the street.
Ofek says that a wide variety of Israeli artists are exhibited at the museums, with an emphasis on artists at the start of a career and those who might have been forgotten over time. But she says that she has made a point of periodically showing artists with a German or, to use the amiable but mildly derogatory term, “Yekke,” background at Tefen. This is partly to link up with the Museum for German-Speaking Jewry, which is also in the park, and partly to give attention to artists of Bernheimer’s generation and earlier, who were ignored or looked down upon at the time by the artists in Tel Aviv.
THE TEL AVIV ARTISTS WERE mostly Russian painters who had been trained in Paris and were excited by modernism and the avant-garde. The German artists congregated in Jerusalem, met at Anna Ticho’s, started the Bezalel art school and taught there, remaining rooted in realism and expressionism. They were interested in Jewish and Biblical narratives and the difficult political reality of the times, tending to make prints rather than paint. In contrast, the Tel Aviv group, led by the painter Yosef Zaritzky, called themselves New Horizons, turned away from local problems and established lyrical abstraction as the main force in Israeli art.
It was woodcut and nervous line drawing versus exuberant, splashy paint; monochrome versus color. The split between the intellectual, history-minded Yekkes and the optimistic, forward-leaping Russians is also a tale of two cities, reflecting the enduring distinction between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, and contemporary Israeli artists who do not bring history, politics or local experience into their work risk being taken less seriously.
In January, the Israel Museum awarded the Jacob Pins Prize for excellence in printmaking to Orit Hofshi (born in Israel in 1959), whose work clearly connects to the genre of German Expressionism. Pins himself was an influential woodcut artist and teacher from Germany, who came to Israel in 1936, taught at Bezalel, and established the Jerusalem Artists’ House in the 1950s. When he died in 2005, his obituary in “The Guardian” newspaper described him as a “pioneering Israeli artist, snubbed by local cliques because of his German background.”
Hofshi, too, is a woodcut artist and works on a huge scale, using planks of wood to make prints. Her compositions are often spread out over many sheets of paper. Sometimes the carved wood itself becomes the art piece.
Both her parents escaped Czechoslovakia as teenagers and arrived in Israel on the same boat in 1939 as part of a young group, but their families were unable to leave.
Hofshi’s atmospheric landscapes and seascapes seem haunted by history – the characters that appear in them seem to be trapped in a dream of the past. Her sensitive drawing, etched across the grain of the wood, creates a swirling surface of movement.
In the catalogue to Hofshi’s exhibition at Tefen in 2009, “Ephemeral Passage,” she says she listens to local news and political discussions on the radio while she works, and refers to a collection of press clippings and news photographs. “It anchors me in reality,” she explains.
Wertheimer, who is always personally involved with exhibitions at Tefen, never misses an opening, and contributes a foreword to the artist’s catalogue, says that Hofshi’s mastery of her tools “brings to mind the great masters who were at once artists and craftsmen,” and that “she herself is responsible for the whole creative process, in every detail.”
“Sadly,” he writes, “such knowledge and mastery are not as appreciated nowadays as they should be.”