Omer's legacy

Strong stuff at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art's new annex.

Mordechai Omer art521 (photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
Mordechai Omer art521
(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has doubled its exhibition space and improved its appearance with its recently opened extension, the Amir Building. The museum has dramatically upgraded itself and taken on a new and impressive sophistication, emphatically placing itself high on the word map of museums.
Professor Mordechai Omer, director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum since 1977, died a few months before the opening of the new building on November 1. At his funeral, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai compared his fate to Moses, who had led the children of Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness, but died before he could enter the Promised Land.
Omer organized a substantial exhibition of paintings, sculpture, woodcuts and installations by the acclaimed German artist Anselm Kiefer to inaugurate the opening of the building. Kiefer collaborated closely with Omer on the exhibition, which has a Jewish theme and is entitled “The breaking of the vessels,” from the Kabbalistic idea of the need for tikkun or repair in the world.
Kiefer’s work is powerful and weighty – both in concept and pure physical presence.
He addresses German history and the Holocaust through his art – not as if looking at past events but as if interrogating his own living demons.
Kiefer first attracted attention in 1969 with an ambiguous and challenging book of photographs of himself in Nazi uniform doing the Nazi salute – and he continues to investigate the roots of his own history, however difficult. The poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan has been the inspiration for much of Kiefer’s work – also biblical narrative, Jewish mysticism, myth and the idea of collective memory. Ideas become unequivocally tangible in Kiefer’s hands.
Plaster, ash, sand, straw, whole plants, clay, glass, fabric, wood, metal – especially lead – are the materials of his choice.
Like a history painter from the days before the camera, it seems Kiefer’s main interest is to depict a moment in a narrative story: he seems driven to present German history in the form of painting. His history takes the form of landscape: massive, melancholy landscapes that look as if they have been cut right out of the earth and hung, like acres of cracked mud and devastated fields, on the wall. Huge though his landscapes are, they convey a sense of claustrophobia.
And although they are made up of marks and textures, objects and scribbled words, they come across as convincing and realistic as photographs.
The human presence hangs over Kiefer’s work like a ghost from the past. Children’s clothes sewn in miniature, identity numbers and artifacts stand in for people, or the absence of people. Boats, airplanes, enormous books fabricated or cut out of sheets of soft lead are part of his vocabulary. The centerpiece and namesake of this exhibition is an installation of lead books on a bookshelf that stands like an altar, surrounded by broken glass.
Equal billing
Strong stuff, but there is work on show to vie with it. Projected onto a huge wall outside the Kiefer exhibition is a video by the internationally known Israeli artist Michal Rovner, whose work can be counted on to be moving and evocative. A straggling line of people is seen from a distance, almost in silhouette, proceeding in a zigzag route through a forest of tall trees. That’s all there is to it, but it is enough to trigger the idea of dispossessed refugees, watched and under threat.
In another gallery, a video by the Israeli photographer Ori Gersht traces the snowy mountain route taken by the writer Walter Benjamin in 1940, as he desperately tried to cross the French/Spanish border in his flight from the Nazis. Believing that he would be deported back to France, after years of fear and harassment, Benjamin killed himself in his hotel room – but his essays remain a seminal influence on art theory and literature.
This work is like a homage to him.
An exciting exhibition of German Expressionist prints and drawings, entitled “Utopias on Paper” and filled with human energy and emotion, has been created from the museum’s large collection. It includes Max Beckmann’s “Trip to Berlin,” a series of lithographs made in 1922, which show the atmosphere of upheaval and disillusionment in the city after Germany’s defeat.
Each composition seems crowded with people trying to exploit each other: the rich play cards, the poor beg, a clumsy striptease takes place in front of a bored audience.
And the crude, vigorous drawings by artists like Max Pechstein and Erich Heckel, who were influenced by primitivism and were themselves an important influence on modern art, show their longing to escape cities like Berlin and seek a simple utopia.
Less successful is the exhibition showing a history of Israeli art. The Tel Aviv Museum has often overhung their exhibitions, and these walls are so cluttered that it is difficult to enjoy or focus on the work: it becomes more a matter of seeing who is there and who has been left out.
But with the appointment last month of Suzanne Landau as new director and chief curator of the Museum, changes can be expected.
As chief curator of fine arts at the Israel Museum for the past 34 years, Landau’s cleaner, more rigorous style of showing art is well known, and her support of young artists. There was a general sense of surprise at the appointment of someone of retirement age, with such a high profile on the local art scene, but Landau’s professionalism and clear approach is likely to give a provocative new edge to the Tel Aviv Museum and its annex.