Eliezer Weishoff, the Renaissance man of Israeli art

The 9-meter ‘Rebirth’ sculpture in Rishon Lezion (1988) is a steel construction plated with textured copper and cast aluminum, symbolizing the rebirth of Israel up to 1948 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The 9-meter ‘Rebirth’ sculpture in Rishon Lezion (1988) is a steel construction plated with textured copper and cast aluminum, symbolizing the rebirth of Israel up to 1948
(photo credit: Courtesy)
He is small in stature and of wiry build. His keen eyes fixate on you with a mixture of curiosity and sharpness, which characterize his multi-phased creations. Now 80, Eliezer Weishoff has been a backbone of Israeli art for the past six decades, and still counting.
It is not uncommon for someone to see his work without knowing the identity of the artist. Among these works are the 50-shekel note bearing the portrait of Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, the logo for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Hebrew logo for Coca-Cola, silk screens of Jerusalem, stamp series depicting the flora and fauna of the country as well as its archaeology, monumental sculptures scattered all over the country, coins and medallions, paintings, posters, prints, illustrations, jewelry, ceramics, textile designs, displays for exhibitions, and more. It seems incredible that one person could have created all these, and yet he did – and continues to do so.
Sitting in his studio, Weishoff could easily claim that he is a Renaissance man, who just happens to work out of a converted bank branch in the center of Jaffa.
“We heard about this location from a friend who suggested we buy it,” he explains. “It seemed the right size for a display of our work and a good place to work in.”
Hundreds of works cram the space: sculptures of friendly-looking animals rub shoulders with posters announcing a Zionist conference, advertising holidays in the Bahamas, and promoting a campaign for road safety; record and book covers, paintings, drawings, jewelry, coins, and maquettes for his monumental works.
“I started young,” he says. “At 16, I was accepted to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. [At the time,] Bezalel was dedicated to practical, applied arts; arts and crafts that the graduate could make a living from. In fact, when it started, Boris Schatz, the founder, offered courses in metal work, jewellery, tapestry, weaving. Only later did they introduce painting, print-making, and sculpture.”
Young Weishoff showed his aspirations early. “I learned everything, except for weaving. I studied calligraphy with Yerachmiel Schechter, who was an expert in the field. He would draw large shapes on the board, which we would copy. I am left-handed and it was very difficult to draw with a regular nib, especially Hebrew letters since they are written in the opposite direction to Latin letters. However, I had an Arab-Christian friend who used to go to Bethlehem and Jordan and he brought me back nibs with a left-leaning slant that Muslim calligraphers used, and they fitted me. I also went to traditional religious Hebrew scribes in [the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of] Mea She’arim and learned all the tropes of traditional calligraphy according to Halacha (ritual laws): where to decorate the letter, where to elongate the letters, etc. I even have in my possession my end-of-term work for Bezalel. I wrote out and decorated a poem by the national poet, Haim Nachman Bialak, which was then used as an example to inspire future students.”
Weishoff is deeply appreciative of his teachers, some of whom number among the leading artists of their time, both within Israel and beyond, bringing with them the art and spirit of Berlin and Paris.
He is especially glad to have known and befriended Yossi Shtern, who taught illustration. “We went on hikes together to observe the landscape. Yossi was a virtuoso in drawing. When you sat next to a person like that you were influenced by him by the sheer force of his presence, but you also saw him as a challenge.”
Other teachers included Moishe Cohen (lithography), Ya’akov Shteinhart (woodcuts), and Rudolph Dayan, the creator of many a logo, who taught graphic design according to the German tradition.
“Moishe Cohen, for example, taught us all the techniques of printmaking. Today you don’t have people like this at Bezalel, who come from the world of printmaking. Today everything is done via computers, which has destroyed Israeli graphics.”
After graduating, he was drafted to the army. He went in knowing what we wanted to do. “In my second year at Bezalel, I had inquired about working on the army’s magazine Gadna. It was something everyone at Bezalel wanted to do. After some wait, I was accepted. It wasn’t a fighting unit, but we had to work very hard.”
After the army, he went into children’s books illustration, and from there onto “heavier” works at a number of graphic firms. “Wherever I went, all the ideas for the graphics came from me. I worked in the biggest graphic companies. Simultaneously, I started monumental building, where I obviously needed a team of people who understood the techniques of working on such large projects. Then I went into designing coins and medallions. Each time, I had to learn a whole new area of working. When I designed the stamps with ritual religious articles, for example, I had to make a special black background on which we printed silver and gold. This was never done before and was my innovation.”
WEISHOFF HAS been at the forefront of Israeli design. His own work includes not only posters and logos for some of the biggest companies in the country, such as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration.
Another famous client was Ben-Gurion, who in 1967 was traveling to the US with a biography that he was to give to his hosts. He was asked by Ben-Gurion’s assistant, Shimon Peres, to create an illustration that could be given with the book. “Ben-Gurion’s wife, Paula, showed me a whole bunch of photographs of her husband as though I was to take an image from them, but then Ben-Gurion himself came into the room and I asked to do a live sketch in charcoal. The result pleased him and he took it to the US. Later, it became the basis of a sculpture.”
Central to all Weishoff’s work is his love for the Land of Israel and the Bible. In a number of series of sculptures, stamps and other commercial designs, he portrays the flora and fauna of the land alongside the varied landscapes that typify the Israeli countryside. Similar themes return in a calendar that he designed for Carmel agricultural produce, in which the fruits and vegetables of the country are juxtaposed with archaeological finds that dot the land wherever you go. The theme of archaeology appears again in another series of stamps.
These forays into Israel’s history were not without controversy. “When I designed a set of stamps depicting the Crusaders, it was greeted by a number of critical responses. My answer to my critics was simply this: the Crusaders, as cruel as they were to the Jews, are part of our history whether we like it or not.”
Another theme close to his heart is Jerusalem. For this city, where he was born and bred, he has executed numerous posters, stamps, etc.
Of these works, he notes: “The posters we designed were all executed by hand. There is no one who does this today. Everything is computerized. I press a button I have a straight line, I press another I get a curve, etc. But you can’t abandon the basics. With all the machinery at your disposal, you still need the power of your hand. The machine neutralizes this.”
Although he was brought up in a secular household, his father, an immigrant from Poland, insisted that his son respect the tradition, and that he study the Bible – so much so that many of his designs are peppered with quotes from the Scripture. He is not, however, uncritical.
“I read the New Testament and the Quran, too,” he says. “In these traditions, God forgives, unlike in Judaism, where God is often a vengeful deity, not given to much forgiveness.”
Nevertheless, he is appalled at the level of ignorance some of the younger generation display toward their roots. “Today the younger generation doesn’t know the Bible. I spoke to a young person who wanted to work with me. His name was Jacob and I asked him where the name came from. He said, ‘From my grandfather, of course.’ But did he know that Jacob is in the Bible, I asked him. No, he didn’t. So I said to him, ‘You can’t work with me until you know where your name comes from.’ So he went away and read, and came back with knowledge of our patriarch.
“To this day, he is a devotee of Scripture. In Jerusalem, he recently went to a shoemaker in the Mahane Yehuda market where he was born, because the shoemaker knows Tanach (Hebrew Bible). While he was there, the shoemaker quizzed him on an obscure passage in the Book of Judges – an exercise in which he noticeably took delight.”
In addition to his work as an artist, Weishoff has also held a number of important positions in the world of art, including as president of the Society of Graphic Designers in Israel and chairman of the Society of Medallions, as well as serving as a judge at various art competitions.
Recently, a book commemorating his work was published in Hebrew, although according to its subject, “It includes only 20 percent of my work.” However, the large format book does include samples of each of the many facets of his creativity.
Weishoff’s name is known internationally. He has had numerous exhibitions across the globe and won commissions from the UN five times. “I won it so many times that they wanted to call the prize after my name!” he says jokingly. He has also designed a number of pavilions for Israel and Israeli products.
Talking to Weishoff, it is easy to be amazed by his energy and seemingly endless creativity. “I am involved in a number of other projects,” he says when asked about future plans. “There’s no need to go on pension. It’s suicide. It’s forbidden. One must keep active!”