Artful moves

The Bezalel School of Art goes "back to the future."

boris schatz 88.298 (photo credit: )
boris schatz 88.298
(photo credit: )
As the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design commemorates its centenary with a range of nationwide events, the city of Jerusalem has a particular reason to celebrate. In April, the renowned art school will lay the cornerstone of a new building to be located in the Russian compound, where the majority of the departments will be housed. For twenty years, Bezalel has been located far from the urban bustle, on a quiet Mount Scopus campus, adjacent to the Hebrew University. As a result both Jerusalemites and Bezalel's budding artists have missed out on the connection that comes with sharing a space, says Professor Arnon Zuckerman, Bezalel's president. For some, the upcoming move to the more central location represents a return to the recent past. Many remember when the school was located in its original building on Shmuel Hanagid Street and the colorful sight of young artists carrying their work through town was a beloved part of the landscape. From 1906, when Boris Schatz convened the first classes of the school that he named after Bezalel ben Uri, the biblical builder of the Mishkan (the Ark of the Covenant), until the mid-1980s, Bazalel's various departments were scattered throughout the city. When the option of consolidating the school within two buildings on the Mount Scopus campus was first brought up in 1986, the administration accepted, leaving only the architecture department still located in the classic old building with the menorah emblem perched on top. Five years ago, snow damage to the building forced the architecture students to move their classes, temporarily, to Mercaz Clal, while the damage was being repaired. They're still there, but when the repairs are completed, the architecture classes will return to the original building, while the rest of the departments will be located just a few minutes away, at the heart of the city center. According to a Hebrew University spokesperson, Bezalel's current neighbors have yet to decide what to do with the new space that will be available once the art school moves. Whatever the outcome, Zuckerman views the move as beneficial both for the students and the residents of the city. "A school for the arts cannot be disengaged from an urban center. It is important for the public to be able to enter and circulate within the building," explains Zuckerman, adding that the students will also have the opportunity to experience the fullness of the locale, including "its shades and scents, its holy and secular qualities." Schatz, the ersatz anti-modernist, would likely have approved of this turn of events. In his 1918 utopian novel, "Jerusalem Rebuilt," Schatz speculated about what life would be like in Jerusalem in 2018. He envisioned a center for the arts as a new sacred space taking on the role of the ancient Holy Temple. Just as Israelites once came to pray and offer sacrifices at the temple, modern Israelis would gain inspiration from the working artists and their creations, he wrote. Schatz's comprehensive vision for the school is currently on display at the Israel Museum in an exhibit dedicated to his life and art and timed to coordinate with the centenary celebration. The exhibit, which will run through June, is entitled, "Boris Schatz: The Father of Israeli Art" and traces Schatz's life from young sculptor, working in Warsaw, Vilna and Paris, through his tenure as court artist at the royal court of Bulgaria and finally to the early work of the school's original workshops. Nationalism and a love of folklore are common themes that run throughout Schatz's work. His early sculptures and Bulgarian pieces show his fascination with studies of cultural types and with visualizing the realities of life through careful studies of faces and bodies. The exhibit makes it possible to see the way that his early sculptures of Turks, Macedonians and Bulgarians led the way for similar studies of biblical characters and those depicting everyday Jews, with distinctive faces and clothes. The increasing fascination with Jewish art accompanied a movement in Schatz's personal life towards Zionism and increased religious identity. The depictions of Jewish characters have a certain candor about them that is no longer fashionable, and some modern critics see Schatz's work as projects of sentimentalism, lacking in subtlety. Likewise, the early works of the Bezalel workshops bear the marks of Schatz's unabashed fervor for cultural Zionism, as well as his penchant for conveying emotion in overt ways. Various religious objects, such as a highly ornate chair of Elijah, used at circumcision ceremonies, are on view alongside tapestries and paintings, showing the lush wonder of the region. Most apparent in the selected works are the early signs of a unique Israeli art, an attempt to bring together a Diaspora past and a still unfamiliar present in the land of Israel. The text, which accompanies the works on display, contains information regarding the financial troubles that plagued the school in its early years, causing it to close down temporarily in 1929, but it also reveals the hardship Schatz experienced in bringing his prophetic vision of Jewish culture to Israel. The school's administrators in Berlin favored less of an emphasis on folk art, a preference that is apparent in the school's current incarnation. A letter to his son, written in Colorado shortly before his death and addressed to his son, the artist Bezalel Schatz, conveys both the pain that Schatz felt as his vision was upended as well as his deep conviction that the academy would be reborn and grow to new heights. Although the academy was restarted in 1935, the Bezalel of today is a vastly different place than the "temple in the wilderness" that Schatz described famously to Theodore Herzl. The small, dedicated group of students that first gathered to learn from Schatz has slowly evolved into an internationally renowned institution of higher learning. Students can choose to study in a variety of fields including fine arts, ceramics, industrial design and animation. Most departments also offer graduate degrees. The link between religion and art has likewise become more complex. Zuckerman states that the institution today does not have an ideology linking Judaism and art, although the creation of Judaica remains an important part of life at the school. Yet even within that specialty, things have changed. Zuckerman describes a contemporary controversy between those Bezalel artists who believe such objects should be created according to Jewish law and those who feel that there should be an option to create differently. While one can still see traditional mezuzot designed at the academy, one artist recently designed one with thorns attached, so that the traditional kissing of the mezuza upon entering a home becomes inherently "thorny." Artistic statements of a complex kind are far more common than the sunny scenes of Israeli life depicted by Schatz and other early artists. However, as the institution marks one hundred years, there seems to be an attempt to relocate some of the missing idealism. In addition to the Schatz exhibit, which was inaugurated with a ceremony including President Moshe Katsav and Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the school is planning other centenary events. During the summer, a bus filled with art supplies and staffed by Bezalel students will head out to peripheral communities located far from cultural centers. The students will join with locals, both young and older, to create artistic projects. "We want to ensure that art reaches everywhere and that young people know that when the time comes that they want to study at Bezalel, the path is open to them," says Nava Levy, director of public relations for the academy. Also in the area of arts education is a series of one minute films about Bezalel artists, which will be broadcast on Channel Two throughout the year. The vignettes, which will include visual imagery and narration, are meant to familiarize Israelis with the many artists to have come through Bezalel through the years. Finally, an international convention is in the planning, intended to explore the concept of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Participants with various cultural backgrounds will present artistic, literary and philosophical impressions regarding the experience of traveling to and living in Jerusalem. With their new location in the historically rich Russian compound, Bezalel students will likewise have an opportunity to muse on their own Jerusalem experiences. Josh Frankel, a student representative of Hebrew University's department of Philosophy, hopes that the students will also contribute to Jerusalem's downtown - a community in desperate need of renewal. Read more about Bezalel and Boris Schatz in "The mythic founding father" on page 36 of this week's UpFront.