Tiles tell a nation's tale

Ceramic tiles from 1920s Tel Aviv reflect the history of Israeli art... and early Zionist aspirations.

tile art 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, Batya Carmiel)
tile art 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, Batya Carmiel)
Ceramic tiles are closely linked in the mind with functionality; thus it's hard to imagine such an unassuming, ubiquitous medium - even that of decorative tiles, as "the stuff of nation-building" - a medium realizing a national revival. This is particularly true when one examines the traditional massive canvases and monumental sculptures that have been adopted by other peoples in their struggles for self-determination. Yet in the mid-1920s - from 1923 to 1929 - glazed decorative tiles - an old and respected art form that can be found adorning the halls and the walls of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the facade of the Casa Batllo in Barcelona - fired the imagination of Zionist-imbued artists like Prof. Boris Schatz. For five brief years, the founder in 1906 and director of Israel's first art school - the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem - turned tiling into a source of much-needed revenue for his fledgling art academy; an avenue for both ideological and aesthetic expression; a source of community pride on public buildings; and a source of personal status for those who could afford to decorate their homes with specially commissioned tiles designed by Bezalel's ceramics department. The task of uncovering the history of the ceramics' heyday as an expression of national awakening - using archival material and locating, photographing and cataloging what remains of this artistic heritage - fascinated Batya Carmiel, director of the Historical Museum of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Carmiel, a historian of Tel Aviv, tells Metro: "I used to run around the city a lot, including the older sections of the city, and was aware of the ceramic embellishments - but they needed to be researched thoroughly - their history - including the link between crystallization of Tel Aviv architecture and the artistic embellishments." Four years of research and writing culminated in a beautifully illustrated book in Hebrew and English: Tiles Adorned City (Arichim Me'atrim Ir), published by the Land of Israel Museum. The 150-page volume presents readers with a picture of the times and of the tiles - "two elements that are inextricably linked together," Carmiel stresses. When Zionist pioneers came 100 years ago to rebuild the Jewish homeland, they dreamed of creating a new kind of Jewish society, fundamentally different from Jewish life in the Diaspora. Energies were poured not only into forging a "new Hebrew society" with its own farmers and laborers and building a viable economic structure for the Jewish homeland, but also in seeking avenues of artistic expression that would reflect - even epitomize - Zionism's "new society." Creative energies were invested first and foremost in revitalizing the Hebrew language, then in nurturing a native genre in literature and the theater, music and dance... and the visual arts. In the early 1920s, Schatz sought to expand Bezalel's focus from fine arts to practical and industrial art. As the institution was also in dire need of funding, one way to solve both problems was to establish a workshop devoted to producing ornamental ceramics - decorative street signs and name plaques for mantels of public buildings and private residences, as well as depictive architectural embellishments for new houses and public buildings in the new city of Jerusalem - but mostly in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, founded on the sand dunes adjoining Jaffa in 1909, became an independent township in 1921. Schatz convinced Tel Aviv's political elite, leading architects and more prosperous residents (traders, bankers, professionals and intellectuals) to commission Bezalel wall tiles both as a form of patronage for local Zionist art and as a fitting element for "the first Hebrew city," as Tel Aviv proudly proclaimed itself. "All told, several dozen buildings were embellished with ceramic tiling between 1923 and 1927. It was [the] fashion, part of a desire to give a 'Hebrew hue' to the city," says Carmiel. "Tiles are not affected by time or the elements of a seaside city; however, at least 15 commissions - large and small - were lost when buildings were razed in subsequent decades, a period of rapid change when no one thought to even document the work in photographs," she noted. "In addition to many street signs and house plaques, there are approximately 15 structures remaining in Tel Aviv embellished with large decorative Bezalel tile elements from this period." The tile motifs reflect the commissioners' motivations: to identify and link themselves publicly with the ancient Jewish homeland, the local landscape, and Zionist endeavors - a kind of ideological "who am I" statement, analogous in some respects to the modern fads of buttons or bumper stickers. The street signs were trilingual - Hebrew, English and Arabic - with the Hebrew characters dominant - both a political and a cultural statement. Motifs for the large decorative facades that embellished public buildings and private residences included Biblical events and utopian prophecies; Jewish themes such as "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb"; the twelve tribes and Lions of Judah; Biblical phrases such as "If I forget thee O Jerusalem"; juxtaposition of ancient holy places (The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron) and new Zionist endeavors like the Technion in Haifa; landscapes of the Land of Israel with its characteristic flora and fauna - with or without Jewish shepherds and reapers, all symbols of the new Zionist society being forged. What brought an end to ceramic tiling on Tel Aviv buildings? Economics, far more than aesthetics. "The tiles were not cheap," stressed Carmiel. "But middle-class residents building their houses in Tel Aviv at this time had the means to go to the extra expense. And," she adds, "each wanted his home to be unique." In her research, Carmiel discovered sketches for other public buildings designed to be embellished with Bezalel ceramics - work that was not executed due to budgetary constraints. "Public commissions consummated were primarily on cultural and educational institutions," she clarified. To this day, economic prosperity in Israel has been linked to mass immigration. "When an economic crisis hit the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine following the termination of the fourth wave of Jewish immigration (1924-1928), the building boom ceased. When economic conditions began to shift in 1926, commission of decorative tiles began to peter out. Why was the genre not renewed when conditions improved? Carmiel believes the decorative tiles were endemic to an early period in the country's "process of becoming." "Once Tel Aviv grew to became the 'metropolis' of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, there was no longer the exigency for such external symbols of identity and Zionist hegemony," she says. "The ceramics are timepieces of tremendous historic and educational value." Her book contains a map that guides readers on a tour of sites in the heart of Tel Aviv that feature extant Bezalel ceramic tiles. Carmiel says that perhaps one of the most telling examples of this period's art form are the depictions of two coins on matching columns that adorn the foyer of the house of Hebrew national laureate Chaim Nachman Bialik. Four columns (two in Hebrew, two in Latin) are faced with tiles decorated with emblems of the Twelve Tribes: The left column is embellished with a facsimile of the Roman coin "Judea capta" (Judea is Captive) that was cast by Rome to commemorate the quelling of the Jewish Revolt - an event that marked the end of Jewish independence and the beginning of 2,000 years of exile. The right column contains a "matching" coin - most probably conceived by Bialik himself - bearing the words "Judea libera" (Judea is Liberated).