The Bezalel-British connection

Students and graduates from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design participate in a week-long exhibition in Sotheby’s East Gallery.

David Amar 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Amar 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mention the name Sotheby’s to most people, and you will probably be met with a look of recognition. The world-famous auction house is a global household name, synonymous with history, art and the finer things in life.
Approach the same people about the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and you are more than likely to draw a blank. While the prestigious art school is highly regarded and well respected in Israel, its impressive reputation rarely extends beyond the country’s borders.
Yet now the two are coming together to showcase the work of some talented Israeli artists and designers. This week Bezalel’s president, Prof. Arnon Zuckerman, was among a small delegation traveling from the academy to London for a week-long exhibition in Sotheby’s East Gallery.
The collection of innovative pieces by Bezalel students, graduates, alumni and staff has been brought together by Janice Blackburn, one of Britain’s most influential curators, who has previously been described as a “high-end tastemaker.” A generous patron of the arts, Blackburn takes pride in talent-spotting and mentoring young designers. It was this passion and curiosity that led her to Bezalel – and ultimately led Bezalel to London.
Last year, she visited Israel to see urban designer Ron Arad’s spectacular new Design Museum in Holon. While there, Blackburn – who is Jewish – took the opportunity to meet designers and explore studios and galleries. It was through the contacts of one of her London- based protegés that she came to Bezalel.
In recent years, Blackburn has promoted the work of Israeli designer David Amar. The 34-year-old from Jerusalem graduated with distinction from Bezalel’s industrial design department in 2004. In 2008 he was awarded the Clore scholarship for MA studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, and graduated from the Design Product department there last year.
Impressed with what she saw in Amar, Blackburn asked him to introduce her to his former mentors. She was not disappointed.
“I told David I would love to go to Israel and see what’s going on there, and he arranged for me to see Tal Gur, who is a designer and also teaches at Bezalel. He organized the most amazing program for me and took me to designers and studios,” she recalls. “I went to Bezalel, where I met the president and this amazing woman called Liv Sperber, and I told her that I thought I could organize an exhibition.”
The academics and management at Bezalel were thrilled with the introduction and even more delighted at the offer to host a show not just in London, but at Sotheby’s, which is located on New Bond Street in London’s exclusive Mayfair district.
VISITORS TO the show will have the opportunity to purchase some of the artwork. The collection is extremely varied, taking in myriad aspects of Israeli art and design. There are works in ceramic, glass and industrial design, and a photography project about Ashdod.
“Red but not Tapping” is an experimental shoe project that challenges the concept of traditional footwear.
“The Bezalel Academy is thrilled and privileged to be welcomed by Sotheby’s in London to display a selection of student and graduate work,” says Zuckerman. “The various pieces give just a taste of the wide range of disciplines that Bezalel offers, while successfully conveying the innovation, inspiration and talent nurtured within our student body both currently and steadily throughout the past century.”
Gur, a senior lecturer at Bezalel who graduated from there in 1996, will be exhibiting two chairs and some stunning lighting.
Graduates Ami Drach and Dov Granchrow will also have work on display. They have a studio in Jaffa and will be showing examples of titanium implants in medical surgery, as well as their ironic Shabbat hot plates – a range of ceramic dishes that are electrically wired and decorated with prayers and painted- on circuits.
Sperber, Bezalel’s director of international relations and resource development, was also scheduled to attend the opening yesterday.
“We are thrilled to be making our debut in London at such a prestigious venue,” she says. “Janice Blackburn came to Israel to find Bezalel. Her forte is in talent-spotting young, budding artists. She came to Bezalel and was mesmerized by what she saw and decided at that point that she wanted to bring it over to the gallery at Sotheby’s.”
The primary aim of the exhibition is to showcase the fantastic work of Bezalel artists, but organizers are also keen to raise awareness of this historic institution.
“Very few people in this country [Britain], even Jewish people, know anything about it,” says Blackburn. “My whole purpose is to put it into the minds of people here.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Bezalel. Sperber notes that “in Israel you would be hard-pushed to find someone who doesn’t know what Bezalel is. Anything to do with art, culture, design and architecture in Israel somehow tracks back to Bezalel. But it’s not the same in the rest of the world. Bezalel is Israel’s best-kept secret – and that’s not always a good thing.”
ENTITLED “Legacy Innovation Inspiration,” the exhibition does exactly what it says on the box: It aims to inspire visitors with the innovative designs by the college’s graduates and fellows, while also educating them about the history and legacy of the institution.
It may surprise some to discover that Bezalel was the first of Israel’s higher-education institutes, preceding even the Hebrew University. The idea was first floated by Boris Schatz, a Lithuanian artist and sculptor, in 1903. In 1905, the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel agreed to open the school, and it was founded in 1906.
Based on Mount Scopus, the college was named after the biblical figure Bezalel, who appears in the Book of Exodus as the man Moses appoints to oversee the design and construction of the Tabernacle.
“He was a skilled craftsman who worked with gold, metals and precious stones. He was the first artist that the world knew about,” says Sperber, explaining why the college still retains a picture of the Tabernacle as its logo.
The academy opened its doors with the aim of creating a national style of art that combined Jewish, Middle Eastern and European traditions. Four teachers initially instructed 20 students.
Today’s Bezalel would likely be unrecognizable to its founding fathers. Prior to World War II, the faculty expanded to make room for the many talented individuals who arrived in Jerusalem and elsewhere as refugees from Germany. They endowed the school with a strong Bauhaus ethos and discipline, having taught at the renowned Bauhaus School until it was closed down by the Nazis. This rich legacy and spirit of creative integrity has influenced generations of students who continue the tradition.
There are now 400 faculty members and 2,000 students across nine departments. Bezalel offers three bachelor’s programs – design, fine art and architecture – and master’s degrees in fine art, design or urban design. It attracts foreign students and has a successful exchange program, but Bezalel’s intake is largely drawn from homegrown talent.
“Perhaps what puts us aside, apart from being steeped in history and prestige, is the multi-disciplinary factor of our courses,” says Sperber. “Even though students only study in one department, they get a well-rounded education taking inter-departmental courses. For example, a student might be working on a project that used both photography and ceramics.”
Today, the academy has a broad scope of professional and artistic activities involving pioneering state-ofthe- art design, as well as traditional techniques of craftsmanship.
It is this dynamic approach to art that attracted Blackburn, and many others before her. She regards the high level and diversity of the work produced by Bezalel as “exceptional, sparkling and with original thought and artistic vision.”
Blackburn spent nine years working with Charles Saatchi at his art gallery in London. It was after she moved on that she really began to nurture her love of contemporary design and craft. As her interest grew, so did her reputation. She held a series of exhibitions at Sotheby’s, gaining her a large and loyal fan base. So when the idea for an exhibition of Bezalel work first came to her, the choice of venue was obvious.
THOUGH BLACKBURN has curated the exhibition, it is Amar who has managed it. His stint at the RCA has ended, but he remains in London and has recently opened his own studio. Amar, who lives with his architect wife, says, “This is a big project and has been a great opportunity for me.”
He is also exhibiting two tables in the show. The pieces are typical of his distinctive personal style, made from cast aluminium and reclaimed wood. He gathers the wood from the street and wherever else he finds it, then planes and treats it to fit his design.
“I really like their story and the scars on them,” he says.
The Clore Bezalel scholarship is awarded biennially to Bezalel graduates like Amar who want to do an MA at the RCA. The current recipient is ceramicist Zemer Peled, who is exhibiting as well.
Arad, the college’s former head of industrial design and probably one of its most famous graduates, is also featured in the show. It is the first time he is showing his new cutlery project Pirouette, designed in association with German company WMF. The exquisitely designed knives, forks and spoons seem to float above the table and bob up and down when touched. WMF has donated 50 sets to sell to benefit the exhibition, which are priced at £130 each.
“Raw Edges,” another London-based Israeli design collaboration that will feature at Sotheby’s, is the work of married couple Shay Alkalay and Yael Mer, both graduates of Bezalel. Their piece Hole in the Floor is a series of storage units made in sapele wood with metal handles that appear to have literally come out of the floor.
The duo has been going from strength to strength internationally, and they have been commissioned to produce their multi-colored parquet flooring design in all new Stella McCartney stores. Nevertheless, they have not forgotten their roots.
Speaking ahead of the Sotheby’s opening this week, Alkalay says, “This exhibition is really exciting for us because we are going to be showing our work alongside all our tutors, like Ezri Tarazi, Tal Gur and Ami Drach. We are very proud to appear with them – they are great designers, so it’s a real honor for us.”
Organizing the exhibition was a massive undertaking for Blackburn.
“I have done exhibitions in KwaZulu land and also from India, but nothing as ‘outer-worldly’ as Israel,” she says.
She adds that it has often seemed like an “uphill battle” to organize the logistics, particularly as she has found herself having to raise most of the funds herself. There was some support from the Israeli Embassy and AIDA, the Association of Israeli Design and Arts, but most came from personal friends and acquaintances.
Blackburn says she was rather “shocked and disappointed” at the challenge involved in raising the money.
“I visited homes in Tel Aviv with their own personal curators, wall-to-wall Damien Hirst and other trophy art, but when asked to support their own impressive arts academy, people changed the subject,” she says.
Nevertheless, that is all behind her now, and all eyes are on Bezalel – past, present and future.
“There is so much talent, but not enough appreciation,” she says. “I hope this exhibition brings the spotlight back to focus both on the heritage and background, but also on what is exciting about it today.”