Collecting from the heart

As one moves through the galleries housing Matters of the Heart: A Selection from the David J. Azrieli Collection, it becomes apparent that the patron is passionate about the land of Israel and its people.

It’s either seasonal or perhaps a superior being persuading Israeli art collectors and corporate patrons to unlock their archives and provide the public with a glimpse of their prized possessions on canvas, paper and board. After recent openings of the Gaby and Ami Brown Collection of Israeli Art at the Ein Harod Art Museum and a range of figurative paintings from the Yehuda Assia Collection at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, we now have the opportunity to view Matters of the Heart: A Selection from the David J. Azrieli Collection, also at the Tel Aviv Museum.
Culled from more than 350 works in the collection, curator Ziva Koort consolidated her choices into a balanced spectrum of some 60 paintings and a few bronzes by Israeli artists, peppered by a handful of canvases depicting Diaspora and shtetl life by early 20th-century Eastern European painters. Furthermore, she has selected works that fall within particular parameters of subject matter: landscapes, genre, still life and a smattering of displays formed by symbolic and abstract images. The corpus of material is defined by identifiable subjects; images that reflect and interpret in color, shape and texture the real world. Cerebral, intuitive painting of a nonobjective manner is represented by less than a handful of canvases.
During a recent conversation with David Azrieli, I broached this dilemma, the absence of abstract art and works by second-generation artists like Lavie, Garbuz, Kupferman, Gershuni, Cohen Gan, Geva, Tevet and the list goes on, as well as new media pieces (photography, video, installations) in the collection. He pointed to canvases by Lea Nikel, Avigdor Stematsky and even the symbolist Mordecai Ardon, but also indicated there were many more in the warehouse that are not being shown.
According to Azrieli the choice of works “was strictly up to the museum – I and my associates had no input.” He continued by saying that “the Azrieli Collection reflects my personal love of beauty, the land of Israel and paintings that come from the heart.”
In her catalog essay discussing the collection’s conflicting tenors of modernity versus traditionalism, Koort goes one step further by stating that “on the one hand it presents prevalent modernist themes... with traditional themes such as scenes from the life of Jews in the Diaspora, motherhood, music or illustrations of literary works – themes close to Azrieli’s heart, not usually of interest to contemporary collectors, which he considers ‘expressions of soul.’”
FULL OF vitality and patiently planning for the future, David Azrieli, at 88, has had a most interesting and rewarding life. At 17, with the German army nearing the Polish border, he went east, moving from Russia to Bukhara and, as a soldier in a Polish regiment, deserted the military and, via Baghdad, reached Palestine in 1942. During the war years he enrolled in the architectural studies program at the Technion, only to be disrupted by a call to arms once more by the IDF. In 1950, after learning of the extermination of his parents and sister in Birkenau and Auschwitz, Azrieli immigrated to Montreal, where he embarked on a highly successful career in real estate and construction.
In addition to designing and constructing several commercial malls in Israel, Azrieli has redefined the Tel Aviv skyline with the Azrieli Center, three steel-and-glass office towers adjacent to the Ayalon Freeway. A foundation of Jewish life is philanthropy and Azrieli has made it a calling with the Azrieli Foundation, a charitable fund established to support education and research.
“I’ve never stopped learning, I’m still learning now,” Azrieli said in 2007, “ help give others the pleasure and opportunities learning can provide... I always considered it giving back what education has given me. In every case I feel I have received more than I have given.”
As one moves through the galleries housing the Azrieli holdings, it becomes apparent that the patron is passionate about the land of Israel and its people. Its long views of valleys, hills and shorelines, its interior spaces of synagogues, genre scenes and meticulously brushed still lifes, olive groves and melancholy compositions associated with the wandering or stateless Jew define the majority of the canvases. If anything, the Azrieli Collection is a conventional mixture of works by the established artists of the early Yishuv, pre- and post-statehood and spilling over slightly into the present time.
When asked about responsibility for decision making, Azrieli remarked, “The final decision is always mine. There is no official curator and so I confer with Menachem Einan [president of the Azrieli Group], who is interested and involved in the arts, and also with Aliza Yablonka, the coordinator of the collection and who manages its affairs.”
Although the selection of paintings supports a traditional point of view, there are several surprises. A rickety handling of pigment in local hues, scumbled and dabbled in both alla prima and dry brush techniques, is used to illustrate in a horizontal, cinematic view of the Tel Aviv Beach painted in the late 1930s by Issai Kulvianski (1892-1970). Combining mannerisms from Lovis Corinth and Eugène Boudin of the French Barbizon School, this Lithuanian-born artist lived and worked in Palestine-Israel from 1933 to 1950, when he decamped for Europe and London. Among the landscapes, Aharon Halevy’s charming description of The Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley, dated 1935, stands out for its honest naiveté and meticulous depiction of the river, the lake, the surrounding fields, the mountains of Edom and skewed, human-looking, date palms.
Moshe Castel, linked to the expressionist Jewish Ecole de Paris in his early career, expanded his horizons toward a Middle Eastern style of calligraphic magic, exhibited in roughly textured colored sandstone panels. Azrieli, however, has selected a very early Castel entitled Halutzim at Work, painted in 1929. Freely brushed in broad strokes of a warmish palette, his illustration of the trio of figures indicates an excellent feeling for figure drawing and its transformation into pigment. Noted for his landscapes and Jerusalem vignettes, Ludwig Blum’s Palmah Soldiers, Beersheba, 1948, painted in a patchy, loosely handled alla prima technique in local colors is a welcome change.
Unlike the Yehuda Assia Collection (recently on view at the TAMA’s Sacks Pavilion), an exhibition that in many ways paralleled the Azrieli display although it concentrated more on individual artists, Koort has assembled Azrieli’s pictures according to subject matter with little interest in a broad discussion of any one artist. The section devoted to still life vacillates between a Cézanne-inspired composition depicting a bowl of apples and a dead fish by Pinkus Krémègne from the 1930s to paintings derived from synthetic cubism by Jankel Adler and Aharon Messeg.
Still Life on a Table, a darkly sinister oil on canvas displaying a chaotic assembly of an artist’s supplies, echoes the persona of the painter, Ofer Lellouche, whose larger-than-life etched and drawn introspective portraits and monstrous bronze sculptures relate to this rare still life. Ultra-realistic still lifes by Natasha Brilliantova, Michael Gorban and Avigdor Arikha are accomplished renderings but lack a painterly personality. But they are offset by the individualistic style by the ubiquitous Yosl Bergner, especially in his 1967 description of a quintet of dancing pots and pans in Vessels on a Chest of Drawers.
Except for the half-dozen academic paintings by European (Polish) artists who describe Jewish refugees, rabbis and sages, and a sprinkling of old world genre, the Azrieli Collection includes several pictures devoted to the theme of mother and child, one by Mané-Katz and a couple of pastels by the romanticist Abel Pann; a number of below average canvases of synagogue interiors; simplified kibbutz narrative compositions by Yohanan Simon; and a few illustrative works of people playing board games.
Collectors are born and David Azrieli is no exception. “I have beencollecting for almost 40 years and have been living with it in my homesand offices,” he said. “Not only Israeli art but Judaica as well,especially 18th-century Nuremberg silver crafted by non-Jewish Germansilversmiths. Another favorite is Canadian art. Regarding Israeli art,we will continue to collect along the same paths indicated in thisexhibition.”
As our conversation reached its end Azrieli’s final comment was: “Theexhibition is a great success for the museum and a great pleasure forme. Proof is more than 2,400 visitors passed through the collection thefirst Saturday after the opening.”