When less is more

Lovely ladies at the despoiled Ticho House.

Jawlensky 88 224 (photo credit: )
Jawlensky 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Israel Museum is desperate to convince all and sundry that it is still open for art business, despite the renovations that have closed the Bezalel art, ethnology and Judaica wing for at least the next two years. Its one pavilion still operative is the Weisbord Entrance Pavilion, currently hosting the interesting show of contemporary Chinese art. Hence the sudden plethora of museum PR handouts describing the importance of the downtown Ticho House venue as an alternative "campus." The occasion is a new show of works by Impressionist and modern masters, subtitled Portraits of Women, with two exceptions all of them familiar to regular museum goers, having been hung for years in the Bezalel Wing galleries. Well, the Ticho House is anything but a "campus" and there is no hope of its ever becoming one. Once the lovely home of Dr. Avraham Ticho (who discovered the cause and cure for trachoma, now pretty much wiped out) and his wife Anna, a painter whose studio landscape drawings of the Judean hills were arguably the best ever made, it was set in a large tree-filled garden below a large and handsome old patio. Anna Ticho survived her husband by several decades and left her home and studio to the Israel Museum as a monument to her husband's work and their joint Judaica collection, as well as her own art estate. Sadly, over the years, the need to finance the venue has seen the gradual expansion of the restaurant concession, which has now spread all over the ground floor, with tables in every nook and cranny. Incredibly, the garden too has been raped: much of it is now covered with wooden flooring, probably to accommodate large weddings in the summer. To achieve this, several of the lovely old trees that formed the last lung in the center of Jerusalem have been felled. The ultimate responsibility for this horrific act lies with the Israel Museum. Until recently, Ticho House, closed on Shabbat, has been a pit stop for buses of tourists anxious to fill their stomachs and empty their bladders. A group of old-timers who live within walking distance still enjoy drinking coffee or eating a meal on the patio. The house and garden, with access from Rehov Harav Kook, is an island surrounded by the hubbub and grubbiness of the downtown area bordered by Jaffa Road and Rehov Hanevi'im. The street's chief drawback is that it is virtually inaccessible to vehicles. Rehov Harav Kook is the only narrow street in the city with two-way traffic, a built-in recipe for disaster. It has three parking lots, all of which are always full during the hours that the Ticho House is open. Entrance to (and exit from) the parking facilities is anyway a battle of gridlock. But then just getting to this street is a battle. To get from Romema to the Ticho House last week took me an hour. By the time the projected Light Railway comes to rescue the downtown area, the museum will have reopened. HAPPILY, THE mezzanine gallery, where the best and largest works in this new show are on view, remains untouched. Not all the works are portraits. A Matisse and a Childe Hassam show young ladies in what are really portraits of their surroundings, indoors and out, though these reflect their status. A charming feature of most of the exhibits is their immediacy. All are sound, uncluttered compositions and there are no gimmicky techniques that get in the way of observation. Of the three Picassos, note the clarity of the earliest (1901), most literal one, of a cocotte in a large hat which reflects a theme of Toulouse-Lautrec's. The other Picassos are not really portraits, but his way of experimenting with new versions of the old theme of the sitter. A solemn full-face half-figure portrait of a young woman by Emil Bernard, a sometime disciple of Gauguin, is probably the best thing he ever painted; note the handling of the robe. The pioneering Jawlensky portrait of a Spanish gypsy with flowers in her hair was, in 1915, a new way of painting a non-realist portrait; the huge riveting eyes may have inspired those of Kees van Dongen, an early Fauvist. However the latter's oil of a young girl here, painted in 1918, has normal-sized eyes but is impeccably composed and painted, admirable in its restrained breadth of treatment. Among the rarely seen works in this show is a gestural, expressionist, full figure of a bashful young woman beautifully brought off by Chaim Soutine in 1928; and a head from 1907 by Sonia Delaunay-Teck that might have better been left unseen; yet this delightful Russian-Jewish lady turned Frenchwoman made her way pioneering brilliant Orphist abstractions and designing textiles. The wonderful little 1918 Modigliani of his wife in this show (magnificently framed) depicts a sad Jeanne Hebuterne pregnant with their second child, seen against the background of their marriage bed. It's one of the painter's more ambitious compositions, made when he was already falling out of love with her. When he died of a surfeit of the alcohol that had fueled many of his late works, the still-pregnant Jeanne jumped to her death. (Their surviving older daughter once exhibited in Jerusalem; a jolly little woman, her nondescript little paintings were signed "Modigliani.") Take a look at the deceptive simplicity of an asymmetrical Matisse from 1916 of a girl wearing a Persian skullcap; and at the amazing realist and partly painted limewood carving of a bust of a young woman by Paloma Varga Weisz, made as recently as 2005. It may have been made with a pointing machine. I haven't mentioned all the works in this show. There are too many of them and the contemporary photography by Tilmans and Cindy Sherman are out of place. So is the otherwise attractive Andy Warhol. The two indifferent Renoirs could have been dropped. If curator Tania Sirakovich had wanted to explore how the subject of the portrait has changed over more than a century, a whole different approach would have been necessary. Less is usually more. Curators do not have to make a point. They should simply give us a look at the best. I hope the next young curator to mount a show at the Ticho House will confine it to the mezzanine gallery, without further impinging on the fast-disappearing Ticho home. (Till February 20).