Another kind of building

A selection of works from the David J. Azrieli collection is a fine exhibition of more than a century of Jewish and Israeli art.

Ludwig Blum painting 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ludwig Blum painting 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
David Azrieli is a world-renowned architect, designer, builder and philanthropist. Born in Poland in 1922, he escaped the Holocaust by fleeing his home town at age 17 in 1939, wandering eastward across Russia and Central Asia, and finally arriving in Mandate Palestine at the end of 1942.
After a brief period at Kibbutz Maoz Haim, Azrieli worked to finance his study of architecture at the Technion from 1943 to 1946. He fought in the War of Independence, and later immigrated to Canada in 1954, where he began his building career in Montreal.
Starting with small duplex houses, Azrieli “graduated” to office buildings, and then to complex developments of office buildings and shopping malls.
His building projects can be seen throughout Canada, the US, and in Israel, where he now once again resides. Since the 1970s, Azrieli has also been an avid collector of both Israeli and Diaspora Jewish art.
If you would like to see a prime example of Azrieli’s building projects, just go to almost anywhere in central Tel Aviv and turn your head while looking up. Inevitably, your eyes will alight on the three Azrieli Towers, rising from Azrieli Center, thrusting skyward as ironically as the “skyscrapers” of the fictional architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
And if you would like to see some prime examples of Azrieli’s art collection, just visit the Haifa Museum of Art between now and May 15 to see “A Personal View: A Selection of Works from the David J. Azrieli Collection.” If you do, expect to stay a while.
“It’s a very big exhibition,” says curator Dr. Irit Miller.
“Most of the collection is of Israeli art, and Israeli art between the 1920s and the late 1950s and early 1960s, with some more contemporary art, and also some late 19th-century Jewish art. This is a selection from the collection. The collection is of 350 pieces; the exhibition comprises 110 pieces – almost a third – representing a total of 73 artists.”
As for the title of the exhibition, “A Personal View,” Miller says, “It reflects Mr. Azrieli’s own personal view. When you look at the collection, you see a profile of the collector. You see his view.
And I hope I’ve reflected not only the taste of the collector and his ideas, but also something of his personality and of his life.
“For example, we have included work by Maurycy Minkowski, who was a painter of pogroms. He painted Jewish refugees from pogroms. Mr. Azrieli was a refugee, who escaped from Poland to Palestine, lived on a kibbutz for a while, and then lived in Haifa. There are several pieces in this exhibition that reflect that theme, but the painting by Minkowski is the earliest.
“One of the most recent paintings is by Meir Pichhadze, who was also a refugee from the Soviet Union, who painted suitcases. So we have a very early painting of refugees and another done after the year 2000 that also deals with refugees, although not as explicitly as Minkowski.
“On the other hand, the ‘Personal View’ is also my view, and your view. The personal view is his, and also mine and yours, the viewer’s.”
Miller’s view of Azrieli’s collection of more than 100 years of Jewish art becomes apparent not only in what is included in the exhibition, but in how it is organized as well.
ASKED WHAT “Jewish art” is, Miller replies, “Anything that a Jewish artist does is Jewish art.”
As for the way in which the paintings are organized, Miller says the central axis is the concept of “the home,” which, she says, “is a concept and a symbol that is charged with spiritual and material meanings that touch on civilization, the nation, and the individual.”
The exhibition expresses this point by grouping the works into four sections: “Landscapes,” portraying “the home” in its broadest definitions – geographical, conceptual and spiritual; “The East,” displaying the fascination of Jewish artists with the scenes of ancient towns, villages and local customs; “Still Life, Table and Window,” showing a transition from external nature and landscape to the interior of the home; and “The Individual and Society,” focusing upon the human figure, at work, at war and at leisure, on personal and social conflicts, and on representations of masculinity and femininity.
It is often the case that the way an exhibition is organized tells us more about how the curator’s mind works than anything inherent in the art works themselves. The four groupings of this exhibition, however, begin to make sense as one wends his way through the galleries.
The “Landscapes” section has, by far, the most works to display and shows perhaps the greatest diversity. The paintings range broadly in style and focus, from Ludwig Blum’s almost spectral Jerusalem (1960), to Israel Paldi’s affectionate Street Corner in Neveh Tzedek (1924), to David Reeb’s not-so-affectionate Roofs of Tel Aviv (2004), to Eran Shakine’s completely abstract, virtually emotionless 1996 painting, titled simply Landscape.
As we move through this section of the exhibition, we are able not only to appreciate the importance of landscape painting in Israeli art, but also the way it has reflected Israeli society through the past 100 years. We see an evolution from a fascination with ancient biblical sites to a Zionist feeling of rootedness and belonging to the land.
Paintings of kibbutzim and farmland gradually give way to urban landscapes, showing a change in attitude from Zionist optimism to post-Zionist alienation. Finally, we see the Israeli landscape serving as both a basis and inspiration for abstract painting.
In the second section, “The East,” we see something that at first glance appears to be the usual European fascination with the Orient, the 19th-century artist’s attraction to the exotic Near East.
But on closer reflection however, we see a deeper reality.
FOR NON-JEWISH artists of the period, the East was a place apart, a place to be visited, sketched, painted, written about, photographed, and then left behind when the artist returned to Europe.
The Jewish artists, on the other hand, were not travelers. They saw themselves more as wandering Israelites, finally returning home. As we view their paintings in this exhibition, we see the artists’ conscious rejection of their Diaspora identities as they attempted to “orientalize” themselves in the eastern land of their ancestors.
Whether they painted archeological ruins, Arab villages, Arab women holding Arab babies, Arab men holding the tethers of camels or riding donkeys, these artists were attempting to paint a bridge that linked them with their ancient forefathers.
Thus, every depiction of an almond-eyed Arab girl was a reference to Rachel or Ruth, any Arab elder walking through a marketplace was a model for Abraham, and any Arab youth evoked allusions to King David.
Paintings by Abel Pann, Mané-Katz, Moshe Castel, Marcel Janco and, of course, Reuven Rubin are outstanding examples of this kind of identification.
Organizing the third section, “Still Life, Table and Window,” was an apparent no-brainer, due to Azrieli’s evident fixation with windows. In painting after painting, the image of a window appears, and Miller supposes that the collector’s fascination with windows is “connected to his architecture studies and his career as a developer who erects buildings in glass.”
Whatever the reason, Azrieli has chosen to buy numerous paintings executed from the perspective of an open window, or occasionally an open door, looking outside to a broad, colorful landscape.
Among the most noteworthy of these are Aharon Kahana’s View toward Tel Aviv from Ramat Gan (1940) and Yehoshua Grossbard’s Landscape through the Window (1955). A fascinating contrast between Zionist optimism and post-Zionist alienation can be seen in two paintings exhibited side by side, Reuven Rubin’s Anemones in Tiberias (1948) and Meir Pichhadze’s Vase (1990s).
The two works depict exactly the same subject, a vase of flowers placed in front of an open window.
But while Rubin’s painting is bright, sunny, and shows the beautiful Kinneret beyond the open window, Pichhadze’s night-time perspective is dark, somber, and showing an undefined cluster of light beyond the window – or no place in particular at all.
While most of the paintings place the viewer in the position of being inside a house looking out, Liliane Klapisch’s A Lamp in the Study (1980) playfully puts us outside the house, looking wistfully in. Particularly noteworthy is Samuel Bak’s Still Life with Tree (1985).
A Holocaust survivor, Bak presents us with what seems from a distance to be yet another painting of a plate of fruit on a table in front of an open window. A closer view reveals a painting of rage.
The “fruit” is actually broken pieces of wood, the window is shattered and apparently boarded up from the outside. The external view of tree and sky are the shreds of a torn painting, sullenly pasted up, with the pieces no longer fitting together.
If you see this exhibition, you are likely to spend more time in front of this painting than any other.
THE FINAL section, dubbed “The Individual and Society,” is given over mostly to the Zionist narrative of building a country and protecting it from its enemies. As we move through this gallery, the dramatic story of the rebirth of the Land of Israel unfolds before us in art.
In paintings by Moshe Castel and Yohanan Simon we see pioneers quarrying rock, men building roads, and kibbutzniks enjoying a summer Shabbat afternoon.
Mordechai Arieli shows us fighters in the War of Independence, and Ludwig Blum presents a study of Palmah soldiers drinking coffee in Beersheba.
We see a young seaman, a fisherman and his wife, and sleeping figures by moonlight.
There are also some interesting surprises. As in several other paintings throughout the exhibition, we see strong influences of the School of Paris in paintings like Aharon Kahane’s The Pianiste (1945) and Jacques Chapiro’s Woman in a Boudoir.
And finally, there are paintings in this section that assay the experience of being uprooted and with wandering, after Czarist pogroms, after the Holocaust, and after life under a Soviet regime that was often at odds with its Jewish citizens. The two most compelling examples of these are Minkowski’s The Family (1916), which shows us a Jewish family in the evident throes of post-traumatic shock, and Pichhadze’s spellbinding Suitcases and Book (2001).
A particular strength of this exhibition is its equal treatment of painters who are icons of Israeli art and painters whose works have largely been forgotten. Paintings by the rarely exhibited Arieh Allweil, for example, receive the same pride of place as those of Nahum Gutman.
Overall, “A Personal View” is a fine exhibition of more than a century of Jewish and Israeli art, collected and organized by people who knew what they were doing. It should not be missed.
“A Personal View: A Selection of Works from the David J. Azrieli Collection” is showing until May 15 at the Haifa Museum of Art, Rehov Shabbetai Levi 26, Haifa. Sun.-Wed, 10 to 4; Thur. 4 to 7; Fri. 10 to 1; Sat. 10 to 3. For further information, call (04) 852-3255 or 911-5991; or visit